Can changing the design of a beloved baseball park help a team attract better talent and win more games?
And is it appropriate for a team to alter the field dimensions at its own field to affect the way it “plays” for the home team and visitors?
Those are questions that baseball fans, sportswriters, and elected officials have been debating after the Baltimore Orioles unveiled plans to change the left field dimensions at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, just as the field turns 30 years old and draws renewed praise for its design.
The project involves demolishing the 7-foot-high left-field wall that has been in place since the ballpark opened in 1992 and replacing it with a new wall nearly twice as tall and pushed back more than 20 feet from home plate. Construction on the $3.5 million project began in January, and completion is expected in time for Opening Day of the 2022 baseball season in Baltimore.
The result will be an added swath of left field literally carved out of the seating bowl. The new configuration requires the elimination of ten rows of seats behind left field, about 1,000 seats in total. It’s the first change to the field since the 2001 season, when the team moved home plate seven feet back from the outfield, a move that was undone the following year.
The main goal of this project, according to the home team, is to cut down on the number of home runs at what has come to be known as a home run hitters’ park by making it harder for batters to send hits over the left-field wall. In effect, the team is seeking to level the playing field for pitchers and hitters—by enlarging it.
The change is also aimed at attracting quality pitchers: The Orioles reason that if Oriole Park is seen as less of a haven for homers, they’ll have a better chance of signing talented free-agent pitchers who wouldn’t otherwise consider joining the team because of the park’s reputation.
During a news conference on January 14, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal said the team wants to modify Oriole Park so it “plays” more evenly for pitchers and hitters. They said the planning involved extensive research by the team’s Baseball Operations and Analytics departments.
At 30 years old, Oriole Park is “an absolute masterpiece,” Elias added. “Not just one of the best parks today but one of the best parks in the history of Major League Baseball. But you’ve got to renovate and reinvest.”
According to the Orioles, pitchers have given up 5,911 home runs since Oriole Park opened in 1992, the most of any ballpark over that time span.
In 2021, the Orioles pitchers had a league-worst 5.84 ERA and gave up 258 home runs, the most in Major League Baseball. At Oriole Park, they had a 5.99 ERA, also the worst in Major League Baseball, and they gave up 155 of those 258 home runs.
An analysis by The Baltimore Sun determined that at least 14 percent of the home runs hit at Oriole Park since 2015 would have stayed in play under the new outfield dimensions.
In their press briefing, Elias and Mejdal said they wanted to take a “significant step toward neutrality” in terms of pitchers and hitters while addressing a situation they felt posed a challenge to the home team.
“It is being done with the goal in mind of bringing the playing conditions in our stadium more towards the league norm,” Elias said. “This has been, since its inception in 1992, an extreme park for home runs…I think for any team, for any park to be toward the very, very extreme in either direction, it’s a bit of a challenge. It’s something that has posed a challenge for this franchise and we think that this will improve the playing conditions and the style of play in this part of the park and be beneficial towards us and the type of competition that occurs here going forward.”
Elias said he and Mejdal were “tasked with taking a fresh look” at all aspects of the organization and determined early on that addressing the ballpark’s propensity for yielding home runs should be a priority. He said the team concluded that moving the left-field wall was “the most sensible and most efficient way of neutralizing the park effects here with regard to home runs per fly ball,” and it could be done in one off-season.
“We felt it was something we could modify with a relatively manageable adjustment like this,” said Elias. “That made it an easy decision.”
Elias didn’t deny that part of the goal was to help the club in pursuing free agent pitchers who may have avoided Baltimore in the past because of Oriole Park’s reputation as a hitter’s park.
“It’s definitely a significant factor in our move to do this,” he said. “We still expect that this will remain somewhat of a hitter’s park and we like that about Camden Yards. But the conditions here have been very extreme, towards the very most extreme in the league. It’s not a secret. It’s been the case for decades. And part of having a winning program is the ability to recruit free agent pitchers and that has been a historical challenge for this franchise. There’s just no way around that. So I do think it’s going to help.”
“This is an extreme home run park—if not the most, the second most,” Mejdal said at the press briefing. “And for right-handed batters it seems clear this is the most extreme home run park. As Mike said, that doesn’t do the team any favors. We wanted to take this significant step towards neutrality.”
When it opened, Oriole Park was hailed as a welcome break from the generic, “cookie-cutter” stadiums that were built in the suburbs for both baseball and football and lacked a distinctive sense of place. With its “Camden brick” exterior walls and asymmetrical footprint dictated by the surrounding street grid and the long B&O Warehouse, Oriole Park triggered a back-to-the-city trend of “retro” ballparks designed to stimulate other development nearby.
Fans liked that Oriole Park was both new-fangled and old-fashioned, sparking memories of traditional ballparks while incorporating contemporary fan amenities. They appreciated the attention to detail, from the ornithologically-correct Oriole weather vanes on the scoreboard to the 1890s Baltimore Baseball Club logos at the end of each row of seats.
“This is a building capable of wiping out in a single gesture fifty years of wretched stadium design, and of restoring the joyous possibility that a ballpark might actually enhance the experience of watching the game of baseball,” wrote New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger when the field was under construction in 1989.
Since Oriole Park opened 30 years ago, the left-field wall has been 7’ 4”, with a distance of 333 feet from home plate to the left-field foul pole and 364 feet to left-center. In the new configuration, the distance to the foul pole will remain unchanged. The left-field wall will be pushed back 26.5 feet and raised in height to 13 feet.
Pushing the wall back and removing the seats will make left field deeper between the foul line and the bullpens in left-center. There will be a new corner condition where the pushed-back wall meets the bullpens, which aren’t being relocated. Once the removed rows of seats become part of the outfield, the lower bullpen will appear to jut out into the field in a way that it hasn’t in the past.
When construction is complete, the distance to true left field will be 384 feet and the distance to left-center will be 400 feet. The distance to the visiting bullpen will remain unchanged at 380 feet. The dimensions towards center and right field also won’t change.
Reaction to the Orioles’ plan has been all over the field. Few are on the fence, but some welcomed the Orioles’ plan to make the field larger.
“All I can say is that it’s about time,” George Hammerbacher wrote in a letter to The Sun. “I truly believe that the O’s would never be champions until they abandoned that cutesy bandbox look that did nothing but decimate their pitching staffs and burn out their bullpens for the last 30 years. I read that they were using metrics to track where Orioles’ home runs (and their opponents’) went and now they are finally tailoring their ballpark accordingly.”
Two former Orioles pitchers, Jim Palmer and Ross Grimsley, told sports personality Stan Charles in a recent PressBox interview that they support the change.
“This is something I thought should have been done a long time ago,” Grimsley said. “I think it’s really going to help the pitchers. They’ll be more aggressive, and it may entice some free agents to come” to Baltimore.
“I think generally it’s going to be a positive thing, and they’ll get it done,” Palmer said.
Calling the project “a monumental change,” Palmer said he was surprised the wall will be 12 feet high or more. “The higher you go, the more rows you have to take out, so you do lose, I think they’re saying something like 1,000 seats. Twelve feet is a tall wall. I thought maybe they’d go nine, so if you had any kind of vertical leap you could still you go up and take balls over the fence.”
Others are less enthusiastic about the new dimensions. Their criticisms fall into five categories.
First, there are observers who fear the changes will make Oriole Park a less entertaining place to watch a game. They say one of the most exciting plays in baseball is when an outfielder robs a hitter of a home run by leaping up and catching the ball before it goes over the outfield wall. The 7-foot wall at Oriole Park was ideal for that sort of action, they say, but with a 13-foot-high wall it won’t be the same.
“Moving back and raising the left field wall at Camden Yards is a mistake,” local public relations specialist Mel Tansill warned in a letter to The Sun. “The possibility of the left fielder leaping above the wall and robbing a home run was a unique, exciting part of the home game. This will be missed.”
“One of the great but often overlooked features of Oriole Park is the 7- foot fences,” tweeted Lou Spirito, a California-based “infographics wonk and cartographer” who has explored the differences between different Major League ballparks in a “graphic design experiment” called the @THIRTY81Project.
“Don’t the Orioles need more HRs rather than less?” asked Mark Jent on Twitter. “I’m not sure less HRs will generate more excitement.”
Second, some think the field won’t be as attractive or graceful, with the left-field wall pushed back and the bullpen sticking out.
“I agree that home runs are too easy in Baltimore but WOW. This is bad. You can’t just highlight an area and then press delete,” said Zack Hample on Twitter.
Third, some fans are dubious that altering the field dimensions is the right way to help the Orioles win more games. They reason that any changes that benefit the Orioles also will benefit the visiting teams. They argue that the best way to win more games is to rebuild the team, not the ballpark.
Then there are the history-conscious fans who note that the height of the left-field wall was a deliberate nod to the 7-foot outfield wall at Memorial Stadium. Bob Aylward, the Orioles vice president at the time, had to lobby Major League Baseball to get approval when most parks had eight-foot walls.
In the design of Oriole Park, “nothing is an accident,” said Charlie Vascellaro, a local baseball writer and historian. “There are historic references in every detail.”
Finally, some season ticket holders who are losing their seats have made it clear they aren’t happy about that. They say they like being behind left field, close to the action, with a view to the bullpen and a good chance of catching a ball—especially with so much netting now up to protect fans in seats closer to home plate.
On StudentUnionSports.com, Syracuse University student and baseball fan Mike Ostrowski wrote that the seats targeted for removal “just happen to be, in my humble opinion, some of the best in baseball.”
Oriole Park’s intimacy is part of its charm, Ostrowski added. “There truly isn’t a bad seat in the place… Few ballparks put you right on top of the players as well as Baltimore’s left field bleachers did.”
The design of the new configuration looks “noticeably rushed,” he complained.
“In 2012, Baltimore added a rooftop party deck on top of the batter’s eye, and it is still a notable part of the ballpark today. Unlike that, there’s absolutely nothing special about this. No new group/party area, no seats behind a chain-linked fence like in Pittsburgh or Denver, nothing – just a taller new wall. The curve near the foul pole looks particularly strange, and the sharp corner at the edge of the bullpen will cause problems—and probably an injury or two— to outfielders.”
“I guess from a baseball point of view it makes sense,” said local architectural historian and Orioles fan Fred Shoken. “Hitting a home run to left field is too easy and may discourage the Orioles from signing good pitchers. From an aesthetic point of view, I’d like to see better illustrations of what it is going to look like. It will make the outfield look irregular which is not necessarily bad—but it will take some getting used to for both the fans and the players.”
Larry Lucchino, the team’s president when Oriole Park was designed and built, did not respond to a request for comment. Janet Marie Smith, the urban planner who worked closely with Lucchino and has been credited with making many of the recommendations that shaped the final design, declined to comment as well.
Vascellaro said he sees the project as a sign of insecurity on the part of the Orioles.
“The changes are drawing attention to the flaws in the team,” he told AN. “The idea that they would have this knee-jerk reaction to opposition hitting home runs is really a lack-of-confidence vote… It seems like a nickel’s solution for a million-dollar problem. It’s shortsighted.”
Vascellaro especially dislikes the way the bullpen will stick out.
“I hate the corner,” he said. “It’s awkward and cumbersome and someone will probably get hurt running into it. That’s almost a given.”
The changes were debated last week by the state’s top elected officials. During Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Public Works, the state’s spending board, Governor Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Dereck Davis were asked to approve an amendment to the Orioles’ lease authorizing the changes and reimbursing the Orioles up to $3.5 million by giving them credit on the rent they pay the state.
The Orioles’ current lease for Oriole Park runs through the 2023 season, and they’re in talks with the state to renegotiate their lease. The rent credit agreement calls for the Orioles to receive $700,000 per year for the next two years and, if they extend their lease past 2023, another $700,000 a year for the three years after that.
Davis said he didn’t see why the state should give the Orioles a break in rent for changing the outfield.
“Why should we support this?” he asked. “From my reading, there isn’t any type of structural issue or any decay or decline. This is a cosmetic request. I’m a fan of the Orioles, have been since I was a kid. I follow them closely. But essentially what this is is too many home runs are being hit out there so they’re going to just tear down the wall, move it back some and raise the fence. I understand why the organization would want to do that, but we’re being asked to support up to $3.5 million strictly for cosmetic changes…It seems like we can spend up to $3.5 million more productively than simply raising the left-field wall.”
In questioning the lease amendment, Davis echoed others who say the Orioles should focus on rebuilding the team, not modifying the ballpark.
“It’s not the dimensions of Camden Yards but rather the blueprint for how to move the organization forward to get more talent into the pipeline,” he said. “I’m not sure that it’s the best use of stadium authority dollars…I’m not sure if that cost should be borne by the state.”
Franchot said he was inclined to support the Orioles, given the decreased attendance they’ve experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges. He also said he didn’t want to do anything to derail lease negotiations.
“This whole thing is sensitive as to whether they even stay in Baltimore, which would tear my heart out if they somehow decided to move,” he told Davis. “I understand your concerns. I just would importune you to cut them some slack here and we can keep an eye on it, I think.”
Hogan also said the Orioles’ request to remove seats and alter the field should be considered in the context of the broader lease negotiations, including the state’s desire to keep the team in Baltimore and what else the team might want from the state in the way of ballpark improvements. By approving the changes to the field and the rent credit, he said, the state is showing that it wants to work with the Orioles and keep the team in Baltimore.
“I can tell you, in order to renegotiate a lease with the Orioles, which I think we all want to do, it’s going to take a much, much larger investment by the stadium authority,” he said. “This is a tiny one compared to the rest of the improvements that are going to have to be made for them to extend the lease…I think it’s a good sign that they may want to continue to work with us on a lease negotiation. But I would just warn, as the comptroller said, any slight to them about not being cooperative just adds to the possibility that they’d want to go somewhere else.”
Hogan and Franchot voted to support the lease amendment and Davis voted no, so the item was approved.
At the press conference earlier in January, Elias said he disagrees with the suggestion that enlarging the outfield will make watching home games less exciting. He said he thinks the new angles will lead to different kinds of action.
“I[…] think that this might encourage a more exciting, athletic style of play in this part of the park,” he said. “We will have some extra base hits, possibly triples, balls rattling around. I think it will be very fun and interesting. It’s something that baseball in general needs more of.”
For season ticket holders who are being displaced, Elias said, the Orioles’ sales team will find good seats that are still close to the field. He said the 1,000 or so eliminated seats likely will be put up for auction to benefit charity. Currently, some seats that were taken out in 2010 are available for sale through a company called Archer Seating.
On Twitter, a fan named Washington Hunt suggested a compromise design for Oriole Park: “Any chance they could make it a retractable wall? Push it out for the top of each inning and bring it back in for the bottom?”
Elias acknowledged there will be a learning curve as players adjust to the new dimensions, but he’s optimistic.
Oriole Park is “still going to remain very much a hitter’s park”—even a hitter’s park for right-handed batters, he said. “But our expectation is that this will bring the conditions more toward league norms […] I think it’s going to be a very good thing for the Orioles.”