MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

The ballpark that changed ballparks forever is in the process of changing. Call it ballpark mid-life crisis, as the work at Oriole Park at Camden Yards has already begun on the eve of its 30th birthday.

(Or call it making nice when it is necessary to make nice when you have only two more seasons before your lease at Camden Yards expires with the Maryland Stadium Authority. Call it anything except late for last call at Sliders; just sign a new long-term lease, which is currently being negotiated by the Orioles and the Stadium Authority.)

One week after announcing the 30th anniversary of Oriole Park at Camden Yards would be commemorated and celebrated though the course of the upcoming baseball season (provided, of course, there is one), the Orioles announced that the first major renovation of the gem at Camden Yards is now under way.

The club announced it has begun construction to alter Oriole Park’s left-field dimensions to try to reduce the stadium’s propensity for home runs. The changes will raise the wall’s height from 7 feet to about 12 feet and move it back as much as 30 feet to cover the area from the left-field corner to the bullpens in left-center field.

As of 2020, the ballpark’s 333-foot distance from home plate to the left-field corner was about average for big-league ballparks, yet the 364-foot distance to left-center was one of the league’s shortest and has long been suspected throughout the game of not even being that far. On top of that the short (height-wise) outfield wall on that side of the field made the place even smaller.

According to the Baltimore Sun, Oriole Park was one of only eight ballparks with a wall shorter than 8 feet in left and had the shortest wall in left-center field of any MLB park. A 12-foot left-field wall, according to the Sun, would be tied for the sixth-tallest in the majors.

Construction is expected to be complete by Opening Day, which is scheduled for March 31 but, again, is subject to change with MLB’s owners locking out the players as the sides slowly work toward a new collective bargaining agreement.

The time is right for the Orioles to be making these alterations, particularly since the long-term health and well-being of the major-league club will be and should be built on the pitching, defense and athleticism of the system that has been put into place by general manager Mike Elias and is currently rated as the top farm system in all of baseball by Baseball America.

Though it will still be a good ballpark for the hitters, the new dimensions will make Oriole Park far more pitcher-friendly and will create a fairer and more realistic playing environment for the true game of baseball — in other words, pitching, defense and speed; not an afternoon in the backyard playing Home Run Derby with nothing but home runs and strikeouts. Though to be fair, that style of baseball is seen far too frequently these days in every ballpark, not just Camden Yards.

It might seem odd that we also say fair in that Oriole Park is the Orioles’ home ballpark. Yet, in reality, from the time the park opened, the Orioles often seemed to be at a disadvantage in their own park for 81 games a season since visiting teams had far more experience playing an all-around game of baseball based on the more realistic size of their home ballparks. In turn, those teams’ natural style of small ball played larger for them on the smaller dimensions of Oriole Park.

When Oriole Park opened in April 1992, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, the Orioles executive at the time who consulted the construction of the park said the ballpark would “play fair” because of its asymmetrical dimensions. There would be, Robinson vowed, many more triples hit per season in Camden Yards than there had been in perfectly symmetrical Memorial Stadium (309 feet down both lines with the gaps immediately shooting to 378) as the triple has long been said to be the most exciting play in baseball.

Well, not so much; there has never been an avalanche of triples hit in this ballpark, and there are even less now, although that is more of an indictment on the modern-day hitting approach that has, quite frankly, made the game a bit of a bore.

At the same time, the ballpark did play big the first couple of years it was open. Of course, that was when the actual structure of the building was very open to meet the architect’s state-of-the-art design. Plus, there was no ghastly high-rise hotel sitting beyond left-center field blocking jet stream or the once panoramic view of the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower and downtown Baltimore, as has been the case now for several years.

But then came steroids; then came the latest home run-or-bust hitting approach, and because of the short outfield walls and gaps that existed from the beginning, Camden Yards needed to grow to even become a bandbox.

Not lost here is, yes, the Orioles’ absolutely horrid pitching the past four seasons has contributed mightily to making Camden Yards a home run haven. Nonetheless, as Elias continues to build the club’s farm system and the pitching becomes better and better, these renovations to the home park should help make that pitching become even better.

Opening the dimensions of the gaps and the power alleys, as well as raising the left field wall will be beneficial to the fans because the new dimensions will be better suited toward a more balanced game of baseball with a crisper pace of play. It will also be beneficial in that this is the style of play the Orioles are fashioning their top-rated farm system to play at the big-league level in the near and long-term future.

These are good moves by the Orioles.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT