If first appearances count for anything, I'm predicting that Orioles fans are going to really enjoy some of the renovations and new food offerings at Camden Yards. They'll go on full display Friday, when the O's draw the curtain on the 2012 season against the Minnesota Twins, but I've just returned from a sneak peek.
Color me impressed - and eager to sneak down to the flag court or roof deck in the middle of a game this weekend to get the full effect.
As we've previously discussed, as part of the makeover for the venerable ballpark's 20th anniversary season, the right field wall was lowered by four feet and a stomach-high railing atop black fencing has been erected. This will provide much cleaner and more comfortable sightlines of the field, from both the flag court's standing room spots and the Eutaw Street walkway. Previously, those strolling down the Eutaw Street corridor had their view of the field blocked; now you can actually see green and, if the prep players from Frederick Douglass and Maritime Industries Academy high schools who were on the field today are any indication, you'll be able to see the players, too. The fencing provides a safety measure, too - no toddlers will be able to penetrate the fencing for a closer look at the field.
Anyone who was more than about 5-foot-10 used to have to stretch high to rest their folded arms on the green padding atop the right field scoreboard, a pose difficult to maintain for more than a couple of innings without discomfort. And youngsters had to be hoisted aloft if they wanted to see over the padding or the adults. Now, thanks to the see-through fencing, even the youngest fans in Birdland can get a bird's-eye view of what's happening on the field. Because the new set-up allows for field views from Eutaw Street, it'll create a nice synergy between the fans and the game, rather than blocked views and a rush of humanity toward the front of the flag court every time the crowd noise indicates something happened.
The work's not done, of course. Remember those 14 flagpoles on the flag court, where the pennants for teams are grouped by division standings and changed each day during the season? Well, when the Astros relocate to the American League in 2013, creating three five-team divisions, there will be one less flagpole than necessary. So I guess that means a little more offseason drilling and construction next winter.
As nice as the flag court view will be, fans are going to be wowed by the different perspective of the game afforded by the new roof deck, an area atop the batter's eye in center field that was previously inaccessible to fans. Now you can either walk the flight of steps from Eutaw Street or take the elevator. Either way, you'll find a stunning vista looking right in toward home plate. You can either belly up to the bar, which is under cover, or opt for one of the Camden green comfy seats, with holes cut to resemble baseball stitches, along a double deck of rails. These will do doubt become some of the most coveted seats in the house, and are available to any fan with a ticket. But plan on arriving early - I can foresee plenty of workplace happy hours or fantasy baseball gatherings staking out these prime spots. For daytime games, bring sunglasses, a hat and sunscreen - there's really no cover and the Charm City summer sun can be unforgiving. But you know that view on TV where the camera shoots right in at home plate? That's the sightline that awaits you.
Now a few words about the food - and only a few, since even a carnivore like myself couldn't possibly have sampled all of the goodies available for a taste test this afternoon (for instance, there was a bacon-on-a-stick creation that was constantly being paraded past me just as I'd gotten something from another station - and if there's one thing guys like more than or as much as baseball, it's bacon. On a stick? Brilliant!)
The finishing touches are still being put on Dempsey's Brew Pub and Restaurant, located in the warehouse space formerly occupied by the Bud Light Warehouse Bar, but it'll be fun to chat up Rick Dempsey as he plies you with crafted brews (with catchy baseball-related names) and rockfish tacos. Few players understand the connection between players and fans in Baltimore like Dempsey, and he'll be a fixture, just as Boog Powell is at his pit beef emporium on Eutaw Street. Want to know what it was like to win the MVP of the 1983 World Series? Ask him; he'll gladly spin a dugout tale or two.
But you really want to know about two names with close ties to Baltimore, one a legacy and the other a newcomer of sorts. Gino's Burgers and Chicken and Stuggy's will be side by side when you enter the stadium at the north end of Eutaw Street. The former is known for burgers - I grew up on Gino Giants, and was thrilled to get to meet former Colt and restaurant namesake Gino Marchetti this afternoon - and the newest incarnation of the restaurant has added chicken and frothy milkshakes to the menu. At Camden Yards, you'll be able to chow down on a Giant topped with a crabcake - the Camden Giant - and some of the meatiest, tastiest chicken tenders I've ever sampled. Stuggy's, a Fells Point favorite, is known for its creativity with hot dogs and they'll have their own unique take on this ballpark staple. My only complaint: Gino's and Stuggy's are only open on gamedays. I think the O's are missing the boat on a natural way to boost non-gameday interest in the downtown business community - wouldn't you like to have a Giant or a Birdland Dog during a brief respite from the office in the middle of the day, while lounging in the new picnic grove where statues honoring the six Orioles in the Baseball Hall of Fame will be dedicated this summer? Hey, it's a thought ...