Ballpark blueprint is proof of Lucchino's legacy
Camden Yards' creation influences generation of unique facilities
Red Sox president Larry Lucchino begins our chat by saying he has had "one really good, creative idea in 30 years."
"I hope I'm not being falsely modest," he added.
He is. Besides, this particular idea actually was two ideas, and all they did was change baseball forever. If you ranked all the good ones baseball people have had the last half-century or so, Lucchino's would rank very, very high.
Baseball teams should have their own unique homes rather than share one with an NFL team.
Ballparks should be living, breathing structures with their own personalities and quirks, and they should reflect the spirit of their cities.
Let's push the pause button and allow those two concepts to roll around in our minds. What if there was no AT&T Park and the Giants still played their home games in the wind and cold of Candlestick Park in a concrete structure without an ounce of personality?
Can you imagine the Pirates, Phillies and Reds back in those round concrete doughnuts? How much better has baseball become since all those new ballparks, with their quirks and brick and steel, opened?
First, came the idea. Lucchino was president of the Orioles in the mid-'80s when he decided his team should have a "park" instead of a "stadium."
Let's be clear about the impact of those two ideas. If the Hall of Fame is for the people who made the game better, and dramatically so, Larry Lucchino belongs.
Camden Yards, which opened in 1992, fundamentally changed the way we think of the places where baseball teams play.
It was so perfect that pretty soon other teams wanted one. In the 20 years since Camden Yards opened, 20 teams have gotten new ballparks, and most of them used at least some part of Lucchino's original idea.
"In my life, I'd seen and adored Forbes Field, a classic turn-of-the-century ballpark," he said. "It was a 'field,' not a stadium. That was our idea. New ballparks didn't have to be concrete and symmetrical. They could be irregular and traditional."
As he discussed the matter with then-Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams, Lucchino said it occurred to him that baseball's iconic franchises also had iconic homes -- Tiger Stadium, Dodger Stadium, Fenway Park, etc.
"I thought we ought to follow that very successful model," Lucchino said. "Kansas City had built separate facilities side by side in the '70s, but no one else had given it a thought. I'd watched the transformation from Forbes Field and all its charm to the uninspiring multipurpose concrete doughnuts."
Lucchino's thinking was to build a traditional ballpark with modern amenities. Some politicians heard his suggestion and blanched at the thought of attempting to come up with the money for two facilities instead of one.
In the wake of the Colts' departure for Indianapolis, Maryland politicians simply wanted to build a facility that would attract a new NFL team and keep the Orioles happy.
In other words, Baltimore was on its way to having another structure that satisfied neither sport.
"We wanted the look and feel of Baltimore -- red brick and steel," Lucchino said. "And we wanted a traditional, irregular, quirky kind of ballpark that had personality. We wanted the seats to be as close to the playing field as possible."
When Camden Yards opened, Cal Ripken spoke words that ring magically to this day.
"It feels like baseball has been played here before," he said.
Before Camden Yards, baseball's new stadiums were multipurpose facilities that had similar looks and feel.
"We didn't know or even presume we could light a fire with this concept and that there would be progeny of Camden Yards popping up all over the country," Lucchino said.
Lucchino is quick to credit others with helping him execute his idea. One of those was Herb Belgrad, who was then the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.
Belgrad bought into Lucchino's concepts even though it would be more expensive.
"He believed in the concept," Lucchino said, "and he was inclined to keep the warehouse."
Part of Camden Yards' uniqueness is the looming B&O Warehouse just beyond the outfield wall. Preserving it hadn't been a top priority to some on the design team, but it ended up being a perfect finishing touch.
And there's Janet Marie Smith.
When Lucchino was beginning the design of Camden Yards and fighting a dozen different fights at once, he happened upon an application of employment from her.
She'd been both an urban planner and a stadium architect. In other words, she was ideal for the task.
"We invited her in, and as she was walking across the room, I said, 'Before you sit down, which league has the designated hitter?'" Lucchino said.
"I'm offended by the question," she snapped.
"OK, sit down and let's talk," Lucchino said. "She proved a great addition to the team and someone who could help give life to this concept.
"Janet Marie would have cut off her left arm for steel. We were running into a real issue with the state, with the cost of steel vs. concrete. If it was another concrete facility, it wouldn't be a ballpark. It would just be another stadium."
On April 6, 1992, Rick Sutcliffe threw a shutout in a 2-0 Orioles victory that lasted two hours and two minutes.
When that first regular-season game at the new park ended, Lucchino embraced Smith and screamed, "It plays! It plays!"
Later, Lucchino would have a critical role in getting Petco Park built in San Diego. And then in 2002, he joined the Red Sox as president and CEO.
I asked if Lucchino ever stopped and reflected about the impact he'd had on the game. That's when he made the joke about having one good idea in three decades and repeated that he had no idea the construction of a ballpark would have such an impact on the game.
Lucchino led the Red Sox at a time when they won a World Series for the first time in 86 years, and there's no underestimating that part of his legacy.
But Camden Yards -- and an entire generation of ballparks -- stand today as another part of Lucchino's legacy. That chapter of his life will endure, too, and as fans, every last one of us owes him for it, for a job well done.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.