BALTIMORE — Four hours before the first pitch of 2008, Andy and Debbie Smith were welcoming back baseball at a bar outside the Baltimore Orioles' downtown ballpark.
The couple made a 60-mile commute from Gettysburg, Pa., booked a room at a Holiday Inn for the night and, under a damp and dreary sky, joined hundreds of revelers at a row of joints called Sliders, Gino's and Pickles.
"Wouldn't miss it," said Smith, 50, a lifelong Orioles fan who will spend at least $300 on the trip. "We love coming downtown."
His words — and perhaps as important, his money — are music to the ears of Baltimore, a city of 640,000 people that less than 25 years ago could have lost its Major League Baseball team.
Instead, the Orioles are thriving at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Though not without its own unique characteristics, Camden Yards has become the road map for more than a dozen cities looking to bring Major League Baseball downtown. It's now part of the vision for the Tampa Bay Rays, who want to move to a new $450-million stadium on St. Petersburg's waterfront.
St. Petersburg is not Baltimore, with its sprawling waterfront entertainment district and nationally recognized aquarium, but the Rays hope it's emblematic of what could happen.
"This is one of the blueprints as far as what it's done for the area," said Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg, surveying the 48,000-seat ballpark and its distinctive brick warehouse in right field. The Rays opened their season in Baltimore this week.
"But you don't need a warehouse in right field," Sternberg added. "I'd rather be looking at Tampa Bay."
Not an easy sell
Before 1992, the Orioles played in an aging suburban stadium that was popular with some fans but unsuitable, team executives said, for the team's long term viability. At the first public meeting to consider a move downtown — to be paid for almost entirely with tax dollars — citizens almost universally opposed the plan.
"I've never heard such venom, such anger in my life," recalled Herb Belgrad, the then-chairman of the Maryland Sports Authority.
"People became very nostalgic of (old) Memorial Stadium. And at the same time, there were people who had moved downtown who thought a stadium would destroy what had induced them to come in the first place."
There were other concerns: parking, traffic and how to pay for the retro-ballpark. In Baltimore's case, the quest was more complicated because the city and state were pursuing land next to a baseball park to one day construct a football stadium.
Newspaper polls at the time showed that a plurality of citizens opposed the proposal. But the $106.5-million Orioles' park, which eventually was financed by a new instant lottery game, did not require a voter referendum. Neither did a plan to build it on the site of a degrading warehouse district.
There were lawsuits and public acrimony — but the stadium could not be stopped.
Parking, traffic works
Camden Yards opened on a workday afternoon in April 1992 with 2,000 dedicated parking spaces for 44,548 fans.
Things were predicted to be so bad, team officials urged fans to arrive two hours before the 3:05 p.m. first pitch. The team scheduled the late afternoon game so it would end after 150,000 workers had left the city. But the game ended early, shortly after 5 p.m.
Everything worked out that day — and it has been fine ever since, most agree.
"Any downtown that can support 200,000 people going to work every day could support 40,000 going to the ballpark," said Janet Marie Smith, a former Orioles executive who was the point person on the stadium redevelopment.
Baltimore has advantages St. Petersburg does not, such as light rail and subway service that can drop suburbanites at the stadium's doorstep. The city also has a proven tourist engine, the Inner Harbor area, which draws millions annually.
A traditional, northeast city, Baltimore's downtown is more centered on office space that typically empties at night.
Parking can "be a little difficult," said Oriole's fan Howard Keyser, 49. "But it's fine otherwise."
City and tourism officials say that compared with Memorial Stadium, Camden Yards generated a $31.2-million increase in out-of-town spending in its first year.
The team has had four winning seasons in 16 years at the ballpark, but sold more than 3-million tickets eight out of its first nine seasons, and more than 2-million tickets ever since.
The Rays, by comparison, drew more than 2-million fans only in 1998, the team's inaugural year.
No question, the ballpark has made bar and restaurant owners happy. It has made the Orioles ownership happy, too.
Eli Jacobs bought the Orioles in 1989 — pre-Camden Yards — for $70-million. After the new ballpark opened, Jacobs sold the team to Baltimore lawyer Peter Angelos for $173-million.
"I don't think that anyone would say the ballpark itself is a magnet for hotels or housing or offices," said Smith, who now is leading renovations to Fenway Park in Boston. "Restaurants and bars, that's a different story. But what it has done is completely changed the face of the area."
Other changes are still happening, if slowly.
A new 21-story glass apartment high rise just opened outside the left field wall, with apartments starting at $1,600 a month. Beyond left-center field, a new Hilton hotel is being built.
It all might be at a cost to local taxpayers, said a 1997 study by Johns Hopkins economics professor Bruce Hamilton. He found the annual benefit of Camden Yards was $3-million, but the cost was $14-million.
Or it might be to their benefit.
A 2007 report for the Maryland Sports Authority by Towson University researchers painted a different picture: Camden Yards generated $18-million in tax revenue while costing $14.2-million to pay off bonds.
"I'm not an economist," said Sternberg. "But what does it mean to have baseball? How many people come from out of town to see a game? How many people stay in a hotel? How many people come back?
"There has to be some value in that."
Aaron Sharockman can be reached
or (727) 892-2273.