Larry Lucchino & Camden Yards

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On April 6, 1992, the first major league game was played at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, ushering in a new era for Baltimore and its beloved O’s. From the day it opened through Sunday’s game with the Nationals, 45,894,621 people have seen the O’s play at Camden.

But the joy and triumph of that historic moment wasn’t Baltimore’s or Maryland’s alone, but one belonging to all of baseball – America’s Game.

The creation of Oriole Park at Camden Yards would initiate a revolution in retro-ballparks, and the leader was Larry Lucchino, then the O’s president, but now president and CEO of the Boston Red Sox.

As with most great achievements, Lucchino didn’t act alone, but had, as one must, critical allies, not least the mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer, and the greatly talented architect, Janet Marie Smith. But in the most profound sense, Camden Yards absent Lucchino doesn’t happen.

Lucchino, the kid from Pittsburgh, who grew up watching the Pirates play at Forbes Field, went to Princeton and took a law degree from Yale before joining the Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly, whose driving force was Edward Bennett Williams, a brilliant and powerful man.

In time, Williams would become owner of the Orioles and would name Larry Lucchino, his equally brilliant protégé, president of the O’s, which would lead to Camden’s creation and, in turn, would result in the most sweeping changes in baseball history.

In the past 20 years, 21 new ballparks have been built in the major leagues (including Camden), from New York City to Texas, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, from Seattle to San Diego. In addition, four ballparks, Angel Stadium of Anaheim, U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, and Fenway Park in Boston, have been reborn.

Baseball fans know that story, but many have missed the additional fact that since Camden, more than 100-ballparks have been built in the minor and independent leagues and college baseball.

It’s simply stunning that across America more than 125 new ballparks have risen, transforming and revitalizing city centers and suburbs  – and it all began in the city where Francis Scott Key wrote the National Anthem and Larry Lucchino displayed his singular genius as an innovator of change.

Lucchino would leave the Orioles in 1993, and in 1994, he became the CEO of the San Diego Padres.  He would move west for one reason.  John Moores, the new Padres owner, wanted a new ballpark for his team, he wanted the Padres out of (now) Qualcomm Stadium, a multi use stadium that had been enlarged to 70,000 seats, and Moores wanted the man he described as the “smartest man in baseball” to lead that effort; he wanted Larry Lucchino.

While the Padres were winning the 1998 National League Pennant and reaching their first World Series in 14 years, Lucchino simultaneously oversaw a major civic campaign to get San Diego’s notoriously conservative voters to approve a public-private partnership to build a new downtown ballpark.

It was a tough and challenging fight against those once described as “geranium growers” by John Gunther in his seminal book, Inside the USA; people inherently opposed to change. On election day, 59.7 percent voted overwhelmingly to approve the new ballpark – which since its opening in 2004 has seen the most dramatic changes in San Diego’s downtown since Father Junipero Serra built California’s first mission.

Lucchino took his show back on the road in 2002, this time to Boston, where he joined John Henry and Tom Werner as the Red Sox’s new owners.

With the words of former Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis ringing in their ears, that anyone who tore down Fenway Park should be “criminally indicted,” the new charges on Yawkey Way in Boston began the $250 million dollar redo of the oldest ballpark in America.

So Larry Lucchino, the kid from Pittsburgh, became the creator of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, of Petco Park in San Diego, of the salvation of Fenway Park in Boston; and while this was taking place, more than 125 other ballparks would come into existence. But it all started in Baltimore.

Which raises a provocative question: Has the Orioles’ ownership invited Larry Lucchino back to help celebrate Camden Yard’s 20th anniversary?
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George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader and serves, in a voluntary capacity, as chairman of The Great Fenway Park Writers Series.