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Pastime Panache

Robb Report Staff

Our premium seats for the baseball season represent experiences that are not only exclusive and unique but also reflective of the respective team’s hometown. As a member of the Dodger Dugout Club, you mingle with the stars: those from the entertainment industry who frequent the club and the players who are within arm’s reach of your seats. At the Camden Club at Oriole Park, a bird’s-eye view of the game comes with a side of crab cakes. And in Phoenix, a city where a pool is as essential as air-conditioning, the sixth-inning backstroke has supplanted the seventh-inning stretch. Play ball!

 

Camden Club

Baltimore’s lofty perch.
In the top of the third inning on a midsummer evening in Baltimore, things are looking glum for the Orioles, and they are about to become glummer. With the score tied at zero and the bases loaded, O’s pitcher Rodrigo Lopez shakes off one sign after another from the catcher before nodding and going into his windup. There’s the pitch, and . . . Oh, no! A communal moan of despair rises from the stands as San Diego Padres outfielder Ray Lankford laces the ball into center field, and two runs score.

It is a sad moment for the home team, and I attempt a moue of despair. But with a plate heaped with savory Maryland crab cakes and a chilled glass of Pilsner Urquell from the Czech Republic in front of me, my attempt is in vain. The truth is, it is difficult to remain disconsolate when you are watching the game from one of the premier spectator facilities in all of sports: the Camden Club, the private dining and social club that overlooks Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (Click image to enlarge)

Occupying the top two floors of a Baltimore landmark, a converted B&O Railroad warehouse that looms eight stories over right field, the club is so popular that it is often packed even when the ballpark is empty. “We have the same kind of events here you’d find in any other private club,” says insurance broker Frank Gartland, the longtime chairman of the city’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration and a 10-year member of the club. “The food’s terrific. You’ll never find better soft-shell crabs, and they do a veal tenderloin in an exquisite reduction sauce. We even have wine tastings here.”

Reduction sauce? Wine tastings? At the ballpark? Gartland is not suggesting that baseball has become incidental to upscale amenities. On the contrary, the Camden Club epitomizes Baltimore’s sporting tradition; it is the crown jewel of the stadium that restored baseball to its roots. Built at a cost of $105 million, Camden Yards opened in 1992. With its natural grass diamond and elegant Victorian spans of steel arches, columns, and trusses, it had the effect—as The New York Times opined—of “wiping out in a single gesture 50 years of wretched stadium design.” At the very least, it sparked the biggest building boom in the history of sport, with a dozen new ballparks erected over the following decade.

For baseball fans reared on synthetic turf and poured concrete multipurpose stadiums shaped like grounded UFOs, a visit to Camden Yards, with its red brick facade and asymmetrical outfield, is like a return to a time when players named Ruth and Cobb bestrode the diamond, and the game, not salary negotiations, dominated the sports pages. Or, in the words of Yogi Berra, it is déjà vu all over again.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards is as much a tribute to Baltimore as to yesteryear. Consider, for instance, the 1,100-foot-long warehouse that houses the Camden Club. It is not just the longest building east of the Mississippi, it is also a vestige of the days when Baltimore was the hub for all rail traffic moving north and south. “A lot of cities would have torn it down, but it’s a big part of our history,” says Harry Fleischer, a Baltimore-based sugar broker and six-year Camden Clubber.

The question is, given the myriad charms of the ballpark itself, how can a private club enhance, rather than obscure, the baseball experience? At least that is my question as a warehouse elevator whooshes me aloft to the club floors. As I learn, there are two sides to the Camden Club experience, one formal and one informal. I find the first on the seventh floor, where the carpeting is plush, the walls are paneled in mahogany, and the tables are draped in snowy damask.

The sense of formality is mitigated by the warehouse’s original unfinished brickwork interior, the vintage photos of erstwhile Orioles and Baltimore landmarks, and windows overlooking the playing field.

Because the fine dining section is closed for day games, on this particular afternoon I find the club members gathered one floor above, where the atmosphere and the cuisine are far more casual. Still, the multiple TV monitors and bar with a dozen beers on tap notwithstanding, the grill is more evocative of a country club than a sports bar. After a moment, I realize why: Everyone is neatly dressed in knit shirts or button-downs over slacks or khakis or Bermuda shorts, with nary a pair of jeans or a T-shirt in sight. “The food’s terrific downstairs,” says Gartland, “but I prefer to watch from here. You hear the roar of the crowd, you feel like you’re at a ball game.” There is no need to miss any of the game when answering nature’s call, either: ESPN has named the view from the club’s men’s room the best such view in all of baseball.


The buzz in the grill has become more voluble because, down on the field, the Orioles are threatening to score. With the Padres still leading 2–0 in the bottom of the ninth with two out, Marty Cordova steps into the batter’s box with two men on base. The fans’ frustration mounts as the Orioles’ left fielder watches first one, then a second, and then a third called strike whiz past him, ending the game. Down below, the crowd is streaming for the exits, but on the eighth floor, no one is in a rush to leave. The ball game may be over, but the club is still open.

 

—jack smith

 

Dugout Club

A cool, blue-lighted place.
A favorite pastime has changed a lot since 1890. That was the year the Brooklyn Bridegrooms celebrated their debut in the National League by winning the pennant with a no-punches-pulled 86–43 record. They would go on to win 20 more league championships through a change of name and of venue—first to Ebbets Field and then, in 1958, to Los Angeles. The future was out West in the postwar era, and for the Dodgers, it was bright. The team took the World Series in 1955, 1959, 1963, and 1965, and its new 56,000-seat stadium proclaimed the optimism of that space-age era, hovering as streamlined as any spacecraft dreamed of by George Jetson in the tree-lined hills above the City of Angels. 


Since then, baseball, like the world, has grown older, and the polished optimism of the 1950s and early 1960s has gradually eroded, revealing hard-edged cynicism on and off the diamond. Player strikes and astronomical salary contracts have compromised the purity of the sport in the minds of some fans. Throughout the 1990s, corporate sponsors such as Southern California Edison, Pacific Bell, and (lamentably) Enron branded ballparks around the nation with their logos as if the stadiums were prized bulls. Yet Dodger Stadium retained its identity, and in 1999, under the new ownership of Rupert Murdoch, it got a fresh face-lift.

“In the off-season between the 1999 and 2000 baseball seasons, Dodger Stadium underwent a 50-million-dollar renovation,” says David Siegel, manager of premium sales and services. “The architects and construction crew had the task of maintaining the character and facade of legendary Dodger Stadium, while bringing the building into the 21st century.”

 

The 2000 season saw team records set by then–first baseman Eric Karros, who broke Ron Cey’s 18-year record for home runs, and by outfielder Shawn Green, who tied the record for runs batted in by a left-hander. And fans had the pleasure of viewing these feats in the comfort of a newly remodeled stadium that included new field-level seats down the foul lines and Krispy Kreme donut stations alongside those vending that essential of baseball, the Dodger Dog. Best of all was the addition of an elite new dugout club and—suspended above the cheering (or booing) crowds—a phalanx of aerielike suites on the old Club level that survey the entire field.


Management has billed the Dodger Dugout Club as having the “best seats in baseball,” and the claim is no exaggeration. Not only is this small, very exclusive seating section located at field level adjacent to the Dodger dugout (you sit right behind the batters on deck), but, as a club seat holder, you are actually closer to home plate than the pitcher is. Guarded by fine-woven netting and blazer-clad security personnel, you enjoy full food and beverage service from your well-padded theater-style chairs.
Dugout Club members also have access to the Stadium Suites. These multimedia-equipped lounges offer the comfort of leather sofas and chairs and their own individual buffets, which are laid out prior to the game with your choice of menu items. Room service keeps the refrigerator stocked with your selection of beverages, and a dessert cart laden with baroque tiers of confections makes its scheduled rounds after the fifth inning. The Stadium Suite level also provides a fully operational business center, complete with conference rooms.

Change is as constant in baseball as in any other aspect of American life, but a revamped rotation bodes well for the Dodger Blue. And if National League fans rankle a bit at the sport’s seven- and eight-figure negotiations, at least Los Angeles has cut its fans in on the action: The Dugout Club has become a favorite networking spot for Hollywood’s deal makers. Membership has its privileges.

—brett anderson

Pool Pavilion

Making a big splash in Phoenix.
When Bank One Ballpark opened in Phoenix five years ago, it began a new tradition: swimming at the old ball game. While it is still possible to conduct a major league baseball contest without a swimming pool in right center field—each of the other 29 American and National League teams manages to get by without one—the pool at Bank One has become a fixture of the Phoenix sports landscape, drawing a full complement of scantily clad fans for every Diamondbacks game. Jerry Colangelo, the managing general partner of the Diamondbacks, credits Scott Brubaker, the team’s vice president of marketing, and the late Bill Veeck, the maverick owner of the St. Louis Browns and later the Chicago White Sox, for the pool concept. “Scott came up with the idea during the planning stages,” Colangelo recalls.

“It was a takeoff on one of Veeck’s ideas when he owned the White Sox. He installed a shower for people who’d had too much beer during the game.” Colangelo admits that he shrugged off the idea at first. “I thought it was crazy, but then I said we should develop it because it makes sense. It represents the Phoenix lifestyle: parties and pools.”

On a July evening, Diamondbacks left fielder Luis Gonzalez, who hit 57 home runs in 2001, comes to bat in the third inning, creating a stir among the pool crowd. Louis Flores, who is there with his son, pounds his son’s baseball glove and takes up his position at the fence overlooking the outfield. “He could hit one,” Flores says. “He’s done it before.”


He doesn’t this time. In fact, prior to this game, only 23 home runs had been hit into the pool area, which sits 405 feet from home plate. In baseball terms, it takes a pretty good poke to reach the water. Arizona right fielder Jose Guillen almost accomplishes the feat in the bottom of the sixth, when he doubles off the screen in front of the pool. “Another foot higher . . . ,” sighs Flores, a guest of American Express and Genesys, the cohosts for the night.

“It’s a reward for their hard work,” Michael Laughlin, a Phoenix-based vice president for American Express, says of Flores and the other pool guests. Genesys Vice President for the Americas Wes Hayden, in town from Chicago, adds, “American Express is a new customer, so this is a good way to kick off a substantial project between the two companies.”

Although the pool has been rented every night since the ballpark opened in 1998, at more than a football field’s length from most of the action, it is not the best place for viewing a baseball game. Also, seating is limited, so most of the guests watch the game by leaning on the outfield fence, which means that if you are in the pool, all you see are other guests’ legs and backsides. No one seems to complain, though. After all, how bad can things be when you can go to a big-league ball game and at the same time go for a swim?

—sam lowe

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