Play Ball

There are times—too many of them—when it is hard, very hard, to be a baseball fan. I do not mean those days when your team has fallen to its rival by some ignominious score, though that is frustrating. I refer to something more corrosive, a breaking of the unspoken covenant between fan and team on which professional baseball depends. By this agreement, the fan pledges undying loyalty to his team, and in return, said team makes every possible effort to disguise the fact that said fan’s loyalty has been pledged not to a benevolent civic institution but to a mercenary corporate oper­ation. It is this suspension of disbelief that allows us to enjoy the game in all its innocence; and this, to a large degree, is why we become fans in the first place. Baseball is at once our national pastime and national palliative.

Design, as idea and physical reality, is the locus of this fan-team covenant, and the ballpark the place of its maintenance and dissolution. That be-came dismayingly clear to New Yorkers this spring, as they watched their local teams, the Yankees and the Mets, open new stadiums. Both buildings ply the kind of nostalgic aesthetics that reinforce fans’ bonds with their chosen team. The new Yankee Stadium is a visual paean to the original, 1923 edition of the House that Ruth Built. (It was gut-renovated, poorly, in the 1970s.) The Mets, seeking relief from Shea Stadium, a largely unloved steel-and-concrete donut opened in 1964 by Robert Moses, found inspiration in Ebbets Field, the erstwhile home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, long since demolished to make way for a housing project. In each case, the feel-good design is the lipstick on the pig of a massive commercial project, financed in large measure by the public and unabashedly aimed at liberating fans from the contents of their wallets.

The imperative for traditional aesthetics was so strong that the crosstown rivals, who’d no sooner share anything more substantial than a tabloid war, actually hired the same firm to design their new dream homes. This was both preposterously unlikely and unavoidable, as a single firm has made a veritable industry out of translating the nostalgic impulses of baseball’s magnates into redbrick palaces of old-time feel and modern convenience. That firm is Populous, formerly known as HOK Sport, and it will soon be responsible for 19 of Major League Baseball’s 30 standing facilities, including Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Baltimore venue that launched the retro craze in 1992.

The Populous ballparks have proven fashionable with just about everyone but a certain subset of design critics who chafe at the regressive aesthetics. Baseball’s owners now take it on faith that fans demand a retro look, though history suggests they will show up at any venue where there’s winning baseball—and that they won’t if there isn’t, no matter what the place looks like. Though the Yankees and the Mets could reasonably point to the grim states of their respective facilities, the truth is neither team was having trouble drawing crowds. The problem was more the disposition of those fans: too many in the cheap seats, not nearly enough in the luxury boxes.

That reality struck home this past winter, when the teams announced the ticket plans for the inaugural season at their new parks. According to an independent study, the average ticket price at Yankee Stadium was to be 76 percent more expen­sive than in the previous year. At Citi Field, the Mets’ new park, the bump would be a more modest 9 percent. The teams, the Yankees especially, contended that the study was deceptive, that prices of lower-end seats had not risen much at all. This is true. But it elides the crucial point that there are far fewer cheap seats to be had—the new stadiums have fewer seats overall—and a greater proportion of them are at the much more expensive field level. This might have been a minor story had the economy not tanked. But as winter turned to spring, with the Dow plumbing new depths every day, the idea of a $2,500 baseball ticket shifted from merely ostentatious to downright scandalous. When the season finally opened, and entire sections of field-level boxes remained unoccupied—heaven help the banker caught in one of those seats while his firm was taking TARP money—the Yankees in particular found themselves looking at a public-relations fiasco.

The team’s response was first to deny that there was any problem, then to ignore it, and finally to make a few concessions to the economic reality. (Prices on the most expensive seats were halved, making them … still absurdly expensive.) But the Yankees had not been forthright with the public from the very moment they began lobbying to build their new stadium, back when Rudy Giuliani, Yankee fan, was mayor. (Randy Levine, the Giuliani deputy who oversaw the stadium-development project, is now the club president.) Though the team made great noise about how it was paying for the project with its own money, the new Yankee Stadium will end up costing the public $1.186 billion, and the team just $670 million, according to figures drawn from the Independent Budget Office. The Mets’ park is less expensive: $614 million in public funding, $135 million from the team. (The latter number is actually less than the Mets committed to their opening-day roster.)

The complexity—indeed, the inscrutability—of stadium financing has always been critical to team owners as they work to build their ballparks and shield themselves from criticism. “The reason it’s confusing is because it’s meant to be confusing,” says Neil deMause, who chronicled the rise of the two New York parks for the Village Voice and his own Web site, Field of Schemes. The funding the Yankees and Mets received was indirect, coming through land grants, property-tax abatements, use of city-built parking and transportation facilities, and access to tax-exempt bonds. “The teams availed themselves of all the different subsidies,” deMause says. “They could say they built these ballparks themselves, but the side benefits they are getting are more valuable than the stadiums.”

That fans are in essence paying for their own disenfranchisement has drawn harsh criticism from those who wished to save the old stadiums from the wrecking crews. “You have two ballparks that would never have been built if the people of New York had gotten to vote on it,” says Jim Bouton, an all-star pitcher for the Yankees in the 1960s and later a best-selling author and preservation advocate. “It’s against everything I believe about baseball and democracy.” The old ballparks were fully functional and, at least in the case of Yankee Stadium, of considerable historical significance. But the good-government activists who might have put the brakes on the two teams were distracted in the crucial months when stadium financing came up for debate. Preservationists were preoccupied with the fate of Edward Durell Stone’s kitschy Gallery of Modern Art, on Columbus Circle. The Atlan­tic Yards development, in Brooklyn, also commanded public attention. And, of course, there were elitists who couldn’t imagine why two crumbling baseball stadiums deserved saving at all. Against this backdrop, the most vocal critics of the two new parks, neighborhood groups in the Bronx and Queens, found themselves in the political and media wilderness. When the New York Times, in a March 2005 editorial, gave the new ballparks a backdoor endorsement—supporting them provided that the teams pay their own way—any hope of stopping the stadiums was lost.

As built, the new parks fit the characters of the teams that call them home. The Bronx stadium has an appropriately stately presence on the street. It is less imposing than the renovated Yankee Stadium of the 1970s, which sits awaiting demolition across the road, brutal, menacing, and abandoned. The new park, by contrast, is almost welcoming. Horizontal in orientation, it has an engineer’s clunky classicism. This is how it should be, for the original, pre-renovation stadium was designed not by an architectural firm but by the Osborn Engineering Company, like Populous a specialist in sports-facility design. Its most enduring work is Boston’s Fenway Park, which opened in 1912.

If Yankee Stadium makes intuitive sense when you first come upon it, Citi Field feels strangely incongruous. “When they first talked about building a ballpark that was an homage to Ebbets Field, I thought it was a very nice idea,” says Greg Prince, coauthor of the Mets blog Faith and Fear in Flushing. “But it just feels out of place when you approach it. It’s a great piece of architecture by itself, but you’re in a parking lot pretending that you’re in the middle of Brooklyn sometime before 1957. It’s forced. From a Mets fan’s perspective, it feels a little like the last forty-five years haven’t counted for anything.”

Inside, the two stadiums have a good deal in common, not surprising given their shared DNA. Fans enter a large ceremonial space, from which they’re funneled into the stadium proper. At Yankee Stadium, this is the Great Hall, a broad corridor heavily branded with team paraphernalia; at Citi Field, it’s the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, yet another nod to a non-Met, though one deserving of veneration. In both cases, way-finding signage is grossly deficient, an easily remedied flaw but one indicative of a broader truth about the two ballparks. Once you’ve entered their gates, neither club has any great incentive to get you to your seat. In fact, it’s just the opposite: they want you walking past the myriad concession stands, where they peddle food and merchandise while still offering glimpses of the field below.

With its ballparks, Populous has transformed the experience of attending a baseball game. Traditionalists lament that what the firm has created is not so much ballparks as “mallparks,” where the game itself is of secondary importance, something more like dinner theater. This falls in line with the way the sport is marketed to the public, especially in New York, where a baseball game is sold as an entertainment event, like a Broadway show, with stars galore and entry priced accordingly.

The creature comforts of the Populous designs are hard to dismiss, even for the most inveterate of fans. Seats are spaced judiciously, and sight lines are uniformly excellent. Generously proportioned circulation areas offer even those with the cheapest of tickets the chance to take in a game from privileged positions behind home plate, at the field level. Citi Field is a vast improvement over Shea and as cheerful and intimate a place as can be expected for a building that seats 42,000. “It kind of seems to go along with who the Mets are,” says Ben Barnert, the senior principal on the project for Populous. “You just feel comfortable in the ballpark.” For congenitally insecure Mets fans, naming the stadium for a teetering bank and paying such obvious tribute to another club somehow only make it more Mets-like.

The fan reaction to the new Yankee Stadium has been more strident, with criticism magnified by the ticket-price uproar. In the first weeks of the season, the place had a sullen, lethargic air about it, despite the visual and aural barrage of its signage, in particular the titanic and mesmerizingly sharp outfield video display. The electronic wizardry has the unfortunate effect of overwhelming the more traditional features of the park, such as its manually operated scoreboard and the players themselves. Monument Park, a repository of the team’s bronzed legends of yore, is uncomfortably wedged beneath the overhang of an outfield sports bar. Alex Belth, in a review for Sports Illustrated, compared sitting in the stadium to “being inside a gigantic pinball machine.”

For a certain kind of baseball enthusiast, the ultimate measure of these two parks rests on how they actually play. The new Yankee Stadium is a simulacra of the old, with dimensions that are roughly the same but different enough that it performs quite differently. (For the spectator, this lends it either an eerie cast or a pleasant familiarity.) In practice, shorter and closer outfield fences, a reduction of foul territory, and concourses open to the wind make Yankee Stadium one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball. Though the old yard always favored powerful lefties like Ruth, it now seems to favor anyone who shows up with a bat: its home-run rate is by far the highest in baseball. This has made it something of a laughingstock among seamheads, but what real detriment the hitter-friendly contours might pose, beyond making games longer, is a matter for debate. Some experts believe that hitters’ parks place undue stress on team pitching staffs, thereby reducing their chances at postseason success. Attendance, however, traditionally supports the validity of the league’s nineties-era marketing slogan: “Chicks dig the long ball.”

Regardless of gender, fans who want to see home runs would do well to avoid Citi Field, which seems as hostile to dingers as Yankee Stadium is friendly to them. Despite the Mets’ potent bats, their new home, with its prairie-scaled expanses, suppresses offense like no other in baseball. “The distances in the outfield and the power alleys, that’s where you can have some fun in establishing dimensions,” Barnert says. “You can create some unique areas where the ball can rattle around a bit.” It is that creativity, however, that many purists find aggravating. “It’s just so contrived,” says Jay Jaffe, a writer for Baseball Prospectus. “It drives me crazy.” The dimensions of the classic ballparks on which the Populous stadiums are modeled (such as Ebbets Field) were the product of their constrained urban lots. But Citi Field was built in the middle of a parking lot. And therein lies the strange paradox of the Populous stadiums: though they are painstakingly manufactured to appear idiosyncratic, the willfulness of their design is inescapable; and now that there are nearly 20 of them around the league, their heterogeneity has come to seem altogether homogenous.

When I first started attending games on my own, some 20 years ago, a ticket to the Yankee bleachers cost $1.50, pocket change even for a kid on a tight allowance. That same ticket now costs $14: not an unreasonable sum, but more than a movie and enough to keep a student on a limited budget from making it too much of a habit. The new stadium, for that matter, doesn’t beg that kind of relationship. It’s a special-occasion place, somewhere to visit a couple of times a season. Why empty your wallet for an entertainment event that might not be entertaining? (Even the best teams lose roughly 40 percent of their games.) When you’re stuck in the nosebleed seats, and a beer, a dog, and a bag of peanuts cost upward of 20 bucks, thoughts of exploitation inevitably percolate through the mind. It is in those moments that the fan-team compact seems hopelessly broken, and one begins to wonder about the difference between being a fan and being a chump. Sometimes it seems like there’s no difference at all.

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