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Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments | SportsLibrary.net
Back to the future: Retro vs. other trends

 

By Roger Weber

 

As a ballpark and statistics enthusiast, I've wanted for years to combine the two. Whenever I do, it seems, readers shoot back with clichés, saying ballparks can't be judged by numbers. And in many ways they are right. Unlike players and teams, there isn't any real "goal" that a ballpark is trying to attain – attendance, beauty, longevity are designers' goals but the ballparks are really there just to house baseball.

 

But a few things convinced me to take a look at ballparks and stats together. Mainly, it's the change in opinion I've seen over the last fifteen years about retro ballparks. When Cincinnati's new park opened in 2003, only 23,000 or so fans showed up to its second game. 250 miles northeast, Cleveland had finally stopped selling out after fervent enthusiasm when the "Jake" was built. And enthusiasm in general for the new parks seemed to be down a bit.

 

Bill James once wrote that you couldn't tell the difference between a .300 hitter and a .250 hitter even after a season of watching them in part because the mind would remember the big plays of one or the other and forget most of their other performances. So I'm skeptical that the same mind can really judge a ballpark trend in the midst of it. So, ignoring all my conceptions, I sat down and played with some stats and articles about ballparks to figure out whether and how "retro" is really different from other ballpark trends? But first I took a little time to set out the generalizations I'd be working with.

 

Right now, we are nearing the end of the “retro” trend, not necessarily because it’s going out of style, but because by 2010 there will be 21 retro parks (22 if Oakland approves plans), and not really anywhere else left to build one. In historical terms, the retro trend replaces the “cookie cutter” trend of the 1960s and ‘70s, and it emulates the “steel and concrete” ballpark trend of 1908-1916. There was also a noticeable trend in the ‘50s and early ‘60s but those parks were built almost entirely in cities getting their first major league team.

 

Grouping the ballparks was admittedly based on my own judgment, but I made the selections without too much mental debate, and just so you can know what data I am using I have laid out the ballparks. For simplicity, we’ll call the 1908-1916 parks “trend 1,” the cookie cutters “trend 2” and retro “trend 3.”

 

Trend 1

Steel and Concrete

Trend 2

Cookie Cutters

Trend 3

Retro

Tiger

Comiskey

Forbes

Ebbets

Shibe

Wrigley

Crosley

Braves

Polo

Griffith

League

Fenway

Kingdome

Riverfront

Three Rivers

Veterans

Astrodome

Fulton County

Busch

Jack Murphy

RFK

Skydome

Safeco

Chase

Miller

Petco

CitBank

Busch

Comerica

GABP

Ameriquest

Turner

SBC

Min. Maid

Coors

PNC

Jacobs

Camden

Angels

 

Before I moved any further, though, I wanted to do a couple simple tests just to confirm that these really were trends. And the data shows that they were.

 

Capacity

 

 

 

 

1

2

3

Average

24234

51166

45422

St. Dev.

7470

5982

4536

 

Outfield Dimensions

 

 

 

1

2

3

LF

359

332

333

CF

450

405

405

RF

337

331

327

Avg. Stdev.

43

4

9

 

Looking at outfield dimensions, something jumps out. Trend 3 parks are designed to be emulations of Trend 1 parks. Yet as far as the field of play is concerned, they really aren’t similar at all. In fact, the quirkiness that made fields like Fenway and Forbes unique appears not to have carried over to the new parks, at least in any genuine form. There are parks like Minute Maid Park that contain many of those quirks, but there is a discrepancy between the fact that those traits are modeled after parks whose fields trend 3 parks do not very well emulate.

 

So I suppose this means that the first myth we can dispel is the idea that modern parks are as quirky as the originals. But as we'll see, money had a lot to do with this.

 

Why we've built new ballparks

 

Diving into the issue a little deeper, I looked at why we have built the ballparks in these groupings. Style is an obvious answer, but there seems to be a little more to it than that.

 

Inflation adjusted ballpark cost in millions of dollars

 

1

2

3

Average

29

252

341

 

Average age of the ballparks they replaced

 

steel

Cookies

Retro

Average

14

46.71

38.47

 

Change in attendance between year before the new

trend park opened and the year after

 

 

 

1

2

3

percent change

 

21

105

34

number change

 

697

10673

8696

 

As we can see, ballparks have been getting increasingly expensive. Less obviously, there are large differences in the ages of the ballparks each trend replaced. And although it appears that there is a major discrepancy in the change in attendance that new ballparks have brought, between the cookie cutters and retro parks that change is fairly similar. There are, though, a few things worth noting in regard to that.

 

The first and most obvious myth we can dispel is that the retro parks were unique in bringing the fans back to baseball. It is true that when the retro parks opened attendance was higher than it ever had been, but that may have been because fan enthusiasm was already high, and expectations for the new ballparks great. Retro ballparks filled on average 84% of their seats in their first year, but the surge in attendance was not as great as when the cookie cutter Trend 2 ballparks opened. And this allows me to put forth an analysis of sorts. 

 

The reason the cookie cutters were built was a combination of necessity and another tougher-to-define factor that was accentuated by that necessity – fan and economic interest. Retro parks, on the other hand, were built due to a combination of fan interest, fan discontent, economic feasibility, and the simple factor of teams wanting to keep up with each other by having an equal or better ballpark.

 

We know necessity contributed more to the cookie cutter construction than to retro park construction because of two figures – the fact that parks replaced by the cookie cutters were older than those replaced by the retro parks despite likely even more outdated technology – and the fact that retro parks were built more quickly than the cookie cutter trend.

 

It is also easy to tell that there was a difference in fan perception. Due in part to the dilapidated nature of the old parks, attendance averages were about 11,000 at the old trend 1 parks just before the construction of the cookie cutters. It increased to nearly 22,000 after the new parks opened. At the cookie cutters, attendance was already decent, meaning there was solid fan interest, but the surge in attendance after the new openings shows that there may have been even greater interest but discontent with the old parks.

 

Given that data, we can tell that fan interest was higher as the retro parks were being financed than when the cookie cutters were being designed. This is also much more clearly supported by the simple idea that the retro parks cost an inflation adjusted $90 million more per park than the cookie cutters despite only housing one sport instead of two. In essence, a city was paying close to a third more for a stadium that would only house half the number of professional teams. And the retro parks were all, but for new Busch Stadium, paid for by taxpayer dollars. Obviously, of course, the new parks were also bringing in more money for the teams because at the new parks they could charge higher prices and took in more luxury suite revenue.

 

The original trend 1 parks were a different case altogether. Saving money, as is obvious from the ballpark prices, was a priority. As most fans can tell from a map, they were shoehorned into sites which gave them their awkward dimensions, which is ironic given that the retro parks emulating them were built for the highest prices with the least concern for low prices and geographic corner cutting.

 

How opinions have changed

 

Undoubtedly, retro parks were built for different reasons from the cookie cutters, and are thus very different parks. At this point we may view retro as “good” and older forms of ballparks as “bad.” But I’m not sure if history supports that judgment. At this point I delved into some old newspapers.

 

St. Louis provided me with the most obvious case. I was not surprised to read that when new Busch Stadium opened in 2006, it was hailed by one newswire report as the “key to St. Louis’ new renaissance.” It replaced “blocks of historic buildings, mostly vacant except for pigeons.” But sifting through the archives of The Post Dispatch, I discovered a more surprising article from 1991 in which broadcaster Jack Buck recalled that when old Busch Stadium opened, it saved downtown St. Louis…Everything else aside, it did an awful lot to clean up the city.”

 

Although the Pittsburgh papers were less generous in their words about the setting of Three Rivers Stadium, I came upon the realization that revitalizing downtowns is not a new concept for ballparks. Perhaps another memory altered conception.

 

Ultimately, though, it shouldn't be surprising that most ballparks open to rave reviews. A lot of money goes into them to be criticized right away. When St. Louis celebrated Busch Stadium’s twenty-fifth birthday in 1991 the Post Dispatch ran a headline that read “At 25, Busch Stacks Up With The Best Of Them.” And even the much scorned Veterans Stadium, the Philadelphia Inquirer points out, opened as “a giant jewel.”

 

Although the drop in attendance at retro parks years after they opened probably does not reflect a similar 180-degree turn in opinion, it's interesting to point out and remember that initial reaction doesn't mean a trend will always be loved.

 

When the retro parks were built, the focus went to that which the cookie cutters did not have – the quirks, charm and natural grass – and not to that which the cookie cutters did have – technological innovation. Granted, it was outdated by the 1990s, but technology like luxury suites at the Astrodome, which The History Channel's Modern Marvels production on ballparks highlights, were certainly modern and innovative at the time.

 

It is the perception of fans that the cookie cutters always were how they were perceived at the end of their time. When the cookie cutters were constructed, they faced an opposite dilemma – the old parks had too many quirks and not enough technology. So they were built using technology that got outdated and design that with purists was not ever popular.

 

A Final Comparison

 

I’ve theorized that retro is both different and similar to the cookie cutters and to the original trend 1 parks. But moving just a little further into the issue, I did one final test that confirmed my conclusion.

 

Because we’re working with trends that occur over time, it makes sense that age and time should tell us some valuable information about ballparks. The following table presents the changes in the average and standard deviation of the ages of all the parks in the major leagues during the years before and after the bulk of a trend. The time selections were admittedly somewhat subjective, but none of the selections were really debatable. I excluded outliers.

 

League park age avg.

 

 

1

2

3

Avg. start

11.06

25.45

28.73

Avg. end

7.188

19.58

21.03

Diff.

-3.872

-5.87

-7.7

Change z

-0.469

-1.99

2.07

 

The average differences are not surprising. It makes sense that with better technology and more money put into ballparks that the general field of ballparks is, on average, getting older. There was, of course, that period in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the trend 1 parks were very old when average park age was even greater than it was at the start of the retro trend, but we have discussed that.

 

Where we really see revelation, though, is in the difference between the ballpark field just before the trend, and just after. All the trends, with relative similarity, caused the average age of major league parks to go down. But only trend 3, the retro trend, caused the overall variation in park ages to increase.

 

Why? While trends 1 and 2 both replaced the oldest parks, the ones most in need of renovation or replacement at the time, trend 3 replaced mostly the intermediate-age parks – those that fans apparently felt a discontent with – leaving unscathed most of the oldest parks (Wrigley, Fenway, Dodger) and the most modern non-retro parks (Kauffman, Tropicana, etc.). Trends 1 and 2 were replacing parks simply because the new parks were more technologically modern and had more amenities. Trend 3 improved upon the amenities of the middle-aged parks it replaced, but it replaced them more for what they lacked that the oldest parks had - the baseball-only intimate feel and charm.

 

Conclusion

 

What this tells us is that when the retro parks were being built, and potentially forever, the “middle ages” of ballpark construction were in fact viewed as a “dark age.” And this mainly meant the cookie cutters. Why? Because they had, in the words of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “artificial turf, thousands of seats far from the action, and the where-am-I feel of the place.” They basically lacked the feel of a ballpark.

 

What the retro parks have that isn’t a product of technology is natural grass, better sightlines, wider concourses, some unique traits that may remind fans of parks whose designs were unique to that city, and likely a little more longevity. And those traits were best carried out by the original steel ballparks. In Cleveland, the scoreboards, 10 years old at the time, were replaced in 2004, but the design of the ballpark was left intact. I suppose it's the fan in me that speaks when I generalize ultimately that the thing that can kill retro is the fact that the amenities and features will become outdated – every ballpark trend has seen that - and that fans could express boredom with the similarly designed parks as memories start to be dominated by retro as a norm instead of a novelty.

 

I'd like to be able to say that stats "prove" something about the future of retro. They do draw out some interesting comparisons and make noticeable a few points – most notably that retro is a replacement of the amenities of the cookie cutters and the "charm" of the steel parks. Of course, many fans could figure that out. But it's these sweeping trends related to the ballpark trends that are so noticeable through the numbers and not just mental judgment in a particular time. But ultimately that public conception and financial situation seems to determine ballpark trends, and those are things I really can't predict.

 

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