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Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments | SportsLibrary.net
Ballpark identity loss
Will baseball's wave of retro ballparks prove to be another batch of "cookie cutters"?

 

By Roger Weber

 

Eighty-one times per year, Kyle Macomber, 17, can see an 80 foot long replica Coca Cola bottle and the world's largest sculpted baseball glove. He can hear young employees shouting the names of various food products and colas. He can also see flashing lights and hear artificial sounds blasted from a speaker behind his green seat, just a few feet above an expanse of shaved grass.

 

But if he turns his head to the right he can see a brick wall where out of town scores are posted by hand.

 

Kyle's family has held season tickets in the first row above the visitors' bullpen at SBC Park in San Francisco since the stadium opened in 2000. He attends most Giants' home games and has since the park opened. By now the park feels normal to him. 

 

SBC is just one of the new retro facilities to be constructed during the building boom that started in 1991 and 1992 with the opening of the new Comiskey Park, now renamed U.S. Cellular Field, in Chicago and Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

 

These retro stadiums were designed to increase revenues for baseball owners while reminding fans of baseball's past. Most were praised at their openings as unique new ballparks, but now they are becoming the norm. Sixteen of these pseudo-historic major league ballparks have opened since 1990 and seven more are planned to house teams by 2012.

 

Eight opened between 2000 and 2004 including the two newest venues in Philadelphia and San Diego. Since so many ballparks are being built at the same time, owners must keep their parks unique while matching the once revolutionary amenities of other teams' homes. But because so many have been built during the same time period, the retro parks have started to look similar.

 

In the 1970s, round multipurpose stadiums were in vogue. But that trend lost popularity quickly. Many of those parks were left demolished or vacant after just 20 or 30 years. The Kingdome in Seattle closed for baseball after less than 23 years of housing the Mariners.

 

As those parks were torn down, the current era of retro parks replaced them. Paul Munsey of ballparks.com said in an e-mail that he thinks the retro era of stadium construction may just be a common architectural revival that will go out of style. He said he would not be surprised if it is criticized as the "cookie cutter" era was in the 1970s. 

 

The structures of many of the retro parks are almost alike. All but three currently in existence have three decks of seating and the majority has brick exteriors.

 

The similarities affect how the game is played. Since the retro style began being used in design, players have tallied the top five single season home run totals in major league history. The one ballpark designed for defense, Comerica Park in Detroit, was unappealing to critics. The fences there were shortened to allow for more offense just a couple years after the stadium opened.

 

Average attendance has also risen. It was 15% higher in 2004 than in 1990, according to ballparksofbaseball.com. "Fans get excited by home runs," said Eric Pastore of digitalballparks.com in an e-mail.

 

Who's to Blame for the Similarity?

 

Ballpark enthusiasts Eric Pastore, Joe Mock, Paul Munsey, Brian Merzbach and even some architects recognize that new retro parks conform to one design style, but why so many of the same style have been architected is less clear.  

 

The reason the parks so resemble each other "comes down to the fact that only a handful of architects design the parks in the big leagues," said Joe Mock, author of "Joe Mock's Ballpark Guide". HOK Sport Architects in Kansas City, Missouri has designed 12 of the 16 new retro major league parks. HNTB Architects has designed many retro minor league parks.

 

These firms have been both praised and criticized for their designs.

 

"They've done good work," Mock, creator of baseballparks.com, said about HOK Sport. He said that "you can tell it's an HOK park" by looking at its features.

 

Pastore thinks this is a bad thing. He said via e-mail that "HOK and HNTB now just seem to keep sticking with what they know." Many retro venues lack imagination and fail to make him excited, he said.

 

Michael H. Westerheid, a principal architect at HNTB Architects, agreed with Munsey that this era is just a "phase" in architecture. "In twenty years there will be a new phase that will likely make the buildings we do today obsolete."

 

But he said the architects are not to blame for the sameness. "The owner makes decisions relative to the 'style' and, at this point, most owners want a 'retro look'."

 

A Houston Astros' customer service representative said in an e-mail that when Houston built Enron Field, opened in 2000 and renamed Minute Maid Park in 2002, the organization wanted to "combine state of the art features and elements of traditional ballparks."

 

Minute Maid Park contains luxury suites, club seats and wide concourses. These are all common in new ballparks.

 

To be unique, Houston's stadium contains features like a replica locomotive that weighs 24 tons. The train is built to reflect the location of the park, across the street from Union Station.

 

Architects of retro parks have done a "wonderful" job at doing "something that reflects the area" in new parks, said Mock. This is one of the most important jobs of an architect, he said.

 

Westerheid, of HNTB Architects, agreed that location is a major focus of people in his field. He said his firm designs parks with the goal of creating "a ballpark that speaks to its community."

 

An Evolving Sameness

 

To take advantage of locations like waterfronts or warehouse districts, architects have tweaked their designs to keep the parks individual. The "designs have evolved," even since the retro era began, e-mailed Jeff LeCrone of small-parks.com.

 

Comerica Park in Detroit and U.S. Cellular Field, formerly Comiskey Park, in Chicago were both built as part of the retro wave. But Comerica Park has sculptures of tigers around the exterior and an open outfield with a view of the city. U.S. Cellular Field, which opened 10 years before Comerica, has an enclosed outfield and no such view.

 

The attitudes of fans toward the two parks are very different. Mike Novinson, a Farmington Hills, Mich. teen, likes Comerica Park while Jordan Rice of Evanston, Ill. despises U.S. Cellular Field. Novinson said he likes the decorations and view of the city from Comerica Park. "You can see the entire skyline," he said. Rice said he dislikes U.S. Cellular Field because of the views and features it lacks. He said he wouldn't mind if it gets torn down.

 

Rice's comments in 2005 contradict those of Sparky Anderson when the park opened. "This place feels like real ballpark," Anderson said during the first game played at U.S. Cellular Field, according to The Sporting News. Rice, though, thinks the park has "no personality."

 

This evolution in architecture has led to criticism of once praised stadiums like U.S. Cellular Field, just ten or fifteen years after they were built. Only time can reveal whether a continued evolution in ballpark design will mean the style employed by architects today will fall into disuse.

 

Keeping an Identity

 

To try to prevent negative feelings toward their stadiums in the future, owners and architects must try to keep their parks different from already existing parks. 

 

The massive Coke bottle in San Francisco is a feature that Coca Cola uses for advertising, but it also serves as part of the architecture of the park.

 

Retro stadiums like SBC were designed with specific features meant to be reminiscent of older parks. These "throwback" features have increased in prevalence during the retro era as architects and owners look for new ways to make their stadiums unique.

 

Minute Maid Park has an incline 90 feet wide along the center field wall. The incline is meant to be reminiscent of a similar slope that existed at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. But the incline in Houston is for aesthetic purposes only and serves no local historical purpose.

 

Pastore, creator of digitalballparks.com, dislikes features like this. The architects "don't seem to have anything in mind that isn't a throwback," he said. Houston's incline has a "contrived look." But "it's a step in the right direction."

 

Other attempts to please the fans like selling local cuisine have also been employed. "It's pretty expensive, but it's nice food," Novinson said of Comerica Park's menu. Hot dogs at some parks are as much as $3.50 to $4.00 and local specialties are sometimes even more.

 

Twenty Years from now…

 

"It will be interesting to see what everyone thinks in 15/20 years from now and see how many teams are seeking new ballparks then," said Matt Angle of ballparksofbaseball.com.

 

The ways owners have tried to keep the parks discernible from one another have convinced some ballpark enthusiasts that the retro era will not be remembered as the "cookie cutter" era of the 1970s was. "Most of the parks have enough unique aspects that you certainly wouldn't confuse where you are," said Brian Merzbach of ballparkreviews.com via e-mail.

 

Fans like Macomber and Novinson think the retro stadiums are comfortable. But some wish the parks were less uniform.

 

"Many of these retro ballparks are indeed cookie cutters," said Pastore, creator of digitalballparks.com. He called the parks "plastic and hollow," two words that often describe the round, multipurpose stadiums that opened in the 1960s and 1970s as the first venues ever to lack poles supporting the upper decks and have electronic scoreboards. He said he doesn't expect to see imaginative ballparks soon because the architects designing the parks "keep sticking to what they know" without daring to "do something different."

 

Novinson, though, said he thinks the retro parks will be looked at as excellent venues even in the future. They have a "timeless feel," he said.

 

Paul Munsey isn't sure how the retro parks will be thought of in 15 or 20 years. He thinks this could be a trend that will go out of style. "That's why I'd like to see at least one of the 1960s or 1970s 'cookie cutter' stadiums preserved," he said. Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the last standing "cookie cutter," is scheduled to be demolished after the 2005 season.

 

The predictions about how retro stadiums will be remembered are mixed.

 

It's nearly "impossible" to predict, said LeCrone of small-parks.com. "I could give you a much better answer… in 20 years," he joked.

 

Kyle Macomber, the San Francisco fan, said he hopes to attend games for many years. He said he thinks he will still like "unique parks like SBC." He added, though, that it is boring seeing some of the other retro parks on T.V. He said he thinks they may someday be viewed as bland and dissimilar as the 1970s stadiums. They "will probably be forgotten and rebuilt like the parks before them," he said.

 

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