The Jewel Box Under End-Stage Capitalism

Tropicana Field
Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like the Rays have been trying to ditch Tropicana Field since they got there, and apparently it’s finally going to happen. The Royals are likewise pursuing plans to build a replacement for Kauffman Stadium, though the club announced Wednesday that the planned reveal of a new ballpark site was being postponed for the time being.

Both clubs want to replace their aging, arguably obsolete concrete bowls with something more modern — more glitzy. The unspoken promise is that the Royals and Rays — two small-market teams that ranked 25th and 27th in payroll this season, respectively — would turn their new taxpayer-funded playgrounds into an economic engine that would not only boost community welfare but also allow the team to compete economically with the Yankees, Dodgers, and so forth.

We all know this is bunk.

I had hoped that the electoral bloodbath that followed the construction of Truist Park and The Battery in Cobb County, Georgia, would mark the end of government handouts for stadium construction. But apparently not, as the public will pay the best part of three-quarters of a billion dollars in order to build the Rays’ new stadium complex, to say nothing of the nightmare relocation of the A’s to Las Vegas.

Stadium financing, as it’s currently done, is such a public policy disaster that I’m bored of writing about it. There is nothing new to say, as municipal and state governments continue to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars to real estate developers. The Athletics’ situation is a perfect microcosm. John Fisher’s functionaries appeared before the Nevada state legislature and lied, cajoled, and evaded. And they got called on it; their interlocutors did everything short of put the Athletics’ brass in a pillory and throw cabbages at them.

Then that same legislature voted to give the A’s $380 million anyway.

If 20 years of widely publicized research and real-world experience can’t convince local and state governments to stop stepping on this particular banana peel, I’m just banging my head against the wall. The word is out, and nobody can stop it.

Fortunately, I have a new reason to be cheesed off at these bloodsucking owners and their toadies in government: I love these two ballparks, and don’t want to see them demolished.

Kauffman Stadium might seem outdated, its concrete edifice harkening back to an unfashionable time. It’s the sixth-oldest stadium in the league, counting the Oakland Coliseum, which is not long for this world. Most of the other ballparks of this vintage have been torn down.

But I love its uniquely shaped scoreboard and the swooping lines of the upper bowl. I went there for the first time while passing through Kansas City in 2014, the first year in decades that the Royals were worth getting excited about, and I remember being overawed by the noise of the crowd and the clarity of the colors around the stadium. It’s only 11 years younger than Dodger Stadium, which has cemented its place as an inviolable classic ballpark. If we let Kauffman Stadium alone a little while longer, it might join that category.

Which is probably why the Royals want to tear it down. Kauffman is situated out in the middle of a field, off a highway, with no exploitable real estate to speak of. It’s arguably a landmark already, and if the Royals let it remain so, they’ll have a harder time transferring public wealth to their own coffers in the name of real estate development.

The Trop is a harder sell. When I tell people it’s one of my favorite ballparks in the league, they look at me like they’re expecting a punchline. And I concede that the building is hideous, inside and out. It turns routine pop-ups into the climax of a Marx Brothers movie. It’s on the wrong side of the bay. It’s too small. It isn’t fit for purpose and therefore has been renovated into total aesthetic incoherence.

But I love The Trop because it’s unique. Because it’s small and inconvenient and the Rays aren’t always easy to root for, the organization has had to go out of its way to gimmick the fan experience up. At a classic ballpark in a big city, you’re going to go in through a cattle chute and pay $80 for a ticket and $18 for a beer because the club knows it has you caught in its web. Sports fandom is paypigism with brightly colored shirts, and the big-market teams act accordingly. The Rays know they have to work to draw fans, the way a minor league team does, and the experience at the Trop is better for it. It’s flawed but accessible and fun, like a Jersey Shore boardwalk. We’re all ugly and inconvenient in our own ways, and the Trop is merely a reflection of that.

Most of all, I love Tropicana Field because its flawed and slightly ramshackle nature places it in contrast to the retromodern design language that dominates baseball stadium architecture today. Camden Yards is one of my favorite ballparks, which is surely an opinion as orthodox as loving the Trop is iconoclastic. And after it debuted in 1991 to rave reviews, it’s been copied over and over.

Populous (formerly HOK) is the architectural firm that dominates MLB, having its hand in either building or renovating 20 major league ballparks and dozens of minor league and spring training facilities. I almost compared Populous to Fanatics, the monopolistic firm behind the skyrocketing prices and rapidly deteriorating variety, quality, and service in the sports merchandise industry. But that’s not fair. Populous has designed some of my favorite contemporary parks, including Target Field and Minute Maid Park. (Crucially, Populous did not design the horrendous Globe Life Field in Arlington.) But when every team decided to copy Camden Yards, it seems like nobody bothered to understand why the Orioles’ ballpark was so beloved. Making a great ballpark isn’t as easy as slapping together a steel superstructure onto some exposed brick and designing some contrived weird angle into the outfield wall.

There’s a great video series on the Architectural Digest YouTube channel in which architect Michael Wyetzner traces the design history of certain types of iconic American buildings. Sure enough, he has one on baseball stadiums:

(Wyetzner also did an equally compelling video on diners, which means he’s covered the two types of building I’ve built my entire life around.)

If you’re 1,000 words into this column and haven’t gotten bored, you’ll eat up this 19-minute video, and you should watch it in full. But I want to quote from Wyetzner’s description of Shibe Park, which he used as the exemplar of the jewel box stadium, the style that dominated baseball stadium construction in the early 20th century.

“Here’s what stands out to me about Shibe Park: It’s built into the city grid, so it’s part of the city… From [the front elevation], you would never know that there’s a ball field beyond here. It just appears to be like any other office building at the beginning of the 20th century in Philadelphia.”

This is the style that Camden Yards invoked and all of its imitators tried to copy. These ballparks were squeezed into tiny lots and had to blend themselves into the surrounding community. Every memorable design quirk from an early 20th-century park, from the Green Monster at Fenway to the Polo Grounds’ comical center field to the tiny outfields of the Baker Bowl or Wrigley Field, was the result of spatial constraints. Form follows function.

It’s still possible to build a new ballpark in this fashion. Target Field, my favorite MLB stadium constructed in the 21st century, is squeezed into eight acres in the middle of Minneapolis. It’s too big — too tall, really — to blend into its environment the way a jewel box stadium would. But its construction, with its glass and blond stone and sharper angles, reflects modernist and midwestern design language rather than aping the northeastern industrial aesthetic that’s too often transplanted into an alien context.

Minute Maid Park is guilty of this. Houston is a fascinating architectural city, partially because of the realities of its climate and the strong Latin American cultural influence in the region, and partially because it’s a nearly Chicago-sized city that sprung up almost from nothing in the past 60 years. In not-too-dissimilar circumstances in Miami, Populous erected loanDepot Park, which is heavy on glass and white steel and landscaping that reflects the local environment. Minute Maid, not so much. In a city of glass towers and Spanish colonial revival architecture, we get red brick and green steel. The materials are more Boston than Houston.

But what I love about Minute Maid Park is how its location determined its shape. It’s not really an ideal location, in a commercial-heavy neighborhood downtown, one of the more sterile locations in a city that’s bubbling over with culture. But they squeezed an entire ballpark into a lot that’s not really wide enough for the purpose. Minute Maid’s outfield dimensions are ludicrous, between the deep center field and the Crawford Boxes, which can turn a popup down the left field line into a home run, and whose abrupt end by the left field bullpen leads to the most treacherous corner in any major league outfield. The reason the outfield wall is shaped like that is the park butts right up to the road. When the roof is open, a home run can go out of the park altogether and bounce out onto Crawford Street, just as home runs out of Wrigley Field will land on Waveland Avenue or home runs out of Fenway can end up on Landsdowne Street.

Minute Maid Park isn’t quirky because of some soulless and self-consciously clever boardroom decision to make the outfield fence X feet high to honor a franchise legend. It’s quirky because that’s how much ballpark will fit on the lot — just like Fenway, Ebbets Field, and the Polo Grounds. Camden Yards gets this, with its iconic warehouse and perfectly framed view of downtown Baltimore. Almost none of its imitators can say the same.

The jewel box ballpark went out of style because the sport and the country changed. The class of stadium that followed — the modern concrete doughnuts of the 1960s and 70s — were suburban, built in parking lots for easy access by car. Whereas previous ballparks were molded by their context, these new stadiums had no context. They could’ve designed anything.

So there’s a fundamentally awkward incongruity when a retromodern ballpark gets plonked into a parking lot, like American Family Field in Milwaukee or Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. It’s like putting a high-rise apartment building on a cul-de-sac. The people who built those stadiums either didn’t realize or didn’t care that people respond to a stadium’s place in the community, rather than its building materials.

And by building Camden Yards clones everywhere, MLB teams have stultified the architectural evolution of the baseball stadium, even as the art has advanced in other sports. The same firm that built that travesty of a stadium for the Rangers gave the NFL’s Rams and Chargers a building that looks like something a particularly sexy alien race left behind. You couldn’t give an MLB team something that looks like the new Wembley Stadium or Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta — a forward-thinking building that takes its lack of context as an opportunity.

It’s not that MLB owners want to keep building their parks in the middle of nowhere. They want their teams to play within a community. But rather than build a park to fit an existing community, they want to use the park as the foundation for a commercial and residential investment that they build from the ground up, and from which they extract all the economic benefit. Owners tell us they want the stately pleasure dome, when in reality they’re after the twice five miles of fertile ground next door.

As much as I’ve harped on Camden Yards being the foundation for the modern ballpark, that isn’t really true anymore. Now, it’s Truist Field. The Braves abandoned a functional (if uninspiring) Turner Field to move their team to a greenfield site in the suburbs and surround it with buildings of their own choosing and from which they could profit. That’s why the Rays, after decades of trying to move to Tampa proper, are staying in St. Petersburg. Their development site is 86 acres, almost 11 times the size of the lot the Twins built Target Field on, and will include 14,000 parking spaces, more than 5,000 residential units, a hotel, a conference center, 1.4 million square feet of office space, and 750,000 square feet of retail space.

It’s almost dishonest to call the stadium an anchor tenant or a tentpole. This is a misdirection act, an okey-doke. Because if a private real estate developer asked the public to foot the bill for condos and office buildings, they’d get laughed out of the room. But if it goes next to a baseball stadium? Here’s $730 million to develop a site the city already owns. If MLB owners thought like this in the 1970s, the Cubs and Red Sox would be playing in taxpayer-funded ballparks out in a mixed-use development in the suburbs somewhere, instead of venues that achieved legendary status because of their place within the community.

When a stadium is molded by its neighborhood, it can become aesthetically beautiful and culturally vital. The modern ideal is to pervert that process, do it backwards, and get taxpayers to foot the bill. Rather than the team and its home serving the needs of its community, now the community must serve the needs of the team.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Philmember
5 months ago

“And next up to bat for the Xanadu Horde, Kubla Khan.”

Terrific article.

David McCannmember
5 months ago
Reply to  Phil

Agreed!