On several occasions in my youth, in the early 1990s, my dad took me to the chain-link perimeter of the construction site of what was then called the Gateway Project. There, we monitored the progress of what was to become Progressive Field. Within what had been a warehouse and market district in downtown Cleveland, we saw a steel skeleton rise and concrete poured. And on April 2, 1994, it was awe-inspiring as a 14-year-old to walk into the new park for its first game, an exhibition-game christening against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Progressive Field was the second of the retro-style ballparks to open, following Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The ballpark, originally named Jacobs Field, hosted its first regular-season game on April 4, 1994. The Ballpark in Arlington became the third retro park to open, a week later, on April 11, 1994.
Upon entering the stadium that day some 23 years ago, it was clear that the overall experience would be markedly superior to that of the multi-purpose Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Jacobs Field had charm, including varying wall heights, asymmetrical dimensions, and a backdrop of downtown high rises. It also had modern amenities, wider concourses, and no obstructed views.
As soon as Camden Yards opened, most existing stadiums became immediately obsolete. Since 1992, 21 teams have opened new stadiums. One club, the Atlanta Braves, is now on their second — SunTrust Park, which opened last week. (Let the record show that Bartolo Colon’s major-league career outlasted Turner Field.)
This is not a post about the morality or utility of many of these parks having been funded, at least in part, by tax dollars. That’s a subject for another post, another day. This post is about design and location. There’s no doubt SunTrust will offer a more enjoyable experience than that of Turner Field, which had little character, was planted in a sub-optimal location, and was essentially a leftover of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. But, like nearly every new ballpark that has been constructed, SunTrust is, to me, flawed in significant ways.
One of the perks of a beat writer, in which capacity I served for four years while covering the Pirates for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is travel. As a beat writer, you’re able to see much of the country and many of its major-league parks. I haven’t visited every major-league park, but I’ve been to the majority. And nearly every new park shares the same design issues. First, too many seats are too far removed from the playing surface. Second, too many parks aren’t situated where they should be — and that is, preferably, not just in a city but in a neighborhood. (From a total experience before, during, and after games, Wrigley Field stands alone in the National League.)
All professional sports compete with HD television and streaming in their efforts to draw fans to the ballpark. And the most affordable seats, the places where many have their first experiences as fans at a major-league game, are far removed from the action and the sensory experiences of the game: the sound of ball meeting bat, the chatter on the field, and all the other incidental noises that accompany the game. Each new stadium has been noted for its lack of obstructed seats, but it’s the absence of obstructed seating and the increase in luxury suites that has devalued the experience for all those unable to sit in the lower bowl. While the retro era is an improvement from the cookie-cutter, multi-purpose generation of stadiums, we haven’t truly returned to a period of classic ballparks — like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park — which were notable just as much for their intimacy as their idiosyncratic design.
While it’s difficult for probably a number of reasons — building sites, parking, the demands to maximize revenue streams, etc. — to totally recapture the classic ballpark experience, the new model of parks has failed to improve the fan experience in some crucial ways. And thanks to Andrew Clem’s fine web site, I have the cross sections and diagrams of stadiums to prove it.
Consider Progressive Field, the park at which I’ve attended the most games as a fan (and a few as a journalist). It’s a splendid place to watch a game — until you reach the upper deck.
The upper deck, like all of the new stadiums, is raised far from the field by three levels of luxury suites — they resemble something of an apartment complex sandwiched between decks — and the second deck is pushed further back from the playing surface because of the lack of supports that created obstructed seating.
Consider a cross-section of Progressive Field …
… compared to Municipal Stadium:
While Municipal Stadium was dubbed “The Mistake by the Lake,” and had a great number of flaws — and while it was generally unfit to host baseball — you were closer to action in the upper deck. (Note, to the left of the images, a scale, which notes the stadium’s height in feet.) At Municipal Stadium the first row of the upper deck was about 40 feet above the playing surface, and the majority of seating was below 90 feet above the field. At Progressive Field, the majority of the upper deck is above 90 feet above the playing surface — and pushed further back due to the lack of supports that create obstructed views.
Compare Comerica Park in Detroit with Tiger Stadium, which had the most spectator-friendly upper deck in the game during its tenure.
In the upper deck at Tiger Stadium, you were on top of the action.
At Tiger Stadium, a fan in the upper deck could be situated less than 60 feet from the playing surface in many parts of the park, and there was a greater number of seats closer to the action than in Comerica or Progressive. Consider that, of those seats furthest away from home plate in current MLB stadiums, nine are in retro-style stadiums. In fact, the Rockies and Indians have both either closed off or otherwise demolished seating in their right-field third decks — in part to reduce supply and in part to better utilize space, since the seating there was so far removed from play. The seating in the third deck of Coors Field is so remote, the Rockies have installed a bar and open seating there to entice fans up. If you reach the mountain top, there will be beer!
Chicago is a great study in the design failure of a major-league stadium.
Somehow in the city of Wrigley Field, in a city with a Great Lake view and majestic skyline, Guaranteed Rate Field was created. White Sox officials rejected a plan for a Camden Yards-style, retro-park and elected, instead, a generic plan for New Comiskey, which opened in 1991. Instead of building the stadium with a view of the skyline, it was turned toward a series of spartan public-housing constructions to serve as its backdrop.
While Camden Yards is credited, and rightfully so, as inspiring and ushering in this era of ballpark construction, it was New Comiskey that continued what Dodger Stadium began in creating a stadium with three or more decks and no, or few, obstructed seats.
Guaranteed Rate pre-renovation…
The upper deck at New Comiskey was considered so steep and distant from the playing surface that it has since been reduced in a renovation.
Guaranteed Rate post-renovation…
It’s amazing to this author that “The Cell” was constructed in the same city as Wrigley, from which its designed appear to have taken no lessons or inspiration. While Wrigley has a larger, more open lower bowl than many older ballparks, a patron still always remains within 90 feet above the playing surface in the upper deck. While there’s plenty of obstructed seating, I personally would accept obstructed views for proximity to action.
You can imagine how much more satisfying it was to watch a major-league game before 1958 in Brooklyn…
… relative to today in Queens, if you don’t have lower-bowl seats:
The top upper-deck rows of Progressive Field, Globe Life, Yankee Stadium II are above 120 feet, meaning you would be eye level, there, with the apex of this blast.
How strong is @TheJudge44?
— #Statcast (@statcast) April 20, 2017
The seats of the middle-class baseball fan, the introductory seats for many young fans, are as far removed from the action as they’ve ever been. I’m not sure that’s good for long-term business and interest, though secondary markets like StubHub have helped democratize seating for non-premium games.
The first issue is structural; the second, I believe, is tied to location. Not enough ballparks are built where they ought to be built: integrated with cities, yes, but ideally within a neighborhood.
Integrating a ballpark into an urban neighborhood isn’t healthy merely for the neighborhood, but ultimately, I suspect, for the park. In the late 1980s, Notre Dame architectural professional Philip Bess, working with SABR, proposed a design for a new stadium to replace Old Comiskey. The concept was a neighborhood ballpark called “Armour Field” as recounted at This Great Game:
Bess’ “alternative” concept for New Comiskey Park that concentrated on integrating the ballpark with the surrounding neighborhood, much like Wrigley Field. … It was a bold vision in a time when enclosed multi-purpose stadia still ruled: An inclusive, inviting ballpark that would open up and fit within the contours of an existing neighborhood, an urban beacon surrounded by housing, retail and restaurants.
“We would cease looking at ballparks in isolation and instead look at them as a component of mixed-use traditional neighborhoods,” Bess later wrote. “We would do this because there is a historic reciprocity between good city neighborhoods and good baseball parks, and therefore this reciprocity should be normative.”
The White Sox were disinterested… And rather than surround the ballpark with a neighborhood, they destroyed it… Gone with the homes were several businesses—including McCuddy’s Tavern, a favorite watering hole for White Sox fans traversing to Old Comiskey before and after games; it had been around so long that Babe Ruth frequented the joint when visiting with the New York Yankees.
Said Bess during another interview regarding his Armour Park design:
“There are a few columns in the lower deck seating bowl to accommodate the site constraints and to get the upper deck seating closer to the playing field. But in retrospect, I could have been bolder in designing the upper deck to be even closer to the field, even if it would have meant more columns in the seating bowl. But all my prior research on ballparks notwithstanding, this was the first one I had designed to this degree of detail; and you learn what you would do differently the next time.”
Moreover, building within tighter confines in an existing city or neighborhood — rather than an open, suburban site near interstate access — creates more opportunity for creativity. Consider the architect Richard Meier
describing the concept of creativity as the product of constraint:
“Without the limitations, you wouldn’t come up with creative solutions. And architecture is by definition about restrictions: The site is so big, you can only build this tall, and if you want to do something different you have to go through a whole series of steps through the planning process and the approval process.”
Fenway’s iconic Green Monster was a creative solution to geographical constraints. Fenway is shaped like Fenway because it had to fit in an awkwardly shaped city block…
AT&T Park is arguably the the most revered retro-construction built to date, and McCovey Cove and the stadium’s right-field wall is arguably the greatest design aspect of a ballpark built in the 21st century. It’s a creative solution to the limitations, the confines, of a construction site…
If there are no constraints, on the other hand you end up with Globe Life Park, positioned on a generic, flat stretch of America between Dallas and Fort Worth, a stadium which is soon to be defunct and where its successor is also being built (though this time the Rangers’ home will have a retractable roof).
Without constraints, we end up with sprawling Citi Field — a park which, despite having been constructed in a city of 20 million, is situated near nothing but a sea of parking lot and auto-repair shops…
While I live in Pittsburgh, I am not a native Western Pennsylvanian, so I make this claim with less bias than other locals in Pittsburgh. I believe PNC Park is the finest retro-style stadium for two reasons. First, it was the first stadium since Milwaukee County to be built with only two decks. Second, it was also built with a geographical constraint — that being the Allegheny River. The park is more intimate and interesting than many of its peers.
SunTrust is a step back from the concept of integrating a park within a city center — or, better yet, a neighborhood. It was built off an interstate intersection in Atlanta. It will be surrounded by new construction retail and business sites.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred dubbed the SunTrust Park and the complex surrounding it as “the new model for how new ballparks will be built.” I sure hope not. We’re often not building ballparks any more, we’re building sprawling stadiums that now must be part of retail complexes.
This retro-ballpark revolution was supposed to enhance fan experience. In many ways, it marks a real improvement over the cookie-cutter, multi-purpose era. But in some important ways, it has also pushed us — many of us — further away from the game.