The New Generation of Ballparks Is Pushing Us Away

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.

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.

We hoped you liked reading The New Generation of Ballparks Is Pushing Us Away by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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mtsw
Member
Member

Great article, and something I think fans haven’t been totally aware of. Something that needs to be mentioned is that, to a large degree, pushing the upper deck further back is necessary for structural reasons due to the addition of dozens of very heavy extra luxury boxes. I wonder if teams should be investigating more innovation locations (field-level boxes, perhaps?) that don’t have such a negative impact on other fans.

I remember when OPACY opened, one of its selling points was it’s “openness” and that there were no obstructed seats on the lower level (because the upper deck is pushed back, it doesn’t require support columns in the seating area). And unlike Memorial Stadium, tucked into a neighborhood that made parking and traffic a nightmare, OPACY had a sea of parking on one side and was right off the interstate.

But even though it’s widely recognized as the gem from it’s generation of ballparks, I’ve seen a lot of older fans recently express nostalgia for Memorial Stadium, especially the atmosphere and quality of fan experience from the upper deck there. Baltimore, which used to be dominated by Orioles fandom, is now largely a football town. If that’s been partially caused by the fan experience for poorer fans and kids, it’s a real shame.

But that said, OPACY still is integrated with the city on at least one side of the park. The bars outside the stadium are relatively affordable and fun to hang out at before a game and OPACY still has an unusually friendly policy about bringing in outside food and drink that make it more friendly for fans. Big contrast to Washington, where the team runs its own “bullpen” area outside the game that charges insane prices (with terrible service) just like in the ballpark.

ohmj
Member
ohmj

You can bring your own food and bottled water into Nats park.

mtsw
Member
Member

I meant more to contrast the area outside the park than the food policies. But good for the Nats for allowing that.

Will H.
Member
Will H.

There are now a ton of great restaurants and bars within a few minutes of Nats Park, plus often beer on sale by independents in food trucks on the water around the corner. So that, plus being able to bring in your own food, really negates the absurd concession prices and means there is no reason to go the Bullpen or whatever they call it this year.

Also, I was going to mention this about the photo of the upper deck, the one thing that I really like about Nats park is that that deck only extends to the LF corner on the third base side, where they have $5 seats. So you are actually quite close to the action, insofar as I’d much rather be around the infield than otherwise.

Also, I can’t say enough how much obstructed view seats suck. And not having seats pointed towards the action as effectively as possible. And being insanely cramped.

mtsw
Member
Member

I think you have a really distorted view of what “close to the action” means if you think the Nats upper deck is close. You’re very high up and pushed pretty far back (the upper deck isn’t cantilevered over the lower deck at all, really). I’ve sat up there and the view is fine but you’re very far physically far away from home plate, even on the baselines. Check out the diagrams on Clem’s (all drawn to scale) and compare to Wrigley. It’s like a full deck higher and significantly further back. It’s better than the upper deck seats beyond the foul poles in a lot of parks but definitely inferior to upper deck seats at equivalent points down the baselines in many older parks.

I haven’t been to DC to see a game in a few years (I think 2014 was the last time) so it’s good to hear there’s more stuff in the neighborhood. If it was there last time I went to a game, I couldn’t find it, but maybe that’s on me.

Anyway, the Cardinals-village thing across the street from Busch is probably closer to what I’m complaining about (a simulated neighborhood with jacked up prices and no competition rather than an actual neighborhood) than what the Nats are doing, I just chose it as an example because I’m more familiar with their park than with St Louis.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

You mean a retail district, not a neighborhood. A neighborhood is a residential area.

Anyway, a pre-existing retail area would be just as likely to jack up their prices due to their close access to a new ballpark. Don’t be hating on them just because they were built after the fact. It’s not like the team directly owns most of the places. If you don’t like it, just drive a little further or just stop somewhere on your way home.

Will H.
Member
Will H.

Someone down-voted ohmj’s simple statement. I don’t understand the internets sometimes…

dwm8a
Member
dwm8a

Having been to ~20 games at OPACY and ~100 at Nats Park, I think you’re presenting an inaccurate picture of Nats Park and the surrounding area. The “urban renewal” design for the area around Nats park involved essentially demolishing an old neighborhood and creating a new one (whether this is a good or bad use of public funds is an important conversation for another time).

The “bullpen” area you write about was never intended to be permanent (and I don’t believe the team has ever operated it). It existed because the existing buildings right outside the park were torn down when the park was constructed, and development was slow when the park opened in 2008 because of the recession. It was able to charge high prices because there were no alternatives for people going to the games. There were few bars in the area, and the ones that existed weren’t large enough to handle big crowds. Now the bullpen is less than half half its former size (a big portion of the plot is now under construction as a new building), and there are dozens of bars within a few blocks of the park (and more cropping up almost weekly).

I’d say as of right now, Nats Park is well past OPACY in terms of having the park be integrated into a real urban neighborhood where you can walk to a number of bars/restaurants less than half a mile away. All these places by Nats Park are of course brand new, which is a stark contrast to an area like Wrigleyville. Neighborhood “character” is hard earned…

snowybeard
Member
snowybeard

I disagree with you on your contrast of Nationals Park and Camden Yards.
I’ve been to both ballparks since I live near Columbia MD.
Camden Yards is just a short walk away from the Inner Harbor and Federal Hill in Baltimore. Those are both great places to hang out—especially in the summertime. You can get on a water taxi and hit the bars at Fells Point if you feel like it, even though there are several bars right across the street from Camden Yards.
And the Univ. of Maryland continues to expand its campus of buildings (they’ve just built a new health sciences center to add to their hospital, dental clinic and pharmacy school). So that neighborhood is becoming more livable and you can see gentrification starting to happen.
The one thing I love about OPACY compared to Nats Park (and admittedly, I’m over 60) is that they don’t try to make it an entertainment center for families and especially for kids. You don’t have that loud red flashing screen and the constant din of loud music blaring through all of the speakers as you do in Nationals Park. The path along the river that will eventually link Nats Park with the new D.C. United Stadium is nice, but who really cares for a view of the Anacostia River? I know I don’t.
I know it’s just my opinion, but I much prefer Camden Yards and so do most of my baseball-loving friends.
Finally: I’ve been to PNC Park also. And I agree with Travis. That has to be the most awesome ballpark in the country.

dwm8a
Member
dwm8a

I wasn’t comparing the in-game experiences at all, just the surrounding areas.

Federal Hill is about a mile away from OPACY, which is exactly as far away as Barracks Row is from Nats Park. In the immediate area – within a five minute walk or so – Nats park now has a ton of stuff and a lot more on the way with new construction. Even if you’ve been to Nats park as recently as last fall, things have changed quite a bit. I’m not kidding when I say new places are opening up almost every week.

I have not been to PNC, but the best (new) ballpark-neighborhood integration I’ve seen is San Diego. You feel like the ballpark is just another building in the middle of the gaslamp district.

mtsw
Member
Member

Federal Hill is a bit of a trek but the Inner Harbor is at most a 10 minute walk from OPACY. And the Pickles/Sliders little complex is literally across the street from the ballpark’s LF entrance.

snowybeard
Member
snowybeard

Okay, fair enough, since I haven’t been to Nationals Park since the fall of 2015. I’ve missed out on the new development that you’re talking about. But since I’m on fixed income now, I probably would rarely avail myself of those type of amenities anyway.

And while the in-game experiences may not mean so much to others, they do to me. I’ve been to many of the stadiums that Travis has mentioned (e.g., Tiger Stadium, old Comiskey Park, old Yankee Stadium)and they had a baseball feel about them. That’s why I prefer Camden Yards. It just has a great “baseball feel” about it.

IMHO, Nationals Park is just so vanilla; nothing really unique about it.

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC

The other problem with Nats Park is that the crowds don’t have a lot of die-hard fans. The team has not been around in DC that long, there was already another team close by, and DC has tons of transplants that continue to root for their old teams. Also, it seems to me that there are just more people there to eat a hot dog and drink some beers without caring about the game than what you see at other parks.

jdbolick
Member

I’m pretty sure that the “nostalgia for Memorial Stadium” has more to do with being able to bring in coolers of beer than anything about the stadium itself. I have fond memories of attending games there as a kid, but that had everything to do with my youth and the people I went with. I find it very hard to believe that anyone found the “fan experience” better there than at Camden Yards. Unfortunately it also has to be noted that Red Sox and Yankees fans seem to like the experience at Camden Yards just fine given how many of them are in the stands during those series. I completely understand that fourteen straight losing seasons demoralized the Orioles’ fan base, especially with the Ravens doing so well during that time, but that really shouldn’t be attributed to the quality of the stadium.

Gopherballs
Member
Member
Gopherballs

Very good comment but one-point deduction for not mentioning the scene from “The Wire” that perfectly illustrates your point.

mtsw
Member
Member

You have to go further back for the good stuff. Wire creator David Simon’s Baltimore-set show from the 1990s, “Homicide” had an episode set at OPACY investigating the murder of a Yankees fan. Armando Benitez and Scott Ericsson made cameos.

OrangeOctober
Member
OrangeOctober

I have a partial season plan at OPACY and attend around 25-30 games a season. I think it’s a fantastic place to watch a game, and the surrounding area has a lot to offer before and afterward. Although I can’t remember the last time I sat in the upper deck. It’s been a while since I’ve been there, but from what I understand Nationals Park has more stuff in the area around the stadium now.