Fields and Dreams
Andrew Zimbalist discusses economics behind new stadiums
Beginning in 1992, baseball discovered a new old way to bring fans back to the game. It all started in Baltimore – naturally – with Camden Yards. The Orioles' new park was the progenitor of a style that came to be known as "New Major League Classic," a deliberate attempt to evoke the original, beloved concrete-and-steel ballparks built in the 1910s.
Unlike the multiple-use, cookie-cutter suburban stadiums that had proliferated in the 1970s, Camden Yards was designed for baseball only, with asymmetrical dimensions and deliberate idiosyncracies. Incorporated into its right field wall was an enormous warehouse that had once belonged to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Erected just a few blocks from the house where Babe Ruth was born, the park was designed to rejuvenate Baltimore's fading dockside neighborhoods, and soon became a focal point of shops, restaurants, bars, and tourist destinations.
Camden Yards was an immediate success, attracting not just Orioles fans but visitors from across America and selling out every seat for years. It spawned many imitators, with twenty teams building new parks over the next seventeen years. Almost all of them were built in the same style, many designed by Camden Yards' architect, HOK Sports Facility Group. They combined modern amenities with the same sort of feeling that parks had when they were squeezed into inner city blocks – even when the new stadiums were built in the middle of nothing more than parking lots. Invariably, they had their own deliberate eccentricities – a raised knoll beyond centerfield at The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas; a miniature train that ran above the left field wall in Houston; even a swimming pool out in the centerfield stands at the Bank One Ballpark – "the BOB" – in Phoenix, Arizona.
Gary Hoenig talks about change in dynamics at new parks
Marcos Breton on his love of the game
There was a certain affectation to these attempts to recreate old, neighborhood parks, an insistence on prettifying the past that smacked more of Disney than of the gritty urban game that had been played in such places. In some instances, such as the new park the Mets would erect next to where Shea Stadium used to stand, they were neighborhood parks without a neighborhood. The new parks also had a disturbing tendency to contain thousands fewer inexpensive seats for regular fans, and more luxury boxes, designed to attract the well-heeled corporate executives and the high-tech millionaires that America seemed to be minting every day.
And unlike the old stadiums they were intended to evoke, most of the new parks were labeled with the names of corporate sponsors that changed with confusing frequency. The Houston Astros had the misfortune to sell the naming rights for their new field to one of the corporate giants that had sprung up in the wake of the country's finance boom – Enron. When the company's elaborate exercise in flim-flammery abruptly collapsed, the Astros were left without any name on their home field until a new sponsor could be dredged up.
Yet whatever their names, the new parks also brought a sense of wonder back to the game, enabling fans to experience something of what it must have felt like when the game was still new, and the first, green rush of a ball field rose up to delight their fathers and grandfathers.
Excerpt from Baseball: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (with a new chapter by Kevin Baker).