The Dead Baseball Stadium Era

Adrian LeeCorrespondent IFebruary 7, 2008

Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer details it with such unbridled passion and vivid nostalgia that it is considered among the best sports books of all-time.

Roger Angell sneaks it into every one of his articles, especially his piece Early Innings, and it is a part of every visitor—whether announced or unannounced by the voice crackling through the PA—who has gone to a baseball game in the last two centuries.

It is a staple of every baseball writer’s portfolio, from George Plimpton to David Halberstam, from Frank DeFord to Rick Reilly.

And it is a piece that I will never be able to write. 

I will not be able to rave about the glory days of my youth, hitching humble trams on my way to endearing Ebbets Field. I will not be given the opportunity to ramble retrospectively of Yankee Stadium, its nooks and nuances as familiar as the Mick’s home run numbers and the Splendid Splinter’s batting average. I will not have the chance to pine for the muffled warbling of a Red Barber or a Mel Allen or a Bob Casey, their timeless voices acting as the PA systems of my childhood.

These are not the crisply cut fields nor the stadiums rife with history of your time, no sir. No longer can you find stadiums of distinctive shapes and sizes or with lovable idiosyncrasies like the Green Monster in Fenway Park. No longer are these the grounds upon which legends were made, where stars rose and fell, where records were accumulated, stood, and inevitably toppled. 

These are unfeeling hunks of concrete and mortar, replete with every possible amenity one could want—save a soul. Certainly, you can find glowing behemoths listing out-of-town scores, plush seats, cup-holders, and a liberal sprinkling of internet cafes, but I have yet to find any famed journalist who extols portable internet access as the origin of his affection for the sport.

Gone are the days of Ebbets Field (and the Brooklyn Dodgers that were once housed there); gone too is Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, the ballpark whose 88 years of major-league service began in the same tragic week that the Titanic famously sank. 

My desperate hunt for nostalgia even finds me longing for that much-maligned cookie-cutter era of baseball stadiums, that period of ballparks that prided itself on versatile function rather than form. But even those have upped and left: Veterans Stadium, Philly’s lovable old eyesore, has since been replaced; Candlestick Park, where the hometown Giants’ Willie Mays once roamed and where 62,000 baseball fans huddled as an earthquake rocked San Francisco in the 1989 World Series, is now exclusively a football field; and more recently, the original Busch Stadium, where Redbird fans were privy to a steady stream of stars from Stan Musial to Ozzie Smith to Albert Pujols, was detonated in June 2006.

Those that remain have been poisoned by the growing sense in the sport that fans need more than the game itself to keep them coming out. 

In contrast, ballparks like Boston’s Fenway Park, Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Los Angeles’s Dodger Stadium and New York’s Yankee Stadium are the last vestiges of a golden, glorious time, standing tall as beacons of tradition amid a mass of wanton modernity.

And even though these celebrated stadiums have developed a Joan Rivers-esque affinity for facelifts, their efforts to remain true to their long and storied histories have helped produce three of the most dedicated and loyal fan bases in all of baseball.

It would be hard for the fans of these teams, whose fathers and grandfathers have perched each them on their knees and told stories with the only stadium that the franchise has ever known as the backdrop, to see a major part of that tradition literally crumble to the ground.

But Yankee faithful will have to deal with it sooner than its fellow brethren. Yes, Yankee Stadium, where young, starry-eyed major-league hopefuls dream of playing one day, where larger-than-life legends like Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Babe Ruth once played, is going to be torn down in three years, to be replaced with its own shiny, state-of-the-art and ultimately spiritless facsimile just down the road.

Indeed, if even this baseball temple is set to be destroyed, a shrine to the sport as connected to the American Pastime as the Montreal Forum—itself now nothing more than a movie theatre, is inextricably linked with hockey—nothing is sacred anymore. And while there are few doubts that there will be more plush cushioned seats, more concession choices, and more luxurious amenities, there is just as strong a certainty that the new stadium will be vacant of the stories that can only be gleaned over time. 

Where are the days where going to the ballgame was entertainment enough? When did we need to add more to the time-tested experience that baseball provides, the days where all you needed was a scorecard, a box of Cracker Jack, and a seat to watch the game. Since then, we’ve swapped scorecards for jumbotrons, Cracker Jack for wine bars and in-stadium restaurants, and the crude enjoyment of watching the boys of summer trade their gloves for bats after each half-inning and then repeat the process again three outs later for bobblehead give-aways and T-shirt guns.

Only adding to the dissipating notion of tradition and all-around lovability in sports as a whole is the increasing trend of naming ballparks after big businesses that buy the rights. There is both irony and tragedy in this—franchises selling a part of their soul, the names of their superficial stadiums, for a quick buck as their stadiums are now connected to equally cold and faceless corporations.

We no longer have friendly stadiums that fans, in doting admiration, warmly refer to by nickname, like The House that Ruth Built (Yankee Stadium) or Chavez Ravine (Dodger Stadium). Instead, we find ourselves entrenched in the days of clunky US Cellular Park, of antiseptic Tropicana Field, of robotic-sounding PETCO Park. And the aforementioned Candlestick Park, now the home of football’s San Francisco 49ers, has since been garishly renamed “Monster Park”, evoking notions of a lost member of the Addams Family.

And even when fans, searching for anything to make their home team’s stadium remotely charming, find a clever moniker for these commercialized arenas, the volatile nature of the business world has ballparks changing names quicker than you can say Pacific Bell Park (which became SBC Park when Southwestern Bell Corp. bought Pacific Telesis Corp., and which later still became AT&T Park when now-renamed SBC Communications merged with AT&T Corp.)

And worse still than these space-age, corporate-wrought stadiums are ballparks like Baltimore’s Camden Yards and Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, which has recently been tragically refitted with the ironic moniker Progressive Field.

These are teams and owners that attempt to snatch at absent tradition and off-sepia film reels by constructing effigies to an era that was never there. History is being falsely rebuilt and recast here, and worse than even selling out the name of one’s ballpark, these are sickly attempts to sell fake memories with only the bottom line in mind.

Perhaps the creeping presence of business and luxury amenities in sports is a microcosm of modern day’s constantly changing society, where rushing busybodies in today’s fast-paced business world need something more to maintain an increasingly restless interest level. Perhaps it’s because the difference between the baseball of today and that of yesteryear is the increasingly understood notion that professional sports are businesses first, entertainment second and a game a distant third.

Ultimately, it is a trend that has no sign of letting up. And in New York, there exists an ironic example of that trend in motion; by 2009, the New York Mets will be getting their own new ballpark to replace their old faithful, Shea Stadium. So what do developers predict the new stadium, now in the designing stage of its development, will look like?