Diamonds in the Rough

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Aug. 1 1996 3:30 AM

Diamonds in the Rough

Two cheers for the new baseball palaces.

Fourscore and seven years ago, the first steel and concrete baseball palace opened for business. Philadelphia's Shibe Park, home to the Athletics and later the Phillies, was one of 13 urban ballparks built in the seven-year period now regarded as the golden age of ballpark architecture. All but three (Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and Tiger Stadium) have since been razed.

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Replacing parks built of wood, these ballyards set new standards for size, fire safety, intimacy, and convenience. As places to watch ballgames, they were vastly superior to the post-World War II parks, especially the facilities designed in the late '60s and '70s that doubled as football stadiums. But these concrete monsters, plopped into vast parking lots in Houston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, lack the character of the classic parks.

Chicago's New Comiskey Park, which opened in 1991, attempted to address the character question with a superficial postmodern facade that in some ways resembled the exterior of the golden-era park it replaced. New Comiskey was marketed as an old-fashioned park with all the modern conveniences. But inside, it was still a symmetrical concrete monster, and it sat in the middle of a 7,000-car parking lot rather than in an urban neighborhood.

A year later, a new--yet more genuinely old--ballpark arrived to dispel the gloom. Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards revived the idea of a quirkily asymmetrical, relatively intimate, steel-structured, city-friendly ballpark. "Once this opens," predicted Commissioner of Baseball Bart Giamatti, "everyone will want one like it." And so it came to be: Camden Yards' successors in Cleveland, Arlington (Texas), and Denver, and those designed for Milwaukee, Seattle, and San Francisco, take their cues from Baltimore's conceptual breakthrough. Even totally nontraditional parks, like those in Phoenix, Miami, and Tampa Bay, emulate the asymmetry of the Camden Yards outfield. It's almost as though a disembodied voice intoned, "If you build it, they will copy."

While Camden Yards and its offspring are almost universally praised, some of them don't deserve the hype. The most annoying hype is that all the new parks are intimate, and that every seat is better at the new place than the old. Intimacy has two aspects--actual size and the subjective perception of size and scale. A good architect can ace the second part of the test through convincing forms, good proportions, and attractive materials. The exposed steelwork, brick, stone, tile, and well-placed wall openings of the new parks beat the cold and sterile stadiums of a generation ago.

For the new parks' charms, we should be thankful. But in actual size, the new ballyards are not intimate. All their amenities--elevators, wider concourses, abundant toilets (especially for women), bathrooms, escalators, plentiful food stands, and luxury suites--make them far larger than the parks they claim to emulate. These parks are larger than even the multipurpose hulks we all love to hate. Compare, for instance, the spanking new Ballpark at Arlington (49,100 seats), which rests on 13.6 acres, to Seattle's Kingdome, a 58,000-seat multipurpose stadium that opened in 1976 and covers 9.3 acres. (Ebbets Field, home to the Brooklyn Dodgers, occupied a mere 5.7 acres and seated 32,000.)

Or compare heights: New Comiskey Park's roof is 146 feet above field level; old Comiskey Park was about 75 feet high. This is not ballpark trivia, but an indicator of fan experience: Upper-deck seats in the new, taller stadiums are farther away from the action. At Arlington, the fan sitting in the middle-row, upper-deck seat closest to home plate is 224 feet from the batter, compared to 125 feet at Tiger Stadium, a park with 4,300 more seats.

Why are upper-deck seats in the new parks so far from the game? Two reasons: column placement and luxury seating.

In the old parks, the structural columns stood within the seating areas, placing the upper-deck seats closer to the game. The trade-off was that these columns obstructed the view of some fans. Today's architects "remedy" the problem by placing the columns behind the seating areas, thus moving the upper decks back from the field. (It should be noted that the new parks' claim that they have no impaired-view seats is an overstatement.)

Added tiers devoted to luxury seating at the new parks also push the upper deck away from the field. The retreat of that deck is a century-long process, but it can be stemmed. The Orioles pressed for several design changes that lowered Camden Yards' top deck and produced a middle-row viewing distance of 199 feet, about eight rows closer than Arlington's.

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