Another year, another new baseball stadium. This season, the major leagues inaugurated two new ballparks, the 13th and 14th since 1989. In Pittsburgh, Three Rivers Stadium—a concrete-and-carpet monstrosity dating from 1970—gave way to cozy PNC Park, which features the now-standard accoutrements of baseball's past: real grass, a panoramic view of downtown, old-fashioned lighting, zigzagging outfield dimensions, etc. In Milwaukee, the president himself was on hand as vintage-style Miller Park, replete with brick façade and manual scoreboards, replaced the unlamented County Stadium as the home of the Brewers. In both cities, local boosters are hard at work praising the nostalgic pleasures of ballparks that evoke the bunting-draped glory days of Cy Young, Walter Johnson, and William Howard Taft.
And if they're anything like the folks in Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, and the umpteen other cities that have built themselves neo-retro baseball stadiums, the fans in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee will pack the faux-wooden seats, reaching attendance totals unimaginable in the age of Roger Maris—let alone the age of Babe Ruth.
There are plenty of reasons why fans are eager to shell out for the higher-priced tickets of the new-old class of stadiums: better views, comfier seats, more bathrooms. Yet there's something odd about baseball's embrace of retro architecture and the nostalgic uniforms and vintage on-field ads that accompany it. Because there's a pesky thing about nostalgia: Even in baseball—a game that drips glory-days sentimentality like so much sweat off a protective cup—it's in the eye of the beholder. And for those of us born in the '60s and '70s, our glory days of baseball (which I translate to mean, roughly, fifth grade) meant fantasizing about a big-league future played out in facilities that boasted goofy artificial turf, outfield dimensions balanced with Germanic symmetry, and a sea of parking lots for miles around. In other words, everything baseball is determined to unconditionally waive.
Once upon a time, the magical modern stadium represented the majesty of the pros. The 1979 World Series, the first that I remember my beloved Orioles participating in, was played in part on the sea-foam-green turf of Three Rivers. Four years later, when they finally won one, the O's clinched it on the carpeting in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. Eddie Murray hit a homer to right, where there is a trash-bag tarp beyond the outfield wall. After the game, the players rushed to celebrate by the pitcher's mound, their uniforms eerily free of grass stains.
Minor-leaguers might dirty their uniforms or blast a homer over the Jiffy Lube ad on the center field fence, but this was the majors. Only the real pros could play on the ineffable surface known as artificial turf.
Alas, no more. The so-called "cookie-cutter" stadium is on its way out. Cincinnati will soon replace Cinergy Field, completed in 1970, with the Great American Ball Park. In the Missouri legislature, the St. Louis Cardinals are pushing for financial support to help them replace 1966 Busch Stadium with a baseball-only ballpark set to feature (you guessed it) a red-brick exterior, arched masonry windows and openings, and a panoramic view of old downtown. And the Montreal Expos' ever-changing owners flirt perpetually with schemes to leave Olympic Stadium, the Mies-ian king of the ultra-modern stadiums, built for the 1976 Olympics.
Baseball's architectural revolution is so complete that a trip to Veterans Stadium, the high-modern 1971 facility that houses the Phillies and Eagles, already feels more anachronistic than a visit to Camden Yards, with its didactic architectural evocations of Charm City's prewar urban past. While Camden's antique touches now feel about as old-fashioned as the brass fixtures at your neighborhood T.G.I. Friday's, a visit to the Vet is like a trip back to the Space Age. Down on the field, the artificial-turf carpet shines in the spring sun. It's 330 to right and left, 371 to the power alleys, and no, there's not a single "quirky" turn in the outfield wall to be found. Neither is there any advertising—let alone any brick—on the wall. Go to the upper deck and scan the horizon beyond the outfield. Sure, Philly's got a cityscape, but you won't see it. You'll see more of the monotonous (and empty) seats that ring the entire stadium. You might as well be in Brasilia for all you can see.
But if you're in a nostalgic mood, you'll love it. Hey, if this stuff was good enough for the legends of the '70s—Stargell and Schmidt and the whole gang—then it's good enough for you. Is that Richard Nixon down there, getting ready to throw out the first ball?
The Phillies plan to move to a new ballpark in 2004. But already, they've made concessions to the retro vogue. The Vet's earth-tone seats have been painted blue. And a new layer of artificial turf is supposed to look more like real grass.
This is a mistake. Visit a fashionable used-furniture store these days and you're as likely to find overpriced Eames chairs as you are to find Victorian chaise longues. Philly and Cincinnati and St. Louis and the other cookie-cutter holdouts should capitalize on this trend and woo a whole new cadre of nostalgic fans. Go on: Doll the players up in those pinstripe-free, Mr. Pibb-fonted polyester uniforms. Buy artificial turf that's blue. And then tell the fans to come look at what baseball was like back when the future was now.