Baseball's war on the upper deck.

The stadium scene.
April 17 2006 11:53 AM

Upper Cuts

Baseball's war on the cheap seats.

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Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

My friend's Opening Day lasted little more than an inning and a half. This was time enough for the Yankees to drop seven runs on Oakland's Barry Zito and for security to descend upon Section 202 of McAfee Coliseum, where a prissily self-entitled New York fan was raising an accusing finger. The details of what happened are unimportant. Let's just say that the object in question caused no great harm, having missed its mark, and was nothing so vicious as a Duracell battery or an $8 beer, the preferred ordnance of the disgruntled fan. Nonetheless, the cops' verdict was swift and unyielding. It's right there on my scorecard: Erick ejected in 2nd (projectile).

An injustice was perpetrated that evening in Oakland, and the culprit was not my friend, his accuser, or coliseum security. I blame baseball. In particular, I blame what baseball has taken to calling stadium "intimacy."

The Colorado Rockies, who drew the lightest attendance of their 13-year history last season, have decided to rope off a number of upper-deck seats during unpopular home games. "Fans really want to feel intimate with the action," a sports consultant told the Associated Press. In Oakland, in what I consider my home ballpark, there is now a permanent green tarpaulin draped over the third deck, installed in the name of intimacy. With all the subtlety of a comb-over, the A's have covered nearly 10,000 occasionally empty seats. What this amounts to, I fear, is an attack on the peanut gallery.

And here lies the injustice. For the past few seasons, my friends and I have encamped in Section 310, where we were free to do as we pleased. Which is to say, certain of us were free to get boisterously drunk. Underpoliced and sparsely populated, the coliseum's scruffy upper deck was perfect—the ballpark equivalent of Wyoming. In 310, a man could throw an object in anger and know he'd never strike a prissily self-entitled Yankees fan, for the simple reason that no prissily self-entitled Yankees fan would ever want to sit in 310.

But the 310s of baseball are doomed. And according to the A's, the fact that the coliseum now has the lowest seating capacity in the majors (34,179) is a good thing for us fans. The team is taking "every measure to make the Coliseum a comfortable and fan-friendly facility," the A's president, Michael Crowley, said in a press release. "Our goal is to create a more intimate ballpark atmosphere." (To their credit, the A's cut some ticket prices in the second deck.)

By now, every fan who hears a team executive mooning over stadium aesthetics knows instinctively to feel for his wallet. With their steady patter about "intimacy," the suits have cleverly co-opted the language of their fiercest critics. It wasn't long ago that a modern stadium meant something like Chicago's New Comiskey (now U.S. Cellular Field), an early-'90s monstrosity whose cheap seats could be found somewhere in Skokie. Dissenters shouted that the upper decks in these new parks were too far away. What we needed was a return to the intimacy of the lyric little bandboxes of yore.

Unfortunately, the "intimacy" being fashioned by the Rockies and A's is nothing of the sort. What an owner calls "intimacy" is what an economist would call "artificial ticket scarcity," whereby a team gooses the demand for tickets by slashing the number of seats. One of baseball's greatest virtues is its accessibility: If you live somewhere other than Boston or Chicago's North Side, you can decide at noon to catch a baseball game and be in an upper-deck seat by 1 p.m. But teams don't make money off tightwad walk-ups; they profit off the people who plan ahead: the season-ticket buyers, the businesspeople in their premium seats, the corporate VPs eating Caesar salads in the luxury boxes.

Naturally, this is any ballclub's right. But let's be clear: It has nothing to do with intimacy. As any ballpark architect will tell you, intimacy is not simply a function of seating capacity; throwing some canvas over the upper deck won't bring the remaining seats any closer to the action. This is just how baseball dresses up its cons nowadays. The owners' notion of intimacy bears the same relationship to actual intimacy that those "vintage" parks of the 1990s—Camden Yards and Jacobs Field, for instance—do to actual history. It's all a feint, a nod toward nostalgia intended only to distract you from the ringing of the cash register.

Besides, what's so bad about the upper deck, the one part of the ballpark so iconic they named a trading card company after it? The A's act like they're doing me a favor by lopping off the stadium's remotest seats. But baseball isn't basketball, where the field of play is small and where your view gets worse the higher you go, to the point where you're spending $20 to watch punctuation. In baseball, the perspective from on high is not necessarily worse, just different. From the upper deck, you can see, unencumbered, the sweep of the field and the arc of a fly ball. You can see, if you're hanging over home plate, the dramatic break of Randy Johnson's slider.British theatergoers have a lovingly cheeky phrase for the cheap seats, presumably stemming from their high perch, halfway (as it were) to the heavens. They call them "the gods."

There's a more important reason to despair of the war on the upper decks. The cheap seats carry the last vestiges of baseball's egalitarian charm, maybe the only thing in the game worth getting nostalgic about. In an essay about Tiger Stadium, Charles P. Pierce once wrote: "[B]aseball was the sport of choice among the countercultural Left. … [The] bleachers were always cheap and, therefore, suffused with the spirit of 'participatory democracy,' that charmingly impossibly philosophical template so central to, among other things, the Port Huron Statement, composed by Michigan native and Tiger fan Tom Hayden."

This is the thing about intimacy that baseball consistently and maybe willfully ignores: Some of us want to sit far away. We elect to sit among the scattered hoi polloi, the people who most assuredly aren't there with a client, the people who bought a cheap ticket on a whim because they wanted to see a baseball game. We're comfortable in these seats, up here with the gods, in this raucous, usually half-empty participatory democracy. In large part that's why my friends and I didn't attend any subsequent games in the Yankees series, knowing we'd again be wedged into the stadium's genteel second deck. Instead, we watched from that most intimate of locales: home.

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