The (Faux) Old Ball Game

The (Faux) Old Ball Game.  The 2008 baseball season begins this week. By coincidence, this will be the last season that New York’s two teams, the Yankees and Mets, play in their current stadiums. Next year, both teams will move into brand-new venues that will include state-of-the-art amenities, high-tech electronic displays, expensive VIP suite areas, and every modern convenience—on the inside, at least.

On the outside, both stadiums, like almost every baseball park built since 1992, will make every attempt to convince us that they were built sometime in the first part of the last century.

In the last 25 years, Americans have designed, built and enjoyed modern office buildings, modern libraries, modern museums, and modern houses. Why is it so hard to build a baseball stadium that looks like it belongs in the 21st century?

More than any other American sport, baseball is fueled by nostalgia. I have fond memories of rooting for the hapless Cleveland Indians in a remarkably hideous setting, the chilly and cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Built in 1931 with a seating capacity of nearly 80,000, the “Mistake by the Lake” routinely attracted fewer than 20,000 fans to see the likes of Sam McDowell, Steve Hargan and Rocky Colavito. But it had a lot more character than Cincinnati’s cookie-cutter Riverfront Stadium, an airport-like facility built in 1970 where I would sit in alienated gloom during my college years watching the Big Red Machine roll over all comers amidst a smug crowd who expected no less.

For a long time, most new ballparks looked like Riverfront: Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, St. Louis’s Busch Stadium, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers, all charmless industrial facilities lacking any sense of place, specificity, or human scale. Then came Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, and everything changed.

When it opened in 1992, Camden Yards was a revelation. Janet Marie Smith, the Orioles’ Vice President for Planning and Development during the park’s construction, had encouraged project architect HOK Sport to design an “old fashioned ballpark with modern amenities.” As a result, in contrast to Memorial Park, the 1950 “concrete doughnut” stadium it replaced—but like beloved urban ballparks such as Wrigley Field or Fenway Park—Camden Yards was asymmetrically-shaped to conform to the idiosyncrasies of the neighborhood street pattern, and scaled to bring the fans close to the action. And the ballpark was old fashioned not only in spirit, but in the literal details; using a steel structural system that hadn’t been used in stadiums since the 30s, and clad in brick to match the restored B&O Railroad warehouse across the street, it was designed to look as if it had been built in 1912, not seventy years later. Sponsors and advertisers were encouraged to use vintage logos, all the better to scrupulously maintain the illusion.

The illusion proved irresistible. Camden Yards was a hit with critics and fans alike, and it launched a trend in ballpark design that has continued unabated to this day. In the wake of Camden, retro facilities rose in Arlington, Denver, Atlanta, San Francisco, Detroit, Houston, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Oakland. Cleveland Municipal Stadium was replaced by Jacobs Field in 1994. Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium was replaced by Great American Ballpark in 2003. Both Jacobs (now Progressive Field, named for Progressive Insurance), and Great American (named for the Great American Insurance Group) were designed by the architects who started it all in Baltimore, HOK Sport. The firm has made the most of their success at Camden Yards; by 2012 they will have designed 19 of the 30 major league baseball fields.

Which brings us to my home town. HOK’s portfolio includes our two newest ballparks, the new Yankee Stadium and the new home for the Mets, Citi Field. I can’t say much about the design of Yankee Stadium. The House that Ruth Built is regarded by sports fans as a secular cathedral, and it goes without saying that the new facility, which is currently being built on a park adjacent to the current stadium, will replicate as many details as possible of the 1923 original. The weight of tradition is just too much.

The Mets, however, are different. I moved to New York in 1980, the perfect moment to become a Mets fan: the following years would see the arrival of Keith Hernadez, Ron Darling, Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, culminating in the thrilling championship year of 1986. The setting of these heroics, however, was the dismal and unbeloved Shea Stadium, opened in 1964 as a home for the then two-year-old Mets. “There’s no redeeming architectural value in Shea,” the AIA’s Fred Bell told the New York Times this weekend. “If Yankee Stadium is like visiting the Metropolitan Museum, then Shea is like a visit to the dentist’s chair.” Mets fans have been waiting a long time for a new ballpark.

And what are we getting? Well, this passage from the Mets website should sound familiar: “Inspired by tradition, Citi Field will be clad in brick, limestone, granite and cast stone, with the brick closely resembling the masonry used at Ebbets Field, both in color and texture. Exposed steel will be painted dark blue and the seats will be dark green.” I find this all rather odd. Ebbets Field served as the home of an entirely different team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, until 1957. Camden Yards sits in the middle of Baltimore and picked up its design cues from its surrounding neighborhood. Citi Field sits in the middle of nowhere—Flushing Meadows, Queens—and it picks up its design cues from a ballpark that, before it was demolished nearly 50 years ago, was located nearly nine miles away.

But in reality Flushing Meadows is hardly the middle of nowhere, and has a potent design tradition of its own. Originally a city dumping ground memorialized as The Great Gatsby’s “valley of ashes,” it was cleared by parks commissioner Robert Moses for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and fifteen years later, the 1964 World’s Fair. Its grounds were the site of some of the most iconic and entertaining visionary architecture ever built in North America: Wallace Harrison’s Trylon and Perisphere, Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama at the General Motors Pavilion, not to mention the Unisphere, which still stands today within sight of the new Citi Field. Wouldn’t any of these have made great precedents for a new pleasure dome to be built in Flushing Meadows? Or, to go a little further afield—but at least within the same borough—how about Queen’s greatest piece of architecture, from the same year as Shea, no less: Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal?

But instead, we have the fourteenth old-timey iteration of something that was an innovation a decade and a half ago, and now seems like nothing more than a default. HOK Sport is capable of bold, exciting architecture: just consider their Landsdowne Road Stadium in Dublin, Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre in China, or their work with Norman Foster at Wembley Stadium. The Mets are an atomic-age team, unburdened by the century of tradition that haunts their crosstown rivals. Their site is as close to a blank slate as anyone could imagine.

We all know that baseball fans love their nostalgic ballparks, and I certainly like the human scale and sense of place that the best of these venues provide. But do those values always have to arrive smothered in old fashioned wrappings? Sooner or later someone has to take a risk on something new. In Flushing Meadows, all the conditions were right to take a chance on a home run. What a pity we have to settle instead for a sacrifice bunt.

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