ONE 8 • New York Notes: Baseball’s Edifice Complex

New York Notes: Baseball’s Edifice Complex

Major league baseball in the USA has been on a binge of new stadium construction. Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards started the craze in 1992 with a deservedly hailed ‘retro’ park that combined the intimacy and sightlines of a baseball-only ballpark with the modern amenities of wide concourses and copious concessions. Since the triumph of Camden Yards 17 of the 30 major league teams have built new stadiums. Or I should say had built for them with the generous assistance of local and state governments who have given team owners enormous tax breaks and also provided public funds for new highways and access roads.

Nothing in grandeur and expense compares to what New York has done for its two teams, the Yankees and the Mets. Each opened lavish new ballparks in April. I attended early games wanting to see for myself what had been bought by the Mets at a price tag of $800 million, a mere pittance compared to the $1.5 billion spent on the new Yankee Stadium. On the positive side I can report that there are wider pedestrian concourses for the impatient wandering modern fan to choose from a wide variety of concessions — traditional fare like hot dogs, peanuts and cracker jacks and ethnic specialties like tacos, brisket and fried fish. Though waiting on line can still last an inning or more before you shell out your $11 for a beer or $5 for a soda, the health-conscious spectator can now read the calorie content of every item for sale. There are cleaner and more numerous bathrooms, especially for women, and plenty of parking for the suburbanites who won’t take advantage of the easy subway access. (To the Yankees’ credit they continue to feature on their new massive High Definition scoreboard an animated race between the three subway lines that service the ballpark, but it gets only a tepid reaction compared to the roars greeting a ‘Find The Ball Under The Cap’ game.)

The seats of the new Yankee Stadium are the same blue of the majestic old ballpark, America’s first triple-decked stadium which opened in 1923, was poorly renovated in 1976, and now awaits the wrecking ball across the street from the new palace in the south Bronx. Though the seats at the Mets’ old Shea Stadium were painted orange and blue, in homage to the colors of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers who fled to California over a half-century ago, the predominant color at the new stadium in Queens is green. That hue might have seemed appropriate a few years ago when the CitiGroup of financial companies agreed to pay the Mets $20 million dollars a year for 20 years for the right to name the new stadium Citi Field. With the economy now in the doldrums and companies like CitiGroup major culprits, some critics have suggested that a better name for the stadium might now be Bailout Field or Taxpayers Park.

These have not been good times for Mets fans who in their team’s 47-year history have only two World Series titles to brag about unlike the Yankees who crow about 26 championships (though none in the current decade). Across the street from Citi Field, old Shea Stadium is a pile of rubble, perhaps a symbol of the Mets’ late-season collapses and missed playoffs of the last two seasons. A cruel joke circulates: ‘What is the difference between the Titanic and the Mets? The Titanic only sunk once.’ With CitiField the corporate name at least for the time being, one wonders if there will be more sinking feelings in Queens this year.

One positive aspect of the new ballpark is the Jackie Robinson Rotunda that Mets owner and real estate developer Fred Wilpon insisted upon as a tribute to his favorite Brooklyn Dodger. Unfortunately, its presence is obscured by two huge escalators that make one think he is entering a mall park and not a ballpark. Only a small circle on the left field wall recognizes William Shea, the New York lawyer and deal-maker who with former Dodger major domo Branch Rickey spearheaded the creation of the Mets. For me the stadium will always
be New Shea.

With only 42,000 seats, 15,000 fewer than Shea Stadium, CitiField prices are high. The most expensive ticket is $695, outrageous one might say until realizing that the Yankees, who reduced their new seating capacity by only 6,000 to 52,000, want $2,625 for their top single game ticket. It is almost impossible to find a good lower deck seat for under $100 at either ballpark and the more affordable upper deck prices come with incomplete views. The mythical average family of four coming to a Mets game and likely consigned to the upper deck can expect to shell out between $259 and $411 at Yankee Stadium. Earl Santee, an architect for the H.O.K. company (now called Populous) that designed both New York stadiums and most of the other recent parks, has said that upper decks don’t interest him. To critics who complain about the botched reproduction of the original elegant frieze of old Yankee Stadium, the company’s response is that the new ballpark is an ‘interpretive version.’

A revealing sign in the early stages of the 2009 season was the striking absence of spectators in the most expensive seats at both new ballparks. With the economy continuing to sputter, the Yankees announced price reductions less than two weeks after opening day. The price of the top ticket was cut in half to a still ludicrous $1,250 and some season ticket holders were invited to sit in the premium seats so that the TV cameras don’t show the embarrassing vacancies. These gestures won’t bring back the neighborhood park and its baseball diamonds destroyed to build the new Yankee Stadium. City officials and the team have promised a new park after the old stadium is torn down, but who knows when that will be? Yet no matter where baseball is played, it will remain America’s special game because it is filled with more mysteries and surprises than any other sport I know.

Lee Lowenfish’s award-winning biography Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman is now out in paperback, Lee contributed contributed to ONE number 6 and number 7.