Saturday, February 21, 2009

Take me out to the ballgame: the uniqueness of MLB ballparks



In the lengthy conversation on steroids and baseball that spanned the last fortnight, Corry made a comment that really stuck with me: “Baseball was a pastoral sport in an urban setting--a place to theoretically escape the corporate world and find relaxing, occasionally quiet entertainment. Now it's just one more loud corporate laser show.” As unfortunate as the Michael Eisner touch was to MLB and in spite of the often intolerable noise that accompanies today’s game, the green grass and open air of the Major League park is, I would argue, still a major draw for the urbanite wanting a three-hour escape from summer’s asphalt jungle.

Two things that separate baseball and make it more interesting when compared to the other big-five sports are that, first, in baseball there is no clock. No need to “milk” or “race against” time. In that sense, baseball is leisurely—a major draw to the corporate world where time is money. Secondly, the uniqueness of each Major League park is part of the spectacle. Unlike football, soccer, basketball or hockey, where the gridiron, pitch, court and rink are ALL league-standard sizes, in baseball, once you get beyond the diamond, park designers have a creative carte blanche--something they've put to good use recently.

Each stadium has distinctive features that keep the game interesting for players and fans alike. The distance from home plate to the outfield corners varies from around 305’ to 355’ and anywhere from 390’ to 435’ to the center field fence, which can be symmetrical (like Dodger Stadium) or have nooks, crannies, gaps and (sometimes raised) alleys (as is the case in Houston’s Minute Maid Park). The height of the fence is also variable; Boston’s Fenway Park is the most obvious example of this, with the iconic 37.2’ “Green Monster” at 310’ in left, which extends to 420’ but gradually tapers down in right center, until the right field wall is a 4’ straight stretch that goes from 380’ to 302’ feet. Some ballparks (like Fenway and Detroit’s massive Comerica Park) favor the hitter, whereas others are “pitchers’ parks” (Dodger Stadium, San Diego’s Petco Park and the Minneapolis Metrodome—with its Plexiglas extensions in left and “the baggie” in right). (ESPN has scientifically determined each stadiums “Park Factor.”) The “Friendly Confines” of Chicago’s Wrigley Field have the original brick walls, covered in ivy. Beyond the fences are additions spectacles: Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium has fountains, San Francisco’s AT&T Park gives into a bay. With such diversity, this pastoral sport maintains a charm no other major sport (except maybe golf) can claim.

At both an aesthetic and theoretical level, we all have our subjective favorites. Personally, I abhor domes and am not too keen on turf either. As a former pull hitter and relief pitcher, I prefer shallow left field walls and reduced gaps in the alleyways... Yet another thing we can discuss that makes baseball the great American game.

4 comments:

Corry Cropper said...

I agree and love the no-clock aspect of baseball, its leisure ethos. I just don't like the way commercialism and loud speakers have made it feel more like work and less like stepping back into a mythical, pastoral past. In fact, I think baseball's future, ironically, lies in embracing the past, not in trying so hard to be like the NFL or the NBA...

Timothy said...

I also love what ballparks represent. Fenway, Wrigley and even Ebbets are great examples of historic ballparks. It is too bad that the Yankees were so willing to build a multi-million dollar ballpark and readily abandon the "House that Ruth built", and where Mickey Mantle and Joe Dimaggio (to name a couple) added to the history books. Fenway and Wrigley are in much more need of repair and replacement than Yankee Stadium was, but their respective organizations and fans are willing to remodel and repair than to replace and abandon their historic ballparks.

Robert J. Hudson said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Corry. Baseball's future should be integrally tied to its rich past--something the NFL and NBA don't really have.

Timothy raised an excellent point also. In fact, a couple of seasons ago Dodger Stadium (now, the third-oldest stadium in baseball--after Wrigley and Fenway) was renovated to install field level seating and make it look more like it did in the Koufax era. Abandoning Yankees Stadium is a major sports tragedy.

Corry Cropper said...

It's amazing (and a bit sad) that Dodger stadium is the 3rd oldest stadium in MLB... I wouldn't have guessed that, but so many great old ball parks have been plowed under in the last decade and a half...