As a sports fan growing up in Kansas, I went to plenty of Kansas City Royals games as a kid. I’m just old enough to remember Royals greats like George Brett, Bret Saberhagen, Frank White, and so on. (I don’t remember Amos Otis or Freddie Patek, sorry.) I remember actually expecting the Royals to contend every year, and could recite most of the Royals’ 1985 starting lineup and the entire pitching rotation at the age of four, which I’m pretty sure is before I could actually read. But the one thing I remember most about being a Royals fan, the one thing that got me most excited then and now, was the experience of actually going to Royals Stadium. The entire experience was pure magic — not just the team and game itself, but the sensory perceptions. The open expanse of green grass–uh, I mean Astroturf, the huge, sweeping architecture, the towering yellow and orange dot-matrix scoreboard with the gold carnival-lit crown, the thundering stadium announcer with his distinctive voice, the hot summer days and warm summer nights, the cold chocolate malt melting in my mouth on that strangely flat double-ended wooden spoon, the occasional whiff of a funny stink I found out later in life was called beer, and most importantly to a seven-year old, the really cool fountains that actually lit up different colors at night. Neat!
As major American sports go, baseball has a number of distinctive features, which is part of the reason the sport is so colorful. The list is long, but for me one of the aspects that makes baseball special is the significance of the ballparks in which it is played. Baseball is unique in that the size and shape of the playing surface are not entirely fixed and intrinsically affect the outcome of the contest. In the early twentieth century Major League ballparks were crammed into whatever inner city real estate the ball club could gets its hands on and this resulted in every park being unique and distinct to that city. There were a lot of funny little angles and dimensions as a result of necessity. Most parks lasted for decades and while a young baseball fan back in the day may never have gotten to see the World Championship teams his die-hard Red Sox or Senators father or grandfather always talked about, he did get to experience where they took place — old parks like Fenway or Griffith Stadium. There was and always has been a connection there between generations of fans that is tangible.
There is no way to list every great classic ballpark that is no more, but if I could somehow visit any of them I would choose the parks with loaded tradition and freakish dimensions, places like the Polo Grounds (257 feet to the right field line, 455 feet to center) and Ruth’s 1920s Yankee Stadium (right field “porch” 295, deep center 520).
Many of these old quirky parks started to get retired in the late 1950s and on into the early 1970s. In fine modernist tradition they were largely replaced by soulless “cookie-cutter” multi-use concrete stadiums that were nearly identical–perfectly enclosed circles with virtually no distinguishing characteristics. A few from this era like Dodgers Stadium and Royals Stadium (now Kauffman) actually had some character and are practically the only parks from this period still in use–likely no mere coincidence. The inevitable backlash began with the opening of Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1992, which was intentionally designed to remind one of the old parks with asymmetrical dimensions, brick facades, steel superstructure, and funny urban quirks like the right field wall being an old warehouse that had already existed at the site for years. The design was called “retro” and quickly held up as the highly-desirable antithesis of the now-outdated “cookie-cutters”. Before long, retro-style parks started popping up in almost every city in the Major League, eventually replacing the cookie-cutters entirely.
I’ve seen games in three of the retro ballparks: St. Louis’ new Busch Stadium, Denver’s Coors Field, and San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Ultimately, they are all fun places to watch a game, fan-friendly and very pretty, and I would never argue they aren’t superior to the cookie-cutters they replaced, but as an idea I think the retro parks aren’t entirely deserving of the heaps of praise they have received. I couldn’t help but notice the irony in them all being more or less alike when their specific appeal was supposed to be that they weren’t alike. Yes, they are all different, but they are different in the same way. It’s not that there is much wrong with Camden Yards itself, it’s that almost every ballpark after Camden Yards had to be almost just like it.The only thing that really separates most of them are gaudy gimmicks like San Francisco’s giant Coca-Cola bottle or Houston’s running locomotive, both behind the outfield fence. (Okay, I realize Kauffman has fountains, but that is way more elegant.) Hopeless ballpark geek that I am I find it a bit patronizing that retro parks attempt to artificially recreate the real or imagined funky “charm” of the ancient inner city ballparks, which were built that way usually by necessity. It seems rather against the spirit of the old parks that the retro parks are supposed to be inspired by. I think that thirty years from now architects and sports journalists will hold the retro parks in the same smirky “what were they thinking?” aesthetic contempt that the sterile multi-use stadiums are held in today.
Of course, I probably think things over too much instead of just enjoying the game. I’ve never had a bad time at any ballpark, including the retros. For the record, my favorite non-Kauffman quirk is the line of purple seats in the dark green upper deck of Coors signifying 5,280 feet above sea level.
And exiting AT&T Park by ferry is definitely the neatest way I’ve ever departed a sporting event.
If you are interested in reading more about ballparks of the past and present, the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library has several books on the subject. Two of my favorites are Lost Ballparks by Lawrence S. Ritter and The Ballpark Book by Ron Smith. And of course we in Topeka are fortunate enough to be barely an hour from Kansas City’s distinctive and well-regarded Kauffman Stadium, which after another long winter will be welcoming fans back in early April. It never comes soon enough for me.