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At the Bad New Ballparks

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Nick Laham/Getty Images
Opening day at the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, April 16, 2009

Having won 103 games in the regular season, more than any other major league team, the Yankees returned to the postseason after a year in purgatory. The new stadium into which the team moved in April had, like the team, with its $208 million payroll, done its job, and Yankees fans, who had earlier fretted about too many home runs rocketing over a short right-field fence and badly devised seats with partial views, focused instead on the playoffs and World Series, which is what Yankees fans really care about. The stadium’s flaws receded and the building, with its comic-book resemblance to a giant bank—the immense limestone, granite, and cast stone façade, the scalloped frieze along the upper deck, the immense portals and gilded lettering, harking self-consciously back to the original Yankee Stadium that opened in the Bronx in 1923, the “House That Ruth Built”—provided the imperial franchise in its autumnal glory with a big, pompous stage.

By contrast, the Mets ended yet another year in heartache, this time not making a historic last-minute nosedive, as they did in 2007 and 2008, but wallowing in next-to-last place in their division. Their fans, including their devoted bloggers, seemed as the season progressed to sour on Citi Field, the team’s own new digs, about which hopes were high last winter. Many Mets fans were happy to say good riddance to Shea, which it replaced. Citi Field promised fresh, smart surroundings. But all that changed, with the team’s fortunes.

It’s worth recalling that in its day Shea represented a mid-century vision of the future: when it opened in 1964 as part of the World’s Fair in Queens, it was the sporting equivalent to Helvetica type, or to the Gemini rockets, or to Sony color television sets—a modern design symbolizing some bright, shiny postwar tomorrow. Over the years, as it deteriorated, it became the reverse: an architectural piñata for detractors who despised precisely its utilitarianism and bland enormity.

Replacing the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field, as the Mets had replaced the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, the two National League teams that quit town for California at the end of the 1950s, Shea abjured the quirks and irregularities that had made each of the old fields, like the old Yankee Stadium, distinct, but that had also included supporting beams that blocked views, creaky wood seats, cramped passageways, few amenities, and fewer toilets. It was a metal and concrete shed for 55,000 spectators, adaptable to football, shaped like a doughnut with a bite taken out of one end and providing a view onto, well, nothing in particular: an inchoate tangle of expressways, a gray river, and a former U-Haul warehouse in a marshy nowhere lot off the Grand Central Parkway.

When games turned dull, fans could watch the 7 train rumble by on the elevated tracks beyond the scoreboard. Every few minutes a low-flying jet on its way to or from LaGuardia Airport next door shook the seats and deafened spectators. The stands were so big and broadly raked that even field-level seats felt distant from the action.

But Shea had its charms. At the beginning, panels in blue and orange (the team colors, blending New York Giants orange with Brooklyn Dodgers blue) were suspended as decorations, like confetti, on thin cables outside. Inside, multicolored seats gave the place a festival quality, as did the streamlined scoreboard with electric lights that seemed newfangled at the time. A black Longines clock and a Rheingold beer sign (“Rheingold is my beer, the dry beer” went the jingle that every Mets fan, no matter how young, memorized) passed for commercialism. Jane Jarvis played the Thomas organ. This was before canned music was pumped over loudspeakers, before programmed cheering, prodding fans to rise from their seats, make noise, and chant. Rallies were spontaneous back then. Fans lugged hand-painted banners on white bedsheets to the stadium, hanging them, like drying laundry from Lower East Side tenement windows, along the tiers or raising them overhead, in search of a television camera.

It was all very homely, like the Mets, who from their first season in 1962 until they became the most unlikely World Series victors in 1969, won sympathy for being so spectacularly bad. On opening day in 1969, when the Mets lost to a new expansion team, the Montreal Expos, a fan held up a neatly printed placard saying, “Wait ‘Til Next Year.” Futility was the team’s charm and cicerone.

The fan was Karl Ehrhardt, “the Sign Man,” as Mets fans dubbed him, an ad designer who from 1964 until 1981 toted to Shea his homemade signs (he had some 1,200 of them by the end) and became, as Dana Brand writes in his touching memoir, The Last Days of Shea, “the first Mets blogger.” Brand goes on:

Being a Mets fan in the 1960s was very interactive, although I’m not sure we had that word back then. Or if we had it, we didn’t use it. But we were all in the game, and we had to make up our own ways of loving and cheering for the Mets. We didn’t just sit there and do what they told us. We talked back to the Mets. With signs…. I guess you could say that Karl…spoke for us. And he spoke for himself.

A refurbishment of Shea in the 1980s included standard blue and green seats; the colored panels outside gave way to appalling neon figures of ballplayers. A giant video scoreboard called Diamond Vision arrived to doom Jane Jarvis and compel fans to act excited by entreating them with rally music, although there also arrived a giant red apple, made of wood, that would emerge from a top hat whenever the Mets hit a home run—a clunky, makeshift contraption, like the old Camel cigarette sign in Times Square, whose goofiness and mild desperation epitomized what still separated the Mets from the Yankees and made them, depending on which team one rooted for, endearing or pathetic.

Brand, an English professor at Hofstra University, a lifelong Mets fan, and the Proust of Mets bloggers, recalls sitting in the forlorn, aging Shea Stadium during its final weeks while crews assembled Citi Field next door. “As I watched the construction during the game and saw how Shea was being boxed in,” he writes,

I felt so bad for my dear, sweet old friend. As its replacement was being built, it was trying its best to entertain us. Maybe it was hoping for a reprieve. “Look,” it said to us, “look, I can make this apple go up and down!” It showed us all of its old, worn tricks.

But increasing numbers of fans, many not old enough ever to have gone to Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds, came to believe they missed the quirks of the old fields. Shea aged badly, as did the modernist dream it represented. So, as it had wiped away the past, Shea gave way to the smaller Citi Field, a latecomer among the retro stadiums that cropped up in the wake of Camden Yards in Baltimore, which opened in 1992. Like Camden Yards, the well-received ballpark of the Baltimore Orioles, and for that matter Yankee Stadium, Citi does not so much return to the past as concoct a simulacrum of it—a surprisingly flimsy one, it turns out, really just a shell for containing the luxury boxes, semiprivate clubs, shopping malls, flashing monitors, food stalls, and clutter of billboards for which major league baseball fields seem now to have become almost an excuse.

Both new stadiums are the work of the architectural firm HOK Sport (which also designed Camden Yards). It does for ballfields what Disney does for amusement parks. New York’s stadiums come in the wake of the steroid scandals that have made many fans say they are wistful for simpler times, a sentiment, however misguided, on which these new stadiums, with their faux nostalgia, capitalize cynically.

I took an old friend to a game at Citi Field one night this summer. He’s a baseball addict who recalled his mother dressing him in an itchy gray flannel suit to watch his first major league game, the Yankees versus the Cleveland Indians, at Yankee Stadium in 1955. He was ten then and remembers his father, like all other men, wearing fedoras. This time it was Mets–Yankees, the subway series, and my friend wore khakis and sneakers. It was a mild evening. We made our way past the J. Crew clothing store and souvenir shops at the entrance to the field-level promenade, and found our seats behind first base. Enclosed and smaller than Shea was, Citi has an intimacy that’s initially attractive. The brick backstop, like the signs advertising SpongeTech .com and FreeCreditReport.com, have an old-fashioned quality. Above, tiers of luxury boxes and private restaurants twinkle behind tinted glass.

With the Yankees leaping ahead 3–0, we strolled by Ebbets Club, an extremely expensive seating area with restaurants and bars reserved for fans in Ebbets Club boxes, and we crossed a metal bridge that links the promenade to a vast food court. Thousands of fans were there, standing in snaking lines waiting to pay for sushi from Daruma of Tokyo from Great Neck and ribs from Blue Smoke, which they lugged to high tables, consuming their purchases while watching the game on a giant video screen. Other fans stood three to four deep clutching drinks in a crowded bar on the open plaza beyond the pricey outfield seats (they’re not called bleachers at Citi Field). Food now competes with baseball as the main attraction at the new stadiums.

Food and status: focused increasingly on high-end ticket buyers who pay upward of $1,000 a seat at Yankee Stadium, the new arenas sustain themselves by selling exclusivity in varying degrees. Season-ticket holders may screw plaques onto the backs of their seats like donors to a church or synagogue. Certain tickets permit entry into restricted-access clubs. Others allow entry to luxury boxes, the innermost sanctums, which turn out to have the anodyne ambience of a Holiday Inn or Marriott suite. Like the stadiums themselves, they simulate the thing they hawk, namely a desirable place from which to watch a game, never mind that they’re disconnected from the field and the action. The paradox is obvious: the new designer stadiums sell a kind of old-world ethos as a province for modern-day social climbers.

At Yankee Stadium, where the food is worse and the consumption more conspicuous, the field-level promenade provides room for fans from the cheaper seats to wander behind home plate and glimpse the game up close, but it’s also a cold concrete mall, not grand, just outsized. The stadium sound system, echoing against the hard walls, keeps up a torrent of advertising, music, and instructions for spectators to “Get Loud” and “Make Noise.” I wandered up to the Audi Yankees Club, one of those semiexclusive retreats within the stadium, reached by a remote elevator, and on the way had visions of Toots Shor’s or the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel, some stylish watering hole to escape to. But it was akin to an airport lounge or a Las Vegas casino like the Bellagio, where harried bartenders mix overpriced cocktails above the din of barking customers. It provided an aspiring clientele only the dream of yet-more-rarefied confines, like the luxury boxes.

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Jeff and Christine Estilo
The center-field food court at Citi Field, the new stadium for the Mets in Queens, April 2009

Major league baseball used to be a game of reverie. It was, and in amateur pickup games and at minor league fields is still, experienced as long stretches of near silence, interrupted by bursts of excitement. The soundtrack has long been the steady murmur of the crowd and the burbling chatter of radio or television announcers free-associating between plays. The new stadiums purposely subvert this reverie. They fill the silence for a crowd that seems to number more and more multitaskers, who text or chat on cell phones during the game, and gladly pass an hour dawdling in line at the Shake Shack outlet at Citi Field rather than watch the action from their seats. As my friend, the one who went as a boy in a suit to see the Yankees, put it, marveling at the long lines, “They’re buying tickets to a mall that happens to be at a baseball stadium.”

That said, baseball doesn’t take up all of your mental space as you watch it. It takes up a degree of it, and you’re free, the rest of the time, to experiment with thoughts you might not ordinarily have. Brand writes well about this. He mentions in an earlier book called Mets Fan the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who described how he decided to become a novelist while sitting in the stands of a game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp. Someone hit a double and Murakami thought, I should be a writer. The non sequitur of that decision conveys the state of associative openness—akin, as Brand notes, to what we may experience while traveling—that baseball inspires.

But the goal of baseball stadiums today is to thwart our wandering minds. They try to entertain us incessantly, as if ticket holders today demanded compensation for the times when games fail to hold our attention, as they invariably do. This is partly because the people who can now afford tickets to Yankee Stadium or Citi Field are not necessarily true fans. They’re often corporations who buy seats to seduce clients. The game is part of a commercial transaction. Its return must be tangible.

Yet baseball, by its nature, is a game of intangibles. During the endless breaks in action, we are meant to reflect on what might be, what the next pitch might be, whether the outfielders should move in or out, shift toward left or right, whether a batter might bunt or swing away. We do this because an entire season can come down to just one of these decisions. Had the Mets, in 2007, won just one more game out of 162, had they, as Brand laments, played even a third of a single inning differently during the year, they might not have experienced the worst collapse in baseball history, but instead have ended up winning the World Series. Other sports have a clock. Baseball unfolds at its own pace, to which we succumb because we need the time to think.

One Sunday in July, I wandered over to Heckscher fields in Central Park. It was a sunny, warm morning, and all four baseball diamonds were bustling with mostly middle-aged men playing softball. I settled on some empty bleachers where the jangly sounds of hurdy-gurdy music drifted from the park’s carousel and accompanied a game involving a curious mix of players. Some appeared to be in their late teens, others in their sixties, the rest were in between. The game was intense and friendly.

I talked to a player, in polo shirt, jeans, and glasses, between innings.

Who are you?” I asked.

He laughed. “We’ve been doing this for twenty-three years,” he said, and paused to let that information sink in. “Our group has changed over time, obviously. But there’s a core that’s been around from the beginning. We come out here every Sunday. Depending on who shows up, we divide into teams so we’re evenly matched.”

He smiled. “Want to join us?”

I declined, but lingered to watch as the game went into extra innings and wondered what it was that caught me up in this but not in the Yankees game I attended the night before. Brand, in his book, asks about spending his life rooting for the inconsistent Mets: “Why value an experience like this? If something doesn’t really matter, does the fact that millions of people care about it make it matter?”

He answers his question. “I don’t know,” he writes, but “I love to be with people who have the same memories I have…. People who share these things with me are not entirely strangers, even if I have never seen them before, even if I will never meet them…. You know,” he continues,

in the end, I am convinced that the most amazing thing about the New York Mets is not the inconsistent baseball franchise by that name. It is the millions of people who continue to root for them, through years of frustration and disappointment, even though they are geographically entitled to root for the most successful of all baseball franchises.

So maybe that was the answer to my question. Community. My interest in that game in Central Park derived from the obvious pleasure I saw being shared by the players, who may have had nothing in common and knew nothing about each other outside baseball. It is this sense of community at the heart of the game that the new ballparks ultimately fail to provide.

Why? Because the owners presume loyalty is a marketing device. Notwithstanding that it occupies Shea’s former parking lot rather than a former stretch of Flatbush Avenue, Citi mimics Ebbets Field. Having been a Dodgers fan, the Mets’ principal owner, Fred Wilpon, contrived to evoke the old Brooklyn stadium with its Palladian arcade and corner entrance, leading now to an escalator rotunda, where more than a few Mets fans ascending have scratched their heads.

There Wilpon installed a tribute to Jackie Robinson, the former Dodgers star who never played for the Mets. An unimpeachable object of respect, the display of Robinson nonetheless embodies the cluelessness and historical amnesia (in this case I won’t say cynicism) of an owner and club officials who in effect are implying that the Mets have no past of their own worth enshrining.

This is also the message, as Brand laments, behind the absence of a museum to honor Mets stars like Tom Seaver and Keith Hernandez, but also to recall the Mets’ crazy fans and both the great and horrible moments the team has experienced. It suggests that management believes fans care only about winning, not about the continuum of history, notwithstanding that the sport is absorbed in the historical minutiae of its own records.

Loyalty and memory are what fill stadiums year in and year out, Brand reminds us, even Yankee Stadium. Vague words like “teamwork,” “determination,” “persistence,” and “courage” are now emblazoned around the Citi Field rotunda like slogans from some corporate retreat. These platitudes dovetail with the sense of business people, however well-meaning, who are disconnected from the game and its true followers.

In order to love something, it helps if it is not state-of-the-art and super cool,” Brand writes.

It helps if there’s something pitiful, bedraggled, disappointing, and fallible about it. You have to root for it to do well. You have to put it in first place yourself, in your heart. It can’t come into existence looking as if it deserves to be in first place.

Yes, and this is true of a stadium, no less than of a team or a player. It is part of the beauty of baseball that we can’t help but locate in it a metaphor of life. We notice, for instance, in the decline of great ballplayers, who for years reached impossible heights then inevitably fell back to earth, a sign of the passage of time, which speaks to our own vulnerable hearts. The new stadiums, packaged, Disney-like palaces of entertainment and commerce, subvert this deeper truth about why we love a game in which even good batters fail more than 70 percent of the time, the best teams lose at least one third of their games, and some teams haven’t won a World Series in generations. Baseball is a game of human frailty.

Of course new generations will find their own memories in Citi Field and Yankee Stadium. Brand writes about the “millions of lost parents, siblings and friends” that Shea held “in its big, blue embrace…. It held some of the most precious moments of many vanished childhoods.” True. It may have been failed architecture but it was home to fans for nearly half a century.

We go to ballparks in the end not to experience some ersatz past or some great, big, shiny World of Tomorrow, but just to live for a few hours with the smell of mown grass and the sound of balls and bats in the here and now, from which new memories derive. Nabokov wrote about the most cherished memories making “a mockery of the present.” Citi Field and Yankee Stadium make a mockery of the past. They cater to our restless consumerism.

Brand adds:

If a bunch of guys play a game on a baseball field and nobody holds up signs or bangs cowbells or paints their faces or gets to the park hours early to cook on a hibachi and sit on a very old lawn chair, then nothing has really happened. If no one is around to watch or care, then the Mets don’t really exist. Okay, maybe they exist.

But it is because of us that they matter.

Yes, but we get the stadiums we deserve.

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