At the risk of seeming terribly reductionist, I would like to suggest that we have seen five eras of ballpark design in Major League Baseball.
In the Utilitarian Era (1876-1908), the goal was simply to lay out some grounds and throw up a grandstand quickly, and somewhere close to a center of population. With many franchises operating on a shoestring and just hoping to get through the season without missing the payroll, there was little money for infrastructure investments. You would build a wooden grandstand to seat a few thousand bugs, it would burn down after someone dropped a lit cigar in a bucketful of oily rags, and then you'd do it again.
In the Classic Era (1909-1960), owners took pride in their ballparks, which were seen as a reflection of the owners themselves. Ballparks were intended to inspire the customers and enhance their perceptions, in the same vein as art museums and Carnegie libraries and ornate banks. Simply by stepping inside such edifices, you would become a better human being. That was the idea, anyway. The era was inaugurated in 1909 by Philadelphia's Shibe Park, the first steel-and-concrete ballpark.
In the Multipurpose Era (1964-1988), nobody cared one wit for anything but economy and efficiency. Gone were the terracotta flourishes of Shibe Park. Modern architecture abhorred ornamentation. Why build two stadiums when one might house your baseball team and your football team? Why mix up Neoclassical Architecture with Modern Professional Sports Profitmaking? Why play on something horses eat when Dow Chemical is perfectly happy to manufacture an outfield?
The response was essentially unanimous. Houston's Astrodome actually had some character, if only because it was the first of its kind. But the roofless ashtrays that followed were highly functional but hardly attractive; once you'd seen one, you'd seem them all and sorta wished you hadn't.
In the NeoClassical Era (1989-2009), which began with the opening of Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the multi-purpose stadiums were repudiated and nobody missed them. There are now just three remaining: the Coliseum in Oakland, and the roofed stadiums in Toronto and St. Petersburg.
Most of you probably believe we're still in the NeoClassical Era -- Marlins Park notwithstanding, of course -- but I'm not so sure. Oriole Park was specifically designed to appeal to the classical sensibility, to bring back something that was lost. And by acclamation, it succeeded wildly. I don't believe that paradigm still exists.
I don't know exactly when the transition between NeoClassical and Commercial happened; in fact, it's happening all the time, as existing ballparks are festooned with bigger billboards and larger video screens. But Safeco Field and Coors Field were both excellent examples of NeoClassical. Leaving aside the ear-splitting sound systems, which aren't a function of the architecture but rather are just an offensive stylistic choice, both Safeco and Coors are largely geared toward the game on the field. In both ballparks, you can almost literally walk around the entire lower level and never lose sight of the field. It's almost as if the architect - and by extension the franchise itself - believed that watching baseball was the single most important thing about attending a baseball game.
Well, that's just no longer the case. Or doesn't seem to be. I haven't been to a number of the newer ballparks; later this summer, I'll visit the new parks in Philadelphia and Washington, which will leave me two short (San Diego and Miami) of the complete set. But the new paradigm is, in a more blatant way than ever before, all about the money: Get the people inside the building, then separate them from as much of their money as possible while bombarding them with as many advertisements as can be sold.
Every time I write something like this, a few wise guys are quick to yell at me, "Hey, I guess you don't know that all the baseball parks used to have advertising!"
Actually, yeah. Thanks. I do know that. I've seen the old photos. When I was growing up, the fountains in Royals Stadium were capped by huge rotating billboards, including advertisements for cigarettes. Mind you, the Royals were owned by a noted humanitarian. That was life in the 1970s and '80s.
My point isn't that ballparks weren't commercial enterprises. They were. My point is that the commercialism, aside from actually selling tickets and beer and hot dogs, was a secondary consideration. Today, it's the primary consideration. Which was never so clear to me before this week, when I visited Citi Field for the first time.
Citi Field's most notable elements create a jarring contrast. Exiting the Willets Point subway station, your path takes you to the stadium's main entrance, the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. This isn't just a name. The rotunda is essentially a shrine to Robinson, with huge photographs, a video screen running Robinson clips in a loop, and inspirational quotes. These words are writ large, high on the wall: excellence, justice, persistence, determination, courage, citizenship, commitment. It's all in perfectly good taste, but somewhat discordant, since Robinson never played for the Mets, never played a baseball game in Queens. It's also a bit odd to build a shrine in a high-traffic area like the main entrance to a baseball stadium. But I can't really quibble with Fred Wilpon's execution of what I will assume was high-minded sentiment.
It's the rest of the stadium that leaves me cold, because the rest of the stadium is a shrine, not to Jackie Robinson, or to excellence or justice or citizenship or any of the rest of it, but rather to rank commerce. There are the usual suites, of course, and also a number of clubs, where one can relax with an overpriced drink without having to look at those silly baseball players doing the things that Jackie Robinson used to do. Some of the clubs are close to the field -- supplanting many hundreds of seats, and any view of the field from the concourse -- and some are far from the field, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that this ballpark wasn't designed for actually watching baseball games.
If you do actually sit in the stands, you might notice something strange: two huge walls beyond the outfield, featuring video boards and advertising billboards. This is not unusual. What's unusual is that one board is angled toward the middle of the field, while another is angled toward left field. Why this cockeyed arrangement? Because one of the boards is not designed for people inside the ballpark. Some clever lad realized that if that wall were angled in a certain way, it would perfectly catch the eyes of people driving on the Van Wyck Expressway. The other wall, the one that faces the infield, faces out perfectly toward another highway. That one's covered with signs, too, with just a little room for a subtle, easy-to-miss Mets logo. When I was growing up, the giant scoreboard at Royals Stadium also fronted a freeway; it was painted blue, with the Royals logo in white. In those days, you sold a few commodities on the inside, but you were really selling your baseball team. Today, it's all about the commodities.
Essentially, Citi Field is a shrine to Jackie Robinson's value and to naked commerce. Which seems an uncomfortable, vaguely inappropriate combination.
I'm sure that many Mets fans have figured out a way to enjoy Citi Field; after all, it's all they've got. I do appreciate the extremely cantilevered upper deck in right field, which hearkens back to the old days. The Mets Hall of Fame and Museum, in a room next to the rotunda, is decent enough (although it's not as well-appointed as the Royals Hall of Fame and Museum at Kauffman Stadium).
Citi Field isn't a terrible place. But like the new Yankee Stadium, it could have been so much more. Considering how much money was spent, and the grand tradition of public architecture in New York, it should have been so much more. But this, I'm sorry to say, is where we're at. Baseball stadiums are no longer palaces for the fans. They have become palaces for people who live in palaces, and places from which to hang garish billboards.
Maybe it didn't have to be this way, but then again maybe it did. Considering that not a single owner has stood up to the forces of commercialism, not even the owners of teams that play in the remaining Classic Era ballparks, maybe there was never any reasonable hope of resisting the impulse to suck every last short-term dollar out of these publicly financed stadiums. Maybe this is just where we're at, in our society and in baseball ... which does, in the end, usually do a pretty good job of reflecting our society. Welcome to the enemy, sports fans; he is us.