The latest stop on my quest to visit all 30 Major League ballparks* found me, earlier this week, with a friend at the front gate of Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. It had taken almost an hour by train during the height of the evening commute to get from midtown Manhattan to Flushing. After stepping off the subway, I was disappointed to find the ballpark — home to one of two major league baseball teams in the nation’s largest city — in what was essentially a suburban setting, surrounded by parking lots. The game had just begun so we stopped only briefly to take in the entry rotunda, yet even that short pause made me think of the gateway to Ebbets Field, the famous home of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It was only later that I discovered that the ballpark was in its unfortunate location thanks to that old enemy of urbanism, Robert Moses. And yes, the owners of the Mets had appropriated the Brooklyn Dodgers and the “New York City history of the National League as abandoned property” in creating the entrance to Citi Field.
Those insights, and hundreds more, are found throughout Paul Goldberger’s magnificent new book Ballpark: Baseball in the American City. Goldberger — Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic, Trustee emeritus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and a personal friend — has written an elegant and engaging work on a subject that’s clearly as dear to his heart as it is to mine.
In slightly more than 300 pages, Goldberger takes the reader through a detailed, intriguing, often unexpected, and richly-illustrated history of the intersection of baseball parks, the American city, architecture, urbanism, business, sports, and culture. Always a clear and lively writer, he brings his vast knowledge of cities, architectural history, urbanism, and historic preservation to bear on a building type that differs from many other public buildings and landmarks found throughout the country. Sports facilities, Goldberger notes in discussing the ultimately unsuccessful preservation battle to save Tiger Stadium in Detroit, have histories “which often follow very different trajectories.” Even as the preservation movement grew in strength and matured, it remained a challenge to get club owners and city officials to see the “compelling social and aesthetic value” in a ballpark.
There are four distinct phases in ballpark history, in Goldberger’s telling, and each gets a richly detailed section in the book. The first is the period when ballparks were city-bound. Goldberger spends time describing the virtues and challenges of now-demolished ballparks—such as Ebbets Field and Philadelphia’s Shibe Park—and also includes great descriptions of the history and changes to the two remaining parks from that era: Wrigley Field in Chicago and Boston’s Fenway Park.
Next came the almost universally unloved suburban, concrete doughnuts. Goldberger brings the reader through the city-flight era of the 1950s and 1960s and discusses how that period led to abominations such as San Francisco’s Candlestick Park and the Twin Cities’ Metropolitan Stadium, with an exterior that had “something of the air of a 1950s Formica kitchen” and acres of parking that were “a reminder that it was designed with the expectation that every one of its occupants would arrive by car.”
The third phase began with the 1992 construction of Baltimore’s Camden Yards and led to a long period of building retro-style ballparks. There is a lovely chapter on the heroes behind Baltimore’s move back to the city to construct a ballpark that made it fun to both play and see the game. Some of the best of those that followed—including San Diego’s Petco Park, Target Field in Minneapolis, San Francisco’s Oracle Park, and Pittsburgh’s PNC Park—are covered in depth.
We are only just now entering the fourth—and very ominous—period of sterile corporate campuses/amusement parks, most easily seen through the terrible decision of the Braves to move to SunTrust Park in Atlanta’s far northern suburbs. It was a move away from the city, public space, public transportation, and—most egregious from my point of view—communities of color. Goldberger describes SunTrust as “a mallpark as much as it is a ballpark,” and notes that what makes it different from most of the post-Camden Yards parks is that it “extends the entertainment zone outside the ballpark into a pseudo-urban neighborhood that has been created solely as a complement to the ballpark. It is a simulacrum of a city, which is very different from a real city,” Goldberger notes, as a real city is “created over time, with its mix of different types of buildings, different kinds of neighborhoods, and, most important, different kinds of people.”
Goldberger’s writing on the urban and rural natures of baseball is poetic without becoming sentimental. In his estimation, one of the most important points in building a good place to play the game is that the space be “so open, as to as allude, at least symbolically, to the notion that the outfield extends into infinity.” Thus stadiums with domes and retractable roofs generally fall well short of being great places for baseball. On the other hand, some of the post-Camden Yards generation of ballparks have recaptured this important element in the mixing of baseball’s urban and rural natures. I join Goldberger in finding PNC Park in Pittsburgh to be one of the sport’s best new venues to watch a game and to see the city.
Which brings me back to Citi Field. Once I got through the parking lot shock, my friend and I enjoyed the experience inside the stadium. The seats were in the 300 section just below the press box—almost identical to the location of my season ticket package at Nationals Park. Yet these seats were lower, we were much more on top of the game, and there were multiple foul balls landing around us all evening. (My seats in Washington are too high for that to happen more than once or twice a season.) The amenities were much better as well, as our seats were directly accessible to one of several “clubs” that featured food a bit better than what I find around Section 313 in Nationals Park. Both the Mets and the Miami Marlins, their opponent for the evening, have had disappointing seasons and were playing out the string during this last week; yet, we saw two grand slam home runs—one by each club—which was a first for me. And while the fans were disappointed in the 8-4 Marlins win, they were great and knowledgeable company during what turned out to be an entertaining game.
After the game, I read Goldberger’s account of how the Dodgers left Brooklyn and the Mets came to play in Flushing. Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Dodgers in the 1950s, wanted to move from Ebbets Field to a new ballpark in downtown Brooklyn at Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. The autocratic public works czar of New York, Robert Moses, would have none of that. Instead, he wanted to build a new ballpark in Flushing Meadows, Queens, the site of the 1939 World’s Fair and land he controlled. Moses promised to build the ballpark and rent it to the Dodgers, but as Goldberger recounts, O’Malley “had not the slightest interest” in the new site. “To move the Brooklyn Dodgers to a stadium in Queens—and one that he could only rent, not own—was to him, tantamount to leaving the city altogether.” Goldberger continues by noting that to O’Malley, it would not matter if he took the Dodgers “five miles or 3,000 miles” away. If “they were not in Brooklyn, they could be anywhere.” We know how that story ends, of course, with the Dodgers moving 3,000 miles away to Los Angeles and Brooklyn getting its heart torn out by the loss.
The story comes full circle when Moses finally gets his stadium in Flushing (the original Shea Stadium) which is then replaced by Citi Field—which Goldberger accurately describes as “an urban ballpark without an urban setting.”
In Ballpark, Paul Goldberger has combined two of my personal passions—baseball and cities—and created a rich and engaging saga that is American to the core. I’m indebted to my friend for capturing this remarkable story. Take my advice and treat yourself to a great read to prepare for the playoffs!
More to come…
*I do have some rules for my bucket-list quest. First, I have to actually see a game at the ballpark. I can’t just drive by. I use to buy a hat of the local team to prove I’d been there, but it was suggested to me that I have enough caps—so that’s no longer necessary. Finally, demolitions have wrecked havoc with these plans. I decided—in a totally arbitrary way, since I am the commissioner and umpire for this game—that if I’ve seen a MLB team in their home ballpark that has since been demolished, then it counts against my list. (My best example is Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where I used to catch a Braves game about once a home stand in the early 1980s when I lived in the city. Ah, I still remember those wonderful $5 tickets not far behind the first base dugout!) I am going to try to visit the new stadiums in those cities when I can, but for the purposes of this pursuit, getting to one stadium in my lifetime counts . . . even if it no longer exists.
In reading Paul’s book, I was also reminded that name changes for baseball parks come along every year or two. For those keeping score, here is the list of ballparks visited, some links to stories in my blog, an update on the name(s), and perhaps a few thoughts about how my impressions align with Paul’s careful insights:
- Atlanta Braves – Fulton County Stadium (multiple visits in the 1980s) was one of those terrible concrete doughnuts near the freeway. I never made it to Turner Field before they tore it down, but this counts given my rules. I thought about visiting SunTrust Park on a recent trip to Atlanta, but after looking at how far I’d have to drive from my midtown hotel in rush hour traffic and thinking about how much I hate the decision to move to the northern suburbs, I dropped the idea and watched from the hotel bar.)
- Baltimore Orioles – Oriole Park at Camden Yards (multiple visits in 1990s and 2000s) is still one of the great places to watch baseball and deserves all the credit it receives for helping to rejuvenate downtown Baltimore and cities across the country.
- Boston Red Sox – Fenway Park (1988), which I visited before the renovation, is a national treasure. It was also a bit seedy on my visit, in August of 1988, when a rat ran across right field and into the bullpen during the game. I’ve toured the renovated ballpark and it is wonderful.
- Chicago Cubs – Wrigley Field (1964, 2007, 2012) is like Fenway, in that I’ve seen it before and after it was sensitively renovated. This is where I saw my first major league baseball game, with the Cubs and the eventual world-champion St. Louis Cardinals, in 1964.
- Chicago White Sox – US Cellular Field (2013) and now known as Guaranteed Rate Field was the last old-style stadium built before Camden Yards, and it rises like an impenetrable fortress alongside the Dan Ryan expressway in South Side Chicago. Paul writes about the steepness of the upper deck, and I recall that bad design feature as well. It was Heavy Metal night when I visited. Just imagine Heavy Metal night in South Side Chicago and you get the picture. Oh boy!
- Cleveland Indians – Progressive Field (2014) was a nice-enough park, but Paul notes that there are too many luxury suites that take up too much of the prime real estate, and as I looked back at the pictures he was right. My daughter Claire and I made visits to Progressive Field, Target Field, and AT&T Park on our cross-country trip in 2014, and I noted then that this was the weakest of the three in terms of design. Yet it fits well in the city and we were able to take the train to the game, both major positives in my book.
- Colorado Rockies – Coors Field (2008, 2013) is a well-designed ballpark that fits within the revitalized section of LoDo. (This is not only my opinion, but Paul’s as well.) Seeing a sunset over the Rocky Mountains while catching a game is pretty special.
- Houston Astros – Minute Maid Park (2016) was a surprisingly nice place to watch a ballgame. I know that Paul doesn’t like retractable roofs, but when I was there the humidity was unbearable, so it was welcomed.
- Kansas City Royals – Kauffman Stadium (2009) features a clean, modernist design that makes for a good experience for fans of both baseball and architecture. Its major drawback is that you have to drive to take in a game and the park is surrounded by acres of parking. Kauffman and Miller Park in Milwaukee are the only baseball parks where I’ve seen tailgating before a game. That’s just weird.
- Los Angeles Angels – Angels Stadium (2016) was more to my liking than I expected. Perhaps it was because Claire was with me (can you see who is my go-to baseball fan in the family?), or perhaps it was because I got to see Mike Trout and Albert Pujols hit back-to-back jacks (or homers, taters, four baggers, dingers, you name it) in the first inning, setting off an impressive fire display in the waterfall just beyond the center field fence.
- Milwaukee Brewers – Miller Park (2005) was half-filled with Cubs fans when I attended, as many of the Chicago supporters made the short drive up to Milwaukee for the game. Until the President’s Race came along at Nationals Park, Milwaukee’s racing sausages were baseball’s best mascot race. Also, let me just say there was a GREAT DEAL of beer consumed over the course of 3-4 hours of baseball. I’m talking Justice Brett Kavanaugh-levels of beer consumption. (Okay, I know that was a cheap shot that will just make my right-wing friends furious. So take me to court!)
- Minnesota Twins – Target Field (2014) is, simply put, terrific. It is right up there with the best in baseball. (Of course, I wasn’t in Minnesota for a ballgame in early April, which may have changed my opinion.)
- New York Mets – Citi Field (2019). See above.
- Oakland A’s – Oakland Coliseum (2008) is the last of the baseball/football shared stadiums. It looks like Oakland may get one of those “mallparks” that Paul discussed, but at least it will be in Oakland and on land—much like Nationals Park—that is ripe for redevelopment. The A’s are Claire’s team now, and as of last night they made the playoffs for 2019. Both Claire and I now have playoff-bound teams to root for this year.
- Philadelphia Phillies – Citizens Bank Park (2008) was the site of one of the most exciting games I’ve ever watched live, as the Phillies took over first place from the Mets in the heat of a pennant race. The ballpark was electric, and I had a seat IN the Citizens Bank suite right above home plate. (My hosts were preservation developers who had connections with the bank.) Paul is correct in noting that much like Citi Field, Citizens Bank Park is an urban ballpark in search of an urban setting.
- Pittsburgh Pirates – PNC Park (2013) is thought by many (myself included) to be the best baseball park in America. (I actually place it in a tie with San Francisco.) I was fortunate to visit PNC Park with the entire family on a gorgeous August day, when we walked across the amazing Roberto Clemente Bridge with thousands of other fans to see the Pirates, who were in the middle of a successful playoff drive. It was thrilling.
- San Diego Padres – Petco Park (2018) is a wonderful place to watch baseball . . . if only the Padres were any good. Maybe next year.
- San Francisco Giants – AT&T Park (2012 and 2014), now Oracle Park, ties with PNC in my mind as the best ballpark for baseball. The setting with McCovey Cove just over the right field wall is unbeatable. The food is the best in either league. Walking to the park with thousands of other fans through the city is an incredible rush. And on one visit I made, it was Jerry Garcia bobblehead night. Bob Weir sang the national anthem and was joined by (a-less-than-in-tune) Bill Walton for Take Me Out to the Ballgame. The only downside is that around the 7th inning, like clockwork, the seagulls begin to circle the field waiting to swoop in for their after-game treats. It is like being in a Hitchcock movie.
- Seattle Mariners – Safeco Field (2010) was the park where I had the “best” seat to watch a major league game: the first row behind home plate! You know the seats, as they are the ones you see every night as the center field camera captures the action. It was a great spot to watch baseball, and I could have reached out and touched Ichiro, if I didn’t fear getting thrown out of the park. At one point I turned to my friend Camille and said, “That ball looked a little low” and then I added, “And that’s the first time I could say that at a baseball game with any real authority.”
- St. Louis Cardinals – Busch Stadium (old – 1993; new – 2012) is one place where I’ve seen games in the old concrete doughnut and the new post-Camden Yards ballpark. I walked over to the latter from my nearby hotel and loved the experience. Also, the Eero Saarinen-designed Gateway Arch is hard to top as a backdrop.
- Tampa Bay Rays – Tropicana Field (2012) is the last domed stadium still in use, and it feels very dated. We were there with David Price on the mound and the Rays in the midst of a pennant race, and yet the crowd was small and the enthusiasm was flagging. My son Andrew and I almost got decapitated by a screaming foul ball, because the tickets were so cheap we secured two behind home plate and were just high enough to be above the protective netting.
- Washington Nationals – RFK (multiple times) and Nationals Park (multiple times + part of a season ticket group since 2012). I could have linked to many stories about Nationals Park on my blog, but one of my special nights at the ballpark was getting to attend the 2018 All Star Game at Nationals Park with Andrew. It was another bucket list item. Now, let’s go Nats, so I can knock off that World Series game from the list before I leave this world!
Here is the list of ballparks still to be visited. If you live in one of these cities and want to invite me to go to a game with you next year, the answer will, in all likelihood, be yes!
- Arizona Diamondbacks – Chase Field
- Cincinnati Reds – Great American Ball Park
- Detroit Tigers – Comerica Park (I’ve seen it from the outside, but haven’t made a game.)
- Los Angeles Dodgers – Dodger Stadium (This is the only park that family members—Claire and Andrew—have seen before I have had the opportunity. In Claire’s case, she’s been three or four times, no less. That’s just not fair!)
- Miami Marlins – Marlins Park is a place I’m excited to visit, after reading Paul’s take on the architecture.
- New York Yankees – Yankee Stadium (I know—how can I not have made it to Yankee stadium yet?! Just goes to show I’ve never been a big Yankees fan. Maybe I’ll save it for last, even though Paul notes that it is pretty mediocre in terms of design.)
- Texas Rangers – Texas Stadium (I’ve seen it from the highway, but haven’t made a game to date.)
- Toronto Blue Jays – Rogers Centre
Image: The view from my seat on September 23rd as the Mets played the Marlins at Citi Field during the final week of the 2019 regular season