Longform

STADIUM

The nadir came in 1966, when the first baseball game was played on an artificial surface, in a dome, in Houston. Gone were rainouts, outfielders' claims to have lost the ball in the sun and the bad hops that separate the great infielders from the merely good ones. Gone, too, were years from the careers of players who played on a rug's bone-shattering surface; Andre Dawson took a cut in pay just to get off the stuff.

Marshall McLuhan likened the effect of being in places like the Astrodome to being in a pinball machine. Domes and Astroturf enter into the conversation of baseball lovers only in questions such as, Have they been worse for baseball than the designated hitter rule? But the sterility of places like the Astrodome, Three Rivers, and Riverfront turned the old stadiums that survived into shrines. Yearly, the converted make pilgrimages to these places much the way medieval pilgrims wound their way past a series of cathedrals in southern France and northern Spain on their way to Santiago de Compostela, where the body of Saint James was miraculously preserved. Baseball fans wind their way through Chicago to bear witness to the ivy of Wrigley, and this year, to attend funeral services at Comiskey Park. Then it's on to Detroit, to pay homage there, and finally to Boston, where the Green Monster presides like the rose window at Chartres, and Roger Clemens preaches fastballs from his pulpit.

People get funny about these old parks. Craig Pletenik, a Southern Californian who grew up, as he says, "between Dodger Stadium and Alameda County Stadium," now does publicity for the Phoenix Firebirds. "Nothing equaled the thrill I had when I went to Fenway," he'll tell you, and it is highly doubtful anyone has said that about Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

Such heartfelt sentiment points up the importance of Phoenix's not repeating the mistakes cities made in the 1960s, although in its selection of sites it seems to be doing that already.

The site that would have given Phoenix the downtown revitalization it claims it wants was eliminated by the Maricopa County Sports Authority almost immediately. That was at Seventh Avenue and Jefferson Street. The only realistic choice left--realistic meaning centrally located for the Valley and close to bars and restaurants--is in Tempe. But Tempe is running a distant third to the odds-on favorite, the intersection of 40th Street and McDowell, an area graced by nothing but two unattractive apartment complexes. That's the spot the Sports Authority likes best, and Martin Stone seems willing to go along.

Still, the time may never be better for Phoenix to build a stadium that is truly a work of good architecture.

In the past two or three years, yet another shift has taken place as a new generation of stadiums has gone up. They have taken two directions. One could be called the ballpark-as-shopping-mall, and is exemplified by the Toronto Skydome, a retractable dome structure that comprises a hotel, luxury boxes with bars, a McDonald's, and oh yes, a field on which play the second-place finishers in the American League East.

The other direction may be called the ballpark-as-cathedral, and is exemplified by the yet-to-be built Camden Yards stadium in Baltimore. The park has already been hailed by architectural writers across the country, like Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Goldberger, who said it was "capable of wiping out fifty years of wretched stadium design." Self-consciously retardataire, it deliberately echos the structures of the 1910 decade, with its inner-city location, its friendly, prettily arcaded facade and its emphasis on intimacy. Camden Yards goes so far as to embrace eccentricity, in the form of a brick warehouse, 1,000 feet long and 55 feet wide, that abuts its right-field wall. The warehouse makes an inviting target for left-handed power hitters, and perhaps unconsciously echoes the sheer weirdness of the Green Monster.

"One thing is certain," brags Bob Miller, assistant public relations director for the Orioles, "when this ballpark is completed, it will be the prototype for stadiums of the future."

A chat with Janet Marie Smith, Orioles vice president for planning and development, reveals how Camden Yards came about, and the process has implications for what Phoenix is about to go through.

"The first design the architects came up with was something very similar to other stadiums, plunked down in the middle of a parking lot," Smith says. "When Eli Jacobs saw that, he said, `It just won't do. It's not good enough.'"

Jacobs, who with his partners bought the Orioles earlier this year, told New Yorker writer Roger Angell that his main contribution was simply saying no to the architects from Hellmuth Obata Kassabaum until they got the idea. HOK, let it be remembered, is also the firm that produced "Boardwalk and Baseball," a combination amusement park and spring training site in the middle of a large, damp expanse of central Florida grass that reduces the national pastime to an "attraction," like nearby Gatorland Zoo.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Anna Dooling