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WHAT A DOME IDEA

John Meunier still remembers the first time he walked into a baseball park. It was at the Polo Grounds in 1957. He was an undergraduate fresh from his native England, studying architecture in New York City. Some friends took him to see the national pastime of the country that has since become his home. He remembers what he thought when he came through the dark tunnel and out into the sunlight, and saw for the first time that magical expanse of green, Nature held captive in the midst of the city's stone and brick. He thought what a lot of fans think every time they walk into a ballpark:

"I couldn't believe how beautiful it was."
As a fan who has come to appreciate the intricacies of infield shifts in the late innings, and as dean of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design at Arizona State University, Meunier has things to say about the baseball stadium that might be built in Phoenix. This imaginary structure, of course, is dependent upon the city's capturing one of the National League's expansion teams, something that won't be decided until next year.

To listen to John Meunier talk about what the new baseball stadium should be is to hear a visionary conjure up a city of gold--verdant walls covered with cooling green plants, sun-shielding fabrics creating dappled shadows as the sun dips low at game time, sprayers gently wafting comforting mist as fans file toward their seats, everything but a good young shortstop from the Dominican turning the double play. But John Meunier doesn't have a thing to do with deciding what the new baseball stadium should look like. And that's too bad. That decision, for the past few months, has been in the hands of Lamar Whitmer and the Maricopa County Sports Authority, the municipal corporation formed to bring baseball to Phoenix, and to build a stadium to put it in when it gets here.

And for months, the Maricopa County Sports Authority has been talking about a dome.

People who do not follow the game closely cannot know the effect the word "dome" has on a true baseball lover. They cannot know it is as the sound of a fingernail across a blackboard. They cannot know that baseball fans regard April 12, 1965, the date of the first game in the Astrodome, as a day that will live in infamy. They cannot know that domes inevitably gave rise to plastic playing surfaces, and that the two MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 together are regarded by baseball purists much like Famine and Pestilence are regarded in the Apocalypse, as the beginning of the end of the world.

The question of dome versus open-air stadium is not just a question of architecture. It is a question that pits baseball fanatics--the kind of folks who don't leave during rain delays--against people who go to a game because there's nothing on TV. It pits the cognoscenti who think a pitcher's duel is utterly fascinating against the unlettered for whom the designated hitter was invented. It pits the people who think baseball is the highest form of activity on Earth against people who think baseball is a product that needs marketing. It is a question that pits the romantic against the bureaucrat, the dreamer against the accountant.

The question of whether to build a dome or an open-air stadium arises whenever baseball moves to a place with too much rain, like Seattle, too many mosquitoes, like Houston, or too much cold, like Montreal. The dome question has also arisen in Phoenix, now that baseball could be moving to a place thought to have too much heat.

Because of that heat, the Maricopa County Sports Authority has placed on the open-air advocates the burden of proving that it is possible to sit quietly, drink beer and enjoy a ball game of a summer night in Phoenix without dying of heat prostration. Or, as Lamar Whitmer, president of the Maricopa County Sports Authority puts it, "The big question is how comfortable an open-air stadium is perceived to be in this community, and I'm unsure of that."

So, the Maricopa County Sports Authority refuses to stop talking about a dome. It refuses to stop talking about a dome even though two weeks ago, it told its chosen architect to draw an open-air stadium cooled by misters. "This is not a decision," said Lamar Whitmer then. "In the final analysis, we might be looking at a dome." The Maricopa County Sports Authority, as if in the grip of an obsession, told its architect to draw an open-air stadium that could accommodate a dome, which would presumably be affixed if global warming continues apace, and people begin perishing in unseemly numbers at games.

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Anna Dooling