The Limitations of Big Apple Ballparks

Posted by Kurt Smith on Wednesday, January 22, 2014

As I write this, my friend Paul Swaney at Stadium Journey is preparing for an interview with the Wall Street Journal. (Here is the link.) The subject? Why New York City hasn’t been able to turn out a great stadium.

Perhaps the folks at WSJ don’t think as highly of Citi Field as they might of, say, PNC Park in Pittsburgh or AT&T Park in San Francisco. I’m not sure exactly how the subject came up, but it raises an interesting point.

There might be some who disagree with the premise that New York City’s baseball venues, at least, are inferior to most of today’s big league ballparks. But until Paul asked my opinion, I never gave much thought to why the city that never sleeps hasn't produced the best ballparks.

And perhaps there are a few location-oriented reasons for it.

New York is very large, but it’s Manhattan that people most associate with the glamour and glitz of the Big Apple…it’s where the towering skyscrapers, art museums, Broadway, Fifth Avenue and Times Square are located.

Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, however, are located in the Bronx and Queens respectively, two neighborhoods better known for real city life that tourists don’t see…concrete, urban, lower income, hardened environments. Yankee Stadium is closer to Harlem than Times Square; Citi Field is literally across the street from blocks and blocks of muffler shops.

So both stadiums suffer from the difficult and expensive parking of the city—but lack the trade-off of a beautiful downtown skyline view that one can see in Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Baltimore.

Another handicap that architects had to deal with in designing both stadiums was the history of baseball in New York City.

The new Yankee Stadium had to replace a venerable venue that was the home of Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle and 26 championships…more than any other two teams in baseball. The old Yankee Stadium was like the Montreal Forum…whatever its flaws, the thought of replacing it seemed almost criminal simply by virtue of the history that had taken place there.

So the designers paid a lot of attention to paying tribute to baseball’s greatest team. In many respects the new Yankee Stadium does this quite well; Monument Park remains intact, there is an excellent Yankees Museum and the Great Hall and Babe Ruth Plaza pay homage to the greatest of Yankees.

But they also preserved the dimensions of the old stadium and created an outside façade made to look like the pre-1970s renovation version. They brought back the upper deck frieze as well.

So at some point, the fan asks, why even build a new stadium?

It’s a rhetorical question. Of course we know. But I’ll get back to that.

The architects who designed Citi Field for some reason seemed to think of the Dodgers more than the Mets when considering the history of National League baseball in New York. (Mets owner Fred Wilpon was a Dodgers fan as a kid.)

The main entrance rotunda is modeled after Ebbets Field, with the inside of it dedicated to Jackie Robinson—a player and a gentleman worthy of such an honor, certainly, but also someone who never played an inning for the Mets.

These features, in addition to the “Ebbets Club” seating area, drew criticism from Mets fans, who questioned whether there would be some acknowledgement that the Mets played in this new ballpark. To the Mets’ credit, they’ve added a Mets Hall of Fame and painted the outfield fence in Mets’ colors, among other things.

Well, Jackie Robinson has to be honored somewhere. But back to that question about why build a new stadium.

Like most new ballparks, Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are designed to maximize revenue through luxury boxes, corporate suites, exclusive clubs and gourmet food. Looking at the prices of such prestige at both stadiums, it almost seems as if being in New York City requires teams to take it a step beyond ludicrousness.

The Yankees ask quadruple digits for the luxury seats behind home plate. The same seats would go for about a tenth of that price a four hour drive away in Baltimore. (Which is a part of the reason Yankees fans make the trip.)

The Mets don’t exactly offer bargain basement prices for such seats either…the Delta Club seat prices are especially obscene given the Mets on-field success (and its relation to the team’s payroll size) in recent years.

Whatever the reason for things costing so much more in the Big Apple…taxes, overhead costs, whatever…of course this afflicts baseball too. And taking a bigger hit to the wallet probably doesn’t help a fan’s relative opinion of a ballpark.

Also, as in most new baseball venues, fans relegated to the upper level are further from the action than they were in the old days. The addition of suites, “club” levels, and open concourses in new ballparks all combine to push upper level seating into the stratosphere.

At these prices, this is where most of the less affluent fans are going to be watching the game, more so than in most cities. To read the blogs, Mets fans especially aren’t too happy about that.

Finally, New York City could be called the greatest city on Planet Earth for many reasons. But there is so much to the city that it’s difficult to dedicate something uniquely New York in a ballpark, like the neon Liberty Bell in Philadelphia or the racing sausages in Milwaukee or the chopping Chick-Fil-A cow in Atlanta. They have the Big Apple home run celebration in Citi Field, but that’s hardly a memorable part of going to Mets games. Frank Sinatra singing "New York, New York" after a Yankees victory is great, but Sinatra sang about Chicago and L.A., too.

It’s not that Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are without merits…I’m not saying that at all. They’re both terrific places to see a ballgame in their own way, they are both far better venues than their predecessors, and both represent their teams and their city very well. And both have among the best food selections that you’ll find in a ballpark.

But in this writer’s humble opinion, anyway, neither of them ranks with the best of ballparks, like Camden Yards in Baltimore, Wrigley Field in Chicago or Fenway Park in Boston.

There’s not much that New York doesn’t do as well as most cities. But maybe WSJ is onto something.

Tags: yankee stadium  citi field 
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