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The Passing of Grass
Domed ballparks all commit the one sin: The good Lord never intended the great game of baseball to he played on carpet.
As the shadows of autumn lengthen across the boys of summer, the attentions of baseball fans turn to the playoffs and the World Series. I'll be watching, too. But while most aficionados are focusing on the teams, I'll be checking out the ballparks.
I'm a stadium nut.
From the holy shrines that are Boston's Fenway Park and the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field, to the creature comfort-loaded pleasures of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and the future-world environment of Seattle's Kingdome (and all domed baseball stadiums for that matter), ballparks give the quirky American game a good measure of its distinctive character. Between Chicago's 80-year-old Comiskey Park (the oldest), which celebrated its final season this year, and the 1-year-old Sky-Dome in Toronto (the newest), lay hidden many answers to the mysterious appeal of baseball stadiana and a better understanding of my stadium fetish. So I went to Chicago and Toronto for some answers, sort of a possessed Kevin Costner character on a Homerian odyssey to unlock the deep and mysterious secrets of baseball as played in its proper setting.
I started in the past.
As the train from O'Hare into the city rounded a curve, the light towers of Comiskey Park appeared, rising above the distant urban landscape of South Side Chicago. A cool-front had swept the skies of clouds and smog, lowering the midsummer temperature into the heart of the comfort zone. Thirty thousand observers filed through the creaking turnstiles, drawn by the prospects of a leisurely Sunday afternoon, a bat giveaway for every kid holding a ticket, Comiskey Park's 80th birthday party, the much-hated big-city rival New York Yankees for an opponent and a home team that was one game out of first place.
From the outside, Comiskey looked - well, worn. Unlike its cross-town counterpart, Wrigley, Comiskey isn't the kind of field that rates historical-landmark status. Even in its prime, it was more like a factory, a functional structure built around a baseball diamond. The old dowager has endured too many makeovers, evidenced by flecks of white paint peeling from the bricks, revealing no less than five coats before it. The sickly green trim conveyed the cheeriness of an institutional restroom. The bleacher section, that great bastion where the unwashed could work on their tans, was pitifully small.
In a way, I was in heaven at Comiskey: the ornamental exterior arches, the exploding scoreboard (a remnant from the days when colorful showman-promoter Bill Veeck owned the Sox), the close-up view of the lady ballpark organist behind a plexiglass shield, the clear sightlines from most of the seats, the occasional whiff of fresh-cut Kentucky bluegrass riding the breezes from the playing field. But other than these, there really isn't that much going for it other than age. Space around the concession stand in the third-base, left-field corner was so tight, I had to walk sideways through the aisle after squeezing mustard on my hot dog. Pesky ushers kept denying me one of the best views from the centerfield ramps behind the scoreboard. And there were the 49 girders holding up the roof that blocked the view in some parts of the stands.
That's why I felt no real sense of sadness over the passing of Comiskey as I looked at the curving upper deck of the new Comiskey Park, across 35th Street, topped by construction cranes. It was the resurrection of the old place, towering as a promise of the future above the first-base-line grandstands. [)own below, the same arches and stylistic facade of old Comiskey are being repeated. The new Comiskey will be the first major-league park built exclusively for baseball since 1972, and even with all the ancillary amenities such as skyboxes and a restaurant (to enhance the bottom line), the aesthetics of the new stadium should satisfy even nitpickers like me. As a sort of absurd continuum, an exploding scoreboard topped with pinwheels, just like Veeck's original, only bigger, will grace center field. Real grass, too. And no dome.
The game between the Yankees and the White Sox was a good one. During the seventh-inning stretch we all sang "Happy Birthday" to old Comiskey instead of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." In the eighth inning, we watched history being made. Yankee pitcher Andy Hawkins was pitching a no-hit game. If he retired the White Sox for two more innings, he would achieve one of baseball's rarest feats.
Instead, he committed an even rarer feat: In the bottom of the eighth, a series of walks and team errors caused Hawkins to allow four White Sox runs. He had his no-hitter, but he lost the game. Sox fans did not call Hawkins out of the dugout to congratulate him for the achievement. They gloated over their team's amazing fortune. Yankee right fielder Jesse Barfield, who committed the game's final error when he misjudged a routine pop fly, blamed his mistake on the sun and swirling winds peculiar to the Chicago lake front. "It was brutal out there," he told a reporter. He might just as well have pinned it on Comiskey Park.
SEVENTEEN hours later, I was following crowds again, this time filing down Front Street near the Toronto harbor. They, too, were headed for the ballpark, in this case the SkyDome, the current state of the art in stadium technology. As long as there is hockey, baseball will never be Canada's premier spectator sport. But with the combination of the Canada Day holiday, the World Champion Oakland Athletics as the opponent and the home-team Blue Jays tied for first place in the American League's East Division, baseball fever was sweeping the city, the province of Ontario and the entire Dominion. This afternoon 49,800-plus paying customers would mark the 29th consecutive sellout. By season's end, almost 4 million fans would see the Jays in the SkyDome, an all-time major-league attendance record. Outside the stadium, scalpers were asking (and getting) $40 for a $15 seat.
Tickets are merely the first SkyDome spending option. Among the attractions beckoning your wallet like sirens are a hotel with rooms that overlook the field, several bars and restaurants, a Hard Rock Cafe featuring the only seats where you can see directly into the Blue Jays' bullpen, a health club where you can work out before the game, dozens of corporate and private SkyBoxes and what is billed as the world's largest souvenir shop.
I took a quick tour through the SkyDome Hotel lobby and wandered into the Cafe on the Green, where I sipped a cappuccino at a marble bar while catching glimpses of batting practice over my shoulder. There was a game to be played, but the terraced fountains, the neon-lit gate numbers, the banners hanging from the exterior stadium walls, spelling out messages that acted almost subliminally - "Excitement," "Applause," "Love," "Your," "Sky-Dome," "Compression," "Combustion," "Exhaust," "Leave," "Your," "Car," "Home" (so where's the Burma Shave?) - the whole layout suggested one of those Faneuil Hall-type theme marketplaces. The playful rubber-faced, larger-than-life gargoyles oozing from two corners of the stadium were nothing if not bizarre. They made a strong argument that there should be art in public places, stadiums in particular. But somewhere along the way, something got lost. Surrounded by all these creature comforts (and distractions), I felt the SkyDome created some distance between me and the game.
Inside, the SkyDome had all the toothy sparkle of Disney World. The space was clean and well-lit and the hired help exceptionally accommodating. The food service by McDonald's was typically fast and efficient with counters spotless down to the condiment bar, where nary a dribble of ketchup could be seen. In case I was seized by the impulse to buy more than I could afford, several automatic bank-teller machines were conveniently located nearby. Even the welfare of ticket-holders in the nosebleed seats was considered. Binoculars could be rented for $5 at any upper-deck souvenir stand.
Since the game-time temperature was an ideal 77 degrees, the retractable, 31-story roof was pulled back, giving fans a gorgeous view of blue skies, sea gulls, airplanes towing advertising messages, and the CN Tower, the world's tallest observation tower, looming above the first-base line. The view helped because the baseball being played wasn't very inspirational. Oakland jumped out to a lead in its first at-bat and never gave it up, edging the Jays 3-2.
Seeing the game in the sport's most modern facility was a lot like seeing it at St. Louis' Busch Memorial, Cincinnati's Riverfront, Pittsburgh's Three Rivers, Philadelphia's Veterans, Atlanta's Atlanta-Fulton County, Houston's Astrodome, Seattle's Kingdome and Montreal's Olympic stadiums. All have grandstands based on the same circular cookie-cutter design, featuring field-level seats that move around on tracks, depending on the game being played.
The slogan flashing on the Jumbotron scoreboard - "SkyDome, the World's Greatest Entertainment Centre" - was, unfortunately, no brag, just fact. Already, a circus, the Toronto Argonauts football team, former Beatle Paul McCartney and the opera Aida had played there. But it was precisely the versatility responsible for the SkyDome's fabulous debut that caused its most glaring drawback artificial turf. I personally do not believe the good Lord intended the silly little game of baseball to be played on carpet.
THE OLDEST and newest parks in baseball, I've figured out, actually have a lot in common. Like the SkyDome, Comiskey was once a multipurpose stadium that hosted the NFL Chicago Cardinals, a Beatles concert, boxing matches and destruction derbies. The new Comiskey, for all its neo-nostalgic trappings, will feature many of the added-value extras of the SkyDome.
And in spite of its brief one-year history, the SkyDome has already developed its own folklore: How many times had I heard the story about the amorously demonstrative couple staying at the SkyDome Hotel who forgot to draw the curtains during a game? Or that the Jays were more likely to win when the roof was closed, rather than open?
The numbers in Toronto don't lie. Baseball is a business as much as a sport, and the Blue Jays are getting optimum return on their investment. And though I mourn the passing of real grass, I am reminded that there's a whole generation of new fans for whom the extra bounce of the ball on the springy carpet is just another twist added to the plot. After all, the game is just a game - the play's the thing. But just as the game at Toronto lacked the passion of the game in Chicago, so does the old Comiskey ring my chimes in a way the new SkyDome cannot.
Given a choice, I think I'll take a little imperfection and decadent charm over state of the art. Just make sure the seat is up-close - the narrow and wooden variety is fine by me - close enough so I can watch the grass grow from the ground. For me, hearing the hiss of the ball, the pop of horsehide on leather and the bellow of the umpire is not enough. I want to feel the breezes, smell the grass and the popcorn, and believe I am as much a part of this contest as the players, the coaches and the peanut vendors. It was like that at Comiskey, but somehow at the SkyDome that magic was missing.
They don't call them parks for nothing.
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