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Baseball stadiums or “ballparks” are magical places for players and fans alike. They have an aesthetic all their own—the sweep of the grandstands, the rainbow of color in the different seating sections, and the emerald green field crisply outlined in chalk. Baseball fans have a closer attachment to their ballparks than fans in any other sport. Fans speak with reverence about Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, and Wrigley Field, and with admiration of a different sort for new ballparks such as Safeco Field and Camden Yards. Phillip Lowry called his book on ballparks Green Cathedrals because the more he studied ballparks, the more he thought they resembled mosques, synagogues, churches, and similar places of worship. Many Americans, Lowry states, have a “spiritual reverence for ballparks, because they hold treasured memories and serve as a sanctuary for the spirit” (Lowry 1992, 52). In no other sport do fans plan vacations around visiting ballparks. Certainly, we never hear of football fans making pilgrimages to all the NFL stadiums or basketball fans bragging about all the NBA arenas they’ve been to (Wright and House 1989).
The First Ballparks
The earliest ballparks were built in the 1850s; they were multipurpose, often used for cricket as well as baseball. They were open, without fences. Efforts to enclose them, known as “the enclosure movement,” were done so that owners could more easily charge admission and bring order by preventing fans, who sometimes encroached on the field, from simply sitting wherever they pleased. The earliest parks accommodated just a few thousand fans on wooden benches, close to the action.
Squeezed into long city blocks, most parks were rectangular in shape, often resulting in a short right field that favored left-handed hitters. Constructed of wood, the parks were often in need of repair, and sometimes burned to the ground. Cincinnati’s Redland Park collapsed in 1892, killing a spectator.
The first concrete and steel park, Shibe Park in Philadelphia, wasn’t built until 1909, and the first triple-decked ballpark, Yankee Stadium, didn’t appear until 1923 (it seated 57,545). It was thirty years later before the first major league park had lights—County Stadium in Milwaukee in 1953. In the 1960s baseball began leaving the inner city, and the old ballparks were replaced with new, concrete multisport ovals, some of which had artificial turf. Their design and uniform dimensions made them impersonal and soulless, with no suggestion of history, tradition, or sense of place. So similar to one another, they were called “cookie cutter” stadiums, and they blighted baseball’s landscape for over two decades. During the 1990s most of them were pulled down and replaced with new ballparks with a retro feel. Oriole Park at Camden Yards began the trend and so far has spawned the construction of ten other postmodern ballparks with frills and loads of character. Domed or indoor stadiums are also out of fashion, as is the artificial turf that has proved hard on players, shortening their careers. At its peak, ten teams played on artificial turf; in 2004 only three are left. Some of the newest stadiums (e.g., in Seattle, Houston, Milwaukee, Arizona) have retractable roofs, eliminating rainouts, allowing real grass to grow, and giving fans the comfort of a controlled climate.
The crowds at nineteenth-century ballparks were small compared with those of today. During the 1871-1875 National Association seasons, for example, teams averaged less than 3,000 spectators per game. The Boston Red Stockings drew only 1,750 per game in 1875 when they finished first.
Attendance fluctuated, depending on the health of the economy and pennant races, in the early years of the twentieth century. But ballpark attendance boomed after the end of the World War I and on through the 1920s as prosperity returned to the country and the home run became common with the arrival of larger-than-life Babe Ruth, and a “livelier” baseball. Attendance then declined during the Great Depression and didn’t recover until after World War II. At bottom, in 1934 the National League averaged just 5,200 fans per game, while in the first year after the war attendance averaged 15,000 per game. Crowds grew larger in the 1950s, slipped in the 1960s when the major leagues expanded, and grew again after 1975. Some experts say the exciting 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds reignited interest. Crowds increased steadily from 1975 until 1991 when labor strife between the club owners and the players union alienated many fans. When a strike ended the 1994 season in August, many unhappy fans turned to minor league baseball, sparking a renaissance and record attendance all across the country. After the 1994 strike, which also led to canceling the World Series, attendance declined by 29 percent. Major league baseball won back some but not all of its disaffected fans after a thrilling home run race in 1998 between the Cardinals Mark McGwire and the Cubs Sammy Sosa.
One way to understand stadium life is to think in terms of a “front stage” (the field where the game is played and the stands where the spectators watch from) and a “backstage” (where the preparations and business takes place, such as clubhouse, equipment rooms, press box, and front office).
On the field are the players, along with a supporting cast of coaches, managers, trainers, batboys, ball girls, mascots, groundskeepers, and the umpires, the arbiters of the game. For all of them, the playing field is their work place—the stage on which they perform their jobs. Their roles are easily identified by dress—the white baseball uniform of the home team players and coaches, the nonwhite (usually with some element of gray) uniform of the visitors, the black or dark blue blazers and pants worn by the umpires, and the usually khaki, forest green, or brown trousers and white shirts of the groundskeepers.
For spectators, the field is the focal point of the ballpark. Their gaze is usually fixed on the field even as they talk, drink, and eat. The field’s expanse of emerald green turf and the dirt insets of the batter’s box, pitcher’s mound, and infield, all outlined in white chalk, is the aesthetic center of the ballpark. Whoever walks on the field, even during pregame activities, is noticed. Even batboys and ball girls may become fan favorites.
The field is protected, separated from the grandstands and spectators by a wall or railing. It is secured by ushers and security guards who defend the “boundary,” maintaining order and preventing trespass onto the field. For the groundskeepers, the field is the showcase of their skills, a visible indicator of how well they do their work. The condition of the field—turf and dirt —is of vital importance to the players, as it can influence their performance. Infield dirt that is too sandy or damp will slow a base runner, an uneven surface in the infield can cause a bad hop, grass that is only slightly longer than usual will slow down ground balls and potential base hits going through the infield.
In baseball, unlike basketball, football, and hockey, there are several hours of activity on the field before the game begins, and much of it is enjoyable for fans to watch. By 4:00 P.M. (for a 7:00 P.M. game), players are in the outfield loosening up—running and then stretching, which is led by the team’s trainer. Next, they play catch—slow toss from close range, gradually lengthening the distance. But batting practice, better known as “BP,” is the centerpiece of pregame activities. Players hit in groups of four. Waiting their turn, other players banter and tease. Fans enjoy the scene—the pitch, swing, crack of the wooden bat, and the light of the ball to the outfield. Those that land in the seats trigger a scramble among fans for a souvenir. In the outfield, pitchers run and others “shag” fly balls.
Hidden from view is the clubhouse, the area where the teams and the umpires, who are in separate quarters, dress, eat, relax, and mentally prepare for the game. Clubhouses in the major leagues are spacious and well appointed, with carpeting, sofas, televisions, and oversized lockers. Food is plentiful, spread on large tables. Near or attached to the locker room is the training room and video room where players view their own performances and that of the pitcher they are about to face. Finally, there are batting cages with pitching machines. The clubhouse is a sanctuary, a place where the players are sheltered from autograph requests and the other demands an adoring public makes on them.
Activity in the stands starts long before the sun comes up. Cleaners armed with backpack leaf blowers move through each row, blowing trash from the night before into the aisles and then bagging it to be taken away. Every seat is wiped down, the concourse is scoured with pressure hoses, and the toilets are scrubbed and sanitized.
Once cleaned, the cavernous stands sit silent, except for an occasional worker eating lunch or jogging on the concourse. The stands slowly come alive again after the gates open up two hours before game time. The players are already on the field taking batting practice as the first fans trickle in. Despite the rock ‘n’ roll music blaring from the sound system, the crack of the bat from the batting cage can be heard everywhere in the stadium. “Pregame” is a time when fans are allowed to move close to the field and get a good view of the players. Some seek autographs from the players, “Hey, Nomar … over here, over here.” Part of the job of being a big leaguer is dealing with an admiring public, such as the fans who want a close look and an autograph to take away—a memento or proof of their brief encounter with “fame.”
As the stands ill up, the bold, uniform bands of brightly colored seats disappear beneath the throng of spectators in multicolored dress. The stands are the workplace of ushers, security personnel, food vendors, and mascots. Known as “game-day staff,” they only work when the team is playing at home. Ushers and security maintain order among the spectators, whether it be helping people find their seats or keeping drunks off the field. City police are also present to deter would-be lawbreakers and to make arrests when necessary (most stadiums even have a holding pen where serious of-fenders can be detained). Vendors, with their rhythmic refrains, like “Ice-cold beer here,” and their quick pace provide ambience and the convenience of a hot dog, beer, peanuts, Cracker Jack, cotton candy, or ice cream without leaving your seat. Mascots, who mock everyone from umpires to fans, entertain.
Stand workers, like field personnel, are uniformed to make their roles clear to the public. Ushers and security personnel are attired in blazers and matching slacks, while vendors usually wear vests and caps and a large button announcing their product and its price. Most mascots wear oversized animal costumes with exaggerated features—gigantic heads, bulging midsections, big feet. To broaden ballpark appeal to younger fans, most teams have had mascots since the 1970s-1980s. Some of the best known are the (former) San Diego Chicken, the Cardinals’ Fred Bird, the Pirate Parrot, the Mariner Moose, and especially the Phillie Phanatic. (Early in the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for teams to use dwarves, hunchbacks, or mentally challenged adults as mascots.) Mascots are the only ballpark personnel to work both in the stands and on the field.
The stands in major league stadiums sit on multiple decks of concrete and are divided into bleachers, grandstands, loge, and box seats, with the price of the seats in each section determined by its proximity to the field and view of the action. While most fans sit in the open air, an affluent few, often corporate executives and their clients and friends, sit in air-conditioned skyboxes, furnished with couches, wet bars, and television. Beneath and behind the stands are the wide concourses where one can find souvenir shops, fast-food outlets, and toilets. Television sets hang from the concourse walls and in the concession areas to insure that no one misses any of the action while buying a team cap, T-shirt, pennant, miniature bat, or a hot dog and drink.
The stands in minor league ballparks, of course, are smaller; rarely do they have an upper deck. In place of seats that wrap entirely around the field, as in major league parks, along the foul lines they have picnic areas for groups and play areas for children. With virtually every seat close to the action, minor league parks have an intimacy not often found in the big leagues.
But the stands, whether in the majors or minors, are always more than a collection of seats. There is activity in the stands that contributes to a fan’s experience and enjoyment of being at a ballpark—the eccentricities of individual vendors hawking their products; video replays, jingles, and games played on the scoreboard (Diamondvision or Jumbotron); and in the minor leagues, between-inning competitions involving children. Fans sometimes create their own diversions such as the wave —in which thousands of spectators join together in rising to their feet in sequence to produce a human ripple across the stadium. Also, fans may bat beach balls around the stands, directing them from one section of seats to another. Throughout the game, fans follow developments elsewhere in the major leagues on the scoreboard, noting how division rivals are faring.
Fans enjoy being part of the crowd, looking at the people around them, overhearing conversations in front and behind, and watching the antics of a boisterous fan razzing the opposing team or a disliked player. They watch foul balls hit into the stands, following their trajectory, waiting to see what happens—who catches it, the occasional scramble for a muffed or loose ball, the reaction of the person who gets possession of the ball, especially the elation of kids who snag one.
The changing light is also part of the ballpark experience: the typical three-hour “night” game begins when the sun is still up, progresses through sundown and the gathering dusk in which the visibility temporarily worsens, and then into real darkness when the powerful stadium lights take full effect.
Sound is an important element of the ballpark experience. Some of the sounds are programmed, such as the announcements over the public-address system, the organ music between innings, and the special effects sounds, such as glass shattering after a foul ball is hit into the parking lot. In one of the venerable rituals of the game, all spectators stand to stretch in the seventh inning and often sing a chorus or two of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the most popular song ever associated with a particular sport. In the post-September 11 era, “God Bless America” has been added to the seventh-inning break. Other sound comes from the crowd itself, the din of a thousand conversations periodically interrupted by cheers for good plays by the home team and groans of disappointment for setbacks. Ballparks have gotten noisier as fans have taken up inflatable “Thunder Sticks” to root for their home team. Probably the favorite sound of all still is the crack of the wooden bat striking the baseball. There are Americans who can’t bear to sit through an inning of televised baseball but relish spending hours in the bleachers or grandstands.
The Press Box
Anyone who has been to an older minor league ballpark has noticed the elongated, shoe-box-shaped wooden structure above the stadium roof or suspended from it. This is the press box. In the multitiered major league stadiums, the press box is usually located in the loge level between the first and second deck. But in all ballparks, the press box is always behind and above home plate to give the press the best possible view.
A view from outside Boston’s historic Fenway Park reveals an architectural design intended to entice onlookers. The narrow passageway visible in the center of the image leads the eye past the food and clothing vendors and up to the large scoreboard.
The term press box is a holdover from the days before radio and television when newspapers were the only medium covering professional baseball. Today, television and radio broadcasters, public-address announcers, scoreboard operators, and others work there as well as print journalists. As radio, and later television, began to cover baseball, the press box expanded in size and then became internally divided into separate areas or rooms. Those who perform live and require a quiet environment, notably radio and TV broadcasters and the PA announcer, work in booths. The booth with the best location from which to observe the game—directly in line with the batter and pitcher— is usually given to television broadcasters.
The number of people in the press box can vary from a dozen in the low minors to upwards of seventy in the major leagues. In the small, single newspaper towns of the Class A leagues, there is often only one writer and one radio broadcaster there to cover the game. In the major leagues, there can be several dozen beat writers alone covering the game for different city and suburban papers, writers from the wire services and national papers like USA Today, as well as correspondents and freelancers for a variety of other publications, such as Baseball America, the Sporting News, and Baseball Digest. The front row seats, with the best view of the field, are reserved for the regulars. Their nameplates—the New York Times, the Daily News, and so on—are fixed to the countertop. At one end of the front row are the home team’s media relations staff. Open seating in the back rows is taken up by writers from the suburban papers and other irregulars. Major league baseball is televised, so in addition to the radio and print people, there is also a TV crew, with a play-by-play announcer and a color commentator doing the game live, often with pregame and postgame shows.
There is always a table full of handouts of statistics on the home and visiting teams and players available in the press box. These “media notes,” which often run to five pages of small type, are compiled by the home team’s media relations staff for distribution to writers and broadcasters. They contain every imaginable statistic and trend, plus odd bits of information and reports from the club’s minor league teams. The press box is governed by the home team’s director of media relations. The director and media relations staff determine who shall be issued a pass or “credential,” for access to the press box, field, and clubhouse.
The media people who work in the press box can be divided into those who cover the game live (TV and radio broadcasters) and those who don’t (the print journalists): instantaneous electronic media versus print journalism. For writers the press box is a pretty relaxed work environment. They need only to observe and make occasional notes when something significant happens in the game, and should they be gone for a few minutes in the bathroom or getting a hot dog when a key play is made, they can watch the replay on the television monitors that are suspended from the ceiling in major league press boxes. The work of writing an account of the game for the next day’s newspaper readers is mostly done after the game is over. Broadcasters, on the other hand, report the play as it happens. There is no room for mistakes; mangled syntax, mispronunciations, or stupid observations cannot be retrieved, unlike those of the writer who can always delete an awkward passage from the computer screen. Broadcasters must concentrate, not unlike the players on the field; in fact some broadcasters talk about getting mentally prepared for the game and “putting on their game face.”
In the press box, one can often distinguish the writers from the broadcasters by their dress. In television, appearances are important; the field cameras sometimes scan the broadcast booth and broadcasters often do on-air pregame and postgame interviews. Therefore, broadcasters are usually well dressed and well groomed. Radio announcers are somewhat less concerned with appearance, but they still are generally neater than most writers. Writers, more inclined to see themselves as having intellectual qualities, tend to be less conservative, and less careful about dress and appearance.
The term front office first appeared around the turn of the century when it was used by the New York City underworld to refer to police headquarters. Today, it is a synonym for the main office of any company; however, many people also use it when talking specifically about the business operations of professional sports teams. In baseball the front office is almost always housed in the ballpark itself, although in the low minors the lack of space may result in the front office spilling over into an outside trailer or two.
As one ascends from the low minors to the big leagues, the number of front-office employees rises markedly. Major league teams in big media markets (e.g., New York, Los Angeles) have staffs of over one hundred full-time, year-round employees, while their affiliates in the small towns of the low minors may have fewer than a half dozen.
In the minor leagues, members of the front office staff routinely have contact with the team’s fans. Some team owners and general managers even greet arriving fans at the gate. The location of minor league front offices reflect this greater accessibility to the public, as most are at ground level and open onto the park’s main concourse. Major league offices, in contrast, are high above the field, on the mezzanine level, near the press area and skyboxes, their entrances guarded by security so that only those with credentials may pass. Major league front-office staff rarely venture into the stands to mingle with fans.
In sum, ballparks are complex and varied places— sites of work, entertainment, and even tourism.
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