Magazine article The American Enterprise


Magazine article The American Enterprise


Article excerpt

For a half-century after 1910, baseball was worshipped in artful cathedrals of the outdoors. The parks that teams played in were intimate, irregular, and entertaining in themselves. Recall the ivy of Chicago's Wrigley Field. The monuments at New York's Yankee Stadium. Old fields like the Polo Grounds and Forbes Field were personality-packed Xanadus. "They created a common experience," says televisions Larry King, who grew up near another temple, Brooklyn's Tibbetts Field. "Across America, entire cities revolved around the ballpark."

Through the 1950s, urban parks seemed like family around America's dinner table. Then Suburban-Ho: Like the rest of the country, baseball left the city in the '60s for safer climes. Cities lost baseball's business, and buzz of conversation. Baseball lost cities' ferment, and wondrous asymmetrical parks. Replacing them were sterile multi-sport mausolea from Anaheim to Queens. "Some bargain," observes poet John Updike. "Baseball got more parking--and parks that starved its soul."

By the late 1980s, such cookie-cutters more befit bullfights than baseball. Then--mirabile dictu--the game restumbled upon success. In 1989, the late then-Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti first saw a model of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. "When this park is complete, every team will want One," he said with his teddy bear of a laugh. Its quirks, odd angles, and individuality marked a return to tradition--the game as it once was, and could be again. "Baseball can be like life," he mused, in that "the keys to the future often lie in the past."

Opened in 1992, Camden Yards became baseball's first "old new" park since 1923. In 1994-95, similar parks opened in Cleveland, Texas, and Denver: Each broke attendance records. Similar sites will open by 2001 in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, Phoenix, San Francisco, and possibly Boston, Montreal, New York, and Pittsburgh. With this second wave of old-fashioned close-is-better, small-is-smarter parks, baseball ends the century where it began--on idiosyncratic fields of real grass. Each of the new stadiums should fly a banner: Tradition Sells.

"Baseball's blockheads have never grasped this," marvels NBC broadcaster Bob Costas. "They think newer meant progress--and that progress meant killing all vestiges of the past. But progress happens only when what's built improves the present--which the antiseptic ovals of the 1960s and '70s didn't. Progress is what works." And in baseball today, says Costas, "`Going Back to the Future' isn't a movie, but a practical creed."

Costas despises most of the stadiums built between about 1960 and 1992. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and St. Louis's Busch Stadium--each opened in 1966--are hardly distinguishable. In 1970, the Phillies and Reds left Shibe Park and Crosley Field for tombs with all the charm of a K-Mart. "When I'm up at bat," said infielder Richie Hebner, "I can't tell where I'm at."

The new traditional parks, on the other hand, recall pre-WW II fields. Baltimore's Camden Yards, only a pop fly from the Inner Harbor, welded nouveau and tradition to form the model. "They took the best of all the old," hails Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, "and put it into one." Arches and brick expanse mime the old Comiskey Park. Left field is double-decked like Tiger Stadium. The 25-foot-high right-field wall evokes Carl Furillo at Ebbett's Field.

Disraeli said, "What we anticipate seldom occurs. What we least expected generally happens." Unexpectedly, Camden Yards went back/forward to real baseball. Standing roomers pay $3 to watch from behind the outfield walls. Smoke wafts over from Boog's Barbecue on Eutaw Street. Beyond right field stretches the longest building on the Eastern Seaboard, the restored red-brick Railroad Warehouse. It enfolds the park like the houses around Wrigley Field. Ghosts from the former site of Ruth's Cafe, a saloon owned by George Herman Ruth, Sr. …

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