New York's New Mega-Stadiums Are Built for Everything Except Baseball 

With summer in full swing and the Subway Series completed, the L’s Michael Rowin visits the Mets and Yankees, to see how they’re settling into their new digs. Turns out, you really can’t go home again…

"It's gorgeous, I mean it's gigantic but it's like, gorgeous. I'm sure it's like when people first walked into the Titanic. I mean it's enormous. I was excited to come back and see the new Stadium. It's an incredible place."
-Jason Giambi

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Baseball is the sport most fortified and cursed by its own tradition. It has weathered segregation, the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal, two rank-depleting world wars, the designated hitter, Astroturf, strikes, and interleague play — changes affected by the larger outside world and by its own fickle insular evolution — by time and again calling upon a tradition that can bring its believers back into communion with the ideal not only of the sport but with the very nation that birthed it. Revenue numbers and television ratings might not support the idea anymore, but spiritually baseball remains our National Pastime through the link it continually establishes between the present and the past. Football and basketball may have surpassed baseball in popularity, but nobody looks to these other sports to tell this country's story: their pasts are malformed, incomplete, unrepresentative (does anybody look to the pre-24 second shot clock era of basketball with misty fondness?) Whether it be the Wild West days of the "dead ball" era, the Bunyan-esque tall tales of Babe Ruth, the absurdist poetry of Dizzy Dean and Yogi Berra, the biblical exodus of the Giants and Dodgers, the Melvillian rivalry of the Yankees and Red Sox, baseball is the cultural lifeblood of America.

But at a time when technologies of instant gratification and immediate interaction have become a built-in feature of mass entertainment, that tradition hampers both baseball's financial prospects and its hold on the public imagination. When Major League Baseball conveniently ignored its rampant steroid problem in the late 90s after the debilitating 1994 player's strike, the results in the zeitgeist and at the gate were powerful but short-lived. The fallout has been much more poignant, even as professional football — historically far less beholden to the sacredness of steroid-shattered records — has slinked by, unmarred by the same issue. Football, basketball, and a variety of emergent "extreme sports" and regional pastimes like NASCAR have all benefited by going bigger and crasser: the relatively young tradition of the Super Bowl, for instance, practically precipitated the post-modern multimedia age with its shameless alloy of gross commercialism, tawdry jingoism and gladiator spectacle. The expected "purity" of baseball, on the other hand, makes it an ill fit for the era with which it desperately and vainly tries to keep up.

New York's two new stadiums for the Mets and Yankees are now, literally, concrete manifestations of baseball's painful transition into that era, depressing reminders of the inability to pay proper tribute to tradition. Sketchy Faustian deals were forged by the owners of these teams to insure taxpayer funding for state-of-the-art facilities with greater revenue-generating potential than the models they've replaced. Public parks were built on, failing banks bought naming rights, and now it turns out that New Yorkers have paid for stadiums that they not only can't afford to enter, but stadiums that will severely damage the aesthetic pleasure and excitement of a sport once inextricably entwined with the fate of the City. Their designs have been facilitated on the basis of "updating" baseball for a media-saturated, comfort-obsessed era, employing bigger, better, and more bells and whistles — especially in regard to a simulacra-forming landscape of video screens that have transformed these parks into near-virtual realms — that slowly erode the tradition of actually watching, observing and enjoying the slow-moving, subtle sport. Their worst, collective sin is demeaning tradition in pursuit of pleasure-dome profit and, in the process, diminishing any care fans should take in continuing to take part in that tradition.

To start with the hardest part: as a lifelong Mets fan it's difficult to talk about Citi Field objectively. I know it's supposed to be an upgrade from the cookie cutter-shaped, one-time multi-sport park relic that was Shea Stadium, but it hasn't given me nearly the same feeling. It just hasn't. It's easy for someone like WFAN's Mike Francesa to call Shea a "dump" and deem Citi Field a 300% improvement, but that's because as a Yankee fan none of his memories were formed in that old blue Stadium out in Flushing. Character can't just be fostered by nicer surroundings. Shea was where I learned about baseball, absorbed its smells and sounds and sights, suffered its inevitable indignities (I witnessed no less than three of the most traumatic moments in Mets history in person there), and, once in a while, experienced exuberant joy. Perhaps that might have happened anywhere the Mets played, but something intimately raw about Shea made it especially conducive to falling in love with the team: the seats were painful, the colors searingly bright, the bathrooms disgusting, the food barely edible — but damned if that didn't bring you closer to the absurd passion of the frequently clownish, more frequently self-defeating boys from Queens in the same way a hobbled old church brings out the fervent, self-flagellating worship of its flock.

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It's unfair to compare a stadium that's just beginning to write its own history with a place that was more or less your second home, but Citi Field has two strikes against it from the get-go. In the first place there's that abominable name, an enshrinement to corporate greed and taxpayer-bailed-out capitalist recklessness — its only saving grace is that you can sort of pretend it's called City Field. But the biggest grumblings about the Mets' new park concern its lack of Mets-related décor. I must join the chorus. The Mets have always been a team with an identity crisis: their birth was induced to make up for the Giants and Dodgers' criminal flight from the city, with their colors and uniforms a strange amalgam of the city's National League baseball squads, and their lovable early years of unprecedented ineptitude aided by curtain calls from several New York legends of yesteryear (Casey Stengel, Duke Snider, eventually Willie Mays). But that doesn't quite account for the huge miscalculation of Citi Field's homage to the past. Mets owner Frank Wilpon grew up a Dodger fan, and so Citi was designed as a pastiche of the famous stadiums that housed that team and its National League rival, reminiscent of Ebbets Field from the outside and the Polo Grounds (especially in its spacious, pinball-like dimensions) on the inside, while the rotunda entrance pays homage to the groundbreaking Jackie Robinson, who never played for the Mets.

Such fast-and-loose appropriation of New York's baseball tradition is insulting, and though I admire the participatory touch of the new stadium's Fan Walk and a nod to Shea's small town carnival feel in the retention of its skyline logo and ludicrous Home Run Apple — though the new one is a noticeably less rinky-dinky, more Mark McGwiredized version of the old one — one can't help but sense Citi encases its patrons in a "retro" façade in order to shroud its bland luxury in the air of false refinement. You can pipe all the jazz you want into a food court; it's still a food court. And slapdash nostalgia certainly can't mask the anti-charged, noise-dampening atmosphere caused by Citi's courting of wealthier clientele (an increased number of luxury boxes) and its bougie fixation with needless accoutrements (more space for team stores! Finally!). Just watching the Mets — a team I always related to as perennially ragtag or dysfunctional — play in Citi Field on television is weird enough. But now going to a game means having to face up to the team's official now-and-forever priority: middlebrow "respectability."

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If Citi Field is a disappointment, the new Yankee Stadium is a grotesquerie. From the outside it's impressive, even overawing: a frieze above the upper deck replicates the mid 70s-renovated Yankee Stadium's crown-like majesty, while the grate-like pillars of its entrance brings back the immense, coliseum feel of the old, old Yankee Stadium, the House That Ruth Built. Tradition is legitimately honored, or so it seems — until one actually enters the Great Hall beyond the pillars. With its huge banners of Yankee legends along its narrow but cavernous corridor, the Hall would indeed be great if it weren't for the electronic bulletin board, metallic elevators and unadorned concrete floor that comprise a cold welcoming committee. The mood is that of a medium-security prison rather than the friendly confines of a baseball park.

Such drabness befits the Stadium's well known "caste system": escape from mediocrity is only possible if one is able to afford its luxury boxes or infamous Legends Suite field-level seats (originally up to $2,500 a pop). A concrete "moat" surrounds the latter to prevent the peasants from sullying its distinguished setting. The steady rain before the game I attended left most sections pockmarked with no-shows, so the strange sight of large abandoned swaths of Legends Suite seats due to a tanking economy wasn't nearly as conspicuous as it might have been. But a genuine surprise was the lack of accessibility to the team's storied tradition, a tradition to which I remain respectful even as an enemy. Monument Park seems to have become a dungeon, while the new "Yankee Museum" places original Lou Gehrig jerseys and Thurman Munson's untouched locker in a low-ceilinged room that would be more suitable as the broom closet of an abandoned insane asylum.

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What accounts for these stadiums' bizarrely similar cases of schizophrenia? (Both were designed by the same architectural firm, the appropriately named Populous, who have designed thirteen other baseball parks in the years since Camden Yards' trend-setting debut in 1991.) The great contradiction of these new stadiums is that within them baseball is ubiquitous and yet completely incidental. Everything everywhere at the new Yankee Stadium is supposed to remind you you're in the home of the greatest sports franchise in America — the Great Hall, Monument Park, Yankee Museum, a wall of posters celebrating every Yankee to have won the MVP award — and yet the place reeks more of galleria than hallowed baseball ground. I can maybe — maybe — suffer an ugly Hard Rock Café at the end of the supposedly Great Hall, but an Art of Peter Max gallery tucked away in one of NYS's many mall-like corridors? Citi Field, meanwhile, contains an exclusive Caesar's Club, which resembles an airport cocktail lounge with its leather seats and roomy bar, and a very popular Shack Shake responsible for lines up to an hour long. With all the first-class food and amenities, why bother with the actual game?

Both stadiums are replete with such nonsense, but in terms of distraction nothing tops NYS's video scoreboard. In their first encounter with the Spruce Goose, gaping visitors' stunned responses gave Howard Hughes' gargantuan plane the nickname of The Jesus Christ; I now understand this story a little better. Because beyond and above the centerfield wall of the New Yankee Stadium resides what must be the largest screen I have ever seen in my life, 59 by 101 feet of high-definition video to which one's eye is constantly drawn. The increasing reliance on the video scoreboard in attracting spectators' attention is a distressing tendency of contemporary baseball, but Yankee Stadium has now gone a step further by positioning itself on level with Times Square. A friend compared it to the garish holographic advertising assaults of the 2015 Hill Valley depicted in Back to the Future II, and she's spot on: nestled between an asymmetric banner layout that's an eyesore in of itself, the giant screen bombards fans with quizzes, replays, text message contests, highlight reels, 3-D-esque graphics symbolizing the just-occurred action (a cartoon vault landing on a base represents a "safe" base stealer — get it?), and, worst of all, fan cam interaction. If you think it's annoying when fans catch themselves on screen and accordingly unleash their inner John Belushis in hopes of making the most of their fifteen seconds of quasi-fame, wait to you see it unfold in a sparkling, crystal-clear image that's larger than a basketball court. Hagiographic flashbacks to a team's spine-tingling history play out on these screens with the same visual import as a Hair Club for Men spot. It's all a muddling din.

Which points to the millennial stadium's primary influence: television. More than steroids or inflated salaries, baseball's contemporary era is now defined by how well the game can play to the camera. This goes not only for the ceaseless "participation" ingrained in the crowd's relationship to the on-field screen, but also for the very experience of watching the game itself. Shouldn't it be odd, after all, that the unfilled Legends Suites seats of the Yankee Stadium have been considered embarrassing primarily because they're so visible to viewers watching the game at home? Or that televisions are strategically placed throughout the stadium itself, not for the convenience of fans stuck on long food and bathroom lines but all along the corridors? Perhaps both organizations should be fearing television rather than wholly embracing it: though they each possess their own cable channels that function as crucial auxiliary revenue sources, I wouldn't be surprised if more and more alienated and out-priced fans resort to watching games from home instead of these expensive new palaces.

But the problem extends beyond attendance figures: despite all the hand wringing over the Legends Suites and the new Yankee Stadium's belittling "monument to excess", the Bombers still lead the majors in tickets sold. (Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who own the ostensibly nicest and most modest environs since Camden Yards — personally, I found the place underwhelming on my only trip there — are dead last on the same list due to sixteen straight losing seasons.) The problem likewise extends beyond protests by outraged and disenfranchised fans who view the new stadiums as making their presence and devotion expendable. That's only half the story: the new trend in major league baseball is to make baseball expendable. Corporatization, sanitation, and ersatz tradition had been slowly creeping into New York professional baseball for the last decade, but now these new stadiums have enshrined it for the untold future. An entire generation of baseball fans will grow up in sterile atmospheres where "history" and "class" aren't artlessly nurtured but merely become reassuring buzzwords in the same way advertising must convince consumers the latest $100 million exercise in soul-sucking blockbuster filmmaking is "visionary" and "epic." The visceral thrill to be taken in from a gritty baseball experience will vanish, and subsequent generations will barely understand what it was once like to watch and feel baseball as not merely the main attraction of a virtual entertainment center. And then the stadiums won't just be rebuffing its working and middle class fans; it will be spiritually if not monetarily rejected by those to whom they have granted the exclusive privilege of allowing in, and the crowds will become just as lifeless and unworthy of the game as the ballparks that host them, and it.

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