The Changing Face of Baseball
“America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”
So said James Earl Jones’s character in the classic 1989 film “Field of Dreams.” And he was right. Nostalgic corniness aside, baseball has stood the test of time. Even the rules of the game have basically stayed the same to the present day. But one thing about the all-American pastime has changed significantly: the stadiums it’s played in. As society has evolved, so have baseball stadiums, reflecting the broad cultural trends and shifts that have taken place over the years.
From the late ’50s to the early ’70s, the trend was large and monolithic multi-purpose stadiums. At the time they were considered futuristic—perhaps reflecting that generation’s space-age ethos—but over time came to been seen as irredeemably bland. They were gray, sterile and depressing, and tended to have artificial turf instead of real grass. They also lacked an open outfield, a signature characteristic of older ballparks. Instead, round shapes came into vogue, earning these new fields the nickname “concrete donuts.”
But over the past 20 years, the trend has changed. Instead of functionality, new stadiums have been built with scenic outfields and retro facades meant to invoke the good ol’ days of baseball. The first of these ballparks was Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where the Baltimore Orioles play. Finished in 1992, the park features a red brick exterior and natural grass. Since then, these characteristics have been copied repeatedly, creating a new trend in baseball stadiums: the retro-classic trend that, arguably, allows fans to take a trip to the past, when baseball was the nation’s favorite sport and people of all ages, races and social classes would come together for a hot dog and a good game. In short, the new stadiums are meant to invoke the sentiment that Jones referred to when he said that baseball “reminds us of all that was once good.”
One of the newest members of this generation of ballparks is Citi Field, the Mets stadium which opened in 2009. Citi Field’s design evokes the old Ebbets Field, the original home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. As a lifelong suffering Mets fan, I’ve already been to several games at Citi, and have to admit that, in many ways, it’s an improvement from the Mets’ old venue, Shea Stadium. Many of the concession stands are open-air, and the smaller ballpark size means that no matter where you sit, you get a good view of the action.
Still, there are problems with Citi Field and the other retro ballparks that are less readily apparent. The attempt to invoke Ebbets Field works when you see the ballpark’s stunning exterior and enter through the Jackie Robinson rotunda, but falls apart when you get down to brass tacks. In 1955, the year the Dodgers won the world series, the most expensive seat at Ebbets Field was $3.00. Adjusted for inflation, this comes out to $24.50 in today’s world—which is still cheaper than the $36.50 one pays for the current cheapest single game ticket at Citi Field. Combine that with outlandishly expensive food and going to a ballgame becomes an unaffordable luxury for many fans, particularly in these tumultuous economic times.
Adding insult to injury is Citi Field’s increased number of luxury boxes, which owners touted as an improvement from Shea Stadium. The fact that this would be seen as an improvement from Citi Field demonstrates the degree to which the owners are completely out of touch with their fanbase, most of whom cannot afford luxury boxes.
If they were truly trying to hearken back to the old Ebbetts Field, they would lower ticket prices and make baseball games more affordable for the average fan. Isn’t that what it was like back in the good ol’ glory days of baseball? Anyone could go to a game—that’s why it was such an all-American sport. Baseball cut across economic classes, bringing together wealthy bankers with modest blue-collar workers, all for the love of the game.
Unfortunately, it seems that baseball is being transformed into another venue for corporate outings where high-powered executives can talk business in between innings while sipping on $10 bottles of craft beer. It’s as if the game has become one played by the rich for the rich. Perhaps this reflects the larger growth of income inequity in the US, which has increased dramatically over the past thirty years, creating a huge gap between the wealthy and the poor.
Rather than building retro stadiums and raising the prices of tickets, food, and everything else that is sold at a ballgame, the owners should be trying to make baseball more affordable for average fans. We didn’t mind Shea Stadium—at least we could afford it. But now the people who love the sport the most, and who spent years supporting their favorite teams, are being forced out of the game.