New York’s new ballparksby Woody Studenmund
September 11, 2009
When you have the hobby of visiting and evaluating all the major league ballparks, people (especially brothers) expect you to report on new stadiums in their first year, whether or not that happens to be convenient. So it was that I found myself flying coast to coast (and back two days later) with the express purpose of visiting New York’s two new ballparks.
It wasn’t exactly hardship duty, however, as the two new stadiums are absolute gems. In the same way that dogs and their owners sometimes look like each other, the two new stadiums almost perfectly mirror the franchises and the fans that they serve. The new Yankee Stadium is big, bold, impressive and expensive, and the new Citi Field is smaller, warmer, quirkier and a fun place to watch a game.
When I was young, I went to many games at the old Yankee Stadium, so I was expecting something special in the new version, and I wasn’t disappointed. The new Yankee Stadium is big. Big in every way (except perhaps in outfield dimensions). The “Yankee Stadium” signs are gigantic, the entry concourses are huge, the seats are roomy, and the curved HD Diamond Vision in center field is enormous. The stadium amenities continue this trend, as the stores, historical displays and bathrooms are plentiful and very high in quality. Perhaps best of all (after flying across the country, anyway) the padding on the seats was luxurious. We were reasonably far from home plate, but the padding was as comfortable as I’d experienced in any seat in any stadium.
The signage also sends the message that you’re at an important and impressive building. There’s a crossed blue “NY” everywhere you look, from the staff uniforms to the hot dog boxes, and even the waxed paper wrapper inside the hot dog boxes is clearly emblazoned with the Yankee logo. The food was terrific, with help from high quality brands like Boar’s Head, Johnny Rocket, Nathan’s and Carvel. In addition, the employees are off the charts in terms of their attitude and effort, right down to a grounds crew that danced to “YMCA” while dragging the infield between innings. All in all, Yankee Stadium is a monument to success, and it’s a ballpark that the Yankees and their fans will identify with and be proud of for decades to come.
No one is perfect, however, and that applies to even the most expensive baseball stadium in history. The most noticeable flaw is that the areas set aside to honor the many Yankees retired numbers and the many Yankees World Series victories are embarrassingly small and low in quality. It appears as though someone designed a great stadium and then, as an afterthought, remembered to include a display of retired numbers and World Series championships. Less importantly, the “out of town” scoreboard leaves much to be desired, as it shows only four games at a time and then still is missing some important details.
These problems probably can be fixed over the winter, but I’m not so sure it’ll be easy to fix the other major flaw, the propensity of the new Yankee Stadium to yield home run after home run after home run. Since the outfield dimensions are the same as the old Yankee Stadium, most people have blamed “unusual wind patterns” for the round-trip explosion, but a second factor that I haven’t heard mentioned is that the stands are significantly closer to home plate than in the old Stadium. Less foul territory means fewer foul outs, which means more homers. Just ask the folks at Dodger Stadium.
But surely these minor (and mainly fixable) problems don’t stop the new Yankee Stadium from being a major success. In my opinion, Yankee Stadium is a ballpark to seek out and enjoy. It’s a special place for a special franchise, and I’d recommend that every baseball fan, even the so-called “Yankee haters,” make a point to visit the Stadium.
After my experience at Yankee Stadium, I was almost worried that Citi Field would be anticlimactic, but I should have known better. Just as Yankee Stadium is perfect for its big, brash and rich franchise, so too is Citi Field just right for the enthusiastic yet knowledgeable and sarcastic yet self-effacing Mets and their fans.
Citi Field is a haven for a devotee of “old-time” baseball, as it feels like a combination of Ebbets Field and Citizens Bank Park. Citi’s exteriors are warm, with rounded exteriors and well-weathered brick facings, and the entry rotunda, named for Jackie Robinson, makes entering the stadium feel like you’re going into a university lecture hall or a national monument.
The field itself is exceptionally well-designed. The stands rise up quickly behind home plate, meaning that a large majority of the ballpark’s seats are much closer to home plate than in the average stadium. When you combine this closeness with the small capacity of Citi Field, you end up with a cozy, welcoming ballpark that makes you feel right at home. The outfield has a number of lovable quirks, from small pointed sections of seats in both right and left fields to a “cut out” in right center field that seems sure to produce more than its share of triples. The food is good, and there are some great individual eateries, particularly out in a center field festival of food and fun activities. The staff is upbeat and welcoming, with none of the “whadda want” attitude that I’d grown up with at Shea.
While the Diamond Vision screen is only average in size, Citi Field makes up for that with a terrific “out of town” scoreboard high up in left field. The scoreboard has the traditional green and white look of Wrigley or Fenway, but it keeps fans up to date on all the action in the majors by tracking the score, outs, on base-situation, and pitchers of every game simultaneously. The scoreboard is so good that my son was able to follow his favorite team’s game virtually pitch by pitch while sitting in a ballpark 3,000 miles away.
As you’d expect, there are a couple of problems with Citi Field. The visiting bullpen is behind the Mets bullpen and isn’t elevated, so you can’t see who is warming up. In addition, the facings of the TV/press box and some of the outfield areas don’t use the same warm brick that the rest of the stadium features, so the designers missed a real opportunity to upgrade the feel of the stadium at a very low additional cost. Top it all off, whether by design or forced on the Mets by the recession, there is more advertising in the Citi Field stands than any ballpark I can remember.
And then, of course, there’s LaGuardia. Like Shea Stadium before it, Citi Field is directly in the flight path of airplane after airplane, contributing noise and distraction to a setting that otherwise might have seemed pastoral. I suppose that it’s unfair to criticize Citi Field for its location, but once you’ve been to San Francisco or Pittsburgh, it’s hard to ignore location as a major factor in a ballpark’s attractiveness.
Airplanes and bullpens are minor factors, however, when you compare them to the wonderful, enjoyable and welcoming place that is Citi Field. And when you think that it was built for something like half the cost of the new Yankee Stadium, it doesn’t take long to realize that Citi Field is as cost-effective as it is enjoyable. If I were a Mest fan (and I’ve got a close relative who is), I’d consider the upgrade from Shea to Citi a gift from the heavens!
So which do I like better? If I were going to watch just one game, I’d pick Citi Field. I love the cozy atmosphere and the “old time” feel of the place. In the long run, however, my guess is that Yankee Stadium will wear better and will become the more important ballpark, especially if the Yankees management chooses to make the changes that I’ve suggested.
At this point in my reviews, I usually rank all 30 ballparks, but that doesn’t seem fair any more. There are so many wonderful new stadiums in baseball that it’d be an insult to a terrific ballpark like the new Busch to rank it in the bottom third. After all, except for four stadiums (Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Florida and Oakland, but who’s counting?), every major league ballpark is simply and purely a delightful place to watch a game. Forty years from now, this may well be called the age of new stadiums, because we certainly are blessed.
So, instead of ranking all 30, I’ll limit myself to my personal top 10:
1. San Francisco (AT+T)
2. Seattle (SafeCo)
3. Boston (Fenway)
4. Chicago (Wrigley)
5. Baltimore (Camden Yards)
6. Pittsburgh (PNC)
7. Los Angeles (Dodger Stadium)
8. Colorado (Coors)
9. Cleveland (Progressive)
10. New York (Yankee Stadium)
Woody was born in Cooperstown and started the first play-by-mail APBA league (still going strong) in 1961.