June 26, 2007

Cranes Over Shea and the Mets

Cranes and concrete towers rise beyond the outfield walls at the New York Mets’ Shea Stadium in Queens. They are harbingers of the team’s new stadium, Citi Field, which is scheduled to open for the 2009 season.

The new stadium will have all of the features we have come to expect from ballparks in the post-Camden Yards construction-era: Wide concourses, luxury boxes, clear sight lines, tradition evocative architecture, asymmetrical outfield, and seating for a baseball-friendly 45,000.

Renderings for Citi Field can be seen on the Mets’ website at www.mets.com and they are very cool. The primary entrance is to mimic the exterior of Ebbets Field, the home to the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1913 until their move to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.

Shea Stadium was built as a consequence of the Dodgers’ move west, as well as that of the New York Giants, who accompanied the Dodgers to California for the 1958 season.

The Dodgers experienced great success in the late-1940s and 1950s. Ebbets Field held 32,000 and owner Walter O’Mally judged the club to have outgrown the then 40-year old park. The Giants played at the Polo Grounds, built in 1891 and renovated in 1911. The Bronx construction of Yankee Stadium in 1923 displaced the Polo Grounds as New York’s choice for marquee sporting events. So in 1957, the Dodgers and Giants moved west, breaking hearts as Ken Burns traces in “Inning 7: The Capital of Baseball”), in his 1994 nine-part documentary Baseball.

The departure of the Dodgers and Giants left the National League without a franchise in New York City, the largest U.S. market both in 1958 and today in 2007. The National League and American League each had 8 teams each in 1958. While franchise moves had brought major league baseball to Milwaukee, Baltimore, Kansas City, and California, additional cities were ready to play host to major league organizations.

The National League had had eight teams since 1901. The American League was the same. But American cities had grown since 1901 and the integration of Major League Baseball in 1947 increased the size of the available player pool.

In 1958, New York City attorney William Shea proposed the creation of a third league, the Continental League. Shea named former Dodgers president Branch Rickey as chief-executive. In 1959 they announced the placement of franchises in Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toronto, and New York. This would return major league baseball to New York City.

Rather than admit competition, the American League expanded to Minnesota and Los Angeles in 1961. The National League placed two new teams in 1962, one in Houston and the other in New York. While these commitments killed the Continental League, it fulfilled Shea’s goal of returning National League baseball to New York. When the city built its new multipurpose stadium in Flushing next to the site of the World’s Fair, it named the stadium in Shea’s honor.

Shea seats 55,000 for baseball. Seating wraps in a circle from left-field around to the symmetrical spot in right. The stands end along each foul-line like giant cliffs leaving a gaping space beyond the outfield walls.

Shea was a forerunner to the multipurpose stadia built in subsequent years in St Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. All four were unloved for their concrete circular bowls, Astroturf, football capacities, and absence of architectural character. But the seating at St Louis’ Busch Stadium II, Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, and Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, all wrapped entirely around the field such that when the stadium was full, one felt surrounded on all sides, enveloped by fans. One looked out from one’s seat and saw either more seats or more fans.

Shea was never closed. The original plans left the outfield open such that more stands could be added which would complete the open circle and raise capacity to 90,000. The Mets originally shared Shea with the American Football League’s New York Jets; Yankee Stadium held 67,000 in the 1960s and the National Football League’s Los Angeles Rams played the Los Angeles Coliseum which sat over 100,000. 90,000 seats were not unreasonable for the premier sports stadium in New York City.

But the additional seats were never added and the outfield remained open. The space was filled by bleachers in left field, the bullpens, and the huge scoreboard and billboards in right-center.

It is a lot of prime real-estate given over exclusively to a scoreboard, bullpens, and billboards.

As we rode the number 7 subway from 43rd Street out to the ballpark on Sunday afternoon for the Mets game against the Oakland Athletics, I asked my buddy Peter if we would miss Shea. Peter was born a Mets fan in Brooklyn and after tours out of state, lives again in New York. He said he would not. When I returned to work on Monday morning, a coworker asked if I had found the place “a dump”.

Yes, the concourses are narrow. And they were dark even on this gorgeous sunny June day. I gave up looking for a water-fountain and paid $4 for a bottle of Aquafina-brand bottled water. We had little leg-room and the seats were narrow. The scoreboard is a (relative) antique and the replay monitor small by contemporary major league standards.

But I thought Shea was kind of cool. The stadium tells the story of the Mets history.

The Mets wear blue in honor of the Dodgers and orange for the Giants. Do you see the NY on the Mets’ cap? It is the same NY worn by the Giants through their final 1957 season. The stadium name picks up the story of the team from the departure of the Dodgers and Giants.

The Mets won the 1969 World Series at Shea in their eighth season of existence. Game Six of the 1986 World Series was at Shea where Mookie Wilson’s grounder to first-base rolled through the legs of the Boston Red Sox’ Bill Buckner. The Mets won Game 7 and the Series at the ballpark the following night.

It was at the stadium on September 21, 2001 where the Mets played their first regular season game after the September 11th attacks. Mets’ catcher Mike Piazza hit a two-run home run in the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves to lift the Mets to a 3-2 victory. Piazza left the team after the 2004 season and he is still a hero to many New York fans, his Mets career defined by this moment.

The Mets will take their franchise history and uniforms to the new ballpark in 2009. But a team’s stadium is the stage and context. The stadium is a piece of the history and as it is part of the history it is part of the brand which is the team’s value-proposition. The stadium’s contribution to the value-proposition is the participation and witness to history. As players come and go, and teams win and lose, the team’s colors and stadium are the constants. They are the testaments to the team’s history.

It is not that teams should not move into new stadiums. It is not that I am against new construction. What I am for is being mindful of what we lose – the price we pay in leaving and razing old ballparks.

Yes, there is an economic-financial debate about financing new stadium construction. This is especially true when public funds are solicited to pay for these sports theaters. The San Francisco Giants demonstrated that such projects can be pursued with private funds.

The Phillies closed Veterans Stadium after the 2003 season. After the last out of the last game, the team brought back retired pitcher Tug McGraw. McGraw was the Phillies’ pitcher who struck out the Kansas City Royals’ Willie Wilson to end the 1980 World Series. It was the Phillies’ first and only World Series championship and had taken place at the ballpark. That night in 1980, McGraw leaped off the mound, his arms extended to the skies, and was mobbed by the team.

Before the Phillies would leave the stadium, they wanted McGraw to recreate his leap so that the fans and team in 2003 could relive this moment one last time. This was where it happened; soon a parking lot would stand here. The renovation of an old park means that such moments maintained in the present,

I find it hard to believe that there are not creative architectural solutions that could have brought solutions like luxury boxes, high-definition video boards, additional office spaces, and wider concourses to Shea. I looked at the area of bullpens and bleachers, scoreboards and fixtures beyond the walls and wondered what could have been done with this space. I wondered how the Mets could have had their new revenue streams, improve fan comforts, to stay at the ballpark and continue playing on the same stage.

A crane is considered auspicious in China and Japan. It is a sign of a bright future. The Mets have outstanding management in general manager Omar Minyana and field manager Willie Randolf. The Mets won on Sunday 10 to 2 behind solid pitching by John Maine and a potent offense.

They have an auspicious future with or without the cranes that peer from the site of the new stadium onto the field of the old. Maybe Shea could have been part of this future as it has been the past.

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Blogger David said...

I was in Shea in the summer of 2001. Red Sox v. Mets. I found it to remind me of the Vet quite a bit. Same kind of feel. I liked coming off the elevated train and through that big parking lot and into the stadium. It was big and empty for a saturday afternoon game and that was fine with me. I'm so used to fenway's constant crowd, that a half-empty park was a blessing. the big stadiums have that half-empty feeling and I think it suits baseball well. I mean i think Citizens Bank park is an acheivement but i do miss buying a ticket for $5 and walking down to the 300 level.

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