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April 20, 2004

If It's Tuesday...

...It Must Be Philadelphia

by Neil deMause

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Having just returned from my first game at Citizens Bank Park, a perfectly entertaining contest peppered with five home runs (including two by Placido Polanco plus a Pat Burrell shot that rattled the left-field foul pole) and ending in a 6-3 win for the minions of Bowa, I can say without hesitation that the one most memorable thing about the Phillies' new $458 million stadium is...

...hang on, give me a minute. I'll come up with something.

OK, for starters: It's not Veterans Stadium, the Phils' old home of the type routinely derided as a "concrete donut," which always seemed a libel on donuts, if not on concrete. Sitting across the street from the Vet's rubble, the new structure--some locals have suggested nicknaming it "The Vault", which seems like a reach--is first and foremost recognizably a baseball stadium, as witnessed by the several fans who were heard gasping on their way into the park: "Oooh! Grass!"

Other than living vegetable matter, CB Park offers the usual modern-stadium accoutrements: plenty of gratuitous brick facing, including on the batters' eye; exposed steel (pinkish-red I-beams here, including several serving as chunky light-tower supports); and self-consciously quirky dimensions (the outfield grandstands are lopped off at acute angles, in imitation of old-time parks like Ebbets Field--an imitation that would be more impressive if CB Park had Bedford Avenue out beyond the outfield wall, and not acres of parking). The 43,500 seats are dark blue and equipped with 43,500 cupholders, the luxury suites and club level are vast but not overly intrusive, and the ad signage has been kept to a dull roar. We sat in the next-to-last row, right next to the "Millwood Militia" (thick-necked white youth in camo garb), and felt neither in need of a telescope nor in danger of mistaking our surroundings for, say, Shibe Park.

This is cookie-cutter retro, and in a way, the non-descriptness is nice: Unlike, say, Safeco Field, CB Park doesn't call attention to itself, so you can sit back and watch the game, not the spectacle. (Though it's worth noting that the biggest cheer of the day came not when Billy Wagner fanned Luis Lopez for the final out, but a few pitches earlier when he hit 100 mph on the scoreboard radar gun.)

Still, it's not a place you'd associate with "charm" or "character" or "grandeur" or any of the things that launch pilgrimages to Fenway or Wrigley or Yankee Stadium--or even Camden Yards, for those who dig the warehouse and the view of the Bromo-Seltzer tower and don't mind a bit of vertigo in the bargain. If you've been to Safeco, or Jacobs Field, or the Ballpark at Arlington, you've seen Citizens Bank Park. Sure, none of those places have a giant, swinging, light-up Liberty Bell, but I hear that place down in Houston has a choo-choo train, and out California way they have a giant glowing Coke bottle and...what city were we talking about again?

This phenomenon--call it "stadium fatigue"--could help explain why just building it don't make 'em come the way it used to. The days when a Camden Yards or Jacobs Field could throw open the gates and expect nightly sellouts are long-gone. Today, stadiums barely open their doors before the honeymoon has ended: Cincinnati's brand-new park couldn't even draw 30,000 fans a night last year, while the new homes of the Brewers, Tigers, and Pirates all hovered around the 20,000/game mark, below such clubs as Minnesota and Oakland that are desperately seeking new digs.

Some of that is about won-loss record: The early adopters in the stadium race could use their ill-gotten gains to pummel the competition into submission, but now that everyone has a new playpen, it's just about running in place. But even winning teams like the D-Backs and Astros have seen their attendance fall off more quickly than in years past, indicating that the sheer number of new parks is likely to blame as well. Let's have a show of hands: Who here made a special trip to Camden Yards the year it opened? How about Jacobs Field? Milwaukee? Cincinnati? Can you even name the stadium in Cincinnati? Can you come up with one feature you'd travel there to see? (Adam Dunn strolling to first base on ball four doesn't count.)

There are already signs afoot that Philadelphia's new-park honeymoon may be similarly short-lived. The team sold 2.3 million advance tickets before the season, a huge bump over the last year of the Vet, but still a pale shadow of the full-season sellouts that greeted Camden Yards and Jacobs Field when they opened. As of today, you can still buy seats to any game on the Phillies' schedule; at last Saturday's game, between innings the foul-line ad boards flashed the message "SEASON TICKETS ARE STILL AVAILABLE." On a gorgeous spring day, only the second daylight game in the park's young history, the near-sellout crowd included a large smattering of fans disguised as empty seats. Whether they were lost somewhere on the cheesesteak lines or home preparing for the Flyers game later that day, the effect was unsettling, a coming-out party where half the nametags had gone unclaimed.

This can't be heartening to the city of Philadelphia and state of Pennsylvania, which spent $231 million in the hopes that the new stadium would spur tourism; while economic impact projections are always horribly inflated (hint: Philadelphia's was done by Arthur Andersen), the results are only going to be worse if the expected flood of new fans turns into a trickle after a year or two. Likewise the Phillies, who are on the hook for $14.5 million a year of Jim Thome until the year 2008 and $10 million a year in stadium debt until well beyond that.

More broadly, this trend should give teams pause about Bud Selig's "stadium-in-every-pot" plan for global prosperity. (One hopes the cities being asked to fill the pot with cash were already having second thoughts.) If the stadium-attendance bubble really has burst, is it worth taking a shot at a few years of increased fan interest at the risk of becoming the new Tigers, saddled with debt and with a stadium not even the most dedicated ballpark tourist could love? Certainly not for the remaining teams in historic parks: Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium may lack for suites or Babe Ruth Gluttony Courts, but there's something to be said for revenue certainty. But even for teams like the A's and Twins, it might be worth taking another look at how to market their existing parks as assets, not liabilities. They may not be anybody's idea of what you'd build from scratch today, but they are if nothing else one-of-a-kind--not to mention already paid for.

The alternative is to inspire more sentiments like those expressed by a Philly local as he wandered the immense concessions concourse beneath CB Park's "Pavilion Level": "It kind of does feel like we're in a different city. Except everybody's wearing Phillies hats."

That may or may not be an improvement for Phillies fans, but it can't be good for baseball.

Neil deMause is co-author of the book "Field of Schemes," and runs the fieldofschemes.com website. He lives in Brooklyn with his partner Mindy, their son Jordan, and a circa-1986 Yankee Stadium bleacher seat. Neil can be reached at neil@demause.net.

Neil deMause is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Neil's other articles. You can contact Neil by clicking here

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