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March 13, 2017

Best of BP 2016

Let Ballparks Get Old

by Meg Rowley

Over the weekend BP's own Meg Rowley received the 2017 SABR Analytics Conference Research Award for "Contemporary Baseball Commentary." The winning article, originally published on May 26, 2016, is re-printed below.

The Texas Rangers are getting a new ballpark. We’re used to thinking about the stadium question in terms of tax dollars, and it is an obviously smart way to approach it because of all the things tax dollars turn into that aren’t baseball. Tax dollars are schools and roads and recycling bins, and their allocation is a collective expression of what is important to us, or ought to be. It’s an exceptionally boring way of declaring that most of us like this thing more than this other thing, not merely as sports fans or consumers, but as citizens and parents and people. So when the Arlington City Council voted to approve a master plan for a new stadium for the Texas Rangers, they kicked off a process by which voters will decide if they like air conditioned baseball more than whatever else you can buy with $500 million. Like recycling bins or public transit or a comical number of two-foot-long hot dogs. We’re used to thinking of this question in that way, and it is a good way to think about it.

But tearing down 20-year-old stadiums so that we might replace them with slightly newer, shinier, slicker versions doesn’t just strike me as betrayal of our policy priorities; it is also a betrayal of place, and place is important in baseball. The experience of going to a particular place over and over again, within the context of sport, is part of how we develop meaning and memory and attachment. Mariners fans don't just remember watching Felix's perfect game-- they remember watching it at Safeco. We get to know the quirks and choke points of our home parks. We know when we can sneak into better seats, and how the ball will slice down the line if the conditions are right, and when a flyball is actually something more dangerous. We develop routines. Sometimes we get to know our neighbors. We cheer with greater abandon, because this is our house. As Madness told us: Our house it has a crowd, there's always something happening, and it's usually quite loud, our mum she's so house-proud, nothing ever slows her down, and a mess is not allowed.

We set house rules. We defend our house from interlopers in opposing teams’ gear. That experience is different than watching another team in another place, or our team on the road. I don't feel anything particularly stirring about the place when I watch a game at AT&T or Miller Park. I might look around and think, "What a beautiful ballpark they have here." But they have it. And here. Not over there, where my house is. Place isn’t the only trigger for creating a connection to a team or a community, but it is a big and important one. It infects our senses with sights and smells and energy. It’s alive.

When we live in far flung corners of the country or the world, and have to track our teams remotely, don’t we see plays spring into our mind's eye with a familiar cut of grass or outfield wall, brought to life not only by the name of the player and his action on the field but also his place on it? We can practically see it, and smell the grass, and it isn’t happening on some generic field. It is happening there, in our place, where our people live. It makes the game feel lived in, grounded, like the corners aren’t as sharp because you’ve worn them down with all your time being there. Because you’ve left your mark.

Sometimes our place is a kind of bad place. Like being the last bungalow on a block of new construction, we glance longingly at the mansions down the road and wonder why our place can’t be as nice, or have a retractable roof. But perhaps it underscores the point: We don’t want our neighbor’s newer nicer place per se. We want our place to be nicer. We want it to be nice but we want it to be ours. We want it to feel lived in, in our way, by our folks. Buildings don’t last forever, but tearing down these places of common worship, making them disposable, robs us of a little something. We’re disoriented. The best seats are where? What is this view? Where are we exactly?

So when we rip apart old Yankee Stadium and replace it with the antiseptic luster of new Yankee, we are untethering all the memories and meaning once made there, and hoping it takes root somewhere else.

We can make new meaning in new places. We're resilient (or perhaps hardened) that way. We’re maybe more resilient now than other people in other times would have been because we are used to forming community without place. We make friends with other fans across twitter. We read the same analysis, and develop player nicknames and subcultures, mediated not by place but by our logins. We take our untethered, portable selves, out into the world and do the best we can to fill a place with life. New Yankee Stadium tries to invoke the past. It isn’t devoid of a sense of tradition, even if the tradition itself wasn’t part of this place so much another one. But wrecking newer stadiums seems like a more dangerous bit of botany. How have you even had time to put down those roots to begin with? With each iteration, it feels less like our place and more like it’s just some place. Like a Hollywood type mapped out a baseball film series in four parts, and built A Ballpark to house The Team.

The sad bit is that we abandon the familiar haunts we know so that we might avoid an even more permanent loss of place: relocation. We entertain it for fear the Oakland Athletics will become the San Jose Athletics. We do it to preserve community, and lose a bit of community along the way. We haven’t lost our only connection to the game and our teams, but we’ve damaged an important one. We’ve lost some sense of our past. We’ve disposed of our place, and declared our common places disposable, even as the debts of those common places prove harder to shake. We’ve taken our place, and made it just some place. And we didn’t even get new recycling bins.

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

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