Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fields of Dreams

There it stood, looming large in its legend, appearing as if it had arrived from the same planet as the apparition that landed inside Soldier Field seven years ago . Driving across I-94 over the Menomonee Valley just short of Downtown Milwaukee, this behemoth from outer space dominates the view to the west that was once the domain of the three domes of the Milwaukee Botanical Gardens.

It is of course Miller Park, the home of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball club. This was to be my first experience of a game at Miller Park along with my son and my father-in-law, also named Miller (no relation unfortunately), himself a Brewer fan from the day the team moved to The Cream City from Seattle in 1970.

I've been interested in ballparks for quite some time. Living in a city that supports two big league ball clubs begs the comparison between the teams, and of course their respective ballparks. Then there was Milwaukee, 90 miles to the north, where I spent a considerable time as a youngster, attending several ball games at old County Stadium.

Wrigley Field, old Comiskey Park and County Stadium were built before the era of the "modern" stadium, when many great old ballparks were replaced by multi-purpose, astro-turfed monstrosities that were designed to accommodate football as well as baseball. These buildings did not serve either game particularly well and few of them survive today. In the nineties a new era of ballpark building began when a new source of revenue for teams was invented, the luxury skybox. Although ballparks could be retrofitted to fit this new gold mine, many teams decided to do what comes naturally here in the States, tear down the old and build from scratch.

This turned out to be a good thing for the most part. The new parks were built for baseball only. Ironically most of them were a throwback, resembling the ballparks of a bygone era, with natural grass turf and eccentric dimensions. This resulted in intimate ballparks where the fans could once again be close to the game. Each park had an idiosyncratic character all its own, usually featuring the skyline of its respective city beyond the outfield walls.

County Stadium and the two Chicago big league parks fortunately survived the "modern" era intact, but with the exception of Wrigley Field, not the skybox era. The last game at old Comiskey Park was played on September 30, 1990. Here is a lovely remembrance of it, written by my friend Tom Harney. It was replaced by new Comiskey Park, later re-named U.S. Cellular Field after the naming rights were sold. The new Comiskey was built exactly one year before the era of the retro ballparks began, that is to say before the paradigm shifting Camden Yards was built in Baltimore. While new Comiskey was built as a baseball only park with natural turf, it was roundly criticized as being as characterless as the pre-fab clunkers of the sixties and seventies. The biggest problem was the highly steeped upper deck, the top parts of which were at vertigo inducing, stratospheric heights. Anyone sitting in this netherworld reach of the ballpark was all but completely removed from the game.

Fortunately about eight years ago. the top eight rows were removed and an overhang with a facade slightly reminiscent of that of old Yankee Stadium was put into place. New amenities were added and much to the consternation of Cub-hating Sox fans, ivy was planted in part of the outfield. At least the place looks more like a ballpark now and while it still doesn't have the charm of many of the newer parks, it's still a fine place to watch a game.

County Stadium was built right around the time when professional baseball games started to become a circus. We have Chicago's own Bill Veeck to thank for much of that. He was the guy who introduced exploding scoreboards, outrageous promotions, and a pinch hitting midget to the game. In the forties, Veeck was part owner of the minor league Milwaukee Brewers (no relation to the current club). Contributing to his colorful legend, in his autobiography, Veeck-As in Wreck, Bill Veeck claimed that he had a movable screen placed in the outfield at old Borchert Field that could be moved to challenge the hitters on the opposing team. During one game when he blatantly had it moved in when the home team came to bat and out when the visitors came to bat, the league put in a rule banning such shenanigans the very next day.

In the early fifties, the city of Milwaukee decided to build a new stadium to attract a major league club. County Stadium was the last home of the old Brewers before the Braves moved to town from Boston in 1953.

Warren Spahn
Featuring future Hall of Famers, Warren Spahn (the winningest left handed pitcher of all time), third baseman Eddie Matthews, and of course the great Henry Aaron, the Braves would enjoy several successful seasons highlighted by a World Series championship in 1957. Their move to Atlanta in 1965 was a huge blow to Milwaukee especially as the team was still viable both in the box office and on the field, unlike the old days back in Boston. In the interim period before the Seattle Pilots would become the Milwaukee Brewers, County Stadium would be the part time home of the Green Bay Packers as well as the then struggling Chicago White Sox.

Compared to current standards, County Stadium was a no nonsense, few frills ballpark. That is except for the giant beer stein in the outfield that the team's mascot, Bernie Brewer would slide into from his cuckoo clock style house, whenever the home team hit a home run. Despite its deceptive size, (its capacity was over 50,000), County Stadium is fondly remembered as having been one of the most intimate ballparks in the Major Leagues.

The first game at Miller Park was played on April 6, 2001. I saw the place from the outside dozens of times. My wife and I visited the construction site not long before an accident tragically claimed the lives of three workers. It was built next door to County Stadium, right in the venerable old park's parking lot. The seating capacity of the new park would be considerably less than the old one, but due to its retractable roof, skyboxes and obstruction free seating, the thing was at least twice the size.

Being built in the era of the retro ballpark, Miller Park is a bit of an anomaly as its enormous space age roof evokes the likes of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader more than Enos Slaughter and Cool Papa Bell.

As such I was prepared to hate it.

While Im not a Cubs fan, I have to admit that Wrigley Field, along with Fenway Park in Boston, are the best places anywhere to watch a baseball game. They are the two oldest ballparks in the Major Leagues and of course have seen an incredible amount of history. It was in Wrigley Field that Babe Ruth made his famous "called shot" home run in the World Series of 1932. Fenway has the Green Monster and left field in front of it was patrolled by the legends Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice among others. The two ballparks are so intimate, there is a continuous dialog between the fans and willing players. Wrigley Field is particularly beautiful with its stunning view of the lake and the apartment buildings of the north side of Chicago, the red marquee out front, the hand operated scoreboard, and of course the ivy covering the outfield walls. The latter two features incidentally were both the brain children of none other than Bill Veeck. Fenway has its own iconic view out with the famous Citco Petrolium sign visible behind the Green Monster. The experience of games at these two landmark venues more than makes up for the lack of amenities such as convenient parking and gourmet food within an arm's length of one's seat. At both parks it is unapologetically baseball at its purest.

By contrast, every other big league ballpark has in one way or other given in to the three ring, Ringling Brother atmosphere that Veeck was influential in creating so long ago. Unlike sports like basketball and hockey where there is a continuous flow of action, much of the drama in baseball happens during the breaks between plays where much of the strategy takes place. To those who don't know the game, this is considered dead time which is why baseball is incomprehensible to those who don't follow it. Today at virtually every professional ballpark, there is no dead time, during every second of inactivity on the field there is a constant barrage of activity at the ballpark, be it music, messages flashing across the scoreboard, public address announcements, or the antics of the team mascot.

Miller Park has taken all this to a new level. Not only is there no dead time here, but there is also hardly an inch of dead space either. The scoreboard in center field is only one of many, the fascia of the upper deck features electronic signage that can be used for any number of purposes. An incredible array of players' stats along with the line score of the game are presented throughout the park. Unfortunately all this information is taken away between innings in favor of advertisements and diversions such as directing attention to the famous sausage race in the middle of the sixth inning.

As such Miller Park is a cacophony of sights and sounds, a sensory overload of ads, concessions, information and entertainment. And yes in between all that, occasionally a baseball game breaks out. As a consequence, at least in our experience at this particular game, the fans in the stands were not particularly focused on the game. We had a pair of women sitting immediately behind us who had a continuous dialogue about their love lives. At one point one of them actually said to the other, "I'm so glad this isn't a football game because we wouldn't be able to have this conversation." But at least these two ladies stayed in their seats and payed some attention to the game. Our row was a steady stream of activity. As we sat on the aisle we were continuously getting up for someone coming or going, or passing beer and money between our row mates and the vendors. Unlike most ball parks, this activity was not limited to between innings but went on constantly. A one point I suggested, not jokingly, that they might consider buying us a beer for all the work they had us do for them. They agreed but unfortunately didn't follow through. And while there were the obligatory cheers for the home team, especially when the scoreboard told us to "make noise", it didn't seem as if the fans were truly into the game. The Brwers took an early commanding lead but they had pitching issues throughout the game and were never in the clear. With four runs up on the Diamondbacks, the Brewer pitchers walked the bases loaded in both the eight and ninth innings. In both innings they had 3-2 counts on the batters with two out. Now this is about as dramatic a situation as you can have in a baseball game and at every other ballpark I've ever been to, as all three base runners would take off with the pitch, all the fans would be on their feet, wildly cheering on the home team pitcher to strike out the batter to end the inning. Not so here where the few fans remaining that hadn't left early to beat the traffic and were still paying attention to the game, nervously and politely clapped, their butts firmly planted in their seats.

Now to be fair, this was an afternoon game in the middle of the week in August, with neither team having much of chance of making the playoffs. Most of the folks sitting around us were there for an office party so naturally there was much socializing going on between them. There were about 34,000 people in attendance that day and the Brewers in a typical year draw over three million per season. That's not too shabby for a reatively small market team that, save for one pennant, has had little in the way of success on the field in their forty year history.

You could say that much of that success has to do with Miller Park. Given my reservations, it's a pretty amazing place. The massive parking lot serves as a tailgate haven before the games. As you walk into the park you are immediately at the concourse level where there is a commanding view of the field. This reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a New Yorker on his impressions of the new Yankee Stadium. He noted that the design common to all new ballparks that opens up the concession area to the field, greatly reduces the drama of entering a stadium. In old parks, like Wrigley, Fenway and old Yankee Stadium, you would climb up a set of stairs through a tunnel to have the glorious field suddenly appear before your eyes. I understood exatly what he meant at Miller Park. Yet on the plus side there is a much more comfortable flow of the masses of humanity in the newer parks.

Miller Park also opens up in left field to reveal a very nice view of Downtown Milwaukee a few miles away. Of course the roof means that rain outs are a thing of the past, and being retractable means that they can grow real grass on the field. We had great seats but truly I can't imagine there are any bad seats in the house, even the most remote ones here actually called the Bob Uecker seats, as the self-deprecating one time major leaguer turned beer spokesman is the longtime radio voice of the club. For its enormity, the seats at Miller Park are not at all removed from the field and while I certainly would not call it intimate, there is still something very comfortable about the place.

One interesting consequence given the height of the roof, the shadows between home plate and the pitcher's mound that in most ballparks occur late in an afternoon game, appear at the outset of a 1:30 game. Then later in the game as the sun gets lower in the sky, an amazing play of light and shadow occurs on the field as the sunlight travels through the truss work of the roof.

A couple of very nice touches at Miller Park remind us of the significance of children in the game. Every game for one inning, a child is invited to be the public address announcer, introducing each Brewer as he comes up to bat. And in the parking lot, on the site of the former County Stadium, stands a working Little League Park. What a thrill it must be for kids to play there.

The architecture of the exterior is a strange hybrid with its Buck Rogers style roof contrasting to the brick facade which is inspired from some of the traditional architecture in Milwaukee. This reminded me of our visit to St. Louis five years ago during the last season of old Busch Stadium. The facade of the new stadium, also built adjacent to the old one, evokes the ancient facade of old Comiskey Park, while the old stadium with its distinctive arches that echoed the iconic Eero Saarinen St. Louis Memorial Arch a few blocks away, still looked new. It was like being in a strange time warp, difficult to tell which stadium which was going up and which was about to come down.

Such is the way with the ball parks. Baseball with its tenacious glorification of its past along side the demands of the public for ever more convenience and entertainment as well as the new and imporvied strategies of the owners to separate fans from their money, has created this strange amalgam of architectural styles and cultures. The game is certainly much different today than it was in the past, but not necessarily for the worse.

And there are still few better ways for a grandfather, a father and a son to spend a lovely summer afternoon together.

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