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Baseball Stadium Quirks

2009 April 11
by Phil Miller

From Frank Deford at Sports Illustrated:

Myself, speaking for students of baseball, I’m sorry, but in constructing some things, the trick is not to run away from nostalgia, but simply to monkey around with it and try to gussy it up a bit. Architecturally, baseball parks are like mousetraps. No one has found a way to build a better one than the Orioles did in 1992, when they gave Camden Yards to a grateful world. All of the 18 major league fields and scores of minor league parks built since then have been wise enough to follow that pretty model.

…People simply feel more affectionately about ballyards than they do other sports’ stadiums and arenas. Madison Square Garden, for all its fame, is merely an address, not a home. And a place like Gillette Stadium may be a cathedral to New England Patriot fans, just as Old Trafford is to Manchester United fans, but linear football stadiums — of both varieties — and the cereal boxes that accommodate basketball and ice hockey are pretty much just so many efficient people containers. Ballyards are quirky and idiocyncratic, living things because the architecture is part and parcel of the outfield itself — all the better that that’s in utter counterpoint to the infield, that diamond of inviolate geometry.

Part of it is because in football, basketball, and hockey, the dimensions of the entire playing surface are standardized. Sure, you can paint your basketball courts all sorts of colors. You can paint your football field blue if you want. You can choose between grass, fieldturf, and Astroturf in football. You can put a pirate ship in the stands. But the playing dimensions are standardized, and that leaves no room for little nooks and crannies.

Baseball field dimensions, on the other hand, are not so much standardized. The dimensions of the diamond portion of the playing surface is standardized. There are 90 feet between the bases. The pitching rubber is 60 feet 6 inches from home plate. But the outfield and the foul territory? That’s libertarian, baby!

As economists might say, the outfield and foul territory characteristics are constrained choice variables. They can have virtually any quirk the team wants as long as the park as a whole fits into it’s geographic corner of the world. Got an old warehouse? No problem. Just build it into the park. Asymmetric outfield? Go for it! A flagpole in dead center field? You got it! You want foul territory big enough to land a jumbo jet? The customer is always right.

We sports economists may turn our noses up at public funding, but teams (and the architect firm HOK that has designed a vast amount of new facilities) have done a nice job incorporating all kinds of things from warehouses to hills to strange corners into the new ballparks.

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