Lucas Oil Stadium

As I was finishing my Midwest trip, I had to make 4+ hour drive from Cincinnati to Chicago, where I had to return my rental car and fly out of Midway. Thankfully I had a couple places to visit along the way, the great brewers 3 Floyds just outside of Chicago and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Having been to Cowboys Stadium and University of Phoenix Stadium, I was eager to compare the retractable dome peers.

Lucas Oil Stadium opened in 2008, in between UoP (2006) and Cowboys/AT&T (2009). Unlike the other two, Lucas Oil Stadium was meant to be in a downtown environment, adjacent to a pre-existing convention center. The stadium replaced the old RCA Dome, the built-on-spec fixed roof stadium that lured the Colts and owner Bob Irsay one cold morning in March, 1984.

I had never been to the RCA (Hoosier) Dome, so I can’t speak to its quality as a football venue. From what I could tell, it was much like the Pontiac Silverdome, with a two-deck, football-first layout and air-supported roof. Being in Indianapolis, the RCA Dome and its successor became favored venues for the NCAA basketball tournament, since the NCAA’s headquarters are in Indy and the area is well-suited to handling large events. Indy is also home of the DCI Championships, the national drum corps (marching band) competition.

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Like many stadium tours, this one started and ended in the team store. A flight of stairs took us from the street level to the lower concourse level. The lower concourse is split, 3/4ths of it set up in the middle of the lower deck to accommodates suites, while the north end concourse is open at the top of the lower bowl. Throughout the lower concourse are massive sponsor areas for Lucas Oil, Meijer, Stanley, and others. Huge windows illuminate much of the concourse, but the mall-like feel can’t be avoided. It’s better than the awful compromised sterility of MetLife, though that bar isn’t exactly high.

While it has a fairly compact layout, the seating bowl has few cantilevering opportunities. There are columns along the club level corners, creating some obstructed views. The one interesting feature is the press box, which is suspended from the roof above the western upper deck. The view is high up as one would suspect. At the entire press box is along the sideline, not set in the corners as is often the case with new NFL stadia.

HKS designed Lucas Oil Stadium to evoke an old field house, a nod to the team sport the state loves most of all, basketball. Bankers Life Fieldhouse nearby has the same vibe. Neither truly pulls off the homage. BLF already looks rather bloated, so you knew that getting LOS to look right at scale would be a difficult challenge. To minimize the visual impact, HKS placed the footprint slightly off the street grid and turned the stadium so that the north windows face the center of downtown Indy. The effect works when you’re close to the edifice since the façade is broken up into components, but once you see the whole thing with its peaked roof from afar, it’s ruined. There’s simply no avoiding the fact that this is a huge stadium, though at some angles it looks smaller than its peers in Arizona and Texas.

Unlike UoP and AT&T, the roof is designed to open laterally with the field (to the sidelines), not to the ends. Part of the reasoning is that much of the load-bearing structure is built along the sidelines, as opposed to the other two stadia where huge trussed arches carry much of the roof’s weight. HKS did a nice job of not over-emphasizing much of the structural work, which is the opposite of the firm’s muscle-flexing exhibition in Arlington. Again, this helps to reduce the visual scale of the building and largely works. In that sense Lucas Oil Stadium looks and feels more like a really large basketball arena than an enormous football stadium. That says a lot for an industry that has never considered intimacy much of a factor in its fan experience.

One obvious feature not at Lucas Oil Stadium is a museum, or some other nod to team history. There’s a Ring of Honor along the upper deck rim, sure. Despite the team’s general lack of success during the 30 years from roughly 1970 to 2000, there is a rich history that should be better acknowledged. Exhibits along the concourse or on the outside of the stadium would be helpful, yet are inexplicably missing. At some point Peyton Manning will have a statue outside. It would be better if Manning’s tribute was located near plaques for Johnny Unitas, Eric Dickerson, and Marvin Harrison.

Having opened towards the end of the NFL stadium boom, Lucas Oil Stadium is a perfectly good representation of the era and of Indianapolis. It has all the amenities you’d expect and has undergone numerous changes to react to the market. It is also, sadly, the product of a major subsidy from Indianapolis – as is the basketball arena. Indianapolis will always struggle with its big city-small town desires. While Indy will never be a proper big city like Chicago, at least it can be a good host. Indy knows that game inside and out.

Huntington Park, Columbus

After a visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, I drove the 2+ hours southwest to Columbus to catch a game at Huntington Park. Traffic and a late start made it so that I didn’t get there until the 4th inning. Nevertheless, there was sufficient time to take the whole scene in.

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Joe Mock wrote a particularly glowing, exhaustive review of Huntington Park back when it opened in 2009. If you want the full scoop, read that. I prefer to highlight a few things I saw during my brief visit.

First, it should be noted that Huntington Park (named after an Ohio bank) is one of the first ballparks done by 360 Architecture, the same firm working on the Earthquakes Stadium and Cisco Field. 360 is known more for its work on several indoor arenas, including Nationwide Arena across the street from the ballpark and Sprint Center in Kansas City. With 360 and not Populous (HOK) doing this venue, there was a question about how much the architects would stray from the script. While it doesn’t look all that different from a Populous design from the outside, on the inside there’s plenty of new and innovative thinking.

Like many urban parks, Huntington Park uses all available space within its city block. The brick facade along the right field fence runs up against into Nationwide Drive, a small street running through Columbus’s arena district. Instead of a complete wall, there are openings approximately every 20 feet, allowing for numerous places to view into the park. Near the right field corner this area is a short, double-deck walkway that’s also 20 feet wide. Beyond right-center the walkway ends. The sidewalk on Nationwide Drive ramps up to the concourse level and carries the theme further, providing “portholes” for spectators along the street. Many minor league parks have a Knothole Gang-type feature, but Huntington Park is perhaps the most innovative in how to design it. It’s very reminiscent of AT&T Park’s arcade/promenade feature, yet very unique on its own. Visually, the stadium’s two-story design means the colonnade has little impact. The impact would be much greater on a taller stadium such as Cisco Field.

The setup dictates that there’s no 360-degree concourse, which is ironic given the architecture firm’s name. This apparently was a conscious choice, since the team and architects figured that the wandering around the concourse novelty effect would wear off over time as fans got used to the venue. This was an apt decision, as fans seemed to have settled into spaces they like the most. A $7 ticket is good for the bleachers, berm, or standing areas, most of which have drink rails. Families may like the bleachers or the small berm in left. Fans wanting good views of the game might choose the drink rails down either line. And if you get there early enough, you and your friends can hang out in that right field colonnade, where there are stools and extra side rails that allow you to “claim” your own space. If there ever was an effective argument against the wraparound concourse, this is as close as it gets.

Along the main bowl, the benefit is an enormously wide concourse, which I estimated to be 66 feet not including the wheelchair row. That’s over twice the width of the Oakland Coliseum’s lower concourse. With all that space, 360 broke up the concourse, similar to the way part of the lower concourse at Jacobs Field* is split. They even took it a step further by including a completely open-air concession stand that serves from three sides. It’s a particular ingenious way of using the space while also providing views of the action. The concession stands are full service, with taps, soda fountains, grills, and deep fryers. It’s not a design that should ever be attempted if the concourse is not sufficiently wide enough since it could cause severe congestion. Even with the 66-foot width, congestion has been reported at Huntington Park, though I didn’t see it when I went and there should be easy ways to manage it when it happens. Restrooms and other services are set into buildings along the concourse.

Behind the plate in the seating bowl are the club seats and loge boxes. Loge boxes, while de rigueur in 2014, weren’t so commonplace in 2007 when Huntington Park was being built. With 4 chairs each, tables and full service, loges fit the gap between individual club seats and luxury suites. I can see why they were incorporated into the Cisco Field design and Dodger Stadium.

I had heard and read many recommendations about Huntington Park, and was pleased to find out that they were very much on target in their assessments. I haven’t even gone over several other features, or discussed the general niceness of the crowd. For now, it’s good enough that Huntington Park is a solid evolutionary step of ballpark design, and I hope that they’re allowed to evolve it even more at some point.

Rust Belt trip and a giveaway

Yesterday was the first day of my eight-day, eight-game Rust Belt trip. I’m spending the first three days in Detroit for the A’s-Tigers series. Ninth inning collapse aside, it’s been good. The weather today is expected to be hot and humid, with thunderstorms at night and cooling through the rest of the week.

Some non-baseball locations not shown

Some non-baseball locations not shown

The rest of the trip is supposed to look like this (all times Eastern):

  • Today: Comerica Park tour, 11 AM; A’s @ Tigers, 7 PM
  • Wednesday: A’s @ Tigers, 1 PM; drive to Toledo; Columbus @ Toledo, 7 PM
  • Thursday: drive to Pittsburgh; Dbacks @ Pirates, 7 PM
  • Friday: drive to Canton; Pro Football Hall of Fame
  • Saturday: drive to Cleveland; Royals @ Indians, 7 PM
  • Sunday: drive to Columbus: Pawtucket @ Columbus, 6 PM
  • Monday: drive to Cincinnati: Cubs @ Reds, 7 PM
  • Tuesday 7/8: drive back to Chicago, fly home

Since I’ll be in Ohio on Sunday, I won’t be able to use my tickets to the final game of the Blue Jays series. If you’re interested, comment below with a brief explanation of why you should get the tickets. They’re free and I’ll have to email transfer them to you, no snail mail. I’ll weed out the poor entries and randomly pick among the best, just like last time. You can also reply to me on Twitter or via email. I’ll announce the winner after tomorrow’s A’s-Tigers game.

Quick visit to Fitch Park & Hohokam Stadium

Before I headed back to the Bay Area, I quickly drove by Fitch Park and Hohokam Stadium to see how the improvements there were progressing.

The City of Mesa has a progress report page on the project. Things seem to be going to schedule, with completion expected before the end of the year.

In related news, a Maricopa County judge has declared illegal the car rental tax that provides funding for all of the area spring training facilities and larger facilities like the Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium. Car rental companies had argued for years that any taxes on car rentals have to go towards road projects and maintenance, not unrelated things such as stadia. While the expected to be appealed, the potential impacts on local Arizona governments are potentially huge. The state would have to refund the tax to car rental agencies, but oddly enough, not consumers even though consumers ultimately paid the tax on their individual car rentals. The ruling won’t stop funding for the A’s project as it’s likely that it will be completed by a final ruling in either a state appeals court or the Arizona Supreme Court. Should the ruling be upheld, it would be a double whammy on Maricopa County as they’d have to rebate the already collected funds and figure out where another source would come from. Or you could be Pima County (Tucson), which paid for upgraded spring training facilities and are left holding the bag because the teams left anyway.

Rust Belt Trip 2014

So far this year I’ve gotten my baseball fix in numerous ways. I spent 2 weeks in Arizona for Cactus League action, and I’ve gone to 10 A’s home games so far this season. Yet there’s one itch I still need to scratch, and that’s a Major League ballpark trip. This time it’s the Rust Belt, covering games in Michigan, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. If I can work it out, there may also be a trip to Toronto. Here’s the schedule I’ve drawn up so far, starting with some A’s-Tigers games at the end of the month:

  • 6/30 – Oakland @ Detroit, 7:08 PM
  • 7/1 – Oakland @ Detroit, 7:08 PM
  • 7/2 – Milwaukee @ Toronto, 12:37 PM -or- Arizona @ Pittsburgh, 7:05 PM -or- Oakland @ Detroit, 7:08 PM
  • 7/3 – Arizona @ Pittsburgh, 7:05 PM
  • 7/4 – Toledo @ Columbus (AAA), 7:05 PM
  • 7/5 – Milwaukee @ Cincinnati, 1:10 PM
  • 7/6 – Kansas City @ Cleveland, 1:05 PM

If I can fit it in, there will also be trips to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. If you have any suggestions for the trip, drop them in the comments. And if you’re a reader (NRAF) in one of these great cities, let me know and we might be able to catch a game together.

Last 2014 Cactus League Ballpark Reviews

I’ve been playing catch up in terms of news, so for the sake of consolidation I’m putting the remainder of my Cactus League ballpark write-ups in a single post. Enjoy.

Peoria

No Cactus League ballpark typifies the 90’s more than Peoria Stadium. From the color choice to materials and signage and circulation, it all feels 20 years old. Sure it feels dated the way anything a generation ago feels dated. Then again, personally, I enjoyed the 90’s. There’s nothing cool about Peoria. It isn’t old enough to be regarded in a retro-cool or ironically cool way. There is, however, plenty of good.

For decades the Padres played way out in Yuma, a 2-hour bus ride from Phoenix. The team’s move to the West Valley suburb of Peoria marked the start of consolidation within the Cactus League. They also share the Peoria Sports Complex with the Mariners, the first such arrangement when the complex opened in 1994.

Like most of the West Valley ballparks, access is a little painful. Instead of dealing with the awful I-10/I-17 weeknight traffic headache, I took the Loop 101 around North Scottsdale and Phoenix to get there. The main exit to get to the park was severely backed up, so I drove one further and found a back way to get to Peoria Sports Complex. A shopping center is adjacent to the complex. Parking costs $5, though you could probably get away with parking for free at the shopping center.

I was extremely fortunate when I got to the gate. I walked up to a table selling $8 lawn tickets. The sellers asked me if I was alone. When I replied that I was, they handed me a ticket given to them by some Giants fans (game was Giants-Padres) who had an extra. The ticket was for the upper grandstand behind the plate. I happily took the ticket for free and walked in. Later I spoke to the wonderful ladies who furnished the ticket and found out that they were from the South Bay. One of them was an A’s fan.

There’s a pronounced carnival atmosphere inside the concourse, with a kids’ field not far away and numerous food tents. The concourse is incredibly spacious, though the game can’t be seen from behind the grandstand. A full upper level includes the press box, suites, and club seats. One major demerit is the almost complete lack of a roof for shade. Day games here can be brutal when it’s very warm.

Banks of bleachers are set up down the lines, leading to the outfield berm. Food and beverage tents and trailers are set up behind the berm. Four Peaks has a beer tent with the most reasonably priced craft brews in the region at $7.50. A frybread stand is not far away. More diverse food offerings are available at Peoria than at any other Cactus League park, probably because Peoria and the M’s/Pads aren’t afraid to let independent vendors work the concourses. If you’re sick of the standard ballpark food available at many other parks, Peoria has you covered.

Prior to the start of the Cactus League season, the City of Peoria finished numerous improvements to the complex. The vast majority of those improvements focused on the team facilities. The Padres and Mariners both got upgraded administration buildings, replete with new weight rooms and other modern touches. Little was done to Peoria Stadium. The old scoreboard remains. No seating changes were made. No new buildings within the ballpark were constructed. The upper half of the grandstand, whose first row is elevated several feet above the concourse, allows for fans to stand directly in front of it without impacting the views of other fans seated behind the standees. This was preserved. That alone may make Peoria the best ballpark in the Cactus League. All of the newest parks have standing areas 25 rows back along the concourse. In Peoria it’s half that distance.

The quirkiest playing element within the Cactus League also resides at Peoria. The batter’s eye is integrated into the outfield fence, which means that a home run to center has to clear a 40-foot wall. That seems sadistic.

Peoria doesn’t attempt to mimic a Major League experience. The City and teams know what works best there, and they haven’t tried to change it much. Eventually cosmetic changes will need to be made, but those shouldn’t affect the overall feel of the ballpark. Keep it fan-friendly, keep it casual, and the winning recipe at Peoria can continue indefinitely.

Maryvale

The Brewers have spent spring training at Maryvale for seemingly forever. The neighborhood in West Phoenix is no garden spot, yet Maryvale provides a nice oasis. As a single facility with a stadium and training facility, Maryvale does the job for the Brewers reasonably well. The team has made murmurs about getting upgrades, but the City of Phoenix isn’t having any of it for now. Might as well make the best of it.

The complex is within Phoenix city limits, so it’s not way out in the sticks. Access can be a chore thanks to a single main road leading to the stadium from I-10. A good alternate route is to check the streets west of the complex, most of which allow for parking. A regular bus travels along Indian School road to within a 10 minute walk of the complex.

Maryvale received a wholesale revamp in 1998. Far more stylized than Peoria or HoHoKam, many of the design elements work well. There’s a good mix of sun and shade along the concourse. The concourse itself is fairly narrow, creating jams at all of the concession stands. The press/suite building stands on stilts above the concourse, which was necessary because space is at a premium here. A benefit of this is a 360-degree concourse with views from everywhere. From afar the press box looks like it’s floating above the rest of the ballpark. Expansion anywhere within the ballpark seems unlikely unless the Brewers or Phoenix plow a lot of money into the project.

One oddity of the ballpark is that there are only two gates, each well down the lines. It’s common to see fans looking for a gate at home plate and having to walk around much of the stadium to find a gate. The lack of an entrance or anything else besides a fence behind the plate makes the park look facadeless.

The outfield berm is split by a walkway. Many fans sit along the back berm despite being obstructed by other walking fans because trees provide shade. The lower berm extends behind the batter’s eye and around the left and right field foul poles past the bullpens. Unfortunately there are no concession stands along the berm, forcing berm attendees to travel to the main concourse to get anything besides beer. That makes the concourses even more cramped. A basic scoreboard is in left, sans video or graphics.

When I visited, the Brewers AA/AAA camp was hosting the A’s equivalent side, so I headed to the auxiliary fields to check the games out. If you’ve never watched minor league camp games, you should at least once. Few fans attend, and you can sit or stand right along the backstop. Have your minor league rosters handy, as there are no PA announcers. Sometimes you’ll see rehabbing major leaguers in short stints. It’s easy to move between the fields, and you’ll frequently share the common area with players. There are no concessions sold here, and it’s free. You can bring whatever snacks you like.

Back at the ballpark, food offerings are spartan. The expected list of Miller and Leinenkugel beers are available. The Brewers brought their trademark brats and stadium sauce. Beyond that there isn’t much. A shopping district with fast food and other restaurants sit north of the complex along Indian School.

Maryvale could use a little more space on the concourses, and more food variety. The scoreboard needs an upgrade. Other than those quibbles, the ballpark and complex perform their duties competently. Unless the Astros come to the Cactus League and partner up on yet another dual-team facility, this will be the Brewers’ home for some time to come.

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Tempe Diablo Stadium

There’s little to say about this place other than the word “Diablo” is appropriate. It’s a devil of a time parking near the stadium or walking along the 15-foot-wide main concourse. About the only thing good about Tempe Diablo is its relatively central location, but even that is problematic because the park is nudged up against a freeway. Visit it once and never again, unless you’re an Angels fan and you have no choice.