Surprise Stadium

When considering the history of the Cactus League, it’s helpful to group the various ballparks into different eras. The classic era included Phoenix Municipal and Tempe Diablo Stadium, both dating back to the 50′s and 60′s. Inactive parks like Tucson’s Hi Corbett Field and Yuma’s Desert Sun Stadium are in this group, as well as the original Scottsdale Stadium, which hosted the A’s long ago. The first iteration of HoHoKam came in the late 70′s, followed by nothing until the 90′s. Then the new wave of ballparks was built, including the new Scottsdale, Maryvale, and Peoria parks plus Tucson Electric Park (no longer used). The latest wave includes Camelback, Goodyear, Salt River Fields, and Cubs Park.

In between the current era and the 90′s was Surprise Stadium, which opened in 2003. Not the first dual-team facility, Surprise was the first fringe locale in Phoenix. As teams started to leave Tucson and the Grapefruit League, they came to the Phoenix area eyeing undeveloped land on which they could house huge, spacious facilities. Surprise followed that trend in luring the Rangers and Royals, who had been in Florida for decades. No longer division rivals, the teams were free to each take half of a stadium and half of a sports complex.

Getting to Surprise can be an ordeal if you’re coming from anywhere east of Sky Harbor airport. It took me 1 hour, 5 minutes to get to Surprise from the Tempe/Mesa border. No main freeway runs anywhere near Surprise Stadium, with only US-60 providing somewhat direct access. As is the case at many of the western Cactus League parks, parking is free and plentiful.

Upon entering, I was immediately struck by how “minor league” the place felt. That’s not a bad thing per se, minor league denotes a sort of intimate charm that can’t be found in the majors. Architectural elements of Rangers Ballpark/Globe Life Park are present in scaled down form. The effect works around the grandstand, where the proportions scale well. The suite/administration buildings in the corners don’t work quite as well, as they appear as if someone dropped a couple of themed motels on the premises.

Permanent concession stands are along the infield part of the main grandstand, but much of the concessions elsewhere are tents, the type you’d expect to see at a fair. Cheesy at that sounds, the booths down the third base line were busy most of the night, offering state fair-type eats. A carousel sits along the first base concourse. There’s no kids field, but the outfield berm is expansive, providing plenty of room for games of catch. I walked up to get an $8 lawn ticket and sat in between the dinner porch in right and the RF fence.

Beer selection was lacking. Concession stands pushed combos at every opportunity. I spent $10 on the “Five Item Combo” which included a small hot dog, soda, popcorn, peanuts, and cookie. If that deal were available in every ballpark I would take it.

Overall, Surprise isn’t much of a surprise at all. It’s very family-friendly, comfortable, lived-in, reasonably priced, and adequate for now in terms of amenities. The presentation works considering the fanbases the park is catering to. In the coming years the teams could look to add more upscale facilities, following the prevailing trend. That would be too bad, and yet, also not a surprise at all.

Camelback Ranch

Scottsdale debacle out of the way, my first game attended would have to be on Sunday, March 16. I decided that needed to head out west. I’m staying in Tempe, so getting out to the ballparks in the western outskirts of Phoenix can be a bit of a chore, usually with an hour drive. Even though the A’s were in Goodyear playing the Reds, I figured I should visit Camelback Ranch first, because the game was the last Cactus League date for the Dodgers before they headed out to Australia. So Camelback Ranch it was.

Opened in 2009, Camelback Ranch (and to a lesser extent, Goodyear Ballpark) became the standard bearer for the newest generation of spring training facilities. Spread out over 141 acres of former farmland, Camelback Ranch is expansive to put it mildly. It is the home of two teams, the White Sox and Dodgers. The Dodgers were lured over to the Cactus League from their long-held but aging home in Vero Beach, Florida. Now that the Dodgers are training much closer to Los Angeles, more of the recent generations of Dodgers fans can come during the weekends to watch the team, and it shows.

The complex is split into the White Sox side to the west and the Dodgers to the east. A lovely man-made lake divides the two halves. While both teams have two major league fields and four minor league fields on which to train, the way the two teams approached designing their part of the complex was quite different. The White Sox consolidated much of their team facilities into a single building, with a tunnel providing access to the fields. The Dodgers split up their half into multiple buildings, while allow for a fan access point where players and coaches routinely pass by fans lined up four or five-deep on their way to and from the fields. Both teams also allow for fans to walk among the minor league fields, which for both teams were in use. The A’s and Giants both have the split facility setup, with major league games played at the stadium and the bigger training facility and minor league fields in a different location (Papago Park and Indian School Park, respectively). Even when the A’s move to Mesa next year, they’ll continue to have a split-facility arrangement with games at Hohokam Stadium and the training facility at Fitch Park a few blocks south. That’s the tradeoff, as established teams have to work in already well-developed communities while incoming teams or teams looking for brand new facilities end up decamping in the outer Phoenix suburbs. Both the Dodgers and White Sox came from Florida, the latter by way of Tucson. Grounds were beautiful, with minimal team branding and great attention to detail in the landscaping. About the only thing the stadium will need in the future is a new scoreboard, as the video screen proved rather small during an early replay challenge.

I didn’t have a car today, so I took the 90+ minute trek on public transit to Glendale. This involved a trek on Valley Metro’s light rail, followed by a long bus ride on Route 50 past the depressed West Phoenix neighborhood of Maryvale. On the bus with me were a handful of Korean fans, who came out to see Hyun Jin Ryu pitch. Driving to Camelback Ranch is not too difficult due to its proximity to the Loop 101 freeway and free parking. A CVS pharmacy sits outside the grounds if fans need to grab a bottle of water or other sundries, water inside costs $4.

A beer costs $7.50, with a single stand along the 1st base line providing craft brews from Four Peaks, Firestone, and Sierra Nevada. Food offerings are split between the two teams, with concession stands offering Dodger Dogs and Chicago-style hot dogs, along with other types of sausages. The concourse got cramped frequently because many fans were taking advantage of the limited shade the concourse provided. Also available were pizza from local chain Barro’s, barbecue, and a soba noodle booth.

While I sat at a picnic table in the centerfield court, I was joined by a couple of workers who were taking a break during the 7th inning. One did the bag check at a gate, the other worked retail. I asked them what the difference was between the crowds for the Dodgers and White Sox, and they agreed that it was no contest. Dodger crowds were much larger on the weekends, naturally. The five home dates lost because of the trip to Australia would mean less revenue at Camelback Ranch compared to last year. In response, Dodger fans may have come out in greater numbers to the shorter slate, knowing that their window to watch their team would be short. As for the White Sox, I’m sure that Jerry Reinsdorf is simply happy to have a stable home for his team, his had gone through three previous spring training homes during his ownership tenure.

The City of Glendale has staked its future on the profitability of its numerous sports venues, which include Camelback Ranch, University of Phoenix Stadium, and Arena. The arena is a particular sore spot because the NHL Coyotes have been a money pit, only staying in town because of a $15 million annual subsidy to new Coyotes ownership. UoP Stadium has performed well, hosting one Super Bowl to date and next year’s as well. Camelback Ranch has good attendance, though the lack of ancillary development around the complex may limit tax revenue potential. Camelback Ranch, which cost $158 million in public funds, may have been one-upped by Salt River Fields and the new Cubs Park in recent years, but time will wear well on the complex.

P.S. – Monday night (3/17) I’ll be at Surprise for the Rangers-Royals game at 6:05. If you’re there, look for me in the gold A’s 1969 cap. I’ll be roaming around. 

Together We Are Giant-ly Ripping Fans Off

I was supposed to go to the A’s-Rangers game today. Delays at baggage claim forced me to consider a later game, the A’s-Giants tilt at Scottsdale. After a late lunch I headed over to Scottsdale Stadium. At the ticket window I was greeted with the grisly reality: no tickets for the near-sold-out game were available for less than $55. Just as bad, the cheapest ticket by face value was $30 for lawn or standing room, which is the Giants’ weekend pricing policy. $30 for lawn during an exhibition? No thanks. $16 for the same ticket during weekdays? Now that’s a lot more reasonable.


I’m upset enough that I may take Scottsdale Stadium out of my trip completely because of the price-gouging that the Giants are practicing. These are exhibition games, people. But I get it. The Giants are finding a market for these tickets. There are tons of Bay Area fans making the short flight to Phoenix to take in a weekend of games, so in the grand scheme of things $60-100 for two games is not that big a deal. If like me, you want to take in two weeks of games, the pricing is completely out of line. It violates the spirit of Spring Training, which is supposed to be a cheaper, more accessible alternative to regular season Major League Baseball.

Part of the problem is the enormous popularity of the Giants. Like it or not, A’s fans, down here Giants fans outnumber us significantly. I saw it on my plane, at Sky Harbor Airport, and around the stadium. As long as Giants fans are willing to make the trek and pay these prices, the Giants will continue to charge silly amounts. The franchise has always taken advantage of every opportunity to rake in the dollar, whether it was by pioneering dynamic pricing, overcharging to sit on top of the right field wall (Arcade), or their Cactus League pricing. It’s not only the American way. It’s the Giant way.

Revised Cactus League Trip Schedule

When I had originally posted the 2014 Cactus League schedule, I was under the assumption that I’d be able to spend at most a long weekend in the desert, watching the A’s and a few more games. Time has a way of changing things, this time for the good. My younger brother, who has been attending ASU, is in the process of buying a house in the Phoenix area, which will make it easy for me stay there for this and future spring trainings.

As a result, what was going to be at most four days will now be two weeks at the end of March. I won’t be taking much time off from work, instead going to a bunch of weeknight games while going to day games on the weekends. Here’s the schedule (night games in italics):

  • 3/15 – Rangers @ A’s, 1:05, Phoenix Muni
  • 3/15 – Dodgers @ White Sox, 7:05, Camelback Ranch
  • 3/16 – Indians @ Cubs, 1:05, Cubs Park
  • 3/17 – Rangers @ Royals, 6:05, Surprise
  • 3/18 – Giants @ Indians, 6:05, Goodyear
  • 3/19 – Cubs @ Rockies, 6:40, Salt River Fields
  • 3/20 – Giants @ Padres, 7:05, Peoria
  • 3/21 – Royals @ Angels, 1:05, Tempe Diablo
  • 3/21 – A’s @ Giants, 6:35, Scottsdale
  • 3/22 – Angels @ Brewers, 1:05, Maryvale
  • 3/23 – A’s @ Mariners, 1:05, Peoria
  • 3/24 – Padres @ Cubs, 7:05, Cubs Park
  • 3/26 – Angels @ A’s, 1:05, Phoenix Muni

That’s 13 games in 12 days, covering all 10 Cactus League parks and all 15 teams. Included is the final A’s game – and probably the last Cactus League game – ever at venerable Phoenix Municipal Stadium. There won’t be any tearing down of foul poles or ripping out of seats, because Muni will live on as the next home of the ASU Sun Devils baseball program. I’ll take the afternoon off for that game on the 26th, and it will be bittersweet. I may add games on the 25th or 27th, plus there will be plenty of other sports going on (Coyotes, Suns in town, NCAA tournament on TV with both Arizona teams playing well), so I expect my plate to be very full. If you’re in town, let me know and we can commiserate over a beer during a game. As for the expansive schedule, consider it a bucket list item to be checked off.

2014 A’s Spring Training schedule released

As the hubbub and posturing over the Coliseum lease subsides, today we got some good news: the A’s spring training schedule has been released! It’s a momentous spring, too, since it’ll be the last at venerable Phoenix Municipal Stadium before the A’s move 10 miles east to Hohokam Stadium in Mesa. Hohokam is vacant in 2014 as crews make changes to accommodate the A’s after the departure of the Cubs.

Speaking of the Cubs, they’re set to open their Wrigleyville West, also in Mesa, in 2014. That’ll be worth checking out. The A’s play only one split-squad game at the Cubs’ yet-unnamed ballpark on March 5. Even if you miss that, don’t fret because the great thing about the Cactus League is that all of the parks are within a reasonable driving distance of each other. While there’s no neat sideshow like the World Baseball Classic in 2014, there’s still plenty to watch.

If you’re interested in visiting, remember that the A’s work out at the ballfields at Papago Park, which is nearly 2 miles north on the other side of the park from Muni. One thing I’ve never done is walk from Papago (where minor league camp games are held) to Muni, so I might do that this year.


Oakland Athletics 2014 Cactus League Schedule (last 3 games are Bay Bridge series). All times Pacific.

Looking to check out several Cactus League ballparks? Consider that the 10 parks are set up in two clusters of five, to the west and east of downtown Phoenix. The east cluster, which Phoenix Muni is part of, is less spread out than the west cluster. Best to divide and conquer.

I’m targeting the 4-day weekend of March 13 through 16. The A’s play a rare night game at Muni. If I get there in the morning I can take in a game nearby in the afternoon before heading to Muni. There’s also a split-squad opportunity on Sunday the 16th, starting with a game in Muni and ending with the A’s taking on the Giants in Scottsdale.

There’s no league wide schedule available yet, as the teams are given the responsibility to arrange their schedules among themselves and publish when they’re ready. At this early stage, only a handful of teams such as the A’s and Giants have published theirs. Soon I’ll get all of them and put together a grid, the same way I did for the regular season.

One last note – keep in mind that Daylight Savings Time goes into effect on March 9, about two weeks into the schedule. That means all games before March 9 are an hour ahead of the Pacific time zone. From March 9 forward, games in Arizona are at the same time as California because Arizona doesn’t observe DST. The schedule shown is in Pacific time. If you’re planning to attend a game before March 9 and are traveling the same day, remember the time change.

Citi Field

The Turner Field review brought out a nice debate among the commenters about the ballparks of the NL East. Namely, which of the parks was least disappointing? Was it Turner, which is too large and not intimate? Nationals Park, which looks like an office building from the outside? Citizens Bank Park, which feels extremely contrived? Marlins Park, which feels a little too mall-like to be an authentic ballpark? Or Citi Field, Fred Wilpon’s attempt to bring the Dodgers back to the East Coast? Alas, my answer to that critical issue will have to come another day. For now I’ll just focus on the new park in Queens.

Jackie Robinson Rotunda from top of escalators

Jackie Robinson Rotunda from top of escalators

As much as the Mets are Wilpon’s team, Citi Field can easily be called The House that Bernie Madoff Built. By the time reports about Madoff’s Ponzi scheme surfaced in late 2008, the bulk of Citi Field had been built. With only a few months to go before the stadium opened, all that remained was some finishing work and to button up the ballpark. All of the expensive parts had been installed. Initial reports had Wilpon losing enough money that he’d have to sell the Mets. It turns out that Wilpon turned to Madoff to set up investment vehicles for various Mets employees. A lawsuit brought by defrauded Madoff investors sought as much as $300 million from Mets (legacy) ownership. They settled for $162 million. The extent of Wilpon’s and Howard Katz’s complicity will forever remain alleged, not proven. Which means that if there was any justice in the world, Wilpon should’ve been forced to sell the Mets.

Yet Wilpon remains, cutting payroll $40 million a year until debts are paid off, quashing hope among Mets fans. Even phenom pitcher Matt Harvey couldn’t escape the Wilpon taint, as his season was cut short in late August thanks to a bum elbow (he got Tommy John surgery last week). No matter, the Mets have a nice ballpark, right?

The thing is, they do have a pretty nice ballpark. Sure, the silly outfield dimensions had to be pulled in to encourage more offense. The Mets Hall of Fame was horrendously belated. At least it’s there, right next to the rotunda. Citi’s spacious, has good concessions and all of the amenities needed to bring in the big revenue when the team starts to contend again. The façade looks reminiscent of Ebbets Field (Wilpon’s obsession) from the outside. It looks nothing like Ebbets (AFAIK) from the inside. The rotunda is impeccable, yet feels somewhat removed from the concourses and the seating bowl.


Citi Field grandstand behind home plate

Look carefully at the picture above. How many glassed-in levels do you see? If you guessed five, you are correct. Behind the plate there are the very exclusive Sterling Suites. Above that is another suite level, then another suite level, then the press box, and finally the promenade club along the upper deck. Every new park provides another example of the stratification of moneyed fans. By this measure, Citi Field is among the worst offenders. That’s the kind of modern, business-driven compromise we’ve come to expect of new ballparks. There are mini rooftops behind the plate that could be perfect places for, oh I don’t know, seats? Just a thought.

Citi Field was built in the parking lot between Shea and the industrial wasteland of Willets Point, much the same way Great American Ball Park went up in the shadows of Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. Unlike Riverfront’s enclosed cookie cutter design, which required to have the outfield stands demolished to accommodate the new ballpark in a very tight fit, there was enough space for Citi Field in the lot. Another proposal to build a new form of multipurpose stadium for both the Mets and Jets came and went quickly, allowing then-mayor Rudy Giuliani to focus on separate ballparks for the Mets and Yankees while the football teams partnered up for MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands. Building on the same site allowed the team to utilize existing infrastructure, which includes stations for the #7 subway, Long Island Rail Road, and proximity to the Grand Central Parkway, Van Wyck, and Long Island Expressways.

It’s telling that Citi underwent significant changes in its first two off seasons. Bullpens were moved around, the Mets Hall of Fame was added, and the fences were brought in last year. All that generates the feeling that the ballpark was the product of ticking features in a checklist, rather than designing the park holistically. Misgivings have only been magnified by the enormous amount of negative press surrounding the team and ownership. Over time this should subside, and what will remain is that Citi Field is a substantial improvement over Shea, albeit an extremely expensive one. Both Shea Stadium and Ebbets Field lasted 45 years for the Mets and Dodgers, respectively. Hopefully the Mets can get at least 45 years out of Citi Field.

Turner Field

The First Quarter 1965 edition of Modern Steel Construction has marvelous article on the construction of Atlanta Stadium. The multipurpose venue served as arguably the most successful “on spec” stadium ever built. That’s to say that the stadium was built specifically to attract teams to Atlanta, which had no major pro sports franchises to call the city home. Initially, Charlie Finley wanted to move the A’s to Atlanta from Kansas City, but the American League blocked the move. The NFL was slow to approve a franchise move or expansion to Atlanta, until AFL-related parties showed interest. When the stadium broke ground in 1964, league interest was piqued and deals started getting done. First it was the Braves moving from Milwaukee, followed by the NFL expansion Falcons franchise. Both teams had a spacious, modern venue to share. The layout was akin to the Coliseum, with the lower deck seats conforming to the bowl shape. This yielded large foul territory and a lengthy distance from a 50-yard line seat to the sideline. The biggest differences between Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum were that the former was enclosed and built with more structural steel as opposed to the all-concrete Coli.

Panorama from Right Field

Panorama from Right Field

When Atlanta was awarded the 1996 Summer Olympics, local officials saw a way to reuse the showcase Centennial Olympic Stadium for baseball. To do so, the main grandstand would be built with a baseball-friendly contour. Temporary sections would be built for the Olympics, creating a capacity of 85,000. Those stands would be torn down after the games, allowing the Braves to fill in the rest of the ballpark in left and center field. Eventually the venue re-opened in 1997 as Turner Field (named after the team’s then-owner, CNN magnate Ted Turner). An outline of the temporary stands forms the large entry plaza in left field, while a wall and the outline of the baseball field commemorate the old stadium in the parking lot across the street.

After the Braves moved in for good for the 1997 season, the newly rechristened Turner Field looked like a ballpark in form and function. It had large, wide concourses. A large outfield complemented the Braves’ pitching staff, and the rounded fence was reminiscent of the old Launch Pad. Foul territory was significantly reduced. Yet one couldn’t help but feel that the stadium was cavernous. The split lower deck has a total of 46 rows, a reminder of how many seats had to be crammed in there for the Olympics. No other lower deck has nearly as many rows, including the split lower deck setups in Anaheim, Arlington, and Baltimore. The main concourse at row 30 is dark and somewhat cramped. The next concourse on row 46, airy and huge. The club level cantilever is modest, covering most of the upper section of the lower deck. A ramp in right field extends so far out it feels like it’s in another ZIP code. Including the outfield plaza, the whole site takes up 20 acres. Even the ballpark footprint alone is about 17 acres. Fulton County Stadium’s circular footprint was a meager 10 acres.

What remains is a vast, family-friendly ballpark well suited for the modern fan. The outfield has numerous play areas and attractions, restaurants with fare at many different price levels, and space, space, space. Turner Field was among the first ballparks to implement a large center field scoreboard plaza, and this one makes AT&T Park’s rendition look like an apartment balcony. Along the left field upper deck sits yet another play area called the Coca-Cola Sky Field, a synergy of adapted re-use and branding that would only be possible in Atlanta. The park lacks a signature element to distinguish it from others. There’s no contrived affectation in the outfield. The scoreboard was once the largest, but has been surpassed by others since. The skyline of Downtown Atlanta is somewhat obscured by the Delta Sky 360 Club above the left field seats. Dark blue is the predominant color, though there’s plenty of muted green throughout in the columns, trusses, and railings. And the facade has some brick to cover the concrete, only enough to make it look like someone stopped work about a third of the way through the job.

Turner Field’s real gem is the Braves Museum Hall of Fame. Entrances are along the left field concourse and the outfield plaza, the latter for use on non-game days. Admission is $2 (via a token) during games, $5 at other times, and can be packaged with a $17 stadium tour (which I did not have time to take). The museum is chock full of exhibits celebrating the franchise’s different eras in Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Boston. A statistical leaderboard displays all of the accomplishments of Braves greats, and there are lockers to honor players and notable teams over the years. There’s even a Pullman rail car that fans can enter to experience what it was like to travel from city to city by train. Of course, there’s a great homage to Hank Aaron, plus preserved dugouts and seats from the old Stadium. Best of all, when I checked in via MLB’s At the Ballpark app, I received a coupon for free admission. If you get to the game early and have time, it’s definitely worth the hour visiting the Museum can easily take up.

The only public transit directly serving the ballpark is local bus. The Georgia State MARTA station is the closest at 1 mile away. A better choice is to take the free ballpark shuttle for MARTA riders, which originates at the ever sad Underground Atlanta mall adjacent to the Five Points station. It’s basically set up for fans to walk through the mall and perhaps pick up something before boarding the shuttle to the ballpark. The ride takes 10 minutes and the return trip drops fans off directly in front of the station. My trip was such that I flew into ATL in the morning, took the Red (or Yellow) line to Five Points, then the shuttle to the park. Cost was $2.50 each way, plus $1 for the Clipper-like Breeze card used for area transit. Simple enough.

Pullman car used during train travel era

Pullman car used during train travel era

Turner Field improved on Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in many of the same ways other cookie-cutter-cursed cities had their ballpark experiences enhanced. While Turner isn’t as intimate as PNC or as distinctive as AT&T or Camden Yards, it’s comfortable and has good sight lines and food. More importantly, it stands as an innovative example of stadium re-use and financing, since the whole thing was paid for with Olympic sponsorship dollars. That’s not a point the casual fan will care about. For a stadium geek like me it’s a bonus point. By those measures Turner Field is a major success, and finally a permanent baseball-only home for a once-nomadic franchise.

2014 MLB Travel Grid now available

One of the nice things about a relaxing blowout performance by the A’s is that I can hunker down and get some work done while the game is going on in the background. In this case, it meant finishing the Travel Grid schedule for MLB’s 2014 season. The last two times I made the grid, it took a while to get a system down to automate much of the work. Thankfully I was able to get a copy of the league’s master schedule, which made the cut-and-paste actions extremely easy. As a result I’ve finished the 2014 edition about twice as fast as previous versions.

If you’re not familiar with the previous work, the premise is simple. I’ve taken all of the team home schedules, arranged them by region, and put them in a grid format so that you can plan baseball trips next year. Whether you’re trying to do a weekend, a week, or a 30-team tour, the Travel Grid should help you pick the best dates to attend, especially if you’re trying to fit as many games as possible into a certain window.

Sample of Travel Grid poster view

Sample of Travel Grid poster view

For your convenience, the schedule is available in four different formats:

Mid-late May looks like a good time to catch multiple teams in the Northeast. All four Rust Belt teams (Tigers, Reds, Indians, Pirates) will be at home around the Fourth of July. And if you want to follow the A’s around the state of Texas, you’ll have two chances in late April and late June. The third weeks in July and August are good for a Chicago-Milwaukee trip since all three teams will be at home, and if you want to catch all three SoCal teams in one shot you’ll have multiple chances to do that throughout the season. Hopefully the A’s will still be able to call the Coliseum home in 2014. While that gets figured out, feel free to grab a copy of the Travel Grid and start planning.

Note: The master schedule shows a spot for a TBA game on Sunday, March 30. When that game is announced, I’ll update the grid.

Locals share their thoughts on NY ballparks

Note: This is not a review of either Yankee Stadium or Citi Field. It is a set of observations made with others. Full reviews will be out shortly.


Jackie Robinson Rotunda

I had the privilege of having guides (of sorts) accompany me to games at the Mets’ Citi Field and Yankee Stadium during the current trip. For the Mets day game on Thursday, reader/commenter/blogger and Brooklyn native llpec endured my chronic lateness to join me. llpec has the unique perspective of having been to Ebbets Field, then transferring his allegiance to the Mets. On Friday and Saturday, I was accompanied by my old friend Erik, a Yankee fan since the Boogie Down era whose favorite player will always be the late Thurman Munson. Both have spent numerous games at the old Yankee Stadium and at Shea Stadium, so they were able to give me insights that can only be earned from multiple trips to these venues.

For llpec, Citi Field would be great if it wasn’t such a reflection of Fred Wilpon. He joked that anyone who complains about Lew Wolff should be a Mets fan sometime – then they’d understand what a bad owner was truly like. Given llpec’s anti-Wilpon railings I was almost ready to disregard some of his observations. But you know what? He was dead on.

When Citi opened in 2009, much was made of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, the grand entrance to the stadium behind home plate. It is huge and beautiful. The problem was that Robinson was never a Met. Wilpon chose to honor his old love of the Brooklyn Dodgers and their trailblazing legend. The idea behind the Mets’ original colors was to salute the two West Coast bound teams, the Dodgers and Giants. Yet there were no tributes to the Giants to be found. And there still aren’t. The Mets Hall of Fame, a lovely room off to the side of the rotunda, didn’t open until 2010, a year after the ballpark opened. The creation of the HoF was part of a mea culpa on Wilpon’s part.

Yet there are still touches that are troublesome. Corners are cut in many places. Toilets don’t have seat covers. Elevators are small and not numerous. llpec’s visually impaired, with virtually no peripheral vision. Citi’s accessibility is poor for a modern ballpark. Most access is through stairs, either at the rotunda or in dimly lit spaces on the concourses. Escalators are present, but they require additional movement along the concourses to reach them. The single ramp in the left field corner is so far away from the normal circulation patterns that I had to point it out to llpec. At Shea, ramps were a prominent circulation method, along with escalators.

About those escalators – in the last year at Shea, a fan died from a late game escalator fall. Since then the Mets have shut down and barricaded the escalators after the seventh inning, instead of running them in reverse in the down direction. Previously they only shut down the escalators while providing access to them in stationary mode. The deadly fall may have occurred when the fan tried to slide down the rail. His widow claimed that the escalator jerked to a stop, causing the fall. There have been instances in the past involving stupid (often drunken) behavior around escalators. Still, just about every team runs them in reverse at the end of each game. Not the Mets. Wait, there was one escalator I saw running in reverse at the end of the game – the one serving the plush Sterling suite level.

Even though the stadium’s final tab ran $900 million, it sure feels a lot cheaper than that, at least in the regular fan spaces.


On the other side of the ledger is $1.6 billion Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. It’s an homage to the Yankees greatness and incredible wealth. Naturally, the only thing bigger than the tributes to the various Yankee players and teams is the tribute to late owner George Steinbrenner III. If Citi Field reflects Fred Wilpon’s cheapness, Yankee Stadium reflects Steinbrenner’s brash opulence. The oft-criticized Great Hall inside Gate 6, which is full of static and electronic signage everywhere, struck me as quite functional once I ignored all the bright lights. Access to the upper levels is easy, and the place holds many of the peripheral concessions and merchandise stands that would normally clog up the main concourses.

The big video screen inside Gate 6 looks bigger than either of the Oakland Coliseum’s DiamondVision screens. The elevators are huge and plentiful. Ramps are easy to get to, though when Erik and I were leaving via the right field ramp something smelled like a toilet (and there was no restroom nearby).

It doesn’t take much for opulence to give way to tackiness. Team stores are glassed-in, mall-like spaces. Drink rails on the lower concourse are all “reserved”. There are the ever-popular obstructed view bleacher sections in center field, blocked by a batter’s eye restaurant. The limestone facade and the back-by-request frieze hanging from the roof seem like anachronisms compared to the rather stark, modern underpinnings. There’s plenty of coated steel and mesh to offset any old touches.

We sat in the upper deck near the third base line for the Friday night game, then the left field bleachers for the Saturday afternoon game. Our upper deck seats weren’t nearly as close to the action as the old cantilevered upper deck. At the same time, it wasn’t as vertigo-inducing as the previous upper deck. The new bleachers are set back further from the field than the old ones, as the Yankees have chosen to follow the trend of expensive field level outfield seats first. Because of the Stadium’s generally hitter-friendly dimensions, the bleachers don’t seem as far from the action as I initially expected. Plus the bleacher creatures are no longer trapped there since they have access to the rest of the general concourses. The bleacher concourse is not perfect, as it requires stairs to connect to the regular field level (100) concourse. The corridor behind the outfield lower level seats is narrow and enclosed, perhaps the one place that’s most reminiscent of the old Yankee Stadium. It also lacks concessions and restrooms, requiring fans to walk to the main grandstand or up to the bleacher level to get either. The corridor provides access to Monument Park, though that only occurs only before games or during tours.

Erik and I also took a tour of Yankee Stadium. The tour is less a showcase of the stadium than it is a tour of Yankees history. Our first stop was the Yankees Museum on the main (second) level, followed by a trip to Monument Park, then some time in the visitors’ dugout. The tour felt severely rushed, as we were constantly being told not to linger for picture taking except at the designated areas. The team considers the Museum and Monument Park as separate museums within the larger museum that is Yankee Stadium. When you’ve won 27 titles, I suppose you’re entitled.

US Open, Night Session

Thanks to a major scheduling adjustment, I was able to fit in a long-held bucket list item into the current trip: a visit to the US Open tennis tournament. Ever since Jimmy Connors’ magical runs in the late 80′s/early 90′s, I wanted to attend the Open. Until now I had always managed to miss it by a week or a month on previous NY trips. Thankfully I was able to secure a ticket ($63) to the night session on Sunday. The ticket also was for the main stadium, Arthur Ashe, which at 22,547 capacity is the largest tennis stadium in the world.


Arthur Ashe Stadium opened in 1997

Like most tennis tournaments, there is usually action happening on several courts at once, allowing fans to move from one match to another on the grounds with little difficulty. The exception to the free access is Ashe, which requires separate admission to its all-reserved seating bowl. The US Open is also unique in that it features night sessions, a practice not employed regularly at the other three major tournaments (Australian, French, Wimbledon). During the night sessions matches are played at the show courts: Ashe, Louis Armstrong, and the Grandstand court, which is attached to Armstrong. Early rounds may also utilize Court 17, the round stadium also knows as The Pit.

Ashe is simply immense. Closest to the court, two levels of loge boxes sandwich two levels of suites. At the top of the stadium is the  Promenade level, the reserved (non-box) seating area. I sat in Row G, not even a third of the way up, and the players looked like ants. At 10,000-seat Armstrong, the general admission seating goes all the way up to within six rows of the court. Fans can easily go from the east end of Armstrong to the concourse, which just happens to overlook Grandstand.

Architecturally there isn’t much to write home about. The main courts are clad in brick façade, with Ashe rising high above everything. Tennis tournaments are planned in a festival format, where a central area serves up concessions (and sponsorship opportunities), with limited food and beverage options inside the stadia themselves. Restaurants and lounges fill the ground level entry to Ashe, but they are far removed from the action.

The broader site is the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, a large facility operated by the USTA for training purposes. Over the years more facilities have been added, including expanded locker rooms, a hospitality pavilion, and the aforementioned additional stadia. Only two weeks a plan to place retractable roofs atop both Ashe and Armstrong was approved as part of a $550 million. The US Open has seen its share of rainouts and weather delays, so the roofs will be a welcome change. Unlike baseball games, there is little room for postponements because of the short, two-week playing schedule. The other three majors have already installed retractable roofs at their facilities.

I look forward to coming back to attend the tournament again in the next year or two. While most of the matches I watched were blowouts, I was pleasantly surprised to catch the last American in the men’s draw, Tim Smyczek, playing a fifth set against Spaniard Marcel Granollers. Sadly, Smyczek lost that final set 7-5 after nearly breaking Granollers late. Maybe next time, ‘Murica.