Category Archives: Travelogue
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.
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.
If MetLife Stadium is the result of two teams working together to build a stadium, the practice should be banned posthaste and forever until kingdom come.
The problem becomes apparent the minute one comes upon the stadium. The bulk of the stadium’s façade is gray steel louvers. They function to allow breezes into the concourses while protecting from wind and snow, and as far as that goes they do a great job. Unfortunately, it makes the whole place look like a parking garage. MetLife Stadium feels like it aspires to be an office building, which makes sense once you go inside.
Nearly everything inside is some shade of gray. There are four shades of gray for the seats. The columns are a sort of gunmetal gray. Walls are medium. Some of the color comes from mood lighting on some signage, which can be switched from green for the Jets to blue for the Giants from game to game. The rest of the color comes from corporate branding. MetLife has a huge plaza on the western sideline. Verizon, Pepsi, SAP, and Bud Light have their corners of the concourse. Banners are on rotating installations to allow for quick changeovers. Altogether, the place has all the charm of a brand new hospital: clinical, safe, boring, inoffensive.
Perhaps that’s the point. In order to make the Stadium appear to not favor one team over the other (as was obvious at Giants Stadium), MetLife Stadium was built essentially devoid of character. Sure, the place has the requisite suites (four levels), fancy clubs, and plenty of space under the bowl to host any number of event types. The technology inside is neat, and there’s even a mini concourse behind the 100 level for standing room admissions. Still, it’s impossible to get over the fact that MetLife Stadium is just one big soulless, brazen corporate exercise. In that sense, I suppose it’s perfect for the upcoming Super Bowl.
If the 49ers and Raiders had agreed to a co-constructed stadium in Santa Clara, it might’ve looked a little like this. I’d like to think that the two teams would do more to make the stadium truly dual-identity, instead of no identity in the Meadowlands. MetLife Stadium is living proof that technology is no substitute for vision. Cowboys Stadium is also brazenly corporate, but at least it places the Cowboys front and center. The Giants and Jets have to live with this pile of concrete indefinitely. Sucks for them.
Previous Seattle posts:
I’ve been going to Utah a few times for business this summer. During one of the trips, I got to hang out with Scott White, a loyal A’s fan from the Beehive State. While we sat in some excellent seats for a River Cats-Bees game at Spring Mobile Ballpark (thanks Scott and Mrs. White!), he asked me for recommendations on a baseball weekend trip. He had been to Oakland, of course, but as a married guy in his early-mid 20′s he hadn’t done a ton of baseball travel yet. The most convenient trip, I argued, was Coors Field in Denver, a short plane trip or an 8-hour drive away. On the other hand, if he wanted to go to a more interesting city that has far and away one of the best ballparks in the world (and SF was already checked off the list), Seattle’s Safeco Field is a better choice.
Then again, I hadn’t been to Safeco for several years. It is a great ballpark, yet I had trouble conjuring memories of the last visit. So I used that as motivation to spend a weekend in Seattle, where I could stretch out and enjoy more than a few hours in SoDo. Boy, did I ever.
I don’t know that there’s a best way to approach Safeco Field. Taking light rail to the Stadium station allows for a meandering stroll to the park, where the roof dominates the landscape. The walk down 1st Avenue South from Pioneer Square and downtown is not terribly long and has little to write home about. VIPs at M’s games have their floors at an adjacent garage so they can avoid the riff-raff. The best thing to do is to walk along the west facade until you’ve reached the home plate gate, where the lovely rotunda is your entrance. An art installation made of white plastic bats called “The Tempest” hangs from the ceiling like a massive chandelier.
The challenge when conceiving the successor to the ill-fated Kingdome was to allow the Mariners to play games protected from Seattle’s seasonal downpours while making the overall environment feel like an open air ballpark. Of the new parks with retractable roof technology, Safeco Field has done it best. The roof retracts to the east of the stadium outside the seating bowl, so it doesn’t cause shadow issues like those suffered at Miller Park or Rogers Centre. And unlike Minute Maid Park, a similar design that opened a year after Safeco, or Marlins Park, it doesn’t feel like such a sealed off place when the roof is closed. Part of this is due to the more forgiving summer climate in the Pacific Northwest, which allowed the team and architects to forego air conditioning. Regardless, Safeco was put together with the knowledge that summer is actually pretty great in Seattle (outsiders aren’t supposed to know this), but to be safe the other seasons should be accounted for.
If there’s one thing to take away from Safeco, it’s that the place is meant for you to have a beer and enjoy yourself. Beer stands, often with quality craft offerings, litter both concourses. The entire left field bleacher area is devoted to two bars, one that greets fans that enter the center field gate, and Edgar’s Cantina, situated atop the visiting bullpen. Where AT&T Park is known for its kids-oriented facility, Safeco feels at times like one big party deck, or Wrigley Field with better beer.
I took a tour and went to two games, a night game followed by a day game. The night game was special, as it was Ken Griffey Jr. Day. The slugger was being inducted into the M’s Hall of Fame, and it was one of those rare occasions this season where 47,000+ fans showed up. During the induction ceremony, fans listened with rapt attention as their beloved hero was feted. Commemorative Junior bobbleheads were made for the occasion, though only 20,000 fans walked away with the memento. The vast majority of fans stayed through most of the game, even as Hisashi Iwakuma gave it up in the seventh, turning a pitchers’ duel into a Brewers blowout.
The Sunday getaway day game, which attracted 25,390 to the yard, was your classic King Felix start: low-scoring and quick (the game ran only 2:11). A few hundred fans sat in the designated King’s Corner, clad in gold shirts. This was the game that really showcased Safeco as an outdoor stadium, since the roof was open and a bright sun was filling the park. My seat was in the front row of the LF bleachers, which felt great despite it being 30 feet above and recessed from the outfield fence. Speaking of those fences, they’ve been moved in a tad. They’ve already surpassed their home run total from last year, so it seems to have worked, though Raul Ibanez skews things a bit. So far the M’s haven’t done anything with the limited space. There’s enough room for a row of overpriced field level seats if they want to go that route.
A replacement scoreboard was the other major change going into 2013. Larger than a basketball court, the new scoreboard replaces the old combo board flanked by static signage. Unfortunately, most of the time the retro-themed display shows replacement ads where the old static signs used to be. The M’s have ongoing advertisement and sponsorship agreements with various companies, so this couldn’t be avoided. The graphic packages are lovely, with a lot of motion and variety. The Fenway green background used during the game is somewhat gimmicky, but the detail and sharpness are so good that you could be forgiven for thinking the board was itself static – at least from the upper deck where I sat.
As one of the larger parks in MLB these days, Safeco isn’t intimate. The cantilevers aren’t aggressive, and when the smaller Sunday crowd was in there it felt too big at times. Yet somehow it isn’t cavernous, the way Chase Field tends to be when the roof is closed. It has the requisite multiple clubs, a boatload of suites, plus generous concourse space and amenities. Access is excellent and there are many places to hang out during the game, such as the aforementioned LF area or the rotunda roof behind home plate. It feels like an oasis. And when the sun sets over Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula, it’s hard to imagine a better spot in baseball. It’s even harder to imagine leaving.
The best part of Safeco Field isn’t kissed by the sun or close to the action. It’s the Baseball Museum of the Pacific Northwest, a carved out part of the lower third base concourse behind some concession stands. Practically hidden away, it’s a gem of a spot that frankly is the best reason for coming to a game early, better than batting practice or autographs. The Museum chronicles baseball history in the region, from the turn of the century era to the Seattle Giants to Sicks’ Stadium and the Pilots and finally the Mariners, the Kingdome, and Safeco. Included in the collection is the Mariners Hall of Fame, which has the requisite player monuments you’d expect (Big Unit, Gar, Alvin Davis, Buhner, etc.). Naturally, Junior’s monument is the newest addition. At one end of the museum are displays showcasing the various forgotten teams of the past. At the other end are family stuff, such as exhibits explaining the construction of bats, balls, and gloves, and a replica outfield wall where fans can take pictures of themselves making “leaping” catches. The piece de resistance is a craft beer bar called Power Alley, which has a dozen taps and numerous canned and bottled varieties. Whoever put this together prior to the 2007 season deserves a promotion.
While the SoDo neighborhood isn’t as lively as South Beach near AT&T Park or Blake Street near Coors Field, there are a few bars nearby. Pyramid Alehouse has an outpost across the street, which is convenient. Pioneer Square is a 15-minute walk away. I was so focused on the experience inside Safeco that everything outside it barely registered.
Baseball at the Kingdome was even more drab and gray than the Coliseum is now, thanks to the concrete everywhere you looked. It was dreary, depressing, and hopelessly artificial. The Mariners and NBBJ’s Dan Meis took a major compromise, a retractable roof, and managed to minimize it to as little as possible given its size and heft. Now that light rail runs nearby the park is even better integrated than it was when it opened. Given the circumstances, Seattle has made the biggest upward transition from old stadium to new ballpark. The team’s recent suckage has made the ballpark the biggest draw in recent years. Whatever happens next, many of the financial concerns have subsided thanks to retirement of debt two years ago. Regrets are few. That makes Safeco, in every sense, the exact opposite of the Kingdome. For that, Seattleites can rejoice.
The itinerary for my Labor Day Weekend trip has been finalized, and it has a big last-minute change.
- August 28 (Wednesday)
- 9:30 PM – SFO-EWR redeye
- August 29
- 1:10 PM – Phillies @ Mets
- 7 PM – Eagles @ Jets, MetLife Stadium (NFL Preseason)
- August 30
- 12:40 PM – Tour of Yankee Stadium
- 7:05 PM – Orioles @ Yankees
- August 31
- 1:05 PM – Orioles @ Yankees
- September 1
- 7 PM – US Open evening session, Flushing Meadows (Arthur Ashe Stadium ticket)
- September 2 (Monday)
- 7:15 AM – EWR-ATL
- 1:10 PM – Mets @ Braves
- 5:40 PM – ATL-SFO
Tickets have been purchased for all but the three NY baseball games. There are some plans for the Mets game and the first Yankees game, the second is more wide open. I’ll be staying in Brooklyn the whole weekend unless I stay at a friend’s house for a day or two.
One big disappointment is that there are no public tours at Citi Field through the end of the season. I had to call the box office to confirm this and was given no reason as to why. Remember that this is the park that hosted the All Star Game only six weeks ago. Mets gonna Met, I guess.
The addition of Atlanta trip came about as I was trying to figure out how to sneak in one more ballpark during the trip. I noticed that six Eastern time zone teams had day home games on Labor Day: Boston, the Yankees, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Atlanta. Thanks to Hartsfield-Jackson being a big air hub, I was able to arrange a mini-trip in which I could fly down in the morning and fit in a game at Turner Field during a 6-7 hour layover.
Assuming I don’t visit anymore ballparks this year, I’ll have taken in games at 12 different ballparks: Coliseum, China Basin, Safeco, Dodger, Angel, Wrigley, The Cell, Miller, Marlins, Citi, Yankee, and Turner, plus a tour at PNC. I’ve also seen games at three minor league parks this season: Raley, Spring Mobile (Salt Lake City), and San Jose Muni. A trip to San Diego is planned for the end of September, which may allow me to take in the last game of the Padres’ home schedule at Petco. All-in-all, a very successful season of ballpark visits. I only wish that I had more weekends to fit in more visits.
A little over a decade ago, before the great “final” NFL realignment, the Seattle Seahawks were a fierce divisional rival of the Raiders. Who could forget this gem?
The Raiders will wrap up the preseason against the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field (née Qwest Field). If Mark Davis is looking for a good example to emulate in terms of stadium and game experience, he’d be hard pressed to do better than the Seahawks’ distinctive, modern home. Completed at a cost of $360 million in 2001 (plus $70 million for a large indoor exhibition space and garage), CenturyLink Field manages to provide top-tier amenities while creating a very intimidating home field atmosphere, which can’t be said for many new NFL stadia.
The key to CenturyLink Field’s success is its arched roof structures, which each cover most of the west and east stands. Even though people were scarce during the tour, our guide had us yell while on the upper concourse to demonstrate the echo effect, and it was impressive. Most outdoor NFL stadia have at best a roof as a trim piece, nothing as big as this. The roof design was meant to evoke Husky Stadium on the University of Washington campus, where the Seahawks played for a year while the new stadium was being built. Husky Stadium and Oregon’s Autzen are the loudest stadia in the Pac-12. The Kingdome was also loud, now this place is loud. Guess they like loud football in the Pacific Northwest.
Architectural firm Ellerbe Becket (now part of AECOM) incorporated another cool feature from Husky Stadium: an overhanging upper deck. From the picture above, the cantilever runs about 13 rows or 40 feet. The cantilever is actually something of a necessity because the stadium site, where the old Kingdome sat, is rather compact. While many league venues are surrounded by a sea of parking, CenturyLink Field is bordered by a street grid and railroad tracks (just like Safeco Field one block south). Without the cantilevers, Ellerbe Becket couldn’t have crammed 67,000 seats into this space unless they built more vertically, which would’ve been far more expensive.
Since tailgating wasn’t really possible in SoDo, a large exhibit hall was constructed adjacent to the stadium. Named the Event Center, the 200,000 square feet of flex space serves as a huge pregame staging area, a sort of scaled-down version of the NFL Experience at the Super Bowl. Non-ticketed fans are allowed inside until kickoff. The Event Center is also used as a concert venue (of debatable quality) and as a mini convention center.
When fans enter the stadium through one of the gates on Occidental Avenue S, they are greeted by the team store (for both the Seahawks and MLS Sounders) and an enormous lower concourse, which also happens to sit at field level. Using this arrangement conserves space within the limited footprint, though it also also limits the amount of additional structures that can be built on different levels within the stadium. The same concourse on the opposite (east) side is elevated above the field to allow for the construction of locker rooms, the commissary, and other back-of-the-house necessities.
There’s one suite level and suites on the club level beneath it. There aren’t three different club levels, or a stack of four or five seating decks. It’s a classic arrangement that has similarities with with Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field. The 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium has an unorthodox seating arrangement within a compact footprint. We’ll see if it provides the kind of atmosphere the ‘Stick could at times.
Before ever setting foot in CenturyLink Field, I had pretty good understanding of why it should be a great football venue. It doesn’t bow too much to the greedy, pervasive class system of stadium construction. It makes a nod to another great stadium in the area. It’s not a dome. It’s focused on football (and soccer to a surprisingly successful extent). It looks cool without looking too blingy. Unlike the Kingdome, a neither fish-nor-fowl space that both tenants wanted to abandon shortly after it was built, this stadium is something Seahawks and the public can be proud of (public financing problems notwithstanding). Besides the lack of tailgating lots, it’s just about everything a modern football stadium should be. As such, it’s probably the best among the new era of NFL stadia, and 2nd overall to Lambeau Field.
I first visited Safeco Field in 2001, during the Mariners’ 116-win season. The place was hopping back then the way it hasn’t since. When I planned this trip to Seattle I didn’t expect much. The M’s had the Brewers in town, so I wasn’t expecting thrilling baseball by playoff contenders. I looked closer at the schedule and found out that I was in for a treat. Saturday was Ken Griffey Jr.’s induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame, and there was to be an extensive pregame ceremony commemorating the event. There was also a Junior bobblehead, which was to be distributed to the first 20,000 fans (very A’s like number there), which forced many fans to line up six hours or more before the scheduled 6:10 game time. Needless to say I wasn’t interested in the collectible, so I took a tour and grabbed lunch instead.
During that first visit in 2001, I took a cab down 4th Avenue South from a downtown restaurant. The cab dropped me off on the east side of the railroad tracks from Safeco Field. Like many had done, I crossed the tracks at grade, looking both ways for freight or passenger trains. At the time local planners were working on a light rail extension that would finally link downtown and the neighborhoods to the south, including the SeaTac airport. The line finally came to fruition in 2009 and I was eager to try it out.
In conjunction with the light rail launch, additional road infrastructure was built to better support cars and pedestrians traveling to Safeco and CenturyLink Field. 2010 brought the Royal Brougham Way overpass, a simple two-lane structure that feeds pedestrians from light rail and parking facilities to Safeco and cars to a nearby garage. This overpass and another on the south side of the ballpark were part of an $84 million road project. During the intervening years, four pedestrians had been hit by trains on the BNSF tracks adjacent to Safeco, including one fatality. Naturally, ongoing safety concerns prompted the overpass(es) project, to good effect.
Like Seattle, Oakland’s Howard Terminal has an active, working rail line adjacent to the site. We’ve highlighted the train safety issue before. Seattle has dealt with the problem properly and elegantly, if also rather belatedly in the process. When you exit the light rail station just two blocks to the east, you can easily negotiate the gently curling ramp that leads over the BNSF tracks. There’s even a little plaza at the midpoint that provides a good view into the park. Once you cross, you can take stairs down or take an elevator straight to the center field gate.
Unlike Seattle, where Safeco is in the middle of the street grid with multiple entry and exit points, Howard Terminal is hemmed in on three sides by the Oakland Estuary to the south, Jack London Square to the east, and Schnitzer Steel to the west. That means it’s extremely important to ensure that there’s safe, reliable way to get thousands of fans from the north side of the Union Pacific tracks along the Embarcadero to the south side, where HT and JLS are. If thousands of parking spaces or a garage are built at Howard Terminal, it’ll be even more important as no one will want to compromise the rail line by having cars create gridlock around HT before or after A’s games. Chances are that a HT ballpark will need one vehicular bridge (probably at Market Street) and another dedicated pedestrian/bicycle bridge near JLS.
As you can see from the video above, the solution is working. It may have taken a decade, but Seattle finally got its rail and pedestrian solution figured out. Oakland can thank Seattle for leading the way. Stadium name sponsor Safeco, a nationwide insurance company based in Seattle, probably abides too. The issues for Oakland – if Howard Terminal moves into a real planning stage – are what kind of solution they can come up with, how much it will cost, and how long it will take. Seattle set the example. Oakland fans deserve the same kind of safety.
If you’re still skeptical, ask yourself this: Can you imagine the Coliseum without the BART bridge?