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Downtown Ballparks Offer Taste of the Past

"This field, this game, is a part of our past," intoned the character played by James Earl Jones in the movie Field of Dreams. "It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again."

Baseball holds a special place in the hearts of Americans. It is a sentimental favorite—a game enjoyed around the country by young and old, rich and poor.

Camden Yards

Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland, is considered the first in the line of retro ballparks.

Photograph by Joseph Sohm; Chromo Sohm Inc./Corbis

The history of baseball is encapsulated not only in names—Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle—but also by places: Yankee Stadium, Polo Grounds, Wrigley Field.

Baseball stadiums of the 1990s and beyond are capitalizing on this sentimentality by returning to their roots—both architecturally and geographically.

The Rise of Retro

Some of the United States' most famous and popular ballparks were built in the early 20th century, including Boston's Fenway Park (1912), Yankee Stadium (1923), and Wrigley Field (1914).

The Houston Astrodome, built in 1965, brought with it a wave of domed, astroturfed stadiums. In 1982, a New York Times sports columnist wrote, "Unfortunately, domeball is here to stay."

Just ten years later, a stadium called Camden Yards changed everything.

Opened in 1992, Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland, is a red-bricked baseball-only stadium located in the city's downtown. The one-time railroad center now hosts a real-grass, asymmetrical baseball field where guests are greeted by a statue of one of baseball's greats—Babe Ruth—whose home is only two blocks away.

It was immediately a hit with fans. While sales were once connected to a team's performance, with the new ballpark, "people will want to come back to Camden Yards even if the Orioles are awful," said Timothy Chapin, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University.

Camden's popularity inspired major league teams around the country to build new stadiums that were influenced by the early 20th-century greats.

The new retro stadiums lure fans with their brick facades and old-fashioned feel. "They're offering an experience, not just a sporting event," said Chapin.

By 1999, the New York Times had reversed its stance on the fate of ballparks, declaring, "Count the Astrodome Generation dead."

Location, Location, Location

Architecture wasn't the only aspect of stadiums that changed in the 1990s. The ballparks also saw their location return to the central city, taking part in—and sometimes serving as a catalyst for—the rebirth of the American downtown.

"Camden is the…showpiece project that illustrates to sports teams that downtown facilities provide benefits," said Chapin.

While Camden was not a revitalization tool on its own, ballparks such as Denver's Coors Field and Cleveland's Jacobs Field have had noticeable impacts on the city neighborhoods where they were built, said Chapin.

Cities also benefit from the name recognition that comes with having a major-league team, Chapin added. "It provides an image of success for the city that's hard to put a dollar figure on."

Chapin said he believes that downtown ballparks are not always the primary factor in neighborhood revitalization; some take advantage of the renewed popularity of the central city.

Team owners are attracted to the central city because it is the workplace of their most important customers—luxury box owners.

Luxury box sales, said Chapin, are "more important to the team's bottom line than the ticket sales to normal people."

In the future, predicted Chapin, team owners will try to capitalize on the success of the downtown ballpark by expanding their territory. "Teams are looking to not only control the ballpark but also the land surrounding the ballpark," he said.

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Road Trip '99

Wrigley Field (Chicago, IL)
Yankee Stadium (New York, NY)
Fenway Park (Boston, MA)
Coors Field (Denver, CO)
Camden Yards (Baltimore, MD)

Wrigley Field
Fenway Park
Camden Yards
Yankee Stadium
Pacific Bell Stadium (San Francisco, CA)

Wrigley Field
Camden Yards
Safeco Field (Seattle, WA)
Pacific Bell Stadium
Busch Stadium (St. Louis, MO)