More than Just a Ballpark: Recent Trends in Baseball Stadium Design

As we round third and head towards the homestretch of the 2012 baseball season, it’s not just the crack of the bat and the flavor of a ballpark dog that lingers in our memories, but how the walls and halls that surround those magnificent diamonds inspire our national pastime.  Today’s baseball experience is not solely defined by the score of the game, but by the numerous design trends that contribute to a more intimate and flavorful experience offering countless fan amenities that weren’t foreseen even a few years ago.  As many Major League ballclubs build new parks (see Miami Marlins) or renovate their existing facility (see Oriole park at Camden Yards), they are taking cues from their Minor League counterparts to create fun-filled environments that appeal to more than just the baseball enthusiast.

While the game still starts with the familiar call, “Play ball!”, the game day experience begins well before you even pass through a turnstile.  The arrival experience has become more than just a way to get to the stadium, it is the new “tailgate” area.  At Washington’s Nationals Park,  for example, the experience begins at an empty lot that has been converted to a food and beverage fairground with the use of cargo ship containers at the entrance of the nearby Metro transit stop . Outside Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, an entertainment and restaurant district is alive 365 days a year. Equally important in current stadium design is the sense of arrival once you have passed through the gates.  At Ed Smith Stadium, the Orioles’ Spring Training home in Sarasota, FL, a formal stair lobby and relocated vomitories – connections from the concourse to the seating bowl –create a direct visual connection to the field upon entering the stadium. Additionally, the team store and café spaces that flank the lobby have direct access from both the concourse and street to help maintain an active street, even on non-game days.

Team owners, planners, and architects know a ballpark experience isn’t just about baseball; it’s a way for people to connect.  And those connections are no longer made just while sitting in a seat.  Unlike the classic jewel-box or cookie-cutter stadia layouts that tucked vendors away under the stands, the seating bowl has been pushed, pulled and cut open to provide concession areas and  bar rails with prime views of the field for the spectator who has gone mobile.  New ballparks in general hold fewer fixed seats, averaging between 40,000 and 45,000 seats as opposed to the 55,000-60,000 of just a few decades ago, many of which have not been swapped for cushy suites, but for new, more casual seating types that include bar, restaurant and lounge areas, picnic and dining table seating, party decks and landscaped berms   For example, Miami’s new Marlins Park — conceived by team co-owner Jeffrey Loria as an art piece and promoted to “experience baseball in Miami as it was meant to be experienced” – holds 37,000 seats, significantly fewer than the team’s former home, yet has nearly twice the number of viewing options.  Similarly, we’re seeing the choices in food and beverage options multiplying as well – and not with just your peanuts and crackerjack. The added views from restaurants and specialty kiosks come complete with local specialty brews and food choices that, depending on the ballpark, may include Ben’s Chili Bowl half smokes, Chesapeake crab cakes, Texas barbeque, Pacific sushi, or a Cuban sandwich. The ballpark experience provides the amenities that can satisfy both the avid baseball enthusiast and the average fan just looking for a good night out at the park.

Technology helps, too.  It’s an aid not only in building a better, more environmentally sensitive building; but in adding amenities from a crisper “Jumbotron” to in-seat smart phone options for food service and instant replays. Beyond the flashy scoreboards, we are seeing more and more elaborate and sophisticated home run features that celebrate the home town just as much as the home team.  From the simplicity of a big apple popping out of a top hat at the Mets’ Shea Stadium (now replicated at Citi Field) to a 100’ tall swinging and chiming Liberty Bell at Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia, and from Bernie the mascot taking his plunge down a slide in Milwaukee to the fireworks shooting from the smokestacks of a two story tall riverboat in St. Louis, stadiums themselves have the ability to cheer on their teams. Technology has also allowed the game to be played and enjoyed in places previously limited by their climate.  Though Rodgers Centre in Toronto was the first to allow games to be played either under an open sky or a closed roof, stadiums in Phoenix, Seattle, Milwaukee, Houston and now Miami have furthered the retractable roof technology to ensure a plush green, natural grass playing surface.  It may not be long before a MLB field becomes retractable itself like that at the University of Phoenix stadium and home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, which developed a football field that rolls out into the parking lot in order to maintain a natural grass surface with added venue versatility. And in budget-conscious times, “multi-purpose” is key.  While most newly built stadia are designed for one sport or another, they are being used more and more often for concerts, conventions, local high school and collegiate events and tournaments, even weddings and receptions, allowing for year-round use.

While baseball is keeping up in the hi-tech world, it’s also competing in the sustainable world.  Owners and operators are quickly seeing the advantages of taking steps to create cathedrals of baseball that are more energy efficient, both financially and environmentally.  Nationals Park, was the first professional sports stadium in the nation to received a LEED-Silver rating from the USGBC and has since been joined by four other MLB parks and even more minor league and spring training homes, including Ed Smith Stadium which features: reclaimed water for use within restroom fixtures and irrigation, solar panels to help heat water for locker room showers, light colored, highly reflectant roofing materials in order to reduce heat island effects and seats and stanchions refurbished and reused from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.  And it’s not just individual teams leading the march.  Since 2007 when MLB commissioner Bub Selig created the first professional sports greening initiative, the league has made significant contributions to environmental sustainability for all major American sports.

Regardless of style, ballpark architecture should be oriented to the city and community around it. Large or small, new or steeped in tradition, ballparks reflect not only a game, but an inimitable affection for the event.  Like other important architectural statements, they should encompass and nourish a uniquely American experience.  After all, baseball and the parks that unite us amount to a lot more than a pastime.

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