I’m always on the lookout for the little bits of ballparks that tell a fan exactly where they are, apart from some architectural marks—things that might give away its age, history, what its team stands for, which countries its players call home. Where most of America props up Budweiser and Under Armour, Coors and McDonald’s, Yankee Stadium displays huge Hitachi and Komatsu ads for years, starting (I think) in the days of Hideki Matsui and renewed with the tenures of Hiroki Kuroda, Masahiro Tanaka and Ichiro no-last-name-needed Suzuki. At Dodger Stadium you have the ad for Choco-Pie, the greatest of Korean snacks, stamped on the right-field fences for fans of Hyun-Jin Ryu tuning in from across the Pacific, and with Chan Ho Park before him.
In Chicago, things tend to get framed around intra-city Sox or Cubs? divisions, with post-game shows on local news networks, sports bars showing the games. Then one day you see Kosuke Fukudome at bat and the green-screen TV ad signboard behind home plate changing to Japanese, and you start to wonder if GMs actually think about this stuff—working pipelines of talent to bring in X amount of worldwide eyes to a product they’ve crafted to international perfection.
Keeping it domestic, you have the huge John Hancock signature ad shining proudly over the center field bleachers at Fenway, evoking some image of American history, the type of thing you’d never expect in Phoenix or San Diego where you get ads for Petco and Chase Bank and Toyota and Playstation, hot tub pools in the bleachers, clean, brand-new concourses, clean, well-behaved fans.
You have the flag of Maryland flying around Camden Yards and on many of the jerseys, where state (or at least flag) pride seems to run deep. And then the non-regional ads of most other stadiums, that leave you wondering how two parks 1,000 miles apart can usher the same brands into your subconscious, how parts of this country have about as many differences as you’d expect between two non-neighboring suburbs.
With ballpark names, too, you get whole stories of their own. Yankee, Fenway, Wrigley, Camden: reads like some set of historic places—like a sports version of Madison Square, Mount Vernon, Bourbon Street, Yosemite. Then you have Target, U.S. Cellular, Coors, Petco, Minute Maid, Tropicana—and it starts to sound like you’re in a strip mall along a highway somewhere, where everyone has the same errands and grocery lists, all wearing the same outfits (no offense to all the teams housed in these great ballparks—maybe minus Tropicana…)
The classic ballpark features always stand out in plain sight, indeed some of the first things I notice. The stately arches lining the upper decks of Yankee Stadium, the retractable roof and hotel rooms at the Rogers Centre, the home run “sculpture” at Marlins Park, the yellow slide at Miller Park, the Green Monster overlooking left field at Fenway, the fountain at Kauffman Stadium, the waterfall at Angels Stadium, the choo-choo train at Minute Maid, and so on.
But these were all part of the design on some level, in the discussion at ownership meetings, the result of months of work by construction teams. When I think about the trademarks that may have slipped through the focus-grouped, blueprinted cracks of an architecture plan, you have an equally long and distinctive list.
Seeing a kayak, you get AT&T Park. A yellow bridge: PNC Park. An always-empty upper upper deck: Oakland Coliseum. The loud noises of landing airplanes: Citi Field. A group of palm trees: Dodger Stadium. The humidity coming up off the Ohio River: Great American Ballpark.
And then there’s that other category of sneak ads, like the Dos Equis “most interesting man in the world” campaign, that become part of the chit-chat and inside-joke culture, ones un-obnoxious enough to leave an impression. The “Bowser Blasts” marker in right field at PNC Park (which advertises I’m not sure what), the Citgo Sign outside of Fenway, the giant steel Coca-Cola bottle at AT&T Park, the big Liberty Bell image at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, the GM building beyond center field at Comerica Park, the Budweiser rooftop behind Wrigley that the new jumbo-tron has (literally) put in its shadow.
So, the point of all this, other than paying inadvertent homage to product placement and expensive advertising?
Just this observation, really, that most ballparks come off more as city landmarks and less as sports venue or arena or even stadium in the way that the homes of other sports’ teams might feel assembled as backdrops for the on-field product, and not experiences in themselves. Mile High Stadium? Awesome. Lambeau Field? Iconic. But I can’t guarantee that I could tell them all apart without a few hints (and not just because my baseball fandom exceeds that of football).
Think about it—has anyone ever gotten a tour of the American Airlines Arena or studied the contours of the three-point line at the Staples Center the way a group of fans might take an hours-long tour of Fenway? Sidenote: I actually got a tour there and the docent spent many minutes lauding the qualities of the Kentucky bluegrass in the outfield and the special dirt used for the warning track, which probably also had some sort of proud (and overly serious) name.
So as some NFL stadium superfan starts sharpening the tines on his pitchfork, readying to riot with each word I write here, I’ll just say this: when I hear people say baseball is slow, boring, unathletic, I get their point, but only in the same way that I get how fine art or symphonies can be boring and slow. It’s not really wrong, just missing something, when half of the experience is the place, the feel, the look of it all. Lincoln Center is as much the sounds and shows that go on inside as it is the fountain and arched columns outside, etc etc (full disclosure, I was once bored enough in there to leave an opera at intermission). So baseball is somewhere in between, a city landmark / sports arena cyborg that puts out a wide platter of home-run cheering rah-rah-ism and artwork appreciation-ism, enough to look at (I would hope) for pretty much everyone, the fan and the anti-fan.