Baseball's Big Hit - Intimate, Luxury Parks Designed For the Sybarite in You

'Smart' seats, hot tubs, and food courts bring an amusement park approach

Video kiosks, gourmet food, luxury suites, learning centers, meeting rooms, retractable roofs - all these, and more, are becoming standard equipment in new baseball stadiums. If things go the way many sports architects expect, it won't be long before ballparks are as big a draw as the game.

There's a building boom going on in baseball. In recent years, new stadiums have been popping up like dandelions in the spring. Since 1991, six new facilities have opened, including one this year, Turner Field, the new home of the Atlanta Braves. The expansion Arizona Diamondbacks will debut next year in the Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. The Houston Astros, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, and Milwaukee Brewers will all have new stadiums by the year 2000. At least four more teams have projects in the early planning stages.

All this building has coincided with important changes in the way baseball stadiums are designed. "There's a real trend towards design intimacy," says Joe Spear, senior vice president of HOK Sport in Kansas City, Mo., the dominant player in sports design and the only architectural firm that works exclusively on sports facilities. "Fans want natural grass and asymmetrical fields. They also want something that is unusual, unique to a certain location and a certain city."

Baseball is the only major professional sport without fixed dimensions for its playing fields. Many classic urban ballparks ended up with unusual and charming idiosyncrasies, like Fenway Park's Green Monster (Boston's massive outfield wall), as past builders worked to fit a stadium into existing street grids.

Today, asymmetrical fields and other quirks are design elements deliberately created to give a stadium character. In HOK's Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco, for instance, the right field wall will be a short 308 feet from home plate, with the San Francisco Bay just 30 feet beyond the wall. "It's that one sweet moment that's going to be very memorable, when someone hits the first ball into the water," says Mr. Spear. "Those kinds of things really appeal to baseball fans."

HOK almost single-handedly brought back into vogue the traditional urban ballpark, first with Pilot Field in Buffalo, N.Y., a minor-league facility, and then Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, which opened in 1992. Built in the heart of downtown Baltimore, the intimate scale, curved-brick faade, and natural grass, combined with modern amenities, like improved sight lines and luxury suites, made Camden Yards an unparalleled success.

A "new old-fashioned ballpark," it was the antithesis of the bland, bulky, multipurpose stadiums built in the 1970s and '80s to accommodate the disparate geometries of baseball and football.

Camden Yards won national awards and high praise from both baseball fans and architecture critics. Since then, Jacobs Field in Cleveland, Coors Field in Denver, The Ballpark at Arlington (Texas), and Turner Field have incorporated many of the classic and contemporary design elements of Camden Yards and Pilot Field.

The traditional urban ballpark doesn't fit with every city and every market, and architects see other trends emerging as new facilities are planned.

William Johnson, vice president and design principal with Ellerbe Becket, another major player in the area of sports architecture, thinks that stadium design is moving beyond the "retro" phase, and that building a stadium with the look and feel of an old-time ballpark isn't going to be enough anymore. He sees stadiums becoming "complete entertainment environments" - theme parks with the ballgame as the centerpiece of a wide variety of baseball-related activities.

"The ballparks are now clearly big sources of revenue generation," Johnson says, "and the object is to design a building that can create revenue opportunities for the owners, but also give the fans a variety of activities that appeal to all age groups."

Ellerbe Becket, whose sports division is also located in Kansas City, has long experience in designing large multipurpose arenas, but is a relative newcomer to major-league baseball. The firm designed Turner Field, which was built for the 1996 Olympics and converted to baseball. (Also located in Kansas City is HNTB Architecture, the third of the big three sports architecture firms, whose baseball projects have been primarily minor-league and college facilities.)

Appealing to all age groups, especially families and young adults, is essential as baseball continues to compete against other sports and activities for the public's entertainment dollars. A new ballpark can generate 50 percent or more of a team's revenue, through everything from ticket sales, concessions, and parking, to advertising, corporate sponsorships, and luxury suites. Some estimate that a new ballpark can add as much as $50 million to the value of a team.

When it comes to revenue generation and fan appeal, Ellerbe Becket is pulling out all the stops in the BankOne Ballpark in Phoenix. Like a good variety show, it will have something for everyone. Instead of a main concourse, there will be a series of 13 rooms, each with its own corporate sponsor, depicting various periods of baseball history. In keeping with the theme-park approach to stadium design, there will be a multitude of ways for spectators to spend time and money, before, during, and after the game.

The new park will include food courts with name-brand outlets, restaurants, stores selling team products, batting and pitching cages, and a museum with displays of artifacts from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. There will even be a swimming pool, tanning deck, and hot tub just beyond the right field wall, and a retractable roof to help make conditions bearable in the scorching summer heat. Everyone concerned, especially those whose tax dollars have provided most of the $187 million construction cost, are hoping that BankOne Ballpark will be a year-round tourist attraction.

A bit further out on the horizon: "Smart" seats wired with mini-computers, allowing the spectator to order a hot dog while checking the batter's career average against left-handed pitchers with runners on base. Many architects see wired stadiums becoming a reality within the next few years. Ellerbe Becket has designed the seats in the new Phoenix stadium so that wiring and electronic gadgetry can be installed at a later date. "Smart seats" were considered for the new ballpark in San Francisco, but at this point, said Spear, it was decided that "smart seats out in the rain might not be so smart."

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