Baseball inside the Beltway

If Washington, D.C. gets a new stadium, what will the city lose?

Baseball may not embody the American spirit as fully as football does, but you can learn some things about our cultural and political trends from the plans being made for a new Major League ballpark in our nation's capital.

The target market for this ballpark is not the suburban, minivan-driving, middle-class family raising today's Little Leaguer who might become tomorrow's big leaguer. It is the urban yuppie, the K Street lobbyist, and others who have made their peace, or who are making deals, with big government.

Baseball is not the reason for this new stadium, it is the excuse.

Washington already has a serviceable Major League ballpark. RFK Stadium, built in 1961 to house both football and baseball games, is not an architectural masterpiece. But it has many redeeming practical qualities, particularly if you are a baseball fan who does not buy tickets on an expense account and who brings his children to games.

An architecture critic for The Washington Post recently indicted RFK as a "spaceship in a parking lot." The stadium pleads guilty. But if RFK is a spaceship, at least it does not come with a NASA-sized price tag. It's already bought and paid for. And as for parking lots: They are indispensable for a facility designed to attract tens of thousands of people to the same place at the same time.

Indeed, differences in price tags and parking lots are central to understanding the different constituencies served by RFK and its still unbuilt replacement.

The main highway running out of suburban Virginia into Washington runs straight into the large parking lots surrounding RKF. Families coming from exurbia, where they can still afford the homes, can navigate all the way to the stadium gates in their own cars, where they can enjoy tailgate picnics they made themselves.

Outfield seats at RFK cost as little as $7 - about the same as a movie matinee.

The new stadium, which will cost Washington more than $600 million, is designed to have 41,000 seats but only 1,225 parking spaces. Instead of parking lots, it will be surrounded by a new "entertainment district" featuring restaurants, bars, and retail stores.

Why so few parking spaces? To force people to take government-controlled mass transit. That will make attending games more difficult and more expensive (requiring multiple round-trip Metro tickets) for families - particularly those that live in suburban or more rural areas not immediately adjacent to the mass-transit system.

It also means the end of tailgate picnics. Just as people are forced out of their cars into mass transit, they also will be forced to give up picnicking in hopes they will patronize trendy restaurants in the shadow of the stadium.

Changes in the ballpark experience will change the ballpark crowd. You will see fewer parents entertaining their kids in a wholesome outdoor environment, and more adults entertaining themselves in the densely packed, urban, nocturnal "entertainment district" the city fathers envision.

The new Washington park will also surely suffer, as virtually all modern ballparks do, from the video-game mentality. Team owners apparently believe their typical customer's consciousness has been so warped by overexposure to bad rock 'n' roll and computerized games that they must be constantly bombarded with raucous audio and video stimuli or else lapse into a collective coma.

Yet, the proposed stadium is honest in one way: It will not affect the "classic" brick front of other neo-ballparks, which pretend to re-create stadiums of old. It will be a massive glass and stone structure whose look has already been compared by some to the shopping mall it more or less will be.

The truly classic American baseball stadium was an austere structure. It grew venerable because it was preserved for decade after decade by generations of community leaders who held a responsible grip on the public purse and did not consider functioning public assets as disposable goods.

Of course, those old stadiums were not so much physical spaces as fields of dreams, where children grown old remembered when their heroes were young, and when home runs were hit and shut-outs thrown by players who never touched a steroid or earned a seven-figure salary.

We build beautiful stadiums in America today, but are we building beautiful memories in them?

Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor of Human Events. ©2006 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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