From gargantuan stadiums fitted more to football and the ongoing controversy surrounding instant replay and robotic umpires, baseball is on the verge of losing touch with what made it America’s pastime: people.
I’m sitting in what a city-slicker might call the back 40, the 500-level seats, complete with the broad iron brandishing of steel girders supporting a roof that retracts, opening on occasion to release all the trapped echoes held within this monstrous dome. I can literally touch the walls of this cold alien world and look out upon its neon green ecosystem, a replica field with little tiny players playing a little tiny game. The air up here is different: it’s more dense, noxious, cycled through a complicated series of fans and filters and released back into our lungs. The sounds are softer, dulled by all the dead air. Up in the far reaches of the Rogers Centre there is no telling sound to signal the discord of a hit in a once-perfect game: that cacophony is lost. The alarming crack of a bat, the slap of leather on leather, even the once-raucous roars of the crowd circa the early nineties (alive again, I must say) are reduced to little more than a dull thud in this cordoned-off, covered and cavernous space.
You’re removed; all the tight-knit, anxiety-inducing, close-quartered encounters that make a ballpark infuriating and at the same time alive and intimate are gone. Amid the dead gray of a concrete mass and the cracking, chipped blue walls of the once-infamous SkyDome, a game that is usually so personal, so close and so real seems less so. Somehow it seems less alive. Less human.
Back in the late ’70s and all through the ’80s, baseball stole out from under the summer skies and moved indoors. The reason was twofold: it was a game repeatedly subject to whims of weather and being supplanted in cities with hostile climates, cities like Seattle and Tampa Bay that simply couldn’t support a team whose games always had a 50/50 chance of being rained out. In places like Montreal, Minnesota and Toronto, moving indoors made sense if the teams were ever to play in October, when precipitation more often than not meant snow. It just made sense. We’d learned long ago how to weather a storm; so too, we figured, should our national pastime.
The second reason for the retreat was financial: moving into monstrous stadiums, stadiums already in place or at least in the planning stages, made sense if multiple teams could play in them and in turn cut the cost. Having the Seahawks, the SuperSonics and the Mariners all sharing space in the Kingdome meant year-round revenue at a third of the cost it would take to build three separate venues. Again, it just made sense.
But what a financial or weather report could never factor in, what it had no graph for, was the impact moving into these hulking monstrosities would have on the game. For football, it was fine; you could fill the stadium and no one was any the wiser. Ditto basketball, whose fans were born and bred in the rafters, already used to the game being played indoors. But for baseball, a slower game attended in equal parts for the sport and the experience, the Kingdome, the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome, SkyDome and Tropicana Field were cold, dead places, places that lacked intimacy or a feel for the game, Frankenstein’s monsters born to resemble a baseball field but whose dimensions were skewed and cold to the touch. These stadiums, however practical on paper, just couldn’t complement the experience; they complicated it.
And so fans revolted: to this day the four parks mentioned above, some no longer standing, still rank among the worst venues to watch a baseball game. They sucked the sunlight and soul from the seats. There was nothing appealing about wasting away an afternoon on a concrete slab under an overly fake fluorescent sun.
Today, only three parks remain that can be described, architecturally, as “multipurpose”: the Rogers Centre, the Trop and the ungodly eyesore of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The rest, primarily built, rebuilt or renovated in the ’90s or early 2000s in a movement we’ll call reactionary, a return to whatever it was we found in the sun, are best described as “retro classic,” “retro modern” or “retro modern classic.”
That, of course, is not to say that they’re all ideal (or that we care to distinguish between “retro classic” and “retro classic modern”); Busch Stadium is still an expansive football-fieldesque chasm, Chase Field is more akin to the basement pit in Silence of the Lambs and the new Marlins Park in Miami is a contemporary spastic circus of poor sightlines and scenery. But they are all more alive. They are more in tune with the game, closer to recapturing the experience of the ballpark, of breathing life, literal un-cycled air back into the afternoon.
And yet after almost two decades of staring at dead space, we find ourselves on the precipice of another monster threatening the humanity of a game we just took back from the cold clutches of modernity, rescued from the dehumanizing qualities of a crass, concrete world. Here we are welcoming the possibility of instant replay, of a strictly defined strike zone upheld by an army of robotic umpires with laser-like accuracy and not an ounce of give. Ominous, always-right overlords without a drop of humanity.
Prompting this discussion is a recent strange series of blown calls: an obvious safe call botched by Tim Welke, back-to-back balls called strikes by Bill Miller, last year’s 19-inning mess at home in Atlanta and of course Armando Galarraga’s and R. A. Dickey’s not-so-perfect games.
But as infuriating as a blown call might be, as important as a two-out, 3-2 bases loaded ball that should have been a strike might be to the pitcher, the human element remains as much an integral part of baseball as the bat or the ball or the park. It’s what keeps us coming back; it’s what drives fans to fury. It does occasionally backfire, at times it is grossly unfair, but it is what keeps the fans connected to the play on the field. In the same way that the colossal stadiums of yesteryear moved us both figuratively and literally further away from the game, the introduction of what will undoubtedly be overused replay or worse, the reduction of the strike zone to systematic science, threatens the very lifeblood of the game.
Long gone would be the days of Lou Piniella waddling in a huff to home plate. No more ejections or irrational implosions on the mound by a pitcher still fuming over an inside corner that was actually a ball. No more arguments between friends at the bar over high strikes and slow looping curves. No more questioning safe at second, out at third or dead to rights at home. It would all boil down to a science, a little red blip, a flashing little battery-controlled robot that’s always right but in the end would be profoundly wrong.
This is the argument of purists. The argument for the presence of human error in a game of measured skill can only be a purist one in the sense that the game remains as close to its roots as possible, not that it is free from error. It comes from the mouths of the same people who found it uncomfortable, disconcerting to watch baseball in a dome under the ever-present and unnatural glow of fluorescent bulbs. From the people who gather around the water cooler at work to talk baseball, to dissect last night’s game down to the last pitch. For them, baseball, with all its blown calls, its crumbling but storied walls, its retro modern feel free from whatever architectural flight of fancy might be the choix du jour, baseball, with all its imperfections, is perfect.