Every summer my son and I try to attend
the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) annual convention, a
yearly gathering of some of the most passionate baseball aficionados the
world over. The event is part reunion, part academic conference, part
trade show, and generally a whole lot of fun. For me, it's also a chance
to do that father-son thing at a different major league ballpark each
year (more about that later), and, in the interest of full disclosure,
an opportunity to peddle subscriptions to EFQ,
which counts many SABR members among its list of subscribers.
SABR folks can be anybody,
so the organization has its share of oddballs and flakes, but mostly it's
an incredibly eclectic mix of individuals all united by a connection to
baseball. Every year I'm touched by the many interesting conversations I
have with people I've met through SABR, whether it's somebody like Lee Lowenfish,
an exceptionally sweet guy and author of an epic volume on the life of Branch
Rickey (see Robert Moss's review in this issue), or Ben Jones, the veteran
actor who played "Cooter Davenport" on The Dukes
of Hazzard TV show and was in St. Louis,
the site of this year's SABR convention, to perform his one-man show on
the life of Dizzy Dean.
What's especially appealing
to me about these conventions, and perhaps what keeps me intrigued as the
publisher of a literary baseball journal, is the many connections I've made
with people that lead to discussions about topics having little to do with
baseball. Take Dan Ardell, for example, a college star at Southern Cal who
was a bonus baby with the original L. A. Angels and is married to Jean Hastinga
Ardell, author of the highly readable Breaking
into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime.
I knew about Dan's baseball career from a brief conversation we had at a
previous SABR convention, but this year we found the time to chat about
other things, which is how I learned of Dan's work with Pueblo Nuevo Development,
a nonprofit community development corporation that provides opportunities for economic
and educational advancement for the residents of the greater MacArthur Park
neighborhood, one of Los Angeles's poorest communities.
Maybe it's just me, but I think the way baseball
connects to the fabric of people's lives is of greater importance than
knowing somebody's fan allegiances or how many times the Mets have broken
their heart. So while I was certainly looking forward to watching Ben
Jones perform "Ol' D" during the
SABR convention, I was probably more interested in hearing about his experiences
in Congress as a two-term member of the House of Representative from the
Fourth District of Georgia. Politics, after all, is the crucible in which
changefor better or worseoccurs, and as someone who spent
a great deal of time between 1999 and 2006 fighting the good fight in
Minnesota against public funding of sports stadiums, I've witnessed first-hand
how a leadership vacuum allows powerful interests to hijack the political
process toward private gain. Unfortunately, Ben Jones and I didn't really
get a chance to talk politics this time around, but he told me that he's
at work on his life story, including his time in Washington. Maybe he'll
send me a copy when the book is published.
Don't Meet Me in
In spite of the wonderful
time I had at the SABR convention, I did not enjoy the "ballpark"
experience that I had at Busch Stadium. You would think that my $27 pavilion
box seat ($30 from a scalper) would have guaranteed me a good seat at the
Cardinals' new $355 million playpen, but that was not the case. The pavilion
box is essentially the upper deck in left field, and for what might cost
me $10 in another stadium (and $7 at the Metrodome), I had a clear view
of about 80 percent of the stadium. Naturally, one couldn't see any of the
plays occurring in left field or in the left field corner. Okay,
I thought, this is a complete rip-off, but it's a beautiful evening and
Mathew and I did this kind of on a whim. Tomorrow night we'll be in the
lower deck as part of the huge SABR contingent; that will be the game where
we get the great view of the park and really feel like we're at a ball game.
Or so I thought.
Turns out that our
$34 outfield loge boxes (for which SABR got a $10 discount
per ticket) were no better. We didn't see the left fielder all gameexcept
when he was trotting to and from the dugoutand having to wait for
the crowd to react to know what was happening in left field greatly diminished
the night's experience. Baseball can argue all it wants that the oval cookie-cutter
stadiums of the 1960s weren't good baseball venues, but I guarantee you
there were far more good seats in Busch Memorial Stadium than in what can
now only be described as the standard HOK brick and steel retro park replacement.
Of course, this is what happens when a monopoly industry calls the shots.
St. Louis management may have what it takes to build a championship ball
club, but if the Cardinals really paid for all but $45 million of the cost
of their new stadium (when you figure in the development rights they were
granted by the city, I suspect their real costs will net out at zero), they're
morons. Three to four thousand lousy seats (and that estimate may be low)
in a stadium with a forty-six thousand capacity may not seem like much,
but it's inexcusable given the sizable public investment involved and the
millions of dollars of legislative time that was devoted to the issue.
In the grand scheme
of thingsi.e., the war in Iraq, the tragedy in Darfur, etc.I
would never suggest that paying exorbitant prices for tickets to a ball
game is something worth spending a lot of time belly-aching about. (In fact,
the $16 bleacher seats at field levelapparently sold out for the games
we attendedwere absolutely stunning in comparison to the grossly overpriced
pavilion and loge seats in left.) And yet, I would argue that this whole
process of shaking down the public for extravagant new stadiums that are
geared almost exclusively to the affluent is symptomatic of the larger ills
that lead to war, famine, and the like. America may be good at a lot of
things, but what we seem especially adept at these days is fleecing the
public to benefit the few, and that's completely inimical to the egalitarian
heritage that set baseball apart from the rest of the spectator sports.
It's no wonder that the gap between the haves and have-nots widens at the
ballpark; it's been happening for decades in the real world.
One More Time at
The week after my disappointing
experience at Busch Stadium, I was in Washington, D.C., for a game between
the Nationals and the Cardinals. As many readers of this journal are aware,
RFK was my childhood "field of dreams" (for my homage to RFK,
please see "Return to RFK," vol. 22, no. 4), and it's been painful
knowing that the old, familiar place would be abandoned once again by Major
League Baseball after the 2007 season. Of course, I'm sure that all the
glitterati who couldn't bring themselves to attend a game at "low rent"
RFK the past three seasons will turn out in droves to the Nationals' new
$611 million palace being built along the Anacostia River in the southeast
section of the city. After all, there are only a limited number of $150
and $300 regular season tickets behind home plate, and who wouldn't want
to drop $24,300 for the chance to be seen on TV every night of the summer?
(If nothing else, such exclusive opportunities are sure to inspire the students
in D.C.'s beleaguered public schools to work all that much harder to get
ahead in life.)
In contrast to the
$30 I paid to a scalper for my crummy left field pavilion seats in St. Louis,
outfield seats at RFK cost me just $7 on the street in D.C. And, thanks
to flagging attendanceeither because nobody cared or due to the humidity
of the August nightI got to spend the entire evening ensconced in
the upper deck reserved seats above third base. For nine innings I was in
heaven, able to observe the action below me, follow the ball everywhere
it went, and take in the sights and sounds of a stadium that I've known
for more than forty years. Heck, even the bathrooms were clean, with shiny
urinals having replaced the communal troughs of my youth.
It's a sad reality
that only in America could the Nation's Capitol, with its high concentration
of urban poverty, find a way to fund an extravagant new baseball stadium
while much of its infrastructure is neglectedand abandon a place like
RFK with excellent sightlines, a large seating capacity, and an existing
subway stop nearby. Then again, one might say the same thing about St. Louis,
the sixth-poorest city in America (based on 2004 median income), that allowed
the Cardinals to abandon Busch Memorial, a place that drew more fans in
its final year (2005) than the team did at a new stadium during their 2006
World Championship season.
In the end, there is
nothing I can do to stop what the developers and politicians love to characterize
as "progress" or "a renaissance" or whatever the splashy
term of the day happens to be. However, what saddens me is all that will
have been lost in the process. As much as I might love the interactions
that can be found at a SABR convention, many of the pleasurable times I've
had as a baseball fan have come from the exposure to folks from all walks
of life at the ballpark. Diversity may be the current buzzword in politically
correct circles, but baseball fans in urban America were intimately familiar
with that cultural experience long before the term came into fashion. With
the orgy of stadium building and the subsequent exponential rise in ticket
prices, the ballpark as a melting pot has largely disappeared. Baseball
may still be America's game, but now I feel compelled to ask, to which America?
Not too long ago there was no hesitation about the answer to that question.