For I the lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. --Exodus 20:5
Delicta maiorum immeritus lues. (Undeservedly you will atone for the sins of your fathers.)
The White Sox have been trying to hold off the Baltimore Orioles for the wild-card spot in the American League playoffs. A week ago Sunday, we went out to watch the game of the team that entered the day in the lead in that race. The weather was hot but pleasant, there were 47,239 people in the stands, and the overall atmosphere was alive and festive. The other contending team was playing at home in front of a mere 19,647--on a beautiful day with nothing much else going on in town, on the last Sunday before the football season began.
Of course we were in Baltimore, revisiting Oriole Park at Camden Yards and reconsidering the way things are and might have been. The Sox were at the new Comiskey, playing in front of their dwindling faithful.
The new Comiskey Park, while vastly different from the old one that used to be across the street, shares many of the same problems and for many of the same reasons. The old Comiskey opened in 1910, and the "Old Roman," owner Charles Comiskey, cut corners in the construction costs, with the result that support posts relatively low in the grandstand obstructed views, and the seats, even those deep in the corners, pointed straight out to the outfield instead of in toward the infield. The old Comiskey Park was a success, however, and it came along at a time when the sport was booming; it prompted other owners in other cities to build other stadia, all of which corrected, in one way or another, old Comiskey's faults. Fenway Park in Boston, Wrigley Field here on the north side, Tiger Stadium in Detroit--all followed in quick succession, all with subtle improvements.
The new Comiskey, opened in 1991, was again a ballpark built with an eye for cutting corners. But again it was such an initial success that it prompted other cities to follow suit, all of them setting out to surpass the new model. Oriole Park in Baltimore and Coors Field in Denver are both lovely, traditional-minded, but utterly contemporary baseball stadia, and we have also heard grand things about Jacobs Field in Cleveland and the Ballpark at Arlington, Texas. They have made the new Comiskey seem shabby, and the new Comiskey has little of the moldy charm the old Comiskey had to make up for it.
A quick walk around Oriole Park reminded us of all the things a ballpark ought to be. It is set down in a neighborhood, and its architecture is consistent with the area. Its red-brick shell is endemic to Baltimore. The bar once owned by Babe Ruth's father (he died in the 20s trying to break up a fight just outside in the street) was located in what now is short center field and had to be razed, but otherwise the neighborhood is very much intact, including the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, a humble red-brick house a five-minute walk from the park (and well worth the visit). The most commanding element of the old neighborhood, of course, is the old B&O warehouse beyond right field; it now houses the team offices and is actually part of the park proper. The old street that runs between right field and the warehouse is within the park gates and is lined with vendors.
We were seated in the next-to-last row, high above and beyond first base in the upper deck, yet the ballpark's numerous fine details were all there to be taken in--from the flow of the traffic up and down that right-field street, to the Oriole weather vanes about the scoreboard, to the ivy growing up the center-field hitters' backdrop (now covering about two-thirds of the wall and growing in nicely in just the park's fourth year), to the old-time Baltimore baseball insignia cast in the frame of the aisle seat in every row. As high and as far as we were from home plate, the action all seemed in proportion, and the players all made suitable impressions--foremost among them Cal Ripken with his new batting stance, in which his hands are held back and low and he almost seems to rub his right shoulder with the barrel of the bat before swinging. In short, we sat there in the next-to-last row, and watched the fans circulate in the far reaches of the park, and took in the game, and simply enjoyed the day, and that joy wasn't tempered even when the Orioles fell behind and were skunked 13-0. (Beyond Mike Mussina the Orioles have no starting pitching, which ought to cost them in the race against the Sox unless their fans and their ballpark make up the difference, which they very well might.) After the game we walked down the street a few blocks to the shops and restaurants of Harbor Place, Baltimore's refurbished waterfront, and then we walked back, got in our car (parking: $6), and drove to the airport. The only thing we regretted--and this much later--was missing Tiger Woods come back from five holes down to win his third straight U.S. Amateur golf championship. Nevertheless, our day at Camden Yards was time well spent, everything a day of baseball ought to be.
Last Sunday, we went out to Wrigley Field, where the Cubs, square on the season at 67-67 and with little legitimate hope for a wild-card finish, were playing the defending-champion Atlanta Braves. Again the weather was hot but pleasant, Wrigley sat nestled in its "neighborhood of baseball," with our old apartment across the street, the game well attended on that and other rooftops, and with the other buildings nearby and the lakefront high-rises in the distance and, beyond them, the lake and the sailboats and the pumping stations and the horizon. The Cubs may not have much chance of making the playoffs but we felt it was the place to be, and we were rewarded with a 2-1, 12-inning victory over the Braves.
The attendance was 40,192, and more than half the crowd stayed to the very end. By contrast, the White Sox, by then leading the Orioles by a thin game in the AL wild-card race, drew 19,599 for a Labor Day game Monday against the Detroit Tigers.
There are many reasons given for the fan apathy surrounding the Sox this season. With three levels of skyboxes in the middle of the grandstand, the upper deck is too steep. There is no place nearby to meet before a game, and no place to walk to afterward. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf is blamed for the 1994 strike, which cost the Sox a shot at the World Series, and for the sport's continued labor strife, as well as for losing pitching ace Jack McDowell. The team and the media have all done research on which of these irritations is the one that most irks fans. The fact is that all of the above reasons turn people off to the Sox, but most damaging of all is the way they are manifested in the new Comiskey Park.
The new Comiskey was built with public funds, but the Sox had a large say in its design. What they produced was a structure that reflects the team's corporate philosophy all too well: symmetrical, cold, antiseptic, unforgiving, profit-obsessed, skewed mightily to the advantage of the rich and the powerful, ultimately functional to the point of dysfunction. The Sox like to boast about how they can move 40,000 people (on days when they can get 40,000 to come) out of the ballpark in 15 minutes after a game. Yet it never dawned on them that this might be a drawback, not a grace point. Both Oriole Park and Coors Field are graced--one might almost say secure enough in their graces--to have a wide array of restaurants and bars in the surrounding area. They welcome a fan to come early and stay late, to enjoy the entire experience of going to a ball game. The Sox, with their stadium surrounded by parking lots, give off the feeling that if a fan isn't spending his or her money inside, where it belongs to them, the fan isn't welcome.
This may seem a small annoyance--as is each of the aggravations usually cited in pointing out the new Comiskey's downfall--and the Sox have been mystified by their lack of attendance this year. The fact of the matter is that marketing surveys aren't equipped to deal with baseball fans, who are different from other consumers. The average consumer can fall for a marketing ruse, and six months later it's forgotten and the sucker is ready to be fleeced again. Baseball fans, however, have a long and precious memory; these are people, after all, who can recite Ty Cobb's lifetime batting average, Hank Aaron's career home runs, and Cy Young's total number of wins in quick succession (.367, 755, and 511--without looking them up). When a fan like that looks around the new Comiskey, his or her memories aren't pleasant, but nagging and troublesome.
We remember how public funding for the stadium was the product of Reinsdorf threatening to move the team. How he insisted on three levels of skyboxes with prime locations, the better to milk the city's numerous corporations. How the friendly neighborhood bar McCuddy's, promised a spot near the new park, was torn down and never welcomed back. How hard-liner Reinsdorf fomented and then pressed the 1994 strike, and how he continues to fight against a settlement. (If Reinsdorf, as he claims, isn't opposed to a settlement, why isn't he doing more to fight for it?)
In short, every time a fan in the far reaches of the upper deck is fooled by the perspective into mistaking a foul pop for a home run, the fan feels duped, and the person the fan feels duped by is Jerry Reinsdorf. Recently, Reinsdorf did a newspaper interview in which he said that, while a youngster, he had been a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and felt bitterly betrayed by the team's move to Los Angeles. It was as if Ebeneezer Scrooge had revealed that a pre-Victorian guttersnipe had robbed him of his lunch money every day on the way to school.
So it all becomes clear. Reinsdorf the mercenary owner is simply repaying, many times over, the bitterness he experienced at the hands of Walter O'Malley. Unfortunately, the ghosts of baseball past, present, and future have yet to visit Reinsdorf, and we are the ones now visited by the iniquity of the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn.