Every time I visit a ballpark in a different city I’m struck by the same thought: Despite the fact that Kauffman Stadium was built when flares and platform shoes were a reasonable fashion choice, the people who built it got a lot of things right.
Recently I was in Washington, D.C. for the Royals-Nationals series and because I hadn’t seen it before and decided to go out into the heat and one billion percent humidity and walk around Nationals Park.
I can now report that from the outside Nationals Park resembles a bank that doesn’t want your business.
From the street, the only visible part of the field is the upper deck in center field. Once you’re inside it’s a very nice park, but from the outside, nothing about the architecture says baseball; federal penitentiary, yes — baseball, no.
Even so, it’s light years ahead of the Nationals’ old park, RFK Stadium.
Broken concrete, hand railings thick with layers of paint first applied when cars had tailfins and a lighting system so dim it appeared to be controlled by someone worried about the electric bill.
But Washington, D.C. isn’t the only town that has had problems with their ballpark.
In Minneapolis the old Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome was famous for having a white roof, and since that didn’t make seeing a fly ball difficult enough someone had the brilliant idea of adding little, round white lights — spot the round object that was moving and you might have found the fly ball you were supposed to catch.
You’d think they’ve fixed it by now, but years ago when the roof was closed in Houston’s Minute Maid Park and it was raining, middle infielders reported the roof’s seal wasn’t tight and it was still raining at shortstop and second base. So while everyone else was warm and dry, a shortstop could be looking up into rain drops when trying to catch a pop fly.
In Pittsburgh’s PNC Park those glass office buildings beyond the center-field wall look cool, but the sun reflects off them and makes it tough for the catcher and hitter to see the ball in the early innings of a night game.
It’s easy to come along afterwards and criticize — which is exactly why I’ve chosen that as a profession — but getting a ballpark right is harder than you might think.
Who should you please?
If you’re designing a ballpark you have at least three groups of people you’re trying to please: the people who are paying for it, the people who are going to work there and the people who are going to come to the park to watch that second group do their jobs.
If the players want the equipment room and indoor batting cage right next to the clubhouse, but it’s cheaper to locate those things elsewhere, who wins?
Do you please the players or the people paying for the park?
If fans want to sit right above the outfield, but the outfielders would rather not have fans interfering with a catch or pouring Bud Lights on their heads, who do you please?
The players or the fans?
Make one group happy you might upset the other two.
What Kauffman got right
When fans think of a park they tend to think about how it looks, but ask a player about Fenway Park in Boston and he’s more likely to talk about the cramped clubhouse and dugout than the Green Monster.
A park can look great to a fan, but be a mess behind the scenes.
In some parks, reporters have to fight their way through a crowded concourse to get to the elevators that will take them to the clubhouses, in Kauffman the elevators are right next to the press box.
In some parks the home and visiting clubhouses are at different ends of the stadium which means reporters who need to get quotes from both teams after a game have to do a Usain Bolt to get those quotes before the players shower and leave. In Kauffman the clubhouses are across the lobby from each other.
That stuff means something to reporters, but how about something that affects fans?
Every time someone gets excited over the prospect of a downtown ballpark in Kansas City, I think the same thing: Where do they plan on parking?
While an ocean of asphalt is less aesthetically pleasing than a neighborhood of hipster coffee shops and overpriced sports bars, acres of blacktop mean you can park near the stadium.
Build a downtown ballpark and the parking will be all over the place and so will the prices.
In Kansas City parking costs $12 for a game. I was in St. Louis for this year’s opening day and a downtown parking spot cost about $40 and your first-born male child. In Washington it was $55, your first-born male child and the deed to your house.
Start shelling out an extra $43 per game and see how much you like a downtown ballpark.
A ballpark next to I-70 may not have the most beautiful setting unless an unusually attractive semi drives by, but it does simplify getting in and out of the stadium.
In downtown ballparks, when a game ends the streets look like the PA announcer informed the crowd that the Russians were about to conduct a first strike in 20 minutes and everybody has to run for their lives.
If cities with downtown ballparks don’t actually achieve gridlock after a game, they deserve credit for a valiant attempt.
Kauffman plays fair
The popularity of retro ballparks meant every new stadium had to have some weird feature that reminded people of the days when teams had to build ballparks based on the available land.
That’s what led to short outfield porches and high outfield walls. But those natural ballpark quirks were overdone to an irritating degree today.
Ballplayers do not want to lose a game because a fly ball glanced off some weird and unnecessary angle in the outfield. They’d rather not miss a catch and blow out a knee because someone decided it would be cute to put a hill in center field.
Royals coach Rusty Kuntz was the first guy I heard say it: Kauffman plays fair. As much as possible it allows the game to be decided by the players’ skills.
Weird outfield dimensions, angles and short porches might make a field look interesting, but Kauffman’s symmetrical dimensions give lefties and righties the same chance to hit a home run and lessens the chance of a ball in play hitting something and taking off at a strange angle.
Kauffman encourages exciting baseball
If you like the direction baseball is headed — everyone standing around waiting for someone to hit a home run — Kauffman might not be your cup of overpriced beer because its size makes it a tough park for power hitters.
If, on the other hand, you like action — stolen bases, bunts, hit and runs, taking the extra base and athleticism in the outfield — Kauffman Stadium is a good park because it encourages that type of baseball.
If you’re an advocate of a downtown ballpark go ahead and advocate, but just remember you’re going to have to deal with unintended consequences because building a new ballpark is always a crap shoot; there’s no telling what they might get wrong.
And we already have a ballpark where they got a lot of things right.