|Tuesday, April 22
Updated: April 23, 12:48 PM ET
Making old-school new again
By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com
Ah, the old stadium days. Days of Riverfront and Three Riverfront and Veterans Riverfront, of Candlesticks and Arlingtons and KingDomes, oh my. Days of baseball as viewed through binoculars while seated down the left-field line.
Now? It's a cakewalk, that's what. It's all so effortless. All you require is a million bucks or so, and everything else about seeing the local team play becomes an exercise in smooth. You don't even have to like baseball.
You've got your new parks that look charmingly old, the majestic, ballpark equivalent of acid-washed jeans. You've got your $8 microbrews. You've got a seat, for which you paid a small fortune, that is so beautifully angle-adjusted to the action, you never even need to crane your neck looking at a pop foul.
What you have, in short, is luxury even without the box.
Maybe they needed that in Montreal.
Maybe they needed it in a place that remains, officially, utterly indifferent to the existence of the Expos. (New city motto: "Enjoy Life! Ignore Baseball More Often.") Maybe what Montreal really needed was a ballpark so nice you could almost forget about the team playing inside it. You laugh, but I'm telling you, it has worked elsewhere.
In San Francisco, the Giants weren't exactly turning them away at the gates of Candlestick Park, one of those trendy 1960s all-purpose facilities that seemed to age in dog years. Candlestick's great. You can play a football game there and you can host a tractor pull there, usually at the same time, and the place would be so incredibly cold and windy that after a while you wouldn't even notice what it was you were (or weren't) watching.
The Beatles once played Candlestick, in August of 1966. I don't want to say anything against the facility, but it turned out to be the last concert the band ever played together. And this part is true: Turning to the microphone as he and his mates took the stage in the area around where second base would normally be, John Lennon leaned forward and drolly intoned, "It's a bit chilly."
It was a bit crummy, actually. But for years no one made a peep, because Candlestick was the new and the shiny, and never mind that from the start it was almost comically ill-suited to watching a baseball game. The fans came in medium numbers, occasionally topping the 2 million mark in season attendance, more often landing in the mid-1 million range.
The problem was twofold. First, it just wasn't a hospitable place on a summer night (though, trust me, the 'Stick was not entirely without its charms). And second, as owner Peter Magowan once complained while making plans to build Pac Bell Park, "Anyone can get a ticket." It sounded perverse, but Magowan's point actually went hand in glove with the other point: If the weather looked clammy on any given night (and it usually did), you could simply wait for better day to go to a Giants game. With 63,000 available seats, it wasn't like they'd run out of room.
But another day almost never came -- until Pac Bell Park rolled into view, that is. Now, as everybody in the baseball world knows, the Giants play in perhaps the finest facility in the league in an era in which beautiful, baseball-specific models of success have sprung up all over the map, and if you want a ticket, you'd best plan in advance.
It didn't hurt that Dusty Baker's Giants were competitive from the get-go at Pac Bell: A playoff entry in that inaugural 2000 season at the park; a World Series entrant just two Octobers later. But there are cities in both leagues -- Pittsburgh, Houston, Texas, Seattle, on and on -- that already have proved you don't have to be the '27 Yankees to pack the seats at your ballyard. You need a ballyard, in the end, that practically stands on its own.
Montreal's Olympic Stadium is old-school, by which I mean it is coldly impersonal, it's awful for baseball and whatever mystique it once held (as a facility for the '76 Games, as a beacon for the city, whatever) is long, long gone. It happens. Riverfront gave way to Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. Three Rivers yielded to PNC. Even the diehards at Veterans Stadium probably would concede it's time for the Phillies to move into their new digs, although that almost certainly means the cheap seats won't be cheap much longer.
Right now, this minute, it's the old, old school that we're craving. It's red brick and intimate. It needs to feel like something out of a newsreel, just so long as it doesn't interfere with the cell-phone reception. It needs to be remarkably modern and artistically throwback at exactly the same time.
It needs, in other words, just about everything Olympic Stadium doesn't offer, because baseball's dirty secret in 2003 is the number of people who come to its games not really intending to even watch all that closely. They just feel like being there, is all.
Franchises save themselves on buzz like that.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com