Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Baseball Debate: Stadium Edition (Part 1)

Think, for a second, about the history and diversity of the baseball stadium. Not just the 30 that currently stand for MLB teams, but their predecessors both direct and indirect. Stadiums like Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Built in 1919, the park has games that are delayed because the sun sets--when it was built facing the west, there was no such thing as baseball at night. It's one of the few ballparks left with wooden bleachers, one of the few ballparks that watching a game at feels like it should. There's no distractions, no giant scoreboards, no vendors walking up and down the aisles, getting in your way. It doesn't have the history of a Fenway or a Wrigley, but it has all the authenticity of those two giants of the baseball stadium world. 

 Given the option between a game at Wahconah  (right) and a game at one of the awful cookie-cutter stadiums used for both baseball and football (Philly's old Veterans Stadium is a perfect example, as was New York's Shea Stadium), it's really not a close comparison in terms of the atmosphere and purity. However, the newer stadiums--starting with Baltimore's Camden Yards in 1992--have given baseball purists another angle to consider: stadiums built to be modern and fan-friendly, while still trying to retain some of the Wahconah Park charm. These kinds of throwback stadiums combine with some of the retractable-roof stadiums (i.e., Arizona's Chase Field)  and some of the ultra-modern stadiums (Minnesota's new Target Field) to make the ballparks something they've never been before: a source of debate. With such diversity in style and substance, from the old to the new, it's now not enough to compare the players on the field; that same debate has shifted to the buildings they play in. So, we turned to our friends over at Stadium Journey for the expertise on Major League stadiums, and see if we can't try and pick apart the debate just a little more.

For those of you who read our piece on college hoops stadiums, you know how Stadium Journey operates; for those of you who don't, they judge stadiums on seven factors: Food, Atmosphere, Neighborhood, Fans, Access, Return on Investment, and Extras--also known as the FANFARE system. The average score for college basketball stadiums, of the 100+ Stadium Journey has reviewed thus far, was 3.14. The average score for baseball stadiums, meanwhile, is 3.84, so it's obvious we're talking about a sample of much higher quality. In fact, only two stadiums in all of baseball were scored at under a 3.0, while 13 out of the 30 (43.3%) scored at a 4.0 or higher, which is a very good score. Now, one might immediately think that some stadiums (Fenway, Yankee, etc) would automatically score very high, but Stadium Journey does a good job thinking of everything that would be important. Access includes parking prices and bathroom availability, Return on Investment averages out for ticket prices and value, and Neighborhood ensures that there's something interesting to do OTHER than the stadium--important factors when considering where one wants to go see a ball game.

So, with that in mind, there are a few interesting facts and figures we can derive from the SJ rankings. First of all, Food was rated the highest out of any of the categories, with a 4.23 average, while Neighborhood was the lowest at a 3.33. It's interesting when compared with the college hoops data, which has its Food averaged out at 2.67, while the neighborhoods are almost the same, at 3.23. The best stadium food comes from the AL East, with the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Yankees all earning perfect marks for their ballpark eats. The NL East actually has four teams with perfect food scores--but Florida's sub-par 2.0 rating ("the Marlins don't open all of their vending stations for weekday baseball...[but] they offer food and beverage guides so you can read about everything you're missing") hurts the overall score. The fact that Neighborhood scored the lowest of all 7 categories makes sense--it's the area that the ballpark has the least influence on. Philadelphia, Oakland, and Kansas City all rated at a 1 on the scale, but it's the new Washington Nationals ballpark that takes the cake with a rating of 0--though, to be fair, the reviewer does note that there is planned construction in the area (same with Philadelphia), though we all know that "planned construction" is a guarantee of nothing.

So, what are the top stadiums in major league baseball? Which stadiums give you the best bang for your buck? Now that you have an idea how they're rated, we'll give you guys a day to think it over...and you can check back for Part 2 tomorrow.

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