Remodeling boom

0

From San Diego to Boston and many places in between, ballparks are undergoing radical changes.

CHICAGO (AP) – The Wrigley Field bleacher bums have room to roam this year, and the high-priced club seats at Fenway Park now come with fresh air. At Petco Park, the only thing fans smell are the fish tacos.

Baseball’s building boom has slowed, and rehabbing is now all the rage. With the competition for spectators – and their money – rising each year, and municipalities less willing to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars for new stadiums, ballparks throughout the country are getting makeovers.

“Wrigley Field is, gratefully, perceived to be a very special place. It behooves us that we continually improve it and constantly make the fan experience the best we can,” said Mark McGuire, executive vice president of business operations for the Chicago Cubs, who added almost 1,800 seats to the bleachers this year. “We don’t want to go backward.”

A few years ago, two or three new ballparks were opening just about every season. While some replaced stadiums that were older than the designated hitter, others were upgrades of places only 20 or 30 years old.

Teams know they have to make their new digs go further than that, which means looking for improvement potential from the moment the place opens.

And with major league ticket prices averaging $22.21, up 5.4 percent from last year, fans expect to be entertained when they come to the ballpark – on and off the field.

“You just cannot stand pat in our industry,” said Bob DiBiasio, the Cleveland Indians’ vice president of public relations. “You need to consistently add value to the experience of customers.”

This year alone, the Cubs renovated their bleachers to add 1,783 seats along with a concourse that gives fans a place to gather, a restaurant in center field and more restrooms and concession stands. Fenway Park replaced the glassed-in .406 Club with two open-air lounges. Dodger Stadium replaced 50,000 seats, with the new ones having the same color scheme as when the ballpark opened in 1962.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ new controlling owners gave Tropicana Park a spiffy new paint job, inside and out, and put flat-panel TVs throughout the stadium. The Philadelphia Phillies are throwing rooftop parties at Citizens Bank Park on Thursdays- complete with a mechanical bull. Petco Park went smoke free.

“Baseball is vying for entertainment dollars these days,” said Janet Marie Smith, who oversees the Fenway renovations as the Red Sox senior vice president of planning and development. “(The improvements) are all focused on amenities that will encourage fans to come, whether they’re the die-hard fan or somebody who’s there for an outing with their family.

“It’s an effort to keep the ballpark itself fresh and new, but also give fans a reason to make a repeat visit if it’s not the team that’s the draw,” she added. “You can’t always count on having 37,000 people who are knowledgeable about the pitcher and the bullpen.”

Fenway and Wrigley are among the few places where capacity crowds are practically a given, with fans coming as much for the park as for the game itself. The ballparks are the two oldest in the majors, and seeing a game at either is like a peek into baseball history.

Other parks – even the new ones – have to work a little harder.

After taking plenty of grief for a bland outfield concourse and upper-deck seats so steep they came with a nosebleed, the Chicago White Sox overhauled their 15-year-old park as much as they could without blowing it up. In the last six years, they’ve taken eight rows off the upper deck and replaced the ugly slanting roof with a cozy flat one. They transformed the boring concourse, and last year put in a three-story children’s area complete with batting cages and a mini diamond.

After Jacobs Field turned 10 in 2004, the Cleveland Indians added two sections of bleachers along with a new scoreboard. Last year, they put in a bar that serves high-end drinks such as martinis and cosmopolitans.

“Who’d have thought you’d want a Caesar salad and Evian water or sushi in Cleveland? But that’s what fans want,” DiBiasio said.

“Fans’ tastes are more sophisticated, and we need to react to that.”

Brand-new ballparks aren’t immune to change, either. Citizens Bank Park is only 2 years old, but the Phillies already have moved the left-field wall, added new menu items and put in kiosks where fans can play video games.

Even the shrines need updates now and then.

After years of talk about a new Fenway, the Red Sox announced in March 2005 that they were staying in the ballpark built in 1912. Instead of spending hundreds of millions on a new park, the team decided it could make improvements over several years that would expand Fenway, add seats and make it more fan friendly.

Some changes are well-known, such as putting seats on top of the Green Monster. Others aren’t quite as noticeable but make the ballpark feel less cramped, like getting rid of fencing that cluttered up some of the gates.

Ultimately, Smith said the Red Sox hope to push capacity at Fenway to about 39,000.

The Cubs spend millions on routine maintenance just to keep Wrigley in operating shape, but major alterations have been few and far between since it was built in 1914.

The current scoreboard was built in 1937 when the outfield was renovated. Mezzanine boxes were added in 1989. Three rows of seats were added behind home plate in 2004.

And, after much debate, lights were added in 1988.

“The idea to do it was to make additions that were very consistent with the architecture of Wrigley Field, that really fit in well,” McGuire said. “The best thing people can say is, “You really can’t tell what you did. It looks like it was always that way.”‘

The Cubs always thought they could expand the bleacher section by adding more rows in left and right field and putting in a concourse that would hang over the sidewalks on Sheffield and Waveland avenues. But when initial plans were unveiled five years ago, they were met with stiff opposition from fans, neighbors and rooftop owners who feared Wrigley would lose its old-time charm.

Some fans were so upset that they sat in lawnchairs across the street and cried when construction began.

“People care so intently about everything that has to do with Wrigley Field,” McGuire said.

Now that the project is done, though, it’s getting rave reviews. There’s actually room to walk around the bleacher section.

The scruffy old entrance has been replaced with impressive-looking gates, and the outside brick fits right in.

There’s even an old-time knothole in the wall behind right field, where fans without tickets can peek in on the game from the street.

And looking around the bleachers on a recent afternoon, it was hard to tell anything had changed. The place still was packed, and the crowd was the usual mix of businessmen and women playing hooky, twentysomethings looking to see and be seen, die-hard baseball fans and those who haven’t the slightest idea why anyone would throw away a perfectly good home run souvenir.

“The idea of changing Wrigley, the idea it was going to make a big impact, I think the idea was worse than what it actually is,” said Rob Koon, who comes to at least one game a homestand.

“It doesn’t really feel any different, it really doesn’t,” Koon said. “It’s still just a great place to watch a ballgame.”

AP-ES-05-11-06 1901EDT

Advertisement
SHARE