Reaction to the news that Turner Field would be torn down in 2017 came in two forms: goodbye to a mediocre ballpark, versus disbelief that such a young facility is doomed. Jesse Goldberg-Strassler looks at the decision.
A cell phone, we are told by the service providers, can be upgraded every two years — although they’d certainly like us to upgrade even more often than that. Modern computers have a lifespan of about three to five years. Cars and television sets can be used for far longer, though annual upgrades in each’s technology certainly tempts the consumer to purchase something even better than what they already possess.
So how long is a ballpark relevant before it, too, should be replaced?
The Milwaukee Braves moved into Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1966 and played there for the next 30 years, whereupon they relocated across the parking lot into Turner Field. Last week, Braves general manager John Schuerholz announced that the ball club would be changing homes again come the 2017 season. The new site would be in Cobb County, 14 miles northwest of the current ballpark.
Thirty seasons at Fulton County. Twenty seasons at Turner Field. The new site will undoubtedly benefit the Braves — but it feels short, doesn’t it? As if a ballpark was closing before its time has run out.
It is unfair to compare Turner Field’s history, legacy, and staying power to that of Boston’s Fenway Park (opened in 1912) or Chicago’s Wrigley Field (opened in 1914). Any park would pale in comparison.
But, heck, let’s go back further.
One of the first great ballparks for spectators was Cincinnati’s Palace of the Fans (above), opened in 1901 by owner John T. Brush with a specific purpose in mind: fireproofing. His first previous ball field, League Park, had gone up in flames. The concrete-based Palace of the Fans repurposed the old park’s grandstand. It was a sensation when it first opened, but it closed down only a decade later in 1911, replaced by Crosley Field.
Crosley (1911-1970) was one of a number of stadia, including St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park (1902-1966) and Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field (1909-1970), that spanned the generations from the dead ball era through integration. Then they were all replaced at once by cookie-cutter artificial turf fields. (Philadelphia received one, too, with Veterans Stadium taking over for Connie Mack Stadium.)
A similar ballpark renaissance took place in the 1990s, although we look back much fonder on the introduction of the retro parks like Oriole Park at Camden Yards than we do upon the 1970s’ turf models. Turner Field arrived in this last grouping, opening in between the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington (1994) and the Rockies’ Coors Field (1995), and the expansion Diamondbacks’ Bank One Ballpark (1998, now known as Chase Field).
In 1999, Seattle’s Safeco Field opened. It replaced the Kingdome, itself a marvel and a wonder in the initial days of the inaugural Mariners in 1977. Twenty-two years later, the Kingdome was no more. Here, then, seems to be a slightly better lifespan comparison for the closing Turner Field, but the feel is different. The Kingdome lost its allure in the 1990s, not helped by falling roof tiles. When it closed (and was later imploded), its time had come.
Until John Schuerholz’s announcement, virtually no one was walking around Turner Field, wondering when someone would put the old park to bed.
We understand, naturally, that other aspects of a ballpark are renovated and upgraded on a schedule. A natural grass field, for instance, must be replaced within a regular span of years. Artificial turf’s maximum is a decade of use, trending closer to eight years. Seats and suites are refurnished and replaced; food options come and go; playgrounds are added and updated; video boards are made bigger, better, and higher definition. Some of this — field quality, for instance — is for the players. The majority is for the fan’s experience. A drop in attendance, especially over a prolonged period of time, provokes concern.
The overriding main cause concerning lack of attendance is location and neighborhood, perhaps even more than facilities. The Rays have done their best to spruce up Tropicana Field (opened in 1990), but the team’s outstanding television ratings have not led to increased fan presence. If the team could just move to Tampa proper from St. Petersburg, many believe its turnstile woes would be at an end. A similar sentiment holds in Oakland, where the Athletics have been attempting to relocate to San Jose, only to be blocked by the San Francisco Giants.
The Braves could not be plainer with their own motivations. In his announcement, Schuerholz said of the new site, placed at the intersection of I-75 and I-285, “It will make it far greater for our fans, with a far more enjoyable experience.”
It was not, then, that Turner Field was out of date. It was simply in the wrong place. Location, location, location. The Braves are looking for a wider open area of easier access and potential for development. (Wrigley Field loyalists, their park placed in the center of a suburban, leafy neighborhood surrounded by homes and bars, will likely disagree with the need for a wide-open area.)
We are several years away from the new Braves facility’s opening, with the 2014-2016 seasons still to be played at Turner.
Will there be nostalgia for the park come the close of the 2016 campaign? Or will there only be excitement for the future — and a host of other owners examining their options?
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