FOR A couple of years now the Washington Nationals' brass has been saying that the team's new ballpark would be more "fan-friendly" than the ugly, outdated RFK Stadium. Maybe I'm just easy to get along with, but I always found RFK—where the Nats played from 2005 through last season—quite agreeable. There was room to stretch out in the cheap seats, an ample supply of hot dogs and (usually) no standing water in the bathrooms. Yes, the freshly poured Nationals Park has wider concourses, better food, fancier souvenir shops and, for the corporate-lawyer types, opulent club sections with leather chairs. But the 21st-century ballpark peddles a different brand of friendliness. If RFK Stadium was an old acquaintance who'd seen better days, then Nationals Park is the pal who's always asking you for money.
Like every major league park built in the last decade and a half, Nationals Park is a philosophical heir to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Baltimore's ballpark pointed up the stylistic failings of the drab concrete doughnuts that appeared in St. Louis, Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the 1960s and 1970s. Even better for the Orioles, Camden Yards' old-timey flourishes—wrought iron, a redbrick warehouse beyond the rightfield wall—cloaked its real mission: to goose revenue with luxury-seating sections and a cavernous, microbrew-dispensing pedestrian boulevard. Happy throngs spent heartily, increasing the club's revenue from around $30 million in 1989 to $80 million in 1992, the Orioles' first year at Camden Yards. The impulse here was the same one that drives people to pay three times more for a throwback jersey than a contemporary one. The warm glow of nostalgia acts as a lubricant on the fan's wallet.
Camden Yards' architect, the Kansas City, Mo.--based firm HOK Sport, was hailed as a savior by major league owners. After Baltimore, HOK popped out stadiums for the Indians, the Rockies and, eventually, half the teams in baseball, including the Nationals. The Mets' and the Yankees' new parks, opening next spring, will make 15 ballparks in 18 years for HOK. To its credit, HOK has figured out that the retro thing has become a cliché. Nationals Park, built of steel and precast concrete, has a more up-to-date look than bricked-out Camden Yards. The problem for HOK—and owners who claim their new buildings are, above all else, fan-friendly—is that when the old-timey touches recede, the ballparks' capitalist ambitions come into clearer focus. The most distinctive feature of Washington's new stadium is not the odd little notch in the left-centerfield fence (an homage to Washington's old Griffith Stadium) but the Red Porch Restaurant that towers over the outfield wall. Tickets in the Red Porch's outdoor seating area cost $65 to $70, including a $20 dining credit.
HOK ballparks have the look and feel of a mall food court. Come to Detroit's Comerica Park for the 50-foot Ferris wheel, stay for the Mike's Hard Lemonade Upper Deck Lounge. There's an Outback Steakhouse at Pittsburgh's PNC Park, and Cincinnati has the Machine Room Grille, with what the team calls a "blue-collar feel." Nationals Park, like four other HOK stadiums, has an in-stadium Build-a-Bear Workshop. There's also the Sony PlayStation Pavilion, now featuring Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.
If you go to games to stuff bears with foam, these new stadiums are right for you. If you just want the ballpark basics, you're getting a raw deal. Tickets, hot dogs, beer, caps, programs and parking all cost more at Nationals Park than at RFK Stadium. According to Team Marketing Report's Fan Cost Index, a family of four will pay $195.50 to see the Nats in 2008, compared with $147.94 at RFK in 2007. And that new-park premium applies to everyone—you can't opt out if all you want is an upper-deck seat and a cold brew. (Nationals Park has 3,139 seats priced at $10 or less, compared with 5,614 at RFK last year.) Perhaps that's why the Nationals' average home attendance, which ranked 14th in the National League in 2007 (24,217), has risen only to 12th this year (29,015).
Get ready to play ball, New York. The 1,800 seats ringing the infield at the new Yankee Stadium will come with concierge service and access to a private club, private entrance, private elevator and private concourse. The cost of going to a game inside a gated community: $500 to $2,500 per seat. Of course, baseball fans don't require a butler to fetch ketchup packets. But Nationals president Stan Kasten has batted away criticism of exclusive areas—Nationals Park has 78 luxury suites and 2,500 club seats—by arguing that they subsidize affordable seats elsewhere.
But this idealized scenario, in which the poor fan benefits from the rich fan's largesse, is the opposite of how the 21st-century stadium operates. Nationals Park gives to the rich and takes from the poor. The Presidents Club, a glassed-in retreat behind home plate, offers panoramic vistas of the playing field. It also blocks the view of the ballpark's interior from the public walkway that circles the stadium's lower tier. A double-decked ring of luxury suites pushes Nationals Park's upper concourse 21 feet higher than the top deck at RFK. And while the Nats and HOK slathered on the club sections, Nationals Park has 15,379 fewer upper-deck seats than RFK, and the seats that remain upstairs are several inches narrower than comparable ones at the old ballpark. This is how new stadiums create "intimacy"—by shrinking everything that's intended for people in lower tax brackets.
The new parks certainly aren't unmitigated forces for evil. They've got more bathrooms, bigger and better JumboTrons and improved sight lines. PNC Park in Pittsburgh and San Francisco's AT&T Park also offer postcard-quality views of the surrounding city and waterways. In the upper deck at Nationals Park, you might hear grumbling that views of the U.S. Capitol are blocked by an office building. You'll definitely hear complaints that the home team is losing, again. But that's better than what you'll hear in the $325 Lexus Presidents Seats abutting the field: silence. While the cheap seats have drawn respectable crowds, the most expensive sections have sat mostly unused. As the Orioles have seen for the last decade, even a gorgeous stadium won't lure fans to watch a crummy team.
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ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER