Why Build a Pool in a Ballpark (?): The “Post-Modern” Trends of Consumerism in Baseball: Part 1

Take me out to the ballgame—buy me some peanuts and crackers jacks—stop to do some banking—drop the kids off at the Fun Zone—pick up a $120 jersey in the gift shop—go dancing in the VIP club—take a dip in the pool—root root root for the home team (which one is the home team again? Oh right, the ones with their own introductory theme music).

Maybe it is time to update our 7th inning stretch song.

I want to write about what a ballpark means today (or some aspect of such), because, inevitably, our ballparks have become as diversified as our shopping outlets (not as much culturally as economically). Needless to say, going out to the ol’ ballgame is a totally different experience than it used to be.

Remember in the 30s? We jump on the trolleys and rush in with our newspapers and straw hats (there’d be a sea of black suits). Our ballparks were built into our neighborhoods, their angles our angles; this wall is 37 ft. because we don’t want to hit Mrs. Johnson’s windows. Ballparks were built because of necessities (had to trade Babe for $ after all).

And then we had the 70s! We’d drive out of the city and park in E10 and get the kids out of the minivan. We’d buy a cheapo hot-dog and sit in the top ring of uniform seats. Check out the stats on the TV screen. Enjoy the AC. The left and right field walls are 330′ away from home (and are 12 ft high). We’d go back in winter for football. We were pragmatic.

And today?

And today… We’ve been swept up by nostalgia for the old days. Parks are brick again and have their unique quirks: the hill at Enron—(excuse me, Minute Maid Field). Bonds may blast no. 756 out of PacBell, er, SBC, er, AT&T, and into the San Francisco Bay. At Citizens Bank (Park) you can stand anywhere you’d like to watch the center-fielder get tangled at the 407 mark (15 ft. here, 5 there). We can sit close and hear everything. We’re “intimate” with the game. Every baseball fan experiences baseball like they never have before, and at each and every newly built park.

But in this rush to bring back the old, have we forgotten something? Baseball is the only game where a fan can have a direct outcome, the only game where a fan can touch the ball while it is in play (see Jeffrey Mayer and Stephen Hart). It is arguably the most intimate game. Each park is different (and not only because of the park, but because of the field). But now, whether enjoying the Sausage Race in Milwaukee (or the Presidents in D.C.) or booing your favorite player in Philadelphia, parks have lost something—they’ve outpaced themselves and are no longer temples of baseball, but instead has slipped into the contemporary (and dare I say, Post-Modern) world of chic, “unique,” niche, commodity. They buy and sell the game and then distract you from it once you sit down. And yes, we are enjoying the view, the food, the music, the dimensions. We are enjoying our baseball like never before (and in record numbers) but our (baseball) culture needs to slow down and ask what our ballparks say about the game of baseball.

And what do they say? See Starbucks:

With no evidence of any sort, except epistemological, i.e. “experiencing and seeing,” there are more Starbucks in this country than Starbucks customers. Every Starbucks has regulations (khaki pants, unicolor shoes, drink mixing specs) and employs the same combinations and sales as every other Starbucks. And yet, (and yet), where Starbucks is so genius is that it gives you the illusion of uniqueness. The lighting is “cool,” (some may say alternative), the walls are adorned with (Post-Modern) paintings with snippets of plane tickets, splashes of arrows, “hip” designs of all sorts that mimic guerilla-style street-graffiti, and when you walk in, you are sure to hear the newest Decemberists album (which is available for purchase). The point is that Starbucks is “hip,” but “hip-to-be-safe,” a “hipness” that makes people feel like they are “going out” when they go to one. It invites you in and makes a pass at counter-culture, while its “supposed” focus is to sell coffee.

Ballparks work on similar principles, and in fact, this extends to the recent trends of advertising and business. Wal-Mart is the Veterans Stadium of business; it’s huge and relies on its prices and availability, rather than niche or image. Yes, Wal-Mart is popular, but walk into any mall, or check out any city street, and the trend of “successful” stores are those who cater to specific tastes and image. In a recent issue of the Economist (yes, I am citing the Economist) there was an article called, “Post-Modernism is the New Black,” the author writes that “The pomos predicted with eerie precision how capitalism would reinvent itself in the 1980s and 1990s.” And how? By “co-opt[ing] the tools of post-modern “discourse” to sell more stuff.” Effect? The mass market is dead, the mainstream has been shattered, everything is ultra-consumer oriented and available for customization (it is cool to be different—personalize yourself (and your MySpace page)) and all: ironically.

So if we think of ballparks like we think of designer stores, what does this say about the game of baseball? Would Babe Ruth be rolling in his grave when they tear down his house or would he welcome a newer more corporate (to reflect the team) Yankee stadium? It is not true that in today’s ballparks there is only focus on advertising or money; when you think of Petco Park keep in mind Wrigley Field. But are we comfortable with the “business” of baseball and do we want players’ lasting legacies to be how much they sign for? These are all thought experiments, but as you think, wonder if “Veterans” could ever afford to have a ballpark named in their honor again.

To be continued
Please respond!

3 Responses

  1. *counter* culture… ha! get it? counters where you can buy coffee in “counter-cultural” settings, and someone who counts money is a counter. A counter who sits behind his or her counter-cultural counter. puns are hilaaarious!

    ps – let me proofread your blog articles (blogicles?)!

  2. Hey Joe,
    Great commentary on ballparks. Through it all the game is still great(as you know.)

    As Pop-Pop would say, “They can’t stand prosperity.”

    Love, Mom and Dad

  3. Yes, the world turns and sometimes those turns are not as digestible as we would like them. The escalation of costs, in particular for players (including the millions paid to guys who just barely get over the 200 level) has brought about the huge and occasionally ugly involvement of “heavy-handed” promo from those often maligned marketing types (know any?). Baseball remains a sport — but to survive — it has expanded its identity to include “entertainment” to attract and sustain attendance. I guess we just have to put up with the castor oil to enjoy the good health of the sport.

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