New Comiskey Park is not all that it could be

June 30, 1991|By Blair Kamin | Blair Kamin,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- New Comiskey Park is big and brawny, like many of the highly paid players who play in it. But will this building ever be beloved?

Don't bet on it.

Sure, the Chicago White Sox are the second-best draw this year in the American League (the Toronto Blue Jays rank first). And, yes, Comiskey has an exploding scoreboard, handsome arches and other trappings designed to make it a new-age park with old-time charm.

But wait until the novelty wears off. And wait 'til next year, when the new Camden Yards ballpark opens in Baltimore.

Now under construction, the Baltimore park was shaped by the same architects who cranked out Comiskey. It's likely to become what Comiskey can only claim to be: a modern stadium that has the grace of an old ballpark, fits its neighborhood like a well-worn first baseman's mitt and is a great place to watch the great American game.

Make no mistake: Comiskey is a big improvement on the dreary, multipurpose stadiums that went up in the 1960s, kin to the steel-and-glass skyscrapers that make Houston indistinguishable from Hartford.

The new park has natural grass, wide concourses, tons of good food, spacious locker rooms, some tremendous lower-deck seats and a spot where children can get their picture taken for their very own baseball card.

And if it were in Miami or Denver, that might be good enough.

But this is Chicago, where mankind invented the skyscraper, Frank Lloyd Wright walked the streets and a trip to the ballpark isn't supposed to feel like a drive to the shopping mall.

Yet that's what the soul of this new baseball machine is all about. As if to prove the point, the White Sox are going to pave over paradise and put up a parking lot across 35th Street. That's where old Comiskey is unceremoniously being ripped apart.

The old ballpark wasn't pretty, but when you plopped down in one of its green, wooden seats, you felt close enough to the field that you could reach out and touch home plate, smell the turf and hear what was going on when the catcher, pitcher and manager conferred on the mound.

And you knew you couldn't be anywhere else.

Babe Ruth swatted home runs in old Comiskey after quaffing between-inning beers (legend has it) at McCuddy's bar on 35th. The Black Sox threw the World Series there. Baseball's first All-Star Game was played there. Greg Luzinski and Ron Kittle hit "roofers" there. The outfield arches of old Comiskey opened the inside of the park to the city around it, leaving no doubt you were watching a baseball game at 35th and Shields Avenue.

A Field of Dreams? Not quite.

Designed by Chicago architect Zachary Taylor Davis (whose credits include Wrigley Field) and opened in 1910, old Comiskey was as tough and tart as a Chicago cop. Sure, it had postage-stamp size locker rooms and columns that blocked the views of a couple of thousand seats. But those columns and the overhanging roof broke down the vast spaces of the park, giving it an intimacy shared today only by Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park.

That intimacy is one quality the architects -- the Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK) Sports Facilities Group of Kansas City -- sought to re-create in new Comiskey.

But before evaluating what they've done, it's worth recalling how Illinois taxpayers came to spend nearly $135 million on a new baseball park that's across the street from the old one and has only a few more seats (44,177 vs. 43,951 for old Comiskey).

With White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn threatening to move the team to St. Petersburg, Fla., the Illinois General Assembly passed a $150 million Save-Our-Sox bill as the clock struck midnight on June 30, 1988.

The new park opened on April 18, 1991 -- on time, more than $2 million below budget and with HOK architect Rick deFlon declaring he had followed this charge from the White Sox: "Don't turn your back on the old Comiskey."

At first glance, deFlon, who also is doing design work for the proposed new Chicago Stadium that is to house the Blackhawks and Bulls, seems to have succeeded.

The precast concrete arches of new Comiskey recall the arches of the old park and revive the original, reddish-brown color of the old park's brick facade (which was painted white before the 1960 season).

But most of new Comiskey's arches are hidden by clunky, switchback ramps that were slapped onto the facade with little regard for its architectural comeliness. Inexpensive? Yes. Efficient? Absolutely. Beautiful? No way. It's the rough equivalent of building a handsome, Post-Modern skyscraper in the Loop and gracing the entrance with a concrete parking deck.

That ungainliness is compounded by the sparse, almost unfinished appearance of the park's upper deck, where some carefully worked-out architectural details wound up on the drafting-room floor because of a tight budget.

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