Today, the name of the game is basemall

April 03, 2000|By Patrick McCaffrey

AT THE END of the 1999 baseball season, several of the game's oldest parks closed -- Tiger Stadium in Detroit; Fenway in Boston; and Candlestick in San Francisco.

They will be replaced by semi-modern stadiums similar to the one at Camden Yards. Some observers, including players such as Ted Williams and Mo Vaughn ("blow 'em up!"), say it's about time. Most new fans share their feelings.

But more is closing than old ballparks. Gone are the days when old baseball fans sat in the bleachers and grandstands close to the field and ballplayers, scorecards in hand, their scorekeeping disturbed only by occasional soda and hotdog venders.

FOR THE RECORD - A Monday Opinion Commentary article should not have included Fenway Park in a list of closed baseball stadiums. The Sun regrets the error.

Now, it's a whole new ballgame. Not just ballparks, though the latter are highly influential. Today, vending is the game. Not baseball, or football for that matter, as the same is true of new football stadiums.

Few of the new customers are fans of the games. They come for the entertainment, like going to shopping malls. The new name for the game is "basemall."

And that's what the new stadiums are. Like shopping malls, there's a wide variety of food, from sandwiches to dinners, cotton candy, yogurt, ice cream, souvenirs and other shops (including credit card outlets for banks). Peanuts and Cracker Jack are hard to find; beer's five bucks. And, of course, there are the luxury sky boxes (far above the park), worth millions to management.

These new fans know little of the game and care less. A few watch TV monitors desultorily as they wait in food or drink lines or for customer service clerks. They seldom know the score, literally or figuratively. They don't come for the game, even though they paid as much as $30 for their tickets and will likely spend much more before they leave. They are there to see and be seen -- to participate in a happening, an "event," as games are called now. An estimated one-third of Orioles fans come from the Washington area, where it is considered chic to go to Camden Yards.

The new parks are like amusement parks without rides. But they'll probably be added shortly. Anything that turns a buck will be accommodated. Some say that the new parks are bringing the family back to the game. Well, maybe. But the game ain't baseball. They are called "casual fans," not baseball or football fans.

The Baltimore Orioles were, for most of the 1999 season, last in their division and one of the last teams in baseball. But they were the leader in attendance. Surely, their fans weren't coming to see one of the worst teams in the game.

Camden Yards is the most famous -- or infamous -- of the new breed of parks, and the most copied. It's a charming old style in outward appearance, new mall style inside. The trend, however, started in Toronto in 1989 with the Skydome. Toronto fans coined the term "basemall."

Since then, it's spread throughout the major leagues. The Seattle Kingdome was recently demolished. Next on the block are Yankee Stadium, Houston's Astrodome and maybe Milwaukee's County Stadium.

The latter two, plus Pittsburgh and Minneapolis are located in what merchandisers call "small markets," too small a population region to draw from or televise to. The Yankees and Mets share the largest television market, estimated to be worth $85 million. The new game and new breed of owners are about money. Many of the stadiums, like Camden Yards, were donated by the cities the teams play in or, really, the taxpayers. If a city won't build them a new park, the owner moves the team elsewhere. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is proposing a billion-dollar park in Manhattan to keep the Yankees from moving to New Jersey. No major league baseball team has moved in 27 years, though Minneapolis has tried in frustration. A number of new franchises have been created, including in Tampa, Phoenix, and Miami, bringing $150 million for each one of the current owners.

Many of the teams like the Baltimore Orioles have shifted TV contracts to cable outlets. More than 80 percent of Orioles games are now carried by HomeTeam Sports, which is more lucrative than local TV stations but less accessible to local fans.

Some observers say the growing popularity of minor league baseball is largely fueled by old fans who disdain the new stadiums for smaller parks closer to the players -- and the game -- and more affordable. It's still baseball, not "basemall."

Patrick McCaffrey, a free-lance writer who lives in Baltimore, worked concessions part time last season at Camden Yards.

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