Photo by Pierre-Olivier Carles.
By Matt Waters
Like many great American art forms, baseball can be interpreted in a multitude of fashions. When one considers professional ball fields, certain concrete standards are applied. Bases are always 90 feet apart, spaced apart between a valley of dirt and pebbles. The pitcher’s mound, from where round balls are hurled toward home plate at varying velocities, is guaranteed to be 60 feet and six inches away from the batter’s box. A finely manicured grass plain decorates the outfield.
Aside from those specific parameters, determined by strict regulations, professional ball fields around the country offer the eye variety. Structurally, there are spacious stadiums, like Comerica Park in Detroit. Camden Yards in Baltimore strives for an idyllic intimacy, a park so convenient and neatly threaded into the surrounding Inner Harbor that countless imitators have attempted duplicating its style.
Here in New York, the recently built Citi Field, where the Mets play, feels cavernous yet seats only 41,000 for baseball games. Citi Field is an abstraction. There’s a two-tiered porch overhanging right-field. The left field bleachers are tucked underneath a gigantic scoreboard and the upper levels are blighted by awful sight lines. As for the new Yankees stadium, it takes very little risk. Reminiscent of the previous incarnation, the park leads an inquisitive mind to ponder why it needed to be built. It offers very little in terms of innovation, aside from improved concession services and exit ramps.
Thankfully, that aforementioned flexibility in interpreting baseball does come into play, especially in New York. Baseball is an open game, meant to be played outside, wind rustling uniforms and sweeping up infield dirt. Within the scheduled allotment of innings, the game’s chaos is controlled, and seems occasionally guided by laughing spirits. Novelty is not a rarity, but a daily consequence. Fielders slide, dive, and race after balls, occasionally even fall down. And most importantly, no two balls shot into play, or beyond, ever fly off the bat the same way.
A baseball field can be whatever one wants it to be. Boxes can be spay-painted upon bare brick walls in abandoned school yards, fielders positioned under steel basketball hoops missing nets, broomsticks used for bats, tennis balls flung instead of red seamed hard balls, foul territory determined by hanging tree branches. In contemporary times, people may consider baseball and baseball fields with fixed notions. But the folky origins of the sport prove that baseball is, indeed, an interpretative art form.
Modern preoccupation with categorization and organization is flummoxed by baseball’s beginnings. The game is meant for fun. And apparently, people have been having fun with variations of baseball for quite some time. A BBC article, published May 13, 2004 and titled “Baseball Dated Back to 1791“, delves into baseball’s thick history:
“A 1791 bylaw aimed to protect the windows in the town of Pittsfield’s new meeting house – by banning baseball within 80 yards of the building…. The document, released on Tuesday, has been verified by the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts… A generation ago, the popular belief was that baseball was invented in 1839. Later evidence suggested it was in 1846, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Subsequently, a New York University librarian found two newspaper references to some form of ‘base ball’ in 1823 in New York City, The New York Times reported. Historian John Thorn was researching the origins of baseball when he found a reference to the bylaw in an 1869 book on Pittsfield’s history. ‘It’s clear that not only was baseball played here in 1791, but it was rampant… enough to have an ordinance against it,’ Mr Thorn said.”
Clarifying birthplaces of baseball becomes an even cloudier prospect when expanding possibilities beyond familiar borders. It’s possible the first baseball fields were not made in America. Another BBC article about baseball’s origins, published in September of 2008, titled “Baseball’s UK Heritage”, confirms this idea.
“A diary that documents a game being played in Guildford in 1755 has been verified by Surrey History Centre. William Bray, a Surrey diarist and historian from Shere, wrote about the game when he was still a teenager…. The diary states they had tea after the game on Easter Monday and also played cricket.”
No matter where baseball originated, the basic rudiments of the game is communal enjoyment, similar to staging theater plays or dance festivals. Who could have known where ball fields were heading? Spurred by the success of Camden Yards within Baltimore’s inner-harbor, baseball stadiums are now parroted as enzymes to spur economic growth. Many ball yards around the country were built upon this promise. Professors Dennis Coates and Brad R. Humphreys wrote a pamphlet called The Stadium Gambit and Local Economic Development, putting those promises under the lens of analysis.
“Our results indicate: The professional sports environment in the 37 metropolitan areas in our sample had no measurable impact on the growth rate of real per capita income in those areas. The professional sports environment has a statistically significant impact on the level of real per capita income in our sample of metropolitan areas, and the overall impact is negative. The presence of professional sports teams, on average, reduces the level of real per capita income in metropolitan areas. This result differs from much of the existing literature, which generally has found no impact at all. However, we used a broader and longer panel of data and a richer set of variables reflecting the sports environment than previous studies. Because we developed a wide variety of measures of the sports environment in metropolitan areas, many of the individual elements have a positive impact that is offset by another element that carries a negative impact.”
One undeniably positive outcome from the construction of the new Yankees stadium were the new diamonds fixed upon the old site, now a 10-acre park called Heritage Field. This new site offers three championship-quality athletic fields and serves as an inspiration to young players that are able to play where the Yankee greats once stood.
“Derek Jeter and Lou Gehrig played right here,” says Lance Montano, the first baseman on the All Hallows High School team in a Daily News article. “Now we get to play next to Yankee Stadium.”
From the first fields sprouted within village imagination to modern day stadiums justified by contested economic logic, baseball has evolved in a manner similar to other American entertainment enterprises, into big business. But competitive joyfulness will sustain the game, wherever it is played, as it was in the beginning.