Going West

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Chase Field in Phoenix and Seattle’s Safeco Field are perhaps the quintessential examples of what retractable-roof stadiums should be: baseball-only parks with roofs that are used regularly, and built specifically, to respond to their respective town’s beautiful - if unpredictable - climates.

From the intense heat and random dust storms of the American Southwest to the wild and sudden tempests of the Pacific Northwest, the locations these stadiums find themselves require the most ingenuous engineering and agile grounds crews.

Whether or not such solid planning has flowed from building management to team management is up for debate. The troubles have stayed on the field for the Mariners, who went from tying the all-time record for wins in their 3rd season in the park to finishing under .500 for seven of the last nine years; while the Arizona Diamondbacks, seem to have less difficulty staying competitive in between the lines, if not necessarily the box office.

Chase Field debuted the same day the Diamondbacks did, opening in 1998 the day team began play. Created using the designs of Kansas City-based Ellerbe Becket, Chase Field is located in downtown Phoenix where it towers over the neighborhood as one of MLB’s tallest stadiums.

Part of the reason for the stadium’s height is its unique roof. Relying on drawbridge technology with its two-part roof, when opened each half remains to the east and west of the north-south oriented field and come together above centerfield when closed; the highly unusual design a result of frequent Phoenix dust storms requiring the roof to be as simple and gear-free as possible. These restraints forced designers to use an extensive network of cables to close the roof, instead of the cogs and tracks found in its five counterparts.

A patchwork of red brick, green and white metal panels, exposed structural steel, glass and Diamondback signage highlight the stadium’s exterior, which breaks down the enormous scale of the rectangle-shaped stadium and creates an atmosphere more ‘Arizona modern’ than old-timey baseball.

Inside, Chase Field does have some gimmicky features, like the infamous swimming pool beyond the centerfield wall, where $3,500 gets you a night’s rental.  But overall, the stadium feels much less traditional than other modern-retro parks, especially its not-so-small-stadium-feel 48,000 capacity. The effect is compounded by the fact that most seats are between the foul poles, pushing upper decks to some of the loftiest heights in baseball.  Overall, the roof and building feel well integrated at Chase Field and the effect is a fairly cohesive, modern baseball stadium.

However, fairly cohesive and modern has not exactly brought in the crowds, as the D’backs have finished outside the top 10 in NL attendance for the last 7 years after their first six years as an organization. For context, their expansion twins, the Tampa Bay Rays, have finished in the top 10 only once, two years after their dramatic run to the World Series in their 14 years of existence.

What’s odd is that their record likely doesn’t play much of a factor in this, as the ups and downs for the Diamondbacks have been less pronounced that teams such as the Astros and Mariners -- whose struggles since moving we’ll look at later. That’s not to say they’ve been to the playoffs much recently -- making it in only two of the last ten seasons (when they began a rebuilding process following the departure of many of the members of the 2001 World Series team) -- they’ve finished over .500 half those times.

While the true reason behind the drop in attendance is hard to pinpoint, and as any number of factors could have led to the decline, given the BoB/Chase Field’s lackluster performance in most relevant rankings of the sport’s parks, it seems that the organization may want to start there.

Safeco Field opened a year after Chase Field in 1999, replacing the colossal, concrete Kingdome which had housed Mariner baseball and Seahawk football since the late 1970’s. Like true urban ballparks of the past, Safeco Field conforms to a city block in downtown Seattle. The main entrance to the park is at the corner of 1st Avenue South and Edgar Martinez Drive South and, although it feels more Barnes & Noble bookshop than stadium, the cylinder through which you enter is a nice feature and a true link to urban ballparks of the past.  

Safeco Field sits within the SoDo warehouse district of Seattle, adjacent to Puget Sound.  It’s therefore no surprise that the exterior is a mix of red brick, exposed structural steel and glass.  This decision feels right, if uninspired, given its particular setting in the city.

Unlike those parks with the most similar roofs, Miller and Minute Maid, Safeco Field is never totally sealed to the elements.  When closed, the roof functions like an umbrella, the sides of the park remain open to rain and wind, which makes it, along with Seibu Dome in Japan, only one of two such covered baseball stadiums in the world.  

Which seems more problematic than it actually is, as despite Seattle’s rainy reputation, the dry summers common in the city means that the team sees some of the lowest total rainfall of any city in Major League Baseball during the season.  In fact the roof was closed for only twelve games this season, making it the most opened of the retractable roof stadiums in baseball. Occasional, prolonged rain forces the closure of the roof to allow the game to proceed, and this just feels like the way a retractable roof should be used; though the lack of integration of the giant roof overhead with the stadium below feels like an oversight.  

It hasn’t seem to have bothered fans, however, as last year was the first to not see the Mariners in the top 10 in attendance since their arrival at Safeco, despite some truly putrid seasons of recent vintage. Which, is not surprising given Seattle’s reputation as an intense and intensely loyal fan base, but could become problematic for the Mariners in the future, especially if the decline in attendance turns into a trend.

Which is a possibility, if troubles in the front office haven’t been fixed. The team severely lacks in major star power -- outside of the organization’s crown jewel, pitcher Felix Hernandez. The squad must still figure out how to mitigate the intense effects the best pitchers’ park in either league -- allowing .687 the amount of runs of other parks, for a park factor score of 91 (>100 good for hitters/<100 good for pitchers) -- has on the production of its own batters. 

Bloated contracts for players either not suited for the park -- like in-any-year-other-than-this-one MVP candidate and Rangers 3B Adrian Beltre -- or baseball -- like never-in-any-year-an MVP candidate Richie Sexson have haunted the franchise for years. Until recently, shrewd moves such as a trading away an unhappy Ichiro to and acquiring catcher Jesus Montero from the Yankees for injured P Michael Pineda in two separate deals, were the ones being done to the Mariners. 

What these inconsistencies between stadium design, team performance and attendance perhaps illustrate is the degree to which architecture can or cannot change human behavior.  In Seattle, where large numbers of people live in or near the downtown area the Mariners playing is a nice event during summer months whether or not the M’s are playing good baseball.  A well designed alternative to the Kingdome put M’s games on the list of “things to do” in Seattle.  While in Arizona, summers bring both intense heat and reduced populations of fleeing snowbird communities lead to minimal attendance records exacerbated by poor performance by D’backs.  Regardless of how well composed the Chase Field façade is or how well the roof and mechanical systems control the indoor climate, there is only so much architecture can do to bring lukewarm fans out to the game save giving tickets away.

Matthew Brown is an architect who writes about stadia and sport venues past and present on his own blog and Twitter.

Infographics by Nick Bond

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I've been to the old one and the new one as well. And I can say that the new one is better, not just because there are more seats. It's more comfortable than the previous one.
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