Friday, June 19, 2009

Opening Tropicana Field

Earlier this week, Craig over at Circling the Bases (and of ShysterBall fame) linked to a study that set out to determine the potential costs of modernizing Tropicana Field. The results showed that it would cost close to $500 million to completely revamp the stadium and, even then, with its retractable roof and upgraded seating, the Trop would still "remain a subpar facility with substantial design flaws." It's a shocking finding for a stadium less than 20 years old, and Craig took them to task over it:
"According to the consultant's report, the seats are too narrow and are often facing the wrong direction, views of the field are obstructed throughout the stadium, the concourse is too narrow and dead-ends, which interrupts traffic flow and prevents fan socializing/drinking in common areas, the press box sits where club seats should live, there aren't enough bathrooms, there isn't enough storage, and the design of the place makes life hard for the cleaning crews. All of that before even mentioning the stupid catwalks.

What kills me in all of this is that the Trop is not some artifact of the late industrial revolution when people were small and discomfort was an accepted part of life. It was designed and built in the mid-to-late 80s. I realize that was the stone age as far as ballparks are concerned, but I'm pretty sure that basic things like ergonomics and the benefit of good sight lines had been discovered by then. What's more, unlike the long gone but not-lamented multiuse stadiums of the 60s and 70s, the Trop -- while capable of being used for other events -- was built with baseball specifically in mind and thus didn't need to make nearly as many compromises in quality and comfort that it did. Simply put, there's just no excuse for the disgrace to baseball that is that park."
It's a fair comment and I'd be lying if I said I didn't think the same thing when I heard the results. So it made me wonder, what was the reception like for Tropicana Field when it opened? Did people see these same faults that are so apparent to us today, or did they see only the features, the perks?

The park officially opened on February 28, 1990, as the Florida Suncoast Dome. The $110 million facility was a long time in coming, with the initial conversations about the park having started in 1977. Using the Google News Archive, I was able to find the St. Petersburg Times issue from the day of the opening, including the "special section" that was inserted in the paper. You can find the start of the section here (it's best viewed in the "Fit to Height" mode). The cover of the section (page 44 of the newspaper) says, fittingly, "It's OPEN!"

The special section is filled with advertising and articles about the construction and potential uses for the stadium. The articles are all very optimistic, though the excitement is understandably tempered by the fact that this baseball stadium was opening without a baseball team. Because of that, the stadium builders had prioritized other sports during construction and the dome was not actually baseball-ready when it opened. From the "Stadium is Pitched for its Versatility":
"There is a certain irony in that $110-million has been spent on the Florida Suncoast Dome to outfit it for just about every sport except the one for which it is designed: baseball.

But there is a reason behind that apparent madness: No baseball team is available."
Among the other sports that the stadium was hoping to attract while the city waited for a major league ball club was NCAA basketball (including purchasing an NCAA-approved court and installing appropriate lockers) and NHL hockey. In fact, Tampa did succeed in attracting an NHL franchise before baseball showed up. The Tampa Bay Lightning played in the dome from 1993 to 1996. The irony in that is that hockey was the sport that seemed least likely:
"Although there has been talk of a National Hockey League franchise in the dome, [Bob] Rose said that is unlikely in the near future.

'I think the stadium, which is truly one of the most versatile in the country, is not fully equipped for ice events,' Rose said. 'It is not part of the initial phase of the building. However, certainly an ice show or ice hockey can be played in the building. But there is some added expense. So I cannot say we have been aggressively pursuing hockey.'"
Still, the dome was first and foremost a baseball stadium, and the special section addressed that fact the most. Even on the dome's opening day - which is generally the day for wide-eyed hope - it did not inspire much poetry. From "Leaning Toward Practical" (no direct link; you can find it on p. 47):
"The Florida Suncoast Dome is a practical design dictated by function and economic considerations. It is not ornate, harking back to another era with adorned columns supporting classical arches. Nor is it a sandlot, a sentimental stage set for Field of Dreams or The Natural. This dome was built for Florida baseball, not the spring training variety, but for the boys of summer needing refuge from the sweltering heat."
But, as I said before, the stadium was not yet complete as a baseball field. The article "With Baseball Comes Renovations" (p. 49) did a good job in listing what still needed to be done:
"City officials like to say the Florida Suncoast Dome is a multipurpose arena. But its main purpose, the reason it was built and the reason elected officials have hung their political careers out in the breeze is for one purpose and one purpose only.

Baseball. Major League Baseball.

That is what the dome is designed for, that is what the Pinellas Sports Authority was formed to bring here and that is what most of the effort is going to go for once the building is complete."
The list of still-needed renovations was pretty substantial:
"The stadium needs about another $30-million worth of work to be ready for baseball. That money will go for:

Artificial turf....
Locker rooms. The locker rooms that have been finished so far are primarily for basketball.
Executive offices....
Luxury suites....
Stadium Club....
Centerfield scoreboard and video display. This is the monster scoreboard with bells, whistles and lights and such. The trend is to bigger and bigger boards with elaborate video potential. The SkyDome in Toronto, for example, has a video screen that is 115 feet wide and 34 feet high and produces a picture as clear as a good home television set."
So what was ready? The seating bowl and the field itself, which only raised more questions. From "The First Pitch Will Tell How It Plays" (p. 49):
"What kind of stadium will the Florida Suncoast Dome be for baseball?

It's too early to say.

Until artificial turf is purchased and installed, we won't know how fast a track it will be and how high the balls will bounce.

And until balls are flying around in the dome stratosphere, we won't know how the air conditioning affects the wind patterns.
Of the 26 parks now in use, the Florida Suncoast Dome probably compares closest to Royals Stadium in Kansas City. The architects who designed the Suncoast Dome participated in the design of the Royals' ballpark. Other parks with similar dimensions include Anaheim Stadium in California and Shea Stadium in New York."
The "unique" features of the dome were not unnoticed:
"There are some unusual features. The dome roof is sloped and is made of translucent material. Neither is expected to affect play.

The roof slopes from 225 feet high at its peak over second base to 85 feet at the centerfield wall. It was designed that way to reduce heating and cooling costs, and designers are confident balls will not bounce off it."
The two biggest quirks of Tropicana Field that we know of today are the low roof and the "rings" hanging below the roof. Both are unique to the Trop in how they play, with the rings being some of the biggest nuisances in baseball. Of course, like all stadium "quirks", the rings were originally thought to be an interesting feature of the field. If you read through the special section, you'll find more than one reference to the dome being "the largest cable-supported domed stadium in the world". There is no word on how likely it is for a batted ball to strike the rings.

As for the seats that Craig and the study complained about above:
"For the fans who will fill the 43,000 seats, the view will be good because most of the chairs face the outfield walls."
Oh, and apparently the fact that the dome was filled with mostly "armchair seats" (from the "Olympiad" series of Hussey Corp., if you were wondering) instead of aluminum benches was worth highlighting.
"During most of the planning process, aluminum benches were to make up all but 14,000 of the stadium's seats. But the city changed those plans in 1988 after Major League Baseball officials told them armchaair seats would improve their chances of attracting a team. Today, the stadium has about 4,600 aluminum bench seats and about 38,000 armchair seats."
Maybe things have changed a lot in twenty years. No one would ever consider putting 30,000 seats worth of benches in a stadium these days.

Reading through this special section, it's pretty clear that while the opening of the dome was a time for celebration and optimism, that excitement was more about the event itself and what it could mean for the St. Petersburg-Tampa Bay area in the future and not about the particular stadium itself. With a baseball team still uncertain, the practicalities of generating revenue from a $110 million project took precedence over the fine-tuning of the park. Though the stadium was "built with baseball specifically in mind", as Craig said, these issues certainly caused some compromises to be made. And, as with all domes, the focus of everybody's wonder was the structure itself. The builders had a lot of leeway when it came to all the extra amenities. Plus, when your main competition as a building are the Kingdome and the Astrodome, there isn't exactly a lot of incentive to fancy up the place. I think it's safe to say that the bar was not set very high.

It was only three short years later, though, that Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened, forever changing how a ballpark is judged. Today, with Jacobs Field and AT&T Park and PNC Park and all of the other new stadiums, Tropicana Field feels that much older and out-of-date, almost a dinosaur of the past. If the dome seemed merely "functional" and unimpressive upon its debut, then there really is no hope for it now. Hopefully, the new stadium, if and when it finally goes through, will have taken these lessons to heart. After all, Tampa, of all cities, should know what it's like to be stuck with a poorly designed stadium for decades. It'd be a shame for that to happen again.


Graham said...

Excellent article! I find it interesting that the firm, Populous, that was hired as the consultant to produce the report denouncing renovation plans was the same firm, then known as HOK, that built the Florida Suncoast Dome in the first place. Now they want a do-over on the same project, at many times the cost of the original. It doesn't really matter, as the Rays have an ironclad lease to remain at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season, which is two years after the dome will finally be paid off. The biggest issue with the Trop has always been location. Just building a new ballpark and relocating it a mile downtown won't bring in that many extra people unless downtown itself undergoes enough redevelopment to make it a "hot spot." There's few restaurants, bars and other kinds of establishments that many fans have come to enjoy in other cities. As successful as Camden Yards in Baltimore is, the Inner Harbor project was completed first. They are a perfect compliment for each other, making the ballpark and city a destination. That may never be the case in St. Pete.

Graham said...

Just as the Rays have, the Trop has improved over the years. Who doesn't love the Rays Tank (est. 2006)? And the interior is nowhere near as drab as it once was. The bottom line is fans will show up when the team wins - that was proven last year - and Tropicana Field is a tremendous home field advantage. Furthermore, a new ballpark won't solve all woes. None was better done than PNC Park and the Pirates have lagged at the bottom of the NL Central standings and in attendance almost from its get go. Does Tampa Bay need a new ballpark? Probably, but Tropicana Field isn't the albatross that the Marlins have been saddled with across the state. If anything, the biggest problem is that St. Pete's Dome was built before the renaissance that came about in the 1990s, both in structure and roof design. I don't see how a $450 million fix is worth it right now. Not in this economy. Not with the Rays tied to it for another 18 years. The team's goal is for a new ballpark, and I'm sure that Populous will build them one before 2027. But people that think it will be the franchise's Holy Grail need only look to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, etc. to know that's not necessarily true. It would improve fans' perception of the team and maybe the bottom line, but there's no long-term guarantee a new stadium would make the Rays more successful than they are right now in comparison to the revenue that other teams generate. But once the Marlins new ballpark opens I bet the me-tooism will benefit the Rays...and by then the cost of a new ballpark will be between $500-$550 million!