Remembering Nostalgia: SF's Downtown Stadium

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Basebnew$tilden s-baseball-player.jpg

Douglas Tilden's 1899 statue of a baseball player, Golden Gate Park

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Written in August 1989, before the Loma Prieta Earthquake, the Bay Bridge World Series or the election which defeated the downtown stadium plan by a few thousand votes, just after the quake. It was also several years before the 1994 strike which altered many fans' relationship to baseball, possibly forever. Nevertheless, new baseball stadium proposals continue to lurk over San Francisco politics, with Safeway Chairman and Giants owner Peter Magowan slowly ramping up to a new plan for a huge sports/entertainment complex on the bayshore near China Basin. (CC, 6/95)

The crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, children scampering through the stands, cigar smoke wafting amid the suds and peanut shells, "HOT DOG! RED HOT HOT DOG!" bellows a vendor, "COLD BEEEEER" chimes in another . . . Ah, baseball. Baseball's popularity is on the rise again, capitalizing on the middle-aging baby boomers' desire for those elusive qualities of human society: history, continuity, community.

Baseball is a beautiful game. I've been a fan since I was five years old in the early '60s, and through nearly three decades I've followed the nuances of its subtle, timeless dramas. Growing up with baseball guarantees it a place in my emotional life. Regardless of any specific success or failure of a team or a player, I can always find interest in a given baseball situation. A sense of the game's history along with the endless variations produced in the course of the game make it fresh over and over.

And this year we Bay Area baseball junkies are getting as much of the good stuff as we can stand: not one, but TWO contenders, and a really good chance for the long-dreamed-of Bay Bridge World Series. For Giants' owner Bob Lurie and the Spectacor Corporation which has the inside track to build the new stadium, should it be approved by SF voters in the fall, conditions could hardly be better. The enthusiasm generated by a winning team is the key requirement to winning the hearts and votes of the city's fans.

The campaign to "save" the Giants is already in high gear, with Mayor Agnos diving into it with the full weight of his office and his opportunistic instincts. This campaign relies on perpetuating a basic confusion, a vague association between building a new stadium and somehow creating the kind of intimate, warm, idiosyncratic environment we tend to associate with "real" old-fashioned baseball parks like Chicago's Wrigley Field or Boston's Fenway Park. This confusion mixes up a downtown stadium with the history of neighborhood ballparks, like the aforementioned diamonds, or Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, Cincinnati's Crosly Field, Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, and so on.

Here in San Francisco we had such a neighborhood ballpark at 16th and Bryant (now the home of the SF Auto Center and Safeway), from 1931-1960 called Seals Stadium. It was an open grandstand facing east and south, seating about 25,000, and it was considered the finest in the United States when it was first built. A number of bars and diners lined Bryant Street across from the park (the Double Play is still at the corner of 16th and Bryant). Workers on the waterfront, or in the many warehouses and small factories around the South of Market and Mission districts could hop an H-line streetcar, among a half dozen transit lines running near the stadium, to catch a game after work or on a weekend. The Giants played their first two seasons at Seals Stadium before moving to the "best, most modern baseball stadium in the U.S." -- Candlestick Park-- in 1960, built by Mayors Robinson and Christopher to lure the Giants to San Francisco.

As an avid baseball fan I have to confess I have mixed feelings about a plan to build a new stadium. My baseball heart wants a comfortable, warm, intimate ballpark in which to idle away the lazy summer evenings and afternoons of the baseball season. But in my rational mind, I can't begin to justify this profligate waste of money. Moreover, no park, possibly excepting a domed stadium, can bring warm summer evenings to San Francisco, rendering "real" baseball an elusive goal. Beyond that, the neighborhood groups that oppose any new stadium plan area absolutely right when they decry the numerous traffic problems that will accompany any plan. Even with a new light rail line going right to the front gates of a new stadium, Bay Area residents are unlikely to abandon their cars for public transit.

But the idea of a new downtown stadium sparks all sorts of fantasies, rooted in a false nostalgia, among many people who ought to know better.

They dream: Imagine walking to a game after another empty day at work in an impersonal office high-rise . . .

Imagine an intimate red brick park with irregular outfield walls and generally asymmetrical dimensions, real grass and the stands extending down very close to the action . . .

Imagine all the great baseball moments that can happen, that we can all witness!

Without fans so alienated that they have to be shown fans having fun on a giant TV screen to reassure them that they too are having a good time at the ol' ballpark. . .

Without electronic scoreboards acting as cheerleaders . . .

Without exorbitantly priced stale food . . .

Kind of hard to imagine, isn't it?

I have a few questions for the nostalgic stadium --OOPS, I mean ballpark -- boosters out there, which if answered in the affirmative might encourage this hardcore ballfan to reconsider my resolute opposition to providing any public resources or scarce land to yet another stadium:

Is building a new stadium going to

  • promote a purer, less cluttered, less commercialized form of baseball in San Francisco?
  • challenge our obsession with private cars?
  • bring warmer weather, less fog and cold wind to San Francisco evenings?
  • anchor a new neighborhood with genuine community growing around it? (And I don't mean the fake community of transient lawyers, stockbrokers, and salespeople for whom Mission Bay is being groomed as a safe enclave in a hostile city.)
  • bring ballpark "cuisine" back from the dead?

I've been to Candlestick in beautiful hot sunny weather and found it a perfectly fine place to see a ballgame. I've been there when there were just a few thousand shivering fans watching balls disappear into the swirling fog and garbage, and realized we've already got a fantastically idiosyncratic ballpark! With a good-sized crowd and meaningful games, even foggy, windy weather is pretty tolerable. And with a classy, winning team like this year's, the Giants are likely to break the 2 million attendance mark --so what's the beef? A losing team will play to an empty new stadium, with fog and wind-swirled garbage, just like Candlestick.

Finally, the park is not the real issue. The real beef is owner Bob Lurie's promise to play the Giants anywhere but Candlestick after the lease expires in '94. This multi-millionaire real estate magnate has the gall to blackmail the city of SF, trying to force the city and its business and political leaders to provide yet another white elephant real estate project, as if we didn't have enough already! As a big developer, Lurie is obviously biased in favor of more development for its own sake. But I don't really think Lurie is in this for the money. No, he wants to be a civic hero, the man who "saved" the Giants for San Francisco.

Bob, be a real civic hero: GIVE OWNERSHIP OF THE GIANTS TO THE CITY OF SAN FRANCISCO! Then, and only then, will the City have a real stake in the team, and Lurie can properly assuage his guilty real estate-speculating conscience.

To get an idea of what we'll have if a new stadium gets built, rather than ahistorical fantasies based on Fenway or Wrigley, look at all the downtown stadiums built in the past 20 years: Riverfront in Cincinnati, Three Rivers in Pittsburgh, Veterans in Philadelphia (built by SF stadium developer Spectacor), Busch in St. Louis and so on--big, symmetrical, synthetic, corporate--ironically, Candlestick was the first of this generation of ugly stadiums.

Instead, why not put $100 million into something useful like a serious upgrade in public transportation, bicycle routes, and recreational facilities (like neighborhood ball fields!) for the citizens of SF? Or expand the community health clinic system? The needs of SF's residents far exceed what is being provided by public or private sectors, and it's high time that such grandiose expenditures be put toward those needs rather than satisfying blackmail demands from millionaires. Vote no on blackmail. See you at the 'Stick for the World Series in October!

--Chris Carlsson (1989)

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