Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the "Mallpark"

By The Common Man

Miller Park
This weekend, The Common Man was lucky enough to take in two ballgames in person, traveling down to Wrigley Field to catch a game with his blog-mate/heterosexual life-partner Bill on Friday and heading over to Milwaukee with The Boy to see the Brewers play with our good friend, and unofficial mayor of Milwaukee, Larry Granillo of Baseball Prospectus, who scored us some tickets.

To be honest, TCM has never really enjoyed the “Mallpark” experience provided by the newer stadiums, such as Miller Park. Too many bells, too many whistles. Fireworks, retractable roofs, sushi rolls, mascot slides, t-shirt cannons, random games and attractions. So much to distract you from the action on the field. It’s often more like a carnival than a baseball game. So while TCM appreciates the warmth and comfort available in most modern parks, he also has traditionally been a curmudgeon about them.

That awesome scoreboard
So, when he got to experience the exact opposite of that in Chicago again, TCM was excited. This was The Common Man's third visit to Wrigley Field, and TCM loves the old place.  Wrigley, if you haven’t been, still does not have a video board for replays. The scoreboard is still hand-operated. And all the food is pretty much co-located in a central spot, rather than divvied up around the park. The food’s also not great and the beer is terrible (Old Style, really? Can’t some traditions just die with dignity?) In this steel and concrete palace, TCM sat with Bill through 45 degree, cloudy weather, with occasional rain and a lot of cold wind as the Cubs lost 12-2. It was a terrible baseball game, and by the end TCM and Bill were able to move down to the lower level, just barely under the overhang, and basically had a section to ourselves. It was fun. But, then, we’re 30-something super-baseball nuts who have been known to sit through the odd 16-1 game in a concrete bowl with a trash bag for a roof.

But parenthood changes a lot about how you view the world, so on Sunday TCM was finally won over by the Mallpark. We had good seats in the terrace overlooking home plate, and The Boy enjoyed being right on top of the action (even threatening to jump on to the field a couple times). He also loved the fireworks when the Brewers hit a homer, and seeing Bernie Brewer slide down the slide. He was very impressed by the massive new HD video board in center field (frankly, so was TCM, who wanted to cart it home and put it in the living room) and how all the players were kind of gangly and goofy looking.

But there is only so much baseball a four-year old can handle, uninterrupted. So after watching a couple innings, and playing with his Avengers action figures for a while, we headed out to the commissary to grab some food. And not only did The Boy get a hot dog (which is like little kid crack), he got a kids meal combo that came with its own baseball card (1990 Upper Deck Chuck Crim).

After we finished that, he sat for a bit longer before we needed another distraction. So in the 6th inning, we left to go find ice cream. Along the way, we ducked back in to the stands to watch the sausage race, and then found the ice cream stand suspiciously located near Bernie’s Clubhouse, a large play area with a big structure for the kids to crawl through. Of course, The Boy wanted to go in. So we did. It was like Lord of the Flies on meth. Kids ran everywhere, chasing each other, climbing through the structure, going down the slides two, three, or four at a time, screaming. It was horrible. The Boy was in there for 20-30 minutes, and came out sweaty and smiling.

But as the time past, TCM got more and more annoyed. Baseball tickets are expensive (though, after the game, Larry wouldn’t let me pay him for them), and TCM doesn’t get to as many ballgames as he’d like. Missing more of it, and not being able to watch on the nearby monitors (TCM had to at least try to keep an eye on The Boy) was a slow-building torture that left TCM momentarily seeing red. But then…serenity.

Here’s what TCM realized. Visiting Bernie’s Clubhouse, and all the other distractions the mallpark offers, and missing a little bit of baseball now is a long-term investment in the game. The Boy doesn’t really get the game, and while he’s quick to tell others that “Joe Mauer is my friend,” he’s only in it because his dad likes it so much. If The Common Man ripped him away from the jungle gym, or forced him to sit still for all nine innings, The Boy would hate to go to the ballpark. He’d come to see going there as a chore. And TCM would have no luck enticing him to go when he’s 8, 10, 13, or 17 years old. This is a long-term strategy, getting The Boy to love baseball while thinking that it’s actually his own idea. Someday he will be able to sit through a whole game, and by then he will want to. Because going to the ballpark, any ballpark, with dad will be fun in and of itself.

This is where a park like Wrigley Field fails. With no distractions for the kids, and no roof to keep out the elements, Wrigley simply is not a place where The Boy, or any other small child, would have fun. Don’t get TCM wrong, it's still a great park, but it’s great for different reasons, and a different audience than Miller Park is.  But The Common Man would never, ever, bring his son there until he was much, much older.  Not until he was a real baseball fan.

By the time the 9th inning rolled around, TCM was sold. All three of us left our seats in the top of the inning and made our way downstairs so The Boy could wait in the massive line to run the bases. The actual bases. On the field.

We could barely see what was going on in the game, but after John Axford struck out Carlos Lee to end it, and The Boy got one more dose of fireworks/Bernie Brewer sliding, he got to the best part of his day. He got to go down on the field and run around with a bunch of other kids. He got to touch each base, and was careful to make sure he stepped on home (Larry, out of habit, timed him at 47 seconds from home to home). He got to pretend he was Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks. And he got to see where they stood in the on deck circle and where they sat in the dugout. He was ecstatic.

Yeah, the Brewers won. And so did the Mallpark. But, frankly, the biggest winner was The Common Man himself.  And TCM will be reaping the benefits of that for years to come.


William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

I know it's not a sophisticated response, but I loved this piece. Absolutely perfect in thought and execution.

Dropped Strike Three said...

An investment in building a future baseball fan... I like it! Great article!

Jessica - Wrigley Fan said...

I love Wrigley Field and after reading this, love it even more...and hope it stays an "adult playground" for as long as humanly possible. Im not opposed to the "mallpark" but, as an adult...its not of value to me. I live in a town that has a minor league team (wi mi whitecaps) and they are like mini-mallparks. That I find value in, it makes sense to pay $10/ticket and spend half the game doing things OTHER than watching the game. I just dont see the value for "the common man" to pay so much for a major league game - HOPING it will result in their kid having a love for the game when they are older. In fact, I see the opposite happening...they'll grow up and find the game "boring" because "not much is happening" like they remember when they were kids. I hope, though...for your sake...that doesnt happen.

Alex K said...

I took my little man to Wrigley this weekend. We made it 4.5 innings. He's only 5 months old, so I'm starting him VERY early.

Blotz said...

I have similar experiences here in Cincy with my now 6 year old girl. Last year we took in 1 game at the GAP and she spent half of it playing on the playground equipment (thoughtfully provided by the playground equipment company...). But she got a hot dog and cotton candy, and the GAP does have great monitor saturation, So Dad got to see most of the game.

As for old parks, I've never seen a game in any of the museum piece parks, but I might be one of the few people who misses Riverfront Stadium.

The Common Man said...

Well, The Common Man thought about strapping him into a chair and playing him clips of the 1991 World Series while prying his eyelids open, like Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange, but The Uncommon Wife wouldn't let him. We've also tried just leaving him at home with a plate of food and The Avengers on the TV, but have been told by child services that we can't do that anymore. So we're going a different route.

I don't know if you have kids, Jessica, or if you hang out with them on a regular basis, but no four-year old can sit through three hours of anything without distraction.

The Common Man said...

Unless they've been drugged. Which we've also tried. But, again, Child Services was really adament we cut that out.

Anonymous said...

I do like this article, I think the need to employ this tactic is greater today than 20 years ago. I grew up loving to go to Riverfront in the mid 80s starting about 7-8 years old. I can not remember leaving early or even doing anything more than going to the restroom. We were there to watch and talk about the game with my Dad and I loved it. (This was after the 2 hour drive to get there). Today I think these distractions are probably necassary. In the end, if it gets my children to love baseball as much as I do, it will be worth the investment.

Andy - Mariners Fan said...

I have ruminated on these same ideas as well. I go to several games per year at Safeco Field which is a great place to watch a baseball game, but constantly tries to keep non-baseball fans entertained.
I actually have admitted to people that I miss the Kingdome a little bit. It was an absolute pit to see a game at and offered no extra entertainment (apart from hydro races on the video board).
It probably is a bit elitist of me to feel this way, but I would much rather watch game in a terrible stadium with fans who know what's happening in the game than in a beautiful park with a bunch of people who view it as a place to hang out.
I have been tremendously blessed to have 3 awesome kids, the oldest of which at 4 years old is more obsessed with sports than me. Thus, my view is quite biased due to attending several games with him where he watches all the way to the 9th inning (after which he falls asleep in the car, cuz whoa is it late!).
I think I'm wondering whether the entertainment-centric parks are going to raise a whole bunch of kids who like all the stuff that comes with the baseball game, without actually liking baseball. This of course is both not a real "problem" and also may not even be true... I just know I adore baseball and I started loving it inside a concrete dome watching the late 80s early 90s Mariners (a truly terrible era of baseball).

Anonymous said...

Does it give you any pause that those of us who grew up in the pre-mallpark era learned to love the game for its own sake not because it was played in some kind of combination playground and shopping center?

The flaw in your argument is the premise that there's something intrinsic in kids that will requires the kind of short-attention span, over-stimulation type of experience to keep them interested. I think that's false. What you're describing seems to me to be the product of a current cultural fad promoted by marketers and other vermin who will stop at nothing to try to get you to buy stuff you don't need.

I like many of the amenities of the newer parks like Safeco but could do without 99% of the loud music, distracting scoreboard nonsense (read: commercials) and PA announcers who say anything other than who's up and who's coming into the game to pitch.

If kids can be glued to electronic gadgets for hours on end playing some repetitive computer game there's no reason they should be bored by a baseball game if the sport appeals to them at all.

Finally, please tell your kid to stop kicking the back of my #$%!ing chair!!!

The Common Man said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Common Man said...

It gives The Common Man no pause, given that he knows his son, knows his age and what he loves. Knows how to talk to him and knows how to raise him. The Common Man is as sure about the growth and development of his boy as he is that the sun is going to come up tomorrow and that apples fall down, not up.

Taking some time away from sitting still is not going to hurt him, when he can go and run and play with other kids. Why would any father begrudge his son that in the name of some misguided attempt to fight against "vermin" who would dare try to sell our culture products like they have for the last 100 years?

Here's what does give The Common Man pause, that someone like you might try and deliberately suck the fun out of the game for TCM and his boy. That's sad. But mostly for you.

Anyway, The Common Man wasn't making an argument, per se, and certainly was not claiming the newer stadiums are superior to the old. But that he finds them suited to introducing his four-year old to the game. You're welcome to take your four-year old wherever you'd like.

And, for the record, The Common Man became a baseball fan in the Metrodome, which is about as far away from a fun ballpark as you can get. So he has a baseline to work with. And TCM didn't really take to the game until he was 9 or so. It's nice to find a way to introduce The Boy to it even earlier.

Even if that doesn't meet with your approval. You anonymous, joyless, arrogant ass. Get bent.

Johanna said...

I grew up going to games and went from the time I was 4. The adults that took me talked to me about the game, taught me to keep a scorecard (even though at the early days I was just recording the advancing of the runners around the bases by drawing in the diamond). I love baseball so much that I quit my job a few years ago to begin writing about it. And I learned to love it without those bells an whistles. Dragging a kid away from the jungle gym is only a problem if there is a jungle gym at the ballpark... and if the parents are ignoring the kid while in the stands.

The Common Man said...


You realize that you're essentially accusing The Common Man of being a bad parent, right? That seems like an awful thing to do. And only the worst sort of person would jump to that conclusion without knowing TCM or his son.

Eddie said...

Interesting viewpoint. I'm a Cubs fan who has seen a few games at Miller Park. Don't love it, don't hate it either. It's about what I have come to expect at Comiskey: A lot of noise and junk going on that I find distracting. Of course, I also don't have any kids.