Renovations to Exorcise Ghosts of 1990s

With Thursday’s announcements about the renovations at Progressive Field, the Indians signified once and for all that the 1990s are gone – in several senses.

The team announced plans this off-season to move the bullpens, add a group seating area and a two-story bar, expand the kid’s playland and change the configuration of Gate C, allowing for a better view upon arrival and for fans milling about beyond the seating area.

Twenty years doesn’t seem like a long time, but in this day and age, it’s ancient for stadiums (Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh was only used for 30 years, but most of its cookie-cutter ilk lasted around three to four decades). And it’s proof of how quickly stadium construction advanced.
The first big stadium building boom came in the early 1900s. People had more leisure time and spent it watching spectator sports, primarily baseball. The concrete-and-steel structures that popped up from Philadelphia to Chicago offered more seating and were billed as fireproof. Maybe not, but they were definitely more flame resistant than the wooden grandstands they replaced.
That boom ended with the construction of Yankee Stadium in 1923. “The House that Ruth Built” promised to be the largest and most luxurious stadium in Major League Baseball, as the Yankees emerged from the Giants’ shadow and tenancy into a league power. Cleveland Municipal Stadium was an outlier, with construction finishing in 1932, in the teeth of the Great Depression. It served the Indians for many years, as well as the Cleveland Browns of the NFL.

But by the 1980s, it was decrepit. The city leased the stadium to Art Modell, who bought the Browns largely with other people’s money and had cash flow problems that forced him first to move the team and then sell it. Modell had little money to put into improvements, and the few fans who showed up for mediocre baseball didn’t notice or care.

In 1991, old Comiskey Park gave way to a new stadium on Chicago’s South Side. The following year, Oriole Park replaced Memorial Stadium. It had retro chic and character, albeit of the pre-fabricated variety, but it was the vanguard of the new construction boom. Two years later, Jacobs Field opened, the new home for the Indians.

At the time, it was regarded as state-of-the-art. The stadium was a little more than half as big as Cleveland Stadium, but with 125 luxury suites, had four times as many – with the rent going to the Indians, not Modell. The ballpark had the largest free-standing scoreboard in Major League Baseball – a far cry from Municipal Stadium, which had no JumboTron. Nobody had to worry about wireless reception.

But what was state of the art even 20 years ago has become antiquated. As the building boom continued, Jacobs (now Progressive) Field has become the 11th oldest stadium in the majors.
And when Jacobs Field opened, it coincided with the best period of baseball in Cleveland in 40 years. Fans showed up in droves as the Indians set a record with 455 consecutive sellouts. In fact, the Indians added bleacher seats three years after the ballpark opened. The renovations will remove between 7,000 and 8,000 seats from the ballpark, bringing capacity down below 40,000 – and barring another trip to the World Series, they probably won’t be missed. It’s become a cottage industry in Cleveland to gripe about the lack of attendance at Indians games.

Those 125 suites? It took about a decade to realize they were too many. New ballparks in places like Philadelphia and Washington D.C. – both larger metro areas than Cleveland – had almost half that, as Congress started to limit what could be declared an entertainment expense and the economy took a turn for the worse.

So the suites started to become party suites, or the social suite, or the Kids Playland, repurposed for different markets within Indians fandom.

A cynic might say that the Indians’ renovation plans are a desperate effort to draw fans to watch a team that might be a little better than mediocre. But the on-field product is only part of the experience, and the 1990s proved that – as did Bill Veeck in the 1940s. Veeck, who once said that relying solely on true baseball fans would leave you broke by Mother’s Day, understood that when you have nothing to sell but the experience, it had better be pretty damn good, saying, “You can draw more people with a losing team plus bread and circuses than with a losing team and a long, still silence.”

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