How do you describe the blue at Dodger Stadium? Not the royal blue worn by the fans and players, but the softer blue that covers the outfield walls? During the day, that blue looks sunbeat and worn, like an old Buick left out in the desert for years. At night, there’s an almost institutional glow to the blue walls — I imagine the cafeteria walls at mental institutions and prisons are painted in a similar shade of blue.
I only ask because every time I go to Dodger Stadium, I come away with the impression that the park’s ample charm comes mostly from that soft, worn, and comfortable shade of blue. It’s the sort of lived-in tone that inspires Instagram filters and old, stoned surf videos. If you sit directly behind home plate at Dodger Stadium and stare out at the hills of Elysian Park, you’d swear that this strange ballpark with its hi-fi scoreboards and its pale yellow seats had been randomly dropped, parking lots and all, into some prehistoric diorama of what Southern California might have looked like before the Gold Rush. No ballpark in America is more divorced from the stereotypical image of its city. You cannot see any strip malls at Dodger Stadium. You cannot see the Hollywood sign or the Capitol Records building. You cannot see the slow crush of traffic on the 101.
Since 1992, when Camden Yards in Baltimore ushered in a new era of stadium design, nearly every ballpark in America has been built under the same principle — old-timey knickknacks like manual scoreboards get stapled onto a gleaming hulk of scalable, corporatized concrete and metal because nostalgia is a powerful purchasing device and drives fans to buy all sorts of useless stuff, from miniature bats to the now-$8 hot dogs they ate when they were kids. This is not to say that every ballpark built in the past 20 years is some horrific monstrosity that callously manipulates our most tender memories, but I do think we pay a psychic toll whenever we access nostalgia through a modern, corporatized avenue. I still remember little details from nearly every Red Sox game my father took me to when I was a child. I remember the smell of the bathrooms, the color of the cement that held up the grandstands, and, of course, the dirty shade of green that has welcomed generations of fans to Fenway Park. If they built a new Fenway with a new Citgo sign that looked exactly like the old one and they sprayed old piss scent all over the bathrooms, I would most likely still recall those same childhood details, but they would have to travel a longer, more wearying distance. And part of me would always hate the new Citgo sign and the manufactured piss scent and the fake green on the outfield walls.
When I lived in New York, my friend Eric and I went to dozens of Mets day games at Shea Stadium.1 The Mets were unreasonably bad back then, trotting out some combination of Cliff Floyd, Mike Piazza, and a bunch of Triple-A players. But Shea Stadium was a comfy old heap that fit the team’s personality. Citi Field, which opened in 2009, is a different sort of dump: the most cynical ballpark in the major leagues, complete with a Jackie Robinson rotunda (Robinson, of course, never played for the Mets), silly constructions like “the Great Wall of Flushing” and the Shea Bridge, a faux-industrial walkway modeled off the Hell Gate Bridge that connects Astoria and Randall’s Island. There is a history of New York in Citi Field, but the same could be said about the New York-New York Casino in Las Vegas. When you go to a Mets game now, you’re not so much reminded of the past or Shea Stadium as much as you’re reminded of corporate strategy. It’s a horrible place.
Incidentally, Shea Stadium and Dodger Stadium were both designed by the same architect, Emil Praeger.
I know the typical response here is to talk about the need for luxury boxes and modern amenities and walkways that make any sort of sense. And if you’re a Wilpon or if you’re the sort of person who needs to watch a baseball game from inside a luxury box, I’m sure you see the necessary evils of Citi Field. But if you’re one of the millions of people for whom this is neither an option nor a desire, what, exactly, do ballparks like Citi Field offer other than efficient escalators and better garlic fries? I’ll strike an old refrain here: Given the amount of money coming into baseball teams through television revenue and the always-escalating price of tickets, why would the average fan ever care about the fiscal viability of a ballpark? And for those who would argue that the next generation of kids will connect with a place like Citi Field and create their own memories, let me say that not everything is quite so relative. Everyone loses from corporate cynicism — Shea Stadium might have been a dump, but it was, at least, a colorful dump.
Dodger Stadium recently underwent a $100 million renovation, but on Opening Day, the old ballpark looked more or less the same. Forty minutes before the first pitch, a short primer on the park’s improvements went up on one of the new scoreboards — basically, all that has changed at Dodger Stadium is that the clubhouses have been modernized, the walkways have grown a bit wider, and a new sound system has been installed. The iconic outfield scoreboards, encased in weird, elongated hexagons that seem stuck between architectural periods, still remain, but their guts have been replaced by high-definition screens. In short, nothing has really changed, including that beautiful shade of blue and the weather-beaten look of the stadium’s seats. This is the first full season under the Dodgers’ new ownership group, and the team has received a lot of attention for its $220 million–plus payroll, but there was no real talk of a new era on Opening Day. In fact, the new ownership group seemed almost to make a point to defer to the history of the Dodgers by pulling a fun April Fools’ stunt for the ceremonial first pitch. Magic Johnson, the figurehead of the new Dodgers ownership group, walked out to the mound to throw to Orel Hershiser. Magic huffed and grimaced as he stared in at Hershiser’s sign, perhaps doing an impression of the Bulldog himself. But before he could wind up and throw, Don Mattingly, the Dodgers manager, walked out of the dugout and called for a relief pitcher. To great applause, Sandy Koufax headed out to the mound.
Real nostalgia requires a totality of memories, impressions, and objects, all of which Dodger Stadium still delivers. The ceremonial first-pitch stunt might have felt cheesy in another ballpark, but at Dodger Stadium, the past actually does coexist with the present in a way that allows those sorts of moments to be genuinely touching rather than contrived. We love old ballparks because they allow us to share in the collective nostalgia of a city — even if you’ve come to Dodger Stadium from the other side of the country or another country altogether, you still feel that slight tingle in your chest and the lump in your throat when you hear Vin Scully, who has been with the team since its days in Brooklyn, and who is, without any doubt, the greatest announcer to ever sit behind a microphone, yell out, “It’s time for Dodger baseball!”
That’s a feeling that has to be earned. Sincere thanks are due to the new Dodgers ownership group for understanding that the ballpark itself is the relic, and for not letting however hundreds of millions of dollars get in the way.