- The Washington Times - Monday, October 24, 2005


Perhaps the biggest contrast between the Chicago White Sox and the Houston Astros is their ballparks.

U.S. Cellular Field, the home of the White Sox and the ballpark that hosted last night’s Game2 of the World Series, opened in 1991. Minute Maid Park, which will host Game3 tomorrow night in Houston, opened nine years later.

But judging by their design, they might as well have been built 30 years apart.

Remarkably, they were designed by the same architect — HOK of Kansas City. That should serve notice to the planners in Washington who have employed HOK to design a stadium in Southeast for the Nationals. They should make sure they get a ballpark that more resembles Minute Maid than U.S. Cellular, a sore thumb among the new facilities that have been built during the past 15 years.

U.S. Cellular — then called new Comiskey Park — opened 14 years ago right across the street from the old Comiskey on the city’s south side. Immediately there were complaints: The stadium was too sterile. It didn’t have the intimacy of creaky old Comiskey. The upper deck was too steep.

Perhaps any ballpark forced to compete with the friendly confines of Wrigley Field would be doomed to disappoint. But Camden Yards, also designed by HOK, opened in Baltimore one year later, and new Comiskey went from perceived disappointment to disaster.

Camden Yards, with its retro style and modern amenities, changed the game, influencing all ballparks that came after it. It made new Comiskey a $137million, taxpayer-financed embarrassment.

They since have spent $80million to correct the stadium’s flaws, taking 6,600 seats off the upper deck and installing a retro-looking metal roof over most of the upper deck.

It is worth noting that those renovations were designed not by HOK, but by their rival, HKS of Dallas.

The Astros didn’t need to make changes at their ballpark when it opened in 2000 — except the name, Enron Field (talk about embarrassing).

The $250 million retractable-dome stadium successfully followed the Camden Yards blueprint. There have been tweaks here and there, the addition of some local flavor.

One of those local touches in Houston is the train that runs across the left field wall on top of the ballpark when a home run is hit, a tribute to the stadium’s Union Station location and the railroad that helped Houston grow.

They could do something similar in Washington for the Nationals’ ballpark, perhaps a limousine with flags on it and an escort of police officers on motorcycles.

There were no such attractions when new Comiskey opened.

White Sox vice chairman Howard Pizer told the Houston Chronicle that the ballpark opened to positive reviews — a selective memory in play there — but everything changed once Camden Yards opened.

“When we opened it, we had nothing but raves, wonderful reviews from the fans and the media,” Pizer said. “Once Camden Yards opened, it was like, ‘Oh, we like this better.’ The honeymoon was over.”

What is disturbing is that if it were up to HOK, there would have been a new Comiskey in Baltimore as well. Only one thing changed that: the determination of one man who had a vision of what he wanted the ballpark to look like.

HOK, hired by the Maryland Stadium Authority, came to a meeting with Orioles president Larry Lucchino with a model for Camden Yards that used new Comiskey as the template.

Lucchino literally tore the model apart, piece by piece, right before the architects eyes, and told them this was not what he wanted.

“It was Larry who initiated the whole idea of the design of the stadium, even though he wasn’t an architect,” former stadium authority chairman Herb Belgrad told me years later. “Larry was the moving force. There were different people involved throughout this — different owners, different negotiators — but Larry was the driving constant.”

Ballpark design is one of many issues facing Washington baseball now. There has been talk of breaking the trend of Camden Yards-style retro parks and making Washington’s the first in a new generation of stadiums.

But there are too many cooks with too many different ideas of what the recipe should be. Those different ideas have thrown the design, like so many other aspects of baseball here, into chaos.

What Washington needs is their own Lucchino, a “driving constant” to oversee every aspect of this project, a man with the guts and the vision to tear apart unacceptable ideas and notions.

Otherwise, the Nationals could end up with their own version of U.S. Cellular Field: a blueprint for years to come of what kind of ballpark not to build.

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