Stadium Arcadium

Next spring, a World Championship banner will be hoisted over 102-year-old Fenway Park in Boston. The denizens of Beantown and everyone else who loves what used to be called our national pastime can’t imagine the Boston Red Sox ever playing anywhere else than the quirky building on 4 Yawkey Way with the giant green wall in left field.

Unfortunately, a cherished venue like Fenway is an anomaly in the sordid world of 21st-century big-money sports. Family-owned franchises playing in friendly confines are a thing of the past, a relic as doomed as the Titanic (which sank on the day Fenway was scheduled to open in 1912).

Before the age of humongous indoor shopping malls, ballparks were communal gathering grounds where parents took their kids to soak in fresh air, eat some hot dogs, cheer their heroes and absorb a quintessentially American tradition. The ballparks usually were named after local civic leaders and you could get a decent seat for the same price as a movie ticket. They were egalitarian public spaces: everyone sat shoulder to shoulder–the only luxury boxes were large packages of Crackerjacks. They didn’t have giant video screens or glassed-in upscale restaurants, so you actually had to watch the game. The ballpark was a familiar and well-worn venue for a rite of spring (and summer) that could be passed down from generation to generation.

But they don’t play the World Series during the day anymore (and it costs more for a family to watch it in person than the down-payment on an SUV). Children, sunlight, cheap tickets, community spirit and fond memories don’t do anything for the bottom line. Today’s professional sports teams are major business assets, billion-dollar commodities held by large conglomerates, who vacuum in billions more by auctioning broadcast rights to other conglomerates. Everything associated with the team has a price tag on it, from the name on the stadium to sponsorships for the manager’s call to the bullpen.

Like other big businesses, the corporate titans who own sports franchises have embraced the cynical conventional wisdom that the value of putting down deep roots in a community ain’t what it used to be. Leveraging relocations for a king’s ransom in incentives and other perks that can be squeezed out of economic development agencies is the norm, during good times and bad. A baseball stadium is the corporate headquarters of a sports franchise; like their glass-skinned skyscraper HQ cousins, these facilities will go to the highest bidder. The taxpayers usually foot the bill for the newcomers or absorb the damage left behind when existing venues are abandoned for greener (as in greenbacks) pastures.

That’s bad enough, but now it appears the stadium merry-go-round is being turbocharged. This week comes news that the life expectancy of the average sports palace may be dropping below 20 years: Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves since 1997, soon will be demolished because a suburban county has pledged to pony up almost two-thirds of the cost of a new $672-million stadium with a high-tech retractable roof.

One of the main reasons Atlanta was chosen as the venue for the 1996 Summer Olympics–aside from being the HQ of mega-sponsor Coca-Cola–was because Georgia’s largest city agreed to build the 85,000-seat Centennial Olympic Stadium. City fathers convinced taxpayers to foot a hefty chunk of the $209 million needed to build the stadium by assuring them the facility still would be viable long after the Olympics ended. The plan involved spending additional millions to remove 35,000 seats from the mammoth stadium so it could be converted into a new home for the Atlanta Braves. Thus Turner Field was born.

Now, faced with a reported offer from Cobb County to finance $450 million of the cost of a new stadium for the Braves, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has drawn the line and withdrawn from the bidding war. “Given the needs facing our city…that is something I, and many others, were unwilling to do,” Reed said.

Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, also has deferred on replacing a facility barely 17 years after it was built, the mayor said. The Braves reportedly have accepted Cobb County’s offer to move north and in a few days are expected to finalize a letter of intent. Cobb County officials, meanwhile, are said to be assuring the county’s taxpayers that the 60-acre tract set aside for the new home of the Braves eventually will include retail, residential and hotel development that will bring in a bonanza of jobs and revenue.

We wish them well but, frankly, we’ve heard these kinds of promises before. We’ve also heard the litany of excuses the team is emitting for its decision to leave downtown Atlanta: congested roads, inadequate parking, blah blah blah. To paraphrase the late Sam Kinison: “You’re in a city. That’s why there’s traffic. There’s no traffic in the Sahara Desert, because there’s no people. Take the Metro.”

Memo to Cobb County: make sure the security cameras on the new Whatever-It’s-Called Stadium have telescopic lenses that can see for miles in every direction–the kind that can see other locations approaching in 12 or 15 years with richer offers to seduce the Braves’ well-traveled caravan into packing up and moving again.

The Bravos are no strangers to Bedouin-style baseball. Early in the last century, they originated down the road from the BoSox as Boston’s National League franchise. In 1953, they moved to Milwaukee. In 1965, the Braves left an enthusiastic fan base in Milwaukee crying in their beer cups when the team abruptly pulled up roots and drove down to Atlanta, where a bigger TV market beckoned.

No word yet on what the Braves plan to do with the statue in front of Turner Field of all-time home-run king (sit down and shut up, Barry) Henry Aaron. Maybe they can ask Hammerin’ Hank to drive the U-Haul when it carries his bronze likeness to the burbs along with the team’s bats and balls.