Welcome to a special Monday edition of Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Bank One Ballpark
LATER KNOWN AS: Chase Field
HOME TEAM: Arizona Diamondbacks
VISITED: May 8, 1999
CHRONOLOGY: 21st of 34
RANKING: 22nd of 34
Bank One Ballpark ran hot and cold. Literally. It was hot outside. I learned it could be hot inside. In deference to that possibility, sitting and watching a midday ballgame in the desert could be a little chilly — literally and figuratively.
To say the BOB left me cold would be stretching my reservations. It was certainly a marvel and perhaps still is. As with SkyDome upon its arrival onto the major league landscape, marveling was half the point of going to a game there. It was the second park that could routinely open and close its roof. That Toronto had the first of those contraptions in the major leagues didn’t make Arizona any less novel. Or impressive.
Impressive is what the BOB had going for it above all else when I visited in 1999 to cheer for the Mets far from home. A little too impressive, somehow. Or, as Mr. Burns judged Martin Prince’s actual power-producing entry in the children’s nuclear power plant model contest, “Too cold and sterile. Where’s the heart?”
I didn’t much question the need for the retractable roof that would be closed for the game ahead, not after the brief walk from the street where my transplanted friend Joel — who, along with his also-transplanted brother Anthony, was hosting me, Larry and Fred for a fairly impromptu reunion that weekend — had parked. You didn’t want to be outside in Phoenix in the middle of the day. We made all kinds of “…but it’s a dry heat” jokes to amuse each other on the stroll from the car to the BOB, but never mind the dry. There was heat.
Plenty of heat surrounded the Diamondbacks in their early days. They were designed to be as model a baseball franchise as any that ever drew breath in the expansion age. No lovable losing for them. Except for having managed the Yankees previously, D-Back generalissimo Buck Showalter bore no resemblance to Casey Stengel. Casey invented the Mets from an identity standpoint. Attempting to invent them from a baseball standpoint would have been useless in light of the expansion rules of 1961-62. Back then, the existing owners took the newbies’ money and cheerfully let them poke around their refuse pile, hiding anybody who could be described as remotely useful. You don’t lose 120 games without a little help from your supposed friends. Thus, Casey Stengel wasn’t just talking crazy when he went on and on about his Amazin’, Amazin’, Amazin’ Mets. He needed to distract New York from the reality of those first Mets clubs. In doing so, he shaped them into a phenomenon that transcended infrequent wins and myriad losses.
Showalter, on the other hand, was going to reinvent baseball in the dessert as quickly as he could. He was a detail-obsessed genius whose fingerprints were all over the Diamondbacks from their conception. That included Bank One Ballpark, which was going to be as impressive as Showalter was considered after helping to revive the Yankees in the early ’90s and bringing them to the brink of their next dynasty. Fired by the not yet lovable George Steinbrenner for daring to not win that team’s first playoff series in fourteen years, Arizona grabbed him the second he became available and gave him incredible lead time (hired on November 15, 1995 for a team that wouldn’t play its first game until March 31, 1998) to craft the Diamondbacks in his own image. He was said to be on top of everything from the high-priced free agents owner Jerry Colangelo would sign — an option not available to George Weiss in 1962 — to the nouvelle purple and teal palette that became the official team colors to the throwback-style dirt path that ran between the batter’s box and the pitcher’s mound.
I think of the hype around Showalter and his alleged penchant for perfection when I think of visiting Bank One Ballpark. Showalter, remember, was the guy who threw a controlled fit because Ken Griffey, Jr., took batting practice with his cap backwards. Baseball loved Junior showing childlike enthusiasm for the game. Showalter frowned that the direction of Griffey cap wasn’t to code. Predictably, there was nothing backwards about the BOB. The BOB was all about looking forward. Even the name, when you broke it down, implied an irresistible force that was on the march and gaining steam.
Oh, BOB was a cheerful enough nickname — not unlike Buck — but Bank One Ballpark hinted at where we were going with our professional playgrounds. There had been Wrigley and Busch and most recently Coors and Turner, but even as they doubled as billboards for brands, they were gum and beer and cable television, products designed to make you enjoy yourself. Tropicana Field, baptized for baseball the same year as the BOB, connoted something sunny, juicy and, for St. Petersburg, local. Utilities and high-tech, meanwhile, had already infiltrated stadium entrances, but fans patronizing clumsy conceits like Cinergy Field and Qualcomm Stadium and 3Com Park knew better. The could continue to call their homes Riverfront or the Murph or the Stick, just as they always had.
With Bank One Ballpark, however, there was no mistaking the corporate coldness right there on the birth certificate. These weren’t naming rights you could ignore. This was Bank One Ballpark from the beginning. And, what pray tell, did Bank One have to do with Phoenix or Arizona? At least Edison International, temporary rights holder in Anaheim starting in 1997, was from California. So was Qualcomm. 3Com wasn’t, but Silicon Valley was and you could make the leap from there to San Francisco (not that I ever knew precisely what 3Com was, did or made). Bank One had nothing explicitly to do with where the Ballpark that answered to its name was built. It was a financial institution seeking regional brand awareness and penetration. Or something like that.
From the outside, the BOB looked like no other ballpark. It wasn’t round or boxy. It resembled an airplane hangar. When I was a kid being dragged to visit doctors or relatives in Brooklyn, we’d drive from Long Beach, through the Rockaways and over the Marine Parkway Bridge (later amended to Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge) where Flatbush Avenue begins and pass Floyd Bennett Field, New York’s first municipal airport. It had a series of eight no longer used airplane hangars. The BOB looked like an enormous version of those. As we got closer to it, we were greeted, I vaguely recall through the heat, by some cutesy baseball-themed sculptures. I guess that was so you didn’t mistake the facility for an airplane hangar.
There was a tension between the modernism necessary to execute a retractable-roofed stadium in the middle of a burgeoning downtown and the desire to at least partially ride the retro wave that had been in ballpark vogue since Camden Yards opened six years prior (thus, that pretentious dirt path). It was sort of like the desire to have a unique Arizona feel to the scene — accented by those garish teal and purple uniforms on which Showalter signed off — while accepting megabucks to plaster the rootless Bank One logo all over the place. It continued indoors, which featured, among many other attractions/distractions, a Hall of Fame exhibit, on loan from Cooperstown. The Diamondbacks had existed for little more than a year to this point, but they were trying to steep themselves in baseball history, just as the sculptures outside tried to give fans a cue as to what awaited them inside. That type of touch could have been taken as truly tradition-friendly or it could have been interpreted as a overly marketing-driven. It was probably somewhere in between.
The one thing you heard about beyond everything else in the buzz over the BOB when it debuted in 1998 was the swimming pool in right field. The Bank One name may not have screamed “Valley of the Sun!” but a pool sure did in a suburban backyard sense. Hot out? Take a dip! It was said to be inspired by the shower Bill Veeck installed behind the bleachers at old Comiskey Park. Except the shower was democratic — you’d step right in and cool off — and this was a showy party suite; a manufactured quirk to go with the angles carved into the outfield fence and the shadows that crept through the adjustable outfield windows. It was an attempt at what the D-Back marketing department no doubt filed under Fun.
I’m a little cynical in recalling the BOB’s straining to have heart, but fun is fun, upper-case or otherwise. Of course it was fun getting together with my three best friends from high school. Joel had moved to Phoenix in 1993 and seemed very settled there, even if it was a little unsettling to discover he had morphed into something of a Diamondbacks fan. Too much time away from New York might do that to a fellow, I suppose, particularly when team-following technology was still getting up to speed (no blogs!). Matt Franco homered in a rare left field start, and Joel rather sheepishly admitted he had no idea who Matt Franco was. Later he seemed genuinely conflicted as the Diamondbacks provoked a John Franco meltdown. I’m pretty sure he came around by the time our great new reliever Armando Benitez came in to slam the door and earn his first Met save.
It was fun, too, having actual lunch at the ballpark. Back at Shea, there was the Diamond Club which was forever off limits to the likes of us (though nine years later, at our farewell visit in Flushing, Fred saw the name of the exclusive Met hideaway on our tickets and asked if that’s where we go for “the lap dances”), but nothing else that involved sitting. The BOB, however, featured a T.G.I. Friday’s that overlooked the outfield. It was more democratic than the pool. Anybody could sit there, eat there and drink there (or spill a tall glass of iced tea on Larry’s shorts there as I did) and you could conceivably watch baseball from there. All we took in at T.G.I. was BP, and the food was nothing you couldn’t get in literally a thousand locations, but as with so much about the BOB, you were compelled to embrace the novelty.
Perhaps innovation would be a better word. It was innovative to install a pool in right field. It was innovative to mesh purple and teal in an atmosphere whose prevailing mood — indoors on such a bright day — was vaguely gray. It was innovative to station ushers with signs requesting you wait for an at-bat to be completed before getting up from or returning to your seat. Courtesy was certainly an innovation none of us on holiday from Shea could quite grasp (which is probably why we cut in front of a line of patiently waiting Arizonans and grabbed the first empty table we saw at T.G.I. Friday’s). Temperature control was another innovative stab for which the Diamondbacks deserve more credit than scorn, though I wasn’t too impressed by it when, amid walking the surprisingly drab concourse, I noticed I was actually cold.
Yes, Fred agreed, in his customary way with words, “it’s a little brisk in here.”
But our minds were changed after the final out. Joel insisted we hang at our seats for a couple of minutes as others were doing. It wasn’t for courtesy’s sake. It was to marvel. When the game ended, the BOB rolled back its roof. Unlike SkyDome, this ceiling opened in less time than it took for Matt Franco work out a walk (or John Franco to allow one). Unlike every other park in which baseball was played indoors, this one contained what we used to call natural grass. In the aftermath of the failed Astroturf revolution, that still seemed pretty retro. It was definitely innovative. Naturally, the natural grass needed sunlight. Necessity was the mother of invention for this deluxe sardine can lid.
As a literal fanfare played over the P.A., the roof retracted. The Arizona sun came at us like a Randy Johnson fastball: high, hard and sending you ducking for cover. It didn’t take five seconds for the BOB to turn from brisk to broiling.
“And that,” Joel reminded us, “is why you have a roof here.”
POSTSCRIPT: The Mets came back to the BOB that October, splitting two Division Series games en route to winning the LDS at Shea. Still, it’s pretty impressive, no matter the resources or rules applied, that a second-year expansion team won a division title. Buck Showalter may have possessed a certain genius for franchise-building, but it wasn’t the long-tolerated type. Jerry Colangelo dismissed him after the 2000 season, which netted Arizona a mere 85 wins and no playoff spot. Under the lower-key Bob Brenly, the 2001 Diamondbacks, in their fourth year of existence, won one of the greatest World Series ever played, a seven-game affair versus the New York Yankees during which every Mets fan I knew and then some became a Diamondbacks diehard for the duration; I still have a t-shirt proclaiming that Fall Classic’s classic result. Joel probably would have been extra incredibly stoked by Arizona’s achievement, except he moved to Northern California in 2000, never adopting the A’s or Giants as more than local curiosities, and rejuvenating himself as a well-informed Mets fan. Bank One Ballpark, via the magic of corporate machinations, has been known as Chase Field since 2005. The Mets won 13 consecutive games there from 2004 to 2007, whatever it was called. It is currently one of eight ballparks that carry the name of a financial or insurance concern. The D-Backs no longer wear teal or purple, but the roof still works, the Friday’s is still open and the pool is still available for groups of up to 35.