It’s funny how people grow up to look like whatever their names are. All babies are unique, of course (uniquely ugly, I would say), but once they’re grown Bills usually look like Bills and Keiths like Keiths and Bettys like Bettys, and so on. So it is that we heartily endorse the Bill Veeck Stadium Committee in its proposal to name the new White Sox ballpark Bill Veeck Stadium. It’s not merely that the public is paying for it so the public can name it anything it damn well pleases, although there’s a certain delightful justice in that. (If the Reinhorn ownership has to have a new stadium so badly, it should be saddled with one named after Veeck, former friend and eventual nemesis.) It’s not merely that Veeck is one of baseball’s great figures (one of the first to try to integrate the sport), with history on both sides of town (planted the ivy at Wrigley, saved the Sox from Seattle in the mid-70s). It’s not merely that there’s a long history of sports names being changed to suit the public. (The original White Stockings became the Cubs thanks to one clever sportswriter, and Wrigley Field, of course, was originally Weeghman Park.) It’s that the name Bill Veeck Stadium is the last best hope for this structure–pristine, plastic, and antiseptic at birth–to ever grow up into a real live ballpark. So be it.
Bill Veeck Stadium is a ballpark built for the shopping-mall generation. The refreshment stands are decorated with neon, and from any seat in the stadium one can look beyond the outfield fence and the bleachers to an awning-riddled aisle of little “shoppes.” I am willing to make room for a ballpark with escalators and exposed gridwork (like a shopping mall) holding up the scoreboard and the outfield lights. But shopping malls look the way they do for a reason: they are intended to discourage individuality and encourage consumption, and Bill Veeck Stadium–at least at its christening–has the same sort of ambience. Cheering and shouting seem out of place, a feeling apparently shared even by the vendors; during the entire first game I saw at the Veeck I didn’t hear a single slap of a hot-dog steamer or call of “Cold beer here!”
That was last Sunday, and I’ll admit I was not in the best of moods when I entered the stadium. Comiskey Park remains standing–most of it. It greets a fan walking over from the el with a massive gash in the right-field corner, where Speedway Wrecking has begun its work. The stadium has been laid open, left as if with its innards still steaming. Looking through the gaping hole in the wall, I felt like crying. I’ve talked with several Sox fans who attended one or more of the first three games at Veeck; some liked it, some didn’t, some had reservations–but all of them responded with anger to the harm done Comiskey. It could have been and should have been salvaged somehow, but–even allowing that it had to go–it shouldn’t have gone like this, a section at a time as we watch. This method of removal only confirms that the people in charge of the shift have never understood the fondness fans have for their ballparks, the memories they have invested in them. It only makes the fan decide not to make the same mistake with the new stadium.
As one walks west, the sidewalk north of 35th Street leads to nothing but a set of turnstiles; there is no way around it. These turnstiles lead to a a stairwell that leads to a walkway above the street. Across the street at ground level is a chain-link fence: no entrance to the west side of the stadium from the east on 35th Street. So the only way to get to gate four, where I was to meet a friend, was to circle the stadium to the east and south, past gates six and seven, back to one, and so on. I walked on the newly sodded grass every chance I could and dragged my feet to boot. Once inside, I took a long, good survey of the stadium.
It looks, on first glance, like a large version of Stanley Coveleski Stadium in South Bend, Indiana, where the Class A White Sox play. The lower deck of the grandstand seems shallower than in other big-league stadia; there may be something to the designers’ boasts that the fan–at least, the well-paying fan–is as close to the action in the new stadium as in the old.
One walks up a flight to enter the lower grandstand and walks down the aisle to one’s seat. There are no cross aisles (and therefore no disturbing cross traffic), only main aisles leading from the field to the back of the grandstand. There is no overhanging upper deck, making for an abundance of sunshine–and, come midsummer, an overabundance of sunshine. The field faces southeast from the plate to the mound, whereas most stadia face northeast. Where the grandstand turns its back to the afternoon sun in most parks, at the Veeck the third-base side is in the sunlight for almost the entire afternoon, meaning that hat sales should be brisk there on those 90-and 100-degree days to come. The upper deck begins at the back of the lower deck and goes up– almost straight up. Again, the designers claim the fan here is no farther from the field than before, but if that’s true the fan is simply above the action rather than in front of it. The problem is that there are three levels between the lower and upper decks: two layers of sky boxes sandwiching a small layer of seats jutting out from beneath the upper deck–call it the middle deck (which actually, from the looks of it, may have the best seats in the park).
The corners of the upper deck curl in, so that even the worst seats face the action, a design trait picked up from parks built in the postwar era, like Milwaukee’s County Stadium, and a clear advantage over Comiskey, where the fans in the corners faced not the game but the fans in the bleachers. In addition to the neon-ornamented refreshment stands and the awninged shops in the bleachers, there are some commanding billboards built into the massive gridwork holding up the scoreboards and the outfield lights; oddly enough, these billboards are one of the few things giving the stadium a ballpark feel. The look is reminiscent of the great old photos of Ebbets Field and the like, where ads (and of course, somewhere, a large Longines clock) were plastered onto every inch of outfield wall.
Having taken this good long look, I took my gum from my mouth, stuck it under my seat, and tried to pull the game in on top of me. And for a while it worked.
Melido Perez performed one of his great tightrope acts. He didn’t allow a hit until the fifth inning, but he had to work out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the second, when he walked the bags full. He issued six walks on the day in five and two-thirds innings, but he departed with a 2-1 lead.
The Sox scored first, in the third, on a two-out single by Ozzie Guillen and a hit-and-run triple by Scott Fletcher. After the Detroit Tigers tied the game in the top of the fifth, the Sox regained the lead in the bottom of the inning when Frank Thomas singled, went to second on a sacrifice and third on a wild pitch, scoring on a single by Guillen. In the seventh, Fletcher struck again with some two-out thunder to pad the lead. Ron Karkovice doubled with two out, and Fletcher singled him home.
When reliever Wayne Edwards walked the leadoff man in the eighth inning, Bobby Thigpen came on to protect the 3-1 lead. And promptly surrendered a game-tying home run to Cecil Fielder on a 1-0 fastball. Thigpen had nothing; he was trying to struggle through with his slider. He sandwiched two walks around two outs, then allowed the go-ahead run to come home on a double by Travis Fryman. Another walk later, he got out of the inning, with the Sox now trailing 4-3.
By this time, I was disgusted. After the Sox went peacefully in the eighth, so did most of the fans. There was an odd sort of flow to the departing crowd: the fans in the lower deck moved up to leave, while the fans in the upper deck moved down. It was like watching wind-blown ripples on the edge of a small lake. I hadn’t been able to get out of the office on Thursday for opening day, but the Sox had gone down anyway 16-0. Saturday the weather was crummy and the Sox lost 2-1 in 12 innings. Now it was sunny if cold, but the Sox were losing again. It didn’t matter to me at the time whether the Sox ever won a game in their new park; in fact, the idea that they might never win another home game seemed appealing for a moment.
The bottom of the ninth, however, brought more two-out thunder and from the same bats. Thomas and pinch hitter Matt Merullo went down quickly against the Tigers’ Paul Gibson. Then Guillen slapped a single up the middle. With two out and the tying run at first, Fletcher popped foul to first base, but Fielder fanned on the catch reaching into the camera well. Fletcher then popped to right. Rob Deer coasted under it–and dropped the ball. Guillen came home, and Fletcher stopped at second. Tim Raines was intentionally walked and Lance Johnson singled up the middle, winning a game I had twice given up for over. I just shook my head and chuckled “Goddamn it” as I folded up the scorecard.
The odds are no better that I’ll come to like this new ballpark than were the odds that the Sox would win as Fletcher’s fly ball drifted toward right. Which means only that there’s hope yet for Bill Veeck Stadium.