A Tale of Two Ballparks

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros

By Edward Overend, Lead Baseball Writer

“Build it and they will come.”

So goes the somewhat bastardised quotation from what is often held up as one of baseball’s finest cinematic moments.

Or so I thought.

I am no movie goer. Indeed, it’s a decade since I last watched any motion picture. However, I did once as a fourteen year old manage to persuade a poor, innocent, slip of a girl to agree to accompany me on what I still believe the kids these days call a date.

Not knowing what we were going to actually see, upon arrival, pushing my luck and with chivalry cast aside, I suggested of all things a baseball film. I wish I hadn’t bothered. I abhorred it.

A couple of hours of me solely wondering if I was going to get lucky passed with some soporific drivel on the screen the soundtrack to my impatience.

“You idiot” I kept telling myself “she’ll never speak to you again.”

In my head, I began to make a list of dating dos and don’ts. Rule 1 – always let the lady choose. I don’t think I got round to Rule 2.

As it turned out, the girl in question absolutely loved Field of Dreams with the “dreamy” Kevin Costner. I think it may have scarred me for life.

The most famous line in the movie has been somewhat hijacked by the business world these days. However, within baseball itself over the years, the erroneous phrase has had more than an element of truth about it.

New ballparks have injected life into many franchises over the last twenty years. Many is the  downtrodden team that have parlayed their shiny new toy not only into increasing revenue but fortunes on the diamond too. Long gone are the days of the cookie cutter white elephants. Only a couple of historic settings remain and they are held up as must visit, shining specimens of the genre.

The Atlanta Braves move to SunTrust Park in 2017 and Oakland and Tampa Bay could certainly do with novel surroundings but, by and large, the era of building ballparks is coming to a close.

What next? How do cities drive interest in their baseball clubs? Success I hear you say. Building a winning team. Maybe I retort.

Watching the Astros play at Minute Maid Park last week, one thing that leapt at me were the vast quantities of empty seats. Hold on, I thought, this can’t be right. Here you have a team surprisingly leading their division with only about a month of the season remaining. Here is a city that has had to put up with year after year of recent futility. Why is the place not rocking?

The same evening, admittedly in a city in a different country but also a city starved of success, nearly three times as many people were shouting the place down at the Rogers Centre. How can that be?

I hate the whole “we’ve got the best fans” argument normally as most of the time comparisons that are made are neither fair nor in context. Of course the Yankees or Dodgers are going to have more followers than the Brewers or Pirates. That stands to reason. Just as it would be grossly invalid to contrast Toronto with Cincinatti, Cleveland or Kansas City. It simply has a much larger population to call upon.

However, the metropolitan areas of Houston and Toronto are almost identical in size at approximately six million. Why, therefore, has baseball fever afflicted the Blue Jays and not the Astros?

It’s a difficult question to answer and one I don’t know I can but will try.

Baseball is fun in Canada at the moment and is undoubtedly one of the feel good stories of the year. Way down south in Texas things appears less exciting.

Many, I’m not sure why, look down on the bandwagon fan as somehow being not worthy, not deserving of being invited to the party. But surely being able to share victory, should it come, with as many as possible is one of the joys of fandom. Isn’t it better to go to work and high-five a colleague rather than celebrate only inside your own mind?

One of the game’s strengths and, some would argue, weaknesses is the fact that there are games just about every day. This is especially so when it comes to a pennant race. Supporters can go through a wave of emotions on a nightly basis rather than having to wait until the weekend for their rollercoaster ride. Wins and losses are magnified and the gravity of each out assumes near life or death significance. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter but a September battle is up there amongst the best that sport has to offer.

Why wouldn’t a city be there to witness this drama? Toronto appears to have embraced this, Houston not so much.

It’s a long time since either fan base have been able to turn up for meaningful baseball at this time of year. Both clubs currently lead their respective divisions and both just about guaranteed playoff berths. But the American Leagues West and East are tight and we play sports to win things. Both have a chance to win a pennant, something neither has done recently.

As with all winning teams there are stories and narratives. Josh Donaldson has been the driving force behind a lot of what the Blue Jays have managed but, of course, there are many other huge contributors too. David Price arrived at the trade deadline, pitching has improved as the year has gone on but it’s the offense that has been Toronto’s trump card.

The Astros star man has been Dallas Keuchel. Indeed, unlike the Jays, winning baseball in Houston has been mostly about pitching and defense. Interspersed with this has been the introduction of some of the outstanding young talent we have heard about for a good while.

A win is a win though and surely the manner it is obtained, especially at this time of year, matters not a jot. What’s the difference if it comes 11-3 or 3-1? Fans can’t be that picky.

Jeff Luhnow has been rightly lauded for the crop of young stars he has introduced to the big league club over the past couple of seasons, among them Carlos Correa, George Springer and Lance McCullers. Indeed, the Astros have been held up as an example of how to build a winning ball club essentially from scratch. The front office made a very conscious decision to acquire as many prospects as they could over a sustained period and damn the big league team. They were very open and honest about it too.

However, maybe it’s the very strategy that has brought winning that has disenfranchised the city so much that it is still licking its wounds and is not yet ready to hop aboard the party bus. Houston went through a historic stretch of futility to get here. Hundred loss seasons are horrific and the Astros had thee consecutive ones. That’s a lot of losing to forget. It’s not just mediocrity it’s downright dog’s faeces.

Why should fans go to the ballpark if they know the team aren’t really trying to win? Why should they bother when they’re told not just now? Sometimes it’s possible to push things a little too far even with those who love you the most. Sometimes it’s best to say “I’m on my way home now darling.”

Luhnow was lucky in many ways that he was able to have such a prolonged time to operate his ‘all in’ strategy and see it to what seems like being a happy conclusion. Many would not have been given such a lengthy leash. Many do not see the fruits of their labours. Many master plans don’t work in the first place.

As a result, though, it may yet be a while before his city decides it is fully time to forgive him and ownership. Attendance is up, that is true, but not to the level that it might be nor to what it should be in September leading a division.

The Astros ended 2013 with a payroll of just $13m. There was simply not one established and recognisable star. That makes it tough for the casual fan to identify with a team. Bobblehead nights and other promotions become nigh on impossible when there is nobody to market to the community. Sure, now we know Jose Altuve, Colin McHugh and Carlos Gomez. We didn’t know many Astros back then, not even in fantasy.

Many franchises would neither dare nor be allowed to do what Houston has. It was certainly brave and courageous, knowing there would be sustained derision and finger pointing. Could you imagine Red Sox Nation standing by while those in charge at Fenway willingly tried not to win? Not a chance.

The Miami Marlins are the supreme example of what can happen if a city and it’s fans no longer trust their baseball team. Despite a brand new park there is total apathy because of what the odious Jeffrey Loria and his former stepson, David Samson, have done repeatedly in tearing things down time and again despite promises to the contrary. It can be a very difficult balance and the Astros pushed it to the extreme.

Maybe things have happened so fast and unexpectedly that it’s taken Houston completely by surprise and the people are just not prepared for winning. Certainly the baseball world saw the Astros as a coming force but not quite yet. Indeed, Luhnow himself has readily admitted that THIS wasn’t meant quite yet. He certainly thought that 2015 would be vastly improved but not to this extent.

Another argument for low attendance is sometimes the makeup of a city as it develops over time. Downtown Cleveland is so sparsely populated it is not a surprise that the Indians struggle to draw and Atlanta’s new home is a long way from its current location for that very reason.

But Minute Maid Park has previously been filled on a regular basis. A decade ago the Astros were one of the best supported clubs in all MLB. So perhaps it is the case that continued garbage just doesn’t cut it even if it is planned with long-term health in mind.

The Astros are an exciting team now, as capable as anyone of going deep into the playoffs. You can be sure that once they arrive Minute Maid will be rocking with the best of them. But it’s not quite yet, certainly when you see the hysteria up in Toronto.

Perhaps the situation in Houston might be a word of warning to the likes of Philadelphia or Milwaukee that opting to bottom out entirely might not be the way to go. Perhaps a winning team does not always lead to packed bleachers. Perhaps the Astros are not the blueprint as to how to entirely turn around a club’s fortunes.

Maybe, indeed, they won’t come even if you do build it.

Ed Overend is the lead baseball writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find him on twitter @EdwardOverend, leave a comment in the section below or join in the conversation @CTBPod or on our Facebook Page.

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