Evan Weiner Column: There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here

If you have ever been to Rome, Italy, you know one of the biggest tourists’ stops there is the centuries old Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheatre. Construction of the stadium began in 70 AD and 1,943 years later, the building is still standing. Despite centuries of attempts to top the Colosseum, the structure is still the best designed sports arena ever. It was a multi-purposed building and on the playing surface, there were sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on mythology. As the stadium got older, the events ended and the building had other uses including housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress, a quarry, and a Christian shrine.

The building is still there and protected. In the United States, buildings come and go. On Election Day, 2013, Harris County, Texas voters turned down a funding idea that would have renovated the 48-year-old Houston Astrodome which is pretty much empty these days. The Astrodome was once dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World” and was supposed to last forever. The Astrodome’s fate may soon be the wrecking ball.

Earlier this week came word of the Atlanta Braves ownership group reaching a deal to leave the main stadium built for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games for a shiny, new sports palace in Cobb County, Georgia in a northern Atlanta suburb. Apparently the 17 year old facility doesn’t cut it anymore.

The constant noise about Tampa Bay Rays ownership wanting a new building in Tampa also came to the forefront this week. St. Petersburg elected officials could sink money into the dome and spruce it up. But baseball players’ agent Scott Boras suggested Rays ownership just move the franchise to say New Jersey and just get out of the area. Boras may or may not know that putting a third team into the New York City market would be blocked by the Steinbrenner family and the Yankees, the Wilpon family and the Mets and more than likely Philadelphia Phillies ownership and they would be well within their right to stop a move thanks to the 1922 Supreme Court of the United States ruling that base ball was a game not an interstate business which gave base ball an antitrust exemption and allowed base ball to flaunt American baseball laws.

The 48-year-old Astrodome, which was the state of the art facility when opened, the 23-year-old St. Petersburg stadium and the 17-year-old Atlanta stadium will all eventually be replaced. The three structures will never be confused with The Great Theatre of Ephesus, Turkey which is still standing despite being 20 centuries old and has a robust schedule of concerts and acts stopping there.

The Astrodome probably won’t be preserved although it should be and the man who bought the Astrodome to life should be in Baseball’s Hall of Fame but is not and never will be.

The late Judge Roy Hofheinz belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame as much as Ford Frick and Edward G. Barrow, to name just two members. The judge not only revolutionized baseball, but his major contribution of the 1960s changed all of sports in the United States.

Hofheinz “invented” the luxury box. He was a visionary, and more than three decades later his ideas changed the way people view sports. The luxury box made its debut in 1965 with the opening of the Houston Astrodome, then dubbed “the Eighth Wonder of the World.”

The Astrodome had everything needed in a new and modern baseball park. It had air conditioning. It was paid for by the taxpayers. It had “comfortable cushioned, upholstered seating” and a $2 million animated scoreboard.

It also had 54 luxury boxes called “Skydome Boxes.” In 1965, 24 of those boxes sold at $15,000 a year; the rest were priced at $18,600 annually on a five-year lease.

The Skyboxes were located at the upper rim of the Astrodome, as Hofheinz did not take away the traditional box seats and loge area. That would come with other stadiums and other owners.

The beauty of the Skydome Box for Hofheinz was simple. He could keep the revenue from the boxes without sharing it with other National League owners. Part of that money was earmarked for the annual $750,000 in rent that was due under a 40-year lease with Harris County.

According to a 1965 Astros brochure, “The boxes are adjoined with a club room, lined with wall to wall thick pile carpeting and equipped with a telephone, toilet, icemaker, bar and furniture.

“Dow Jones ticker service will be available and closed circuit TV signal will give the box holders the latest information from the field. For those who wish to do so, they can see the game on closed circuit TV in their box.

“An interior decorator has designed each box individually with a different motif, and the furniture and other appointments have been designed for each box.”

No longer, in the words of California Governor Jerry Brown, would the millionaire have to sit next to a poor person in a box seat that might have cost as much as $3.75.

In fact, Hofheinz had such insight that he figured out people would attend games just to be seen, and if people in the box chose to do so, they could watch the game on closed-circuit TV.

The luxury box changed a sports crowd composition, separated people and created a new fan — a fan who may have never attended a game before but had to be in attendance for social reasons.

The Astrodome is of no value anymore. Braves ownership has decided the 1996 Olympics stadium is not worth the cement and steel beams that hold the structure up anymore. Braves ownership has an agreement to get a new stadium although having an agreement and getting a stadium built are two different things. Braves ownership and Cobb County have a long way to go before a shovel is put into the ground and construction starts. It is possible that the Cobb County ballpark may never be built. But assuming the Braves ownership and Cobb County get through the multiple hurdles and get the stadium built, the 20-year old Olympics centerpiece will face the wrecking ball or the dynamite that can be used to take down a stadium.

For those who buy into the International Olympic Committee’s “Olympic legacy” sales pitch and why hosting an Olympics is important, Braves ownership has blown a huge hole in the legacy department.

St. Petersburg is putting money into the Dome. The chances are historians from future generations will go looking for clues about a domed stadium that once stood in St. Petersburg because there is no way Major League Baseball will be playing there in 2030. If the Astrodome can face a death sentence, so can the Olympic stadium in Atlanta and the dome in St. Petersburg. Sports owners don’t have sentimental feelings for old historic building that are not revenue producers.

The three baseball parks won’t be there in 2,000 years from now but the Colosseum in Rome and The Great Theater of Ephesus will probably be around.

Evan Weiner can be reached at [email protected]. His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/365489) and his e-books, America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century, (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/americas-passion-how-coal/id595575002?mt=11),  From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/from-peach-baskets-to-dance/id636914196?mt=11)  and the reissue of the 2005 book, The Business and Politics of Sports (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/business-and-politics-of-sports-evan-weiner/1101715508?ean=2940044505094) are available.