Phoenix dreams of field indoors and will get a park to behold

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What qualifies as the most exciting and adventurous undertaking in baseball park construction is "growing" out of the ground in downtown Phoenix. It has created more interest -- and curiosity -- than any other sports facility yet conceived.

If it functions as planned, every city is going to want one, but the cost may be a serious deterrent. Phoenix's dream field will offer advantages no other domed ballpark has yet been able to provide -- natural grass under a retractable roof, a swimming pool where the center-field bleachers would normally be and an opportunity for the spectators to be comfortable in an air-controlled environment.

The grass will be the kind you wish you had on your front lawn, a strain of zoysia, minus the chick-weed. The blades will thrive and not curl up and die, as happened when an effort was made to cultivate grass in the Houston Astrodome. What's different is the roof in Phoenix will be opened to let in God's nurturing sunshine and then closed in early afternoon while the air conditioning units cool off the park for the arrival of the fans for evening gametime.

Now here's where the engineers are hoping what they have in mind will function according to design that the roof slides back, revealing the open sky and stars overhead, while the oppressive outside heat holds the cool air inside the building for the comfort of the crowd. The heavy blanket of warm air serves as a cap over the cooler air that was earlier circulated through the grandstand.

Roland Hemond, the senior executive vice-president of the Phoenix club, nicknamed the Diamondbacks, says the new park is like nothing he ever imagined.

"I was in Baltimore with the Orioles when Camden Yards opened," he said, "and witnessed the enthusiasm that accompanied the event. It was great for baseball, the building of an outstanding modern park along traditional lines. This one is different again, even beyond my wildest dreams. It's immense, a landmark that's visible from all over the Valley of the Sun.

"Virtually every place I travel, I'm asked to talk about what's going up in Phoenix. It's a spectacular idea that might revolutionize the building of ballparks, considering a way has now been found to grow regular grass instead of putting down artificial turf."

It's a long way from when and where Doubleday chased the cows out of the pasture so he could invent baseball. The temperature inside the Phoenix structure will be 70 degrees during games while outside, if you know Phoenix in July and August, the temperature may register 110, something akin to standing in front of a blast furnace.

The impetus for this $350 million investment is that in 1998 Phoenix will have an expansion franchise in the National League and be accorded full recognition as a major-league sports city. You can have an ample assortment of teams in pro football, basketball and hockey but if you don't have big-league baseball, with all its glorious history, then you're not considered anything else but East Bridgeport.

The evolution of domed stadia began in Houston in 1965. It was the Astrodome, built at a cost of $31.6 million. An attempt was made to seed natural grass but the blades, when they came up, lacked strength because of a lack of natural light and the idea had to be abandoned -- making way for the invention of AstroTurf.

Toronto took the dome idea to a vastly different concept, inserting a retractable roof but still using an artificial playing surface. Skydome exceeded $500 million to erect in 1989. Now comes Phoenix to improve on both the Astrodome and Skydome.

"It's going to be a showpiece," said Jerry Colangelo, the managing general partner of the Diamondbacks. "It's going to be a unique attraction that's also going to promote baseball with its amenities."

The funding is being raised from a quarter-cent sales tax imposed in Maricopa County that will generate $238 million toward paying for the facility. The remainder of the financing comes from the Diamondbacks so it is a case of a team -- unlike in Baltimore -- at least helping pay some of the indebtedness that goes with putting up a park that will avail them a heavy profit. Banc One Corp., paid a premium to get its commercial name put on the facility.

Field dimensions will be 328 feet to left, 335 to right, 402 to center and 376 in the power alleys. Capacity will be 48,500. There are 69 luxury suites and 85 percent of the seats will be located between the foul poles. The swimming pool in what is to be known as the Sun Pool Party Pavilion also offers a spa and barbecue area that is available to groups on a single-game lease.

The Phoenix team, to be managed by Buck Showalter, formerly of the New York Yankees, and headed in the front office by Joe Garagiola Jr., has five minor-league clubs in operation and will be ready to play, after availing itself of the expansion draft, next April.

Like them or not, and maybe they aren't for every city, but domed sports venues have been the most spectacular creation of this century. Man has always wanted to find a way to neutralize the weather factor, the rain and humidity of Houston, the cold of Toronto and now the desert heat of Phoenix.

This is the third generation of indoor baseball parks and the previous two, Houston and then Toronto, offered ingenious contributions toward fan comfort. Phoenix, with its revolutionary approach, will surpass them both in achieving still more spectacular improvements.

What comes next? Possibly a revolving field that moves on a giant table every three innings so every ticket buyer has an opportunity to see the game from an equal perspective. Laugh, if you want to, but don't rule it out -- as happened when the aviation pioneer, Glenn L. Martin, wanted to build a dome in Baltimore.

The year was 1944. When Martin presented the blueprint he was ridiculed and scorned, suggestions being made that his proposal was so inconceivable that he was a danger to himself and, perhaps, in need of mental consultation.

Unfortunately Martin died years before his point could be proven because no one wanted to listen. Houston, Toronto, Minneapolis, Pontiac, Mich., New Orleans, Atlanta, now Phoenix, and other places merely took his invention and made it happen.

Pub Date: 5/04/97

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