Baseball Men - The Architect

Our ‘Baseball Men' interview series continues with Joe Spear, HOK Sport principal for Camden Yards and other landmark ballparks.

‘Build it and they will come'.

 

Alright, there's no evidence that some divine voice from the cornfields ever spoke those words to Joe Spear. But it might as well have. After all, Spear has been the architect who has helped build several of the most acclaimed Major League ball parks of all time. And, boy, have the fans ever come through the turnstiles.

 

Spear is a founder and design director for HOK Sports + Venue + Event, the Kansas City-based firm that first gained national attention through the 1992 debut of Baltimore's Camden Yards. In the years since, Spear has followed up Camden Yards' resounding critical reception with equally popular projects in Cleveland (Jacobs Field, 1994), Denver (Coors Field, 1995), San Francisco (SBC Park, 2000), Detroit (Comerica Park, 2000), Cincinnati (Great American Ball Park, 2003), Philadelphia (Citizens Bank Park, 2004) and San Diego (Petco Park, 2004).

 

Overall, Spear and his HOK colleagues have designed or renovated 24 or the 30 Major League ballparks, with ongoing plans to bring a highly anticipated new venue to Washington while also working on the successors to Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium in New York.

 

Perhaps the most meaningful testament to Joe Spear's impact, however, can be seen in the way that his Hellmuth, Obata, & Kassabaum firm has influenced both the results on the ball fields and attendance in the stands. At the conclusion of the 2004 season, ball clubs playing their first four or five seasons on HOK fields increased their winning percentage by over .075 (good for about an additional 12 wins per season compared to the equivalent period in their former homes). And, yes, the fans have indeed come - the new ballparks jacked their attendance by over 16,000 fans per game (again, in comparison to the teams' former digs). 

 

The new generation of baseball buildings has featured such runaway successes that, paradoxically, it can be easy to overlook a downright revolutionary impact on the game.

 

The fact is, Camden Yards and its successors fully reversed the more odious, prevailing trends in ballpark architecture up to that point. Instead of retreating from urban blight, the new ballparks returned baseball to the heart of their home towns. Instead of settling on artificial turf and dual-use football stadiums, the new places set the game off in natural settings of their own. And instead of cookie-cutter plans for everything from outfield dimensions to exterior concrete, Spear's new approach had artistic, individualistic little touches in everything from brick arches to antique clocks and field signs.

 

Add up those kinds of on-field and off-field successes, and you have the makings of something pretty big. That might be why George Will once equated the opening of Camden Yards to Jackie Robinson's breaking the color line and the dawn of free agency. Or why one fansite proclaimed "The date of April 6, 1992 is to baseball what July 4, 1776 was to the Enlightenment."

 

A real-life Field of Dreams could hardly ask for much more than that.

 

All in all, it's been a relatively remarkable career for a guy who didn't really grow up with either Major League dreams or many architectural plans. Recently, a very busy but very laid-back Joe Spear discussed one of the more remarkable, influential careers in today's sports world.

 

 

Were you much of a fan when you were growing up?

 

I wouldn't say I was a rabid fan when I was younger.

 

I grew up in a small town called Parsons, Kansas, and my dad and grandfather were Cardinals fans, even after the Royals started off in Kansas City in 1969. I remember that granddad had a TV, but turned off the sound to listen to Jack Buck's broadcast on the radio. He liked the radio guys much better than the TV.

 

Were you a good player?

 

No, I really wasn't. I was never really good, even in Pee Wee League. It was just something fun to do while growing up.

 

Were you aware of Major League ballparks at a young age?

 

I think I was 15 before I saw a Major League game in person. We'd go to the VFW League instead. When teams would come into town, and they'd literally pass the hat in the stands. Parsons was a small town, but we'd have groups of kids play baseball all the time in the nearest vacant lot.

 

When did you first think of yourself as a future architect?

 

I didn't set out to be an architect; not at all. 

 

I was always drawing. I loved art classes, that sort of thing. The guidance counselor at my parochial school told me I should think of a career where I could use that talent in some way. He told me consider becoming a draftsman, so I went to Parsons Junior College for a couple of years. I remember an instructor in my technical drawing class told me, ‘You know, you've got more on the ball than a draftsman. You've got more talent than that'. He encouraged me to get into an architectural program because I wouldn't be satisfied as a draftsman.

 

So I did that. I thought it was waaaay cool. It just looked like a heckuva lot of fun. I transferred to Kansas State soon thereafter. I never did thank the instructor for that suggestion. I should have.

 

I got out of school in '76, and there was a deep recession of the time. K-State, they were very proud of their placement program, but it took me a couple of months to find a job in Kansas City. I ended up with a small firm with three partners - McCoy, Hutchinson, and Stone was the name of the firm - and I met a guy there on the first day, by the name of Dennis Wellner.

 

We worked together on small projects for about a year, and Dennis eventually ran into a guy named Ron Labinski. Ron had already worked on a lot of sports-related projects, including the Truman Sports Complex that included Arrowhead Stadium and Kaufmann Stadium, and he hired Dennis away to a firm named Devine, James. Dennis eventually had me hired, too.

 

We did a project or two for the Cubs at Wrigley Field within the first three years but what got things started was when Ron interviewed for a project that became the Hoosier Dome, in Indianapolis. He'd put a lot of work into it but he didn't get it in the end, HNTB did. Ron talked to a group of us - Dennis, Chris Carver, Rick deFlon, and myself - with the idea of switching over from our practice, starting a sports group, and working on the Hoosier Dome project. That's when we switched over.

 

After another three years we just didn't seem to have a meeting of the minds, philosophically, and we made another switch, to start HOK in 1983. We've been here ever since.

 

Were you paying much attention to current ballpark architecture at the time?

 

Well, we were keenly aware that projects like Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the Vet in Philadelphia, and Shea Stadium were designed as multi-purpose venues. I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time, in that building a football/baseball stadium can be cheaper, at least in the short term.

 

I never liked them from a design standpoint and I always contended that those kinds of projects were a waste of money. In the long run you're better off building baseball- and football-only facilities - fans fall in love with them, so they'll last longer.

 

When did you start thinking of working with ballpark architecture?

 

A lot of the early work at HNTB and at HOK was renovations and additions to existing parks. The Cubs were well aware that one of their key attractions was Wrigley Field, obviously. They acted as caretakers of that lore. They didn't want to do anything to dampen the spirit of Wrigley, if you will. They wanted to provide the fans with all the amenities, but they didn't want to do anything to dent the ballpark as a baseball shrine.

 

It wasn't until Pilot Field in Buffalo that we caught a lot of people's attention with the thought, ‘You know, baseball doesn't have to be played in a concrete behemoth. It can be played in a smaller ballpark with better sight lines, better proximity to the game, and real intimacy for the fans'.

 

What was that experience like?

 

Pilot Field, I think it was a very, very positive experience.

 

There was a guy who worked for the Buffalo mayor's office, in development, his name was Chuck Rosnow. The town had been through really, really tough times, some would say disastrous times, in terms of job losses.

 

Chuck realized, a lot earlier than most, that you could build a Minor League ballpark and create a lot of jobs. You could create construction jobs, of course, and that became part of Pilot Field, but he'd also been to Wrigley and Fenway and he said, ‘You know, these construction jobs are just the tip of the iceberg'. He saw entertainment industry jobs in the ball park's surrounding community - bars, restaurants, stores, even hotels - just as long as the fans' foot traffic could be directed the right way.

 

With that combination of ideas, from Chuck's side and ourselves, we put together something relatively unique for Buffalo.

 

How did that lead you to Baltimore and the Camden Yards project?

 

Well, Governor Schaeffer appointed a commission right after the Colts left town [in 1983-84]. It's kind of ironic that a football team, essentially, got this ballpark kicked off, but that's what happened.

 

Anyway, for years they were analyzing why the Colts left for Indianapolis and how they could get NFL football back to Baltimore. Somewhere in that process, the Orioles raised their hand and said, ‘Hey, remember us? We'd like to do something, too'.

 

Our firm was enlisted to assess possible locations for a new Orioles ball park and one of the criteria was economic development potential. That's when Pilot Field was pretty useful - with the success of Chuck Rosnow's idea in Buffalo, people were starting to understand that these projects could be valuable. That kind of gave us an inside track to become principals for the new building.

 

Why did you think about the present Camden Yards location?

 

Well, two factors made the Camden Yards location kind of easy. First, it needed relatively fewer infrastructure improvements, in terms of new parking spaces and the like. Second, there was a greater potential economic spin-off at the present site, which was an old rail yard at the time.

 

The location went against a lot of the thinking up to that time. When you had new ballparks like Dodgers Stadium or Riverfront in the 1960's or 1970's, they were often located far from downtown. 

 

That might have been the case, but baseball always been a natural for a downtown business environment. It's like telling the owner of a restaurant or a bar or parking garage, ‘OK, you're going to have 81 Easter Sundays per year'. That sort of thing can justify the taxpayer investment, above and beyond the social benefit.

 

And your ballparks did prove to be a catalyst for inner city revitalization, in Baltimore and then in places like Detroit. When you first started with Camden Yards, were you worried about the parking situation?

 

No. The traffic flow studies showed that there wouldn't be much of a problem in terms of the highways and arterial roads and such.

 

Now, we knew the parking situation wouldn't be perfect. Old Wrigley Field, going back to the 1910's, has about 1,000 parking spots and a modern ballpark might have something like 18,000, so a downtown location can't necessarily be very compact.

 

But think about it - you want to have people park half a mile from the ball park. It makes it easier to empty the ballpark, plus people will be more likely to stop and have a beer or soda or something on the way out. It can be more efficient and a richer experience.

 

That's something I came across in your designs, in the way that you and your HOK colleagues purposely set out ballpark neighborhoods like the Cubs' ‘Wrigleyville' or the Red Sox' ‘Yawkey Way'. The term that's been used is ‘decompression zones'.

 

Here's a topic where you're getting away from strict subject of architecture and into an idea of what makes baseball so fun.

 

I think it happens wherever a ballpark is built, but it's especially true of downtown ballparks - a big part of the fun in going to a ball game is getting into the experience. That is, when you stroll to the building, or leave a car at work, you're thinking of decompressing and going into a different, more fun place.

 

The Orioles were good allies in going for that. The team president at the time, Larry Lucchino, was a very bright guy who realized that something like Eutaw Street could be a big benefit. In San Diego, [Padres] team owner John Moores was the same way, in realizing how those zones can enhance a city.

 

Well, ‘The Park at the Park' in San Diego seems to be very much in that vein.

 

As you probably know, Larry Lucchino was involved in that as well. He'd moved on from the Orioles to the Padres when they were thinking of the Petco Park facility.

 

Larry was the first, I believe, to come up with ‘The Park at the Park' concept. As I understand it, he'd been to an exhibition in Japan somewhere and the ballpark was literally right next door to a city park. It so happened that they had set up a carnival right beyond the outfield wall, just for a few days. He was bright enough to see how that sort of thing could translate into a baseball setting.

 

When you're thinking about that kind of big project, it must be a challenge. At once, you've got to think about presenting a public theatre and engineering a huge facility and working with a city's master planning.

 

Oh, there are always a lot of different objectives. Part of the challenge on our end, many times, is to help a three-headed client - an owner, city, and state - decide what it really wants and needs.

 

What, more than any other, provides your starting point - a spectator's perspective, an engineer's perspective, a city planner's perspective?

 

I'm personally thinking of the ball park in terms of a fan's experience. The real success stories from our projects aren't in the architecture or engineering, but in the way the fans enjoy the ballpark. At the end of the day, I want to see the fans fall in love with the place, so they can't imagine the Orioles or the Indians or the Rockies or the Giants or the Tigers or Reds or the Phillies or the Padres ever moving out of their parks. 

 

That's so crucial. I think that's why places like Wrigley and Fenway have stood the test of time - they embrace their surroundings in such an effective way. The question for my current plan, for instance, has to be, ‘How can we make sure that this project is completely about Washington?'

 

What's your thinking in that process, in trying to make a baseball facility fit into its home town?

 

It's a matter of finding out what's symbolic, even iconic, about a city.

 

One important incident happened in Cleveland. I think we were selected in the winter before Camden Yards opened in '92 and they said, ‘OK, we want you to do a public presentation of your work'. So we did a little slide show - we were still using slides back then -  about Pilot Field and the renderings for Camden Yards.

 

The lights came on and there was a guy in the third row. The guy had a baseball cap on, I remember. He said, ‘Mr. Spear, you're not in Buffalo or Baltimore. You're in Cleveland. I'd like to know what makes this ballpark unique to us'. I said, ‘Well, we were just hired yesterday and I don't know the city well enough to answer that question, but we are committed to making this unique to Cleveland'.

 

As soon as we got to know the community, we learned that there were several good architectural features we could relate. We could emulate, in a symbolic way, the various bridges over the Cuyahoga River. If you've ever been there, you know they're pretty striking. It's almost a sculpture garden, in a way.

 

We said, ‘Great. Let's make structure a recognizable architectural element in the ballpark. In fact, let's make that a foreground element, so it can be all about structure, just like those bridges'.

 

It was good timing. The city was interested in moving beyond its older, more negative image and we were interested in doing something different.

 

In those early project, you broke with past tradition in another way - for the first time in a long time, your ballparks had asymmetrical outfields and outfield wall features. Why did you go in that direction?

 

Oriole Park at Camden Yards was the first real taste of that.

 

The team, from day one, wanted that and rightly so. It makes it interesting; to debate whether Barry Bonds would have hit a home run in a particular playing field or some other particular play would have been an out in another field. That sort of thing can change the outcome of a game, so it adds a layer of richness.

 

The challenge was for us to find a genuine reason to [vary ball park dimensions], almost like making art out of a found object. In each project, we've looked for logical, genuine reasons to do that without just copying the Green Monster or B&O Warehouse or something else.

 

An interesting aspect of your work, it seems, is the way you translated that kind of site-specific thinking to the actual workings of the ballpark. All your different ballparks seem to vary in their inner architecture.

 

Sure, we definitely wanted that.

 

The best example of that was probably in San Francisco. I can remember, in the early days after we'd been hired, [Giants team owner] Peter Magowan and [Chief Operating Officer] Larry Baer asked us to come over and talk to the partners group. We hadn't done a lot of design work up to that point, so we thought we'd mostly just talk about how the project would fit into the site.

 

The night before the presentation it suddenly dawned on us that we really had to deal with the port walk, which was a public right of way separating the ball park from the bay.

I remember asking Dean Mackris one time, ‘Can we close it on game days?' He said, ‘Joe, if you propose that here, you might as well go back to Kansas City'. They were very protective of their waterfront over in San Francisco, so we had to deal with a new element in that public access.

 

Anyway, since we knew we had this port walk and the playing field on the same elevation, [HOK architect] Craig Meyer said ‘wouldn't it be interesting if we could pierce this brick wall?'. Craig's thinking was, why not make this public right of way work for us, by inviting fans to take a free look through some arches in the outfield wall?

 

The presentation went well and we raised the issue. Peter, to his credit, didn't hesitate a second. He said ‘I think it's a wonderful idea. What do you think, Larry?'. Larry Baer said there wasn't a reason why they wouldn't do it. I was very, very pleasantly surprised. You could have knocked me over with a feather - these guys just got it.

 

Well, that, too, seems to fit in a pattern for your work. All these things - economic development right next to a ballpark, downtown locations, unique looks and fields and functions - they'd all been done before in baseball history, but you were able to bring it back in a particularly well-executed way.

 

Exactly. I'd say that's correct.

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