Anatomy of a snow job

MLB.com really, really wants to be taken seriously as an independent news site — it’s why every article carries the tagline “This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs,” hoping to convince you that despite being owned by MLB, it’s real journalism.

And then it goes and runs an article like this one, headlined “New ballparks can mean new hope for teams.” Oh, yeah? What’s your evidence, reporter John Schlegel?

A new ballpark promises many things, from a vastly improved fan experience to the revenue potential to help retain or acquire players. It promises a new visage of a team’s home, a new identity — literally, a new face for the franchise.

But it doesn’t promise success on the field. It doesn’t promise titles. Those still must be earned.

Okay, that’s slightly confusing, given the headline. “New hope” would imply that the teams actually have hope of improving on the field—

A ballpark happens to be an excellent vehicle that teams moving in the right direction on the field can use to take the franchise to the next level.

Okay, that’s more than slightly confusing. You still have to “earn” success on the field, but a new ballpark can help you “take it to the next level.” (Only the first level is earned, I guess, and for the rest you can use cheat codes.) Let’s skip a few paragraphs ahead and see if this gets any clearer:

Target Field will be the 18th ballpark built as a replacement for an earlier MLB home since Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field (then New Comiskey Park) opened almost 20 years ago to start the trend of new ballparks. … Eight of those first 17 teams improved in the standings their first year in their new ballpark, three stayed the same and six took a dip.

That’s a pretty weak correlation — there’s no way to know exactly how weak without knowing about the performance of teams that didn’t build new stadiums (more about that in a minute) — and if nothing else, an indication that moving into a new home isn’t a magic bullet for on-field success.

In some places, a new ballpark has been like a magic bullet, pure and simple.

Eeeagh!

The Orioles and White Sox found remarkable success right out of — or into — the gates. The Orioles reached the AL Championship Series twice and reeled off nine seasons of 3 million or more in attendance. The White Sox set a single-season attendance mark the first year, reached the ALCS the third year and reached the World Series in 2005.

But perhaps nobody made a ballpark into a springboard to success quite like the Indians, who moved into Jacobs Field in 1994, leaving one of the more dreaded buildings in baseball for one of the finest.

The Tribe went to two World Series and reached the playoffs six of the first eight years at Progressive Field, then known as Jacobs Field or The Jake. Combined with the Quicken Loans Arena next door, the sports complex transformed downtown Cleveland, not just a baseball club, setting an example for San Diego and other cities to follow.

Let’s take these examples one at a time. The Orioles made the ALCS twice at Camden Yards, yes — in 1996 and 1997, their fifth and sixth years in their new home, which is not quite exactly “out of the gate.” Though it is compared with the White Sox’ 2005 World Championship, which was apparently sparked by the move from Comiskey Park to U.S. Cellular Field, notwithstanding that it happened fifteen years later.

As for the Indians, they indeed started winning games at the same time as they moved into Jacobs Field, but now we’re down to one example — and there are plenty of counterexamples. These are conveniently listed in the chart accompanying Schegel’s article, along with some unintentionally comic attempts at describing the success teams have had since getting new digs:

2003 Reds – Great American Ball Park – No winning seasons yet

2001 Brewers – Miller Park – Reached playoffs in 8th year

2001 Pirates – PNC Park – No winning seasons; hosted All-Star Game

Missing, meanwhile, is a corresponding chart showing what teams that didn’t move into new stadiums did on the field. That list would include “Boston Red Sox – Won first two World Series since 1918,” “Chicago Cubs – Went to postseason two years in a row for first time since 1908,” and “New York Yankees – Won four World Series titles in five years.” (Two of those teams hosted All-Star Games at their aged parks, too, if that’s your measure of success.) It’d be just as fair to cherry-pick the Red Sox as the Indians, and use them as evidence that the way for teams to get to the “next level” is to not build new stadiums.

In Baseball Between the Numbers, published back in 2006, I actually examined the won-loss records of all teams that had opened new stadiums from 1991 up to that date. The conclusion: In the first five years in a new park, teams on average won 5.5 more games per season than in the last five years in their old park. This made sense, I wrote, because “a team is more likely to sign a Barry Bonds — or, to use the actual example of Cleveland, give long-term contracts to Jim Thome and Kenny Lofton — if it knows the people turning out to watch him are paying $25 per ticket instead of $15.”

Of course, I added, “a $500 million stadium is an awfully expensive way to pick up five and a half games in the standings.” But when you’re presented with a magic bullet, it would be gauche to look at the price tag.


3 comments on “Anatomy of a snow job

  1. You know the thing that pisses me off the most about the Indians & White Sox ballpark talk is the neglected great drafts both teams had which was the REAL reason fans packed the house.

    If it were up to me, baseball teams would play in old stadiums with as little technology & modern perks as possible. It’s a baseball game, not going to the mall or movie theater.

  2. the mantra inside baseball (bigs, minors & spring) is – “…get the new building and the $$$’s will come”.

    it’s a single-minded mentality that has filtered down from the top, from king bud to his followers. the catch phrases like “fan experience” have been used to lure customers into spending more and more and making them feel good about it,

    sooner or later the lobster that’s been immersed into the pot will feel the heat, then it will be too late…

  3. Why would you want to build a new stadium for a sport that is in decline because of an idiot commissioner in this economy???