2011 marks the third season that the Columbus Clippers will call Huntington Park home. Minor League baseball in Columbus had previously been played at Cooper Stadium (regularly undergoing name changes) since 1932. Cooper Stadium was a mass of concrete and metal benches in a less than great neighborhood. Huntington Park was built with a nod to nostalgia as it was designed in a throwback style reminiscent of Wrigley and Fenway Parks. Like all intentionally nostalgic things, Huntington Park is a definite product of its time. Since Camden Yards opened in 1992 to house the Baltimore Orioles most baseball stadiums have been built to evoke the fabled stadiums of years past (Wrigley and Fenway have both been open for 99 years and are the last vestiges of the era before Babe Ruth). Huntington Park is extremely contemporary: it’s in the heart of downtown with ample parking, the facade is brick instead of concrete, the outfield is asymmetrical (bucking the awful symmetrical trend of the stadiums built in the 1970’s).
That’s all wonderful. The cavernous stadiums of the 70’s (Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, etc) were blights of design. The cookie-cutter stadiums were built to house baseball and football and so they ended up doing neither well. Modern baseball stadiums are built only for baseball. This has meant fans could be closer to the action instead of distanced by acres of foul territory that were necessary to ensure a 100 yard football field could fit within the confines of the stadium. The massive multi-purpose stadiums of the 70’s also needed to fit 80,000 football fans, even when baseball games were only drawing 25,000 fans. It was normal for a baseball game’s attendance to be below half capacity. Baseball and football games also have a much different flow of action. Football games take place up and down the 100 yard field, but 80% of the action of a baseball game takes place in the 60 1/2 feet between the pitchers mound and home plate, thus seats in football stadiums and baseball stadiums tend to be angled differently to accommodate.
This is the problem with Huntington Park. At first look the stadium appears much the same as every modern baseball-only facility, until you sit in your seat half way between third base and the left field foul pole. Every seat in Huntington Park offers sight lines that face directly forward, much like the seating design for a soccer or football stadium. When your seat is up the third base line you have to crane your neck at a 70 degree angle to see home plate. Guess how your neck feels after three hours of constantly looking to your right. I end up leaving every game early with a neck that hurts the next day. I have seen several games from different angles around the stadium and the only decent seats in Huntington Park are right on the infield. I actually found Cooper Stadium much more comfortable (the Coop had a lot more leg room per seat too). I’ve been to about two dozen major and minor league stadiums around America and Huntington Park is far and away the worst place to watch a baseball game. This pains me tremendously as I love baseball but the ballpark in my own town is such an unenjoyable experience that I rarely go.
360 Architecture is a Kansas City architecture firm that has local offices in Columbus, Ohio. They designed Nationwide Arena along with Huntington Park. They have more arena and football field experience than they do with baseball parks. Their one major league stadium is Safeco Field in Seattle back in 1999. In the ten years between Safeco Field and Huntington Park’s erection in 2009 they only built two baseball parks, both smaller than Huntington. A smaller park offers less sight line problems since every fan is already closer to the action. Huntington Park’s poor sight lines reveal design that barely understands baseball and how baseball fans watch the game. It feels like a baseball park designed by someone who’s never been to a game.
Since it’s opening, Huntington Park has had great attendance; selling out nearly every Friday and Saturday game. Every professional sports team in the U.S. has had significant attendance increases whenever a new stadium opened. With a good team and good experiences at the ballpark, some of that uptick in attendance can be maintained, but the goodwill that accompanies a new ballpark is in no way permanent. Huntington Park does have some real positives going for it: its affiliation with the Cleveland Indians, its proximity to arena district night life, and the City BBQ food (despite regrettably altering their brisket sandwiches with pickles). But the more often you attend the stadium the more you notice the seats are ridiculously uncomfortable. A good chunk of the crowd already just wanders around drinking for a few innings before leaving for the nearby bars. They might never notice, but the fans who actually go for baseball will slowly slip away as they realize the experience isn’t as wonderful as city officials try to tell us it is. Over the next few years we will see Huntington Park morph into just another huge arena district bar that just happens to have a baseball game going on in the middle of it.