Fields of Play, Fields of View

My view of Camden Yards, Baltimore, July, 2012

As sports fans, we often think about results. Wins, losses, and point totals. Passes completed and plays made. We think of trades made, free agents signed, and waiver-wire pickups which alter the fate of a season or a franchise. We think about rule changes and officiating. However, we spend less time considering how the landscapes of our games determine the way in which they are played and how we experience sport

Two of my favourite spaces are the hockey arena and the baseball diamond. These spaces occupy places in my imagination not just because the games which take place on the ice and on the field are games I love, but also because of the physical spaces these venues inhabit. The architecture of these structures impacts both the way these games are played and my experience as a fan.

The rinks and diamonds I conjure mentally form fictional landscapes. They don't exist in real life, but are an amalgamation of the rinks I played in and the diamonds I patrolled as a kid and the arenas and stadiums I've been fortunate enough to visit as an adult. Significantly, these fictional landscapes we all imagine provide a filter through which we experience the games we love.

Just as important as the fields of the imagination are those which exist in reality. The familiarity of walking through the doors of your home arena again, the awe which comes from watching your first game at Camden Yards, in full view of the scoreboard and the B&O Warehouse - both mediate our sporting experience.

***

I love local community rinks. The older the better. I have my favourites among the list of community centres and local ponds my parents ferried me to when I played minor hockey. Those at the top of the list have a few things in common which, taken together, form the rink of my mind: limited seating only available on one side, faded banners from bantam champions of long ago, and a portrait of the Queen on the far wall, next to the scoreboard, a reminder of the centennial building spree which resulted in so many local rinks being built from coast to coast. A trophy case with a collection of hardware which stopped being awarded decades ago is a must. Even in my mind the distinct dressing room aroma comes through. Rinks so cold you can feel it through your mitts when seated in the stands or skates when on the ice.

I'm also deeply familiar with local ball diamonds. Those of the gravel, the dirt and the clay infield, baked hard by the summer sun. Those enveloped by dust clouds whenever a shortstop dives for a line drive or a batter runs out a ground ball. Those flooded by torrential rain, with batter's boxes deep in water and mud, as industrious coaches devise new and more extreme drainage systems around second base. I have played under deep blue skies and ominous rain clouds, and against the backdrop of vibrant sunsets, with the sound of the ball meeting the bat reverberating throughout the field. Most exciting of all was playing under the lights at night, just like the big leaguers, swatting the swarms of gnats, mosquitos, and moths which descended in biblical proportions when the lights flickered on. Smells and tastes permeate the diamond as well: the smell of hot dogs and bubble gum, the tastes of sunflower seeds and ice cream. The dusty diamonds of my youth evoke a heat so warm it's suffocating, sucking the air out of your lungs and coating sweating skin in pore-clogging silt.

***

Lines dominate the sporting landscape. This is as true of hockey as it is baseball. Red line, blue line, baseline, foul line. Hash marks and batter's boxes, the goalie crease and the coach's box. Lines moderate the flow of the game and our field of view.

Lines break-up an ice surface into distinct zones: offensive, defensive, neutral. As fans, our experience of the game is mediated by our relationship to these distinct components. Seated in one end of the rink, the goal line dominants our field of view, we become part of the goal-mouth scramble, distanced from the faceoff in the opposite zone.

The lines on a diamond set the parameters of play: the relationship between pitcher and catcher, infielder and batter hinges on a chalk baseline. A ball rolling an inch to the left or right is the difference between fair or foul, safe or out, winning or losing.

***

Yet for all their similarities, the landscapes of hockey and baseball differ quite a bit. These differences are to be celebrated; they are part of what makes both sports so enjoyable.

The characteristics of the rink - the boards and glass, the roof, the dressing rooms - conspire to enclose the space and limit the field of view. This is hardly a negative thing; rather, the architecture of the hockey rink forces an intimacy between fans. Energy transfers easily from the ice to the stands, from individual to individual. The noise inside a playoff rink can deafen and reporters frequently note the decibel levels produced by best-of-seven series. There isn't an out-of-bounds on the ice, there are no sidelines to distract those in the stands. What focuses the fan's eye is the ice below. Even the scoreboard takes the eye to centre ice. The architecture of the rink is integral to the play of the game: forechecking, physical play and icing would all be altered without boards or glass; even line changes would look different without the physical space of the benches or with the addition of sidelines.

The characteristics of the diamond - the infield and outfield, the warning track, the foul poles - expand the field of view. While the action between the foul lines is captivating, the eye is often drawn to the sidelines, to dugouts and bullpens, to that liminal space where player and fan interact: a smile from the batter's box or a head-first dive into the stands in vain pursuit of a foul ball. Sometimes what is most important in baseball happens - strictly speaking - outside the field of play (see Trout, Mike). The nature of the game also conspires to expand the fan's field of view. The homerun, the relay throw, Willie Mays' "The Catch" all elongate our gaze in the most pleasing way. Part of the appeal of the home run is that it stretches the parameters of the baseball diamond; shattering the dimensions of the park, the ball soars into the stands. In some glorious instances, the ball leaves the stadium completely such is the appeal of Eutaw St. in Baltimore and McCovey Cove in San Francisco. Most importantly, the majority of big league parks have no roof (and of the few that do, most are retractable). The sky is the backdrop of baseball games and its changes from spring to fall tell the timeless narrative of every ball season from warm spring breezes to crisp fall air. The potential of the open-air stadium is part of the reason the retro stadium trend of the past two decades reimagined the outfield skyline so successfully, as illustrated by PNC Park in Pittsburgh. There is perhaps no sporting experience quite like relaxing in the stands of a baseball game as the summer sun fades to night and as the stars provide a reprieve from the day's heat.

***

That's what makes the spectacle of an outdoor game like the Winter Classic so appealing: it fundamentally changes the fan's field of view and, consequently, the experience of a game. Gone is the claustrophobic enclosure that is the experience of the raucous rinks of the league, where your pulse raises in part because of the electricity of those around you.

Of course Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and Citizens Bank Park were great venues for NHL hockey, creating a celebratory atmosphere that was memorable for all involved. But it was in part because those stadiums altered the usual perspective of the hockey game that they were successful as rinks. It's not just that outdoor games remind us of playing on frozen ponds and flooded fields - they do - it's also that such games connect us with summer passions. However, a city without a suitable baseball or football stadium could still host a successful outdoor game. An outdoor classic played on the Rideau Canal for instance, would still alter the perspective of a Sens game. It would change the landscape of hockey in the city - if only for one game - and expand our field of view.

The outdoor game connects fans with a larger landscape: stars on the ice compete with those in the sky, and the horizon is the only limit to the fan's field of vision.

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