ARLINGTON, Tex. — When the Ballpark in Arlington opened in April 1994, it was hailed as a baseball showcase, majestic yet cozy, bringing fans close to the field with its narrow foul territories and vertical, if severely plain, architecture.
A couple of months later came second thoughts. The scorch of Texas summer arrived, pretty much on schedule, and it exposed the basic design flaw of this outdoor arena: the three-story office building that spanned center field not only is an eyesore, it blocks off potential breezes.
Yes, I know, it’s hard to see how the Rangers’ previous ownership didn’t see this coming when they blueprinted The Ballpark. Arlington’s local government insists it recommended the Rangers go retractable-roof.
But they couldn’t foresee global warming, or as we say in Texas, a long dry spell. Back when the Ballpark was on the drawing boards, Al Gore hadn’t yet published his very uninfluential jeremiad, Earth in the Balance. Polar bears were happy, and birds were singing, not yet falling out of the Metroplex sky upon being stricken by heat stroke.
Triple digits have been around these parts since the invention of the thermometer, but in my childhood they were a fairly rare event; now we get them by the dozens.
So now more than ever this is the most uncomfortable seat in the major leagues. But that doesn’t mean the public won’t pay to rent it. The Rangers for their seventh consecutive season are averaging 30,000 fans per home game. Among the 30 big-league franchises they currently rank a solid 10th in attendance.
So why bring out the wrecking ball?
Rangers co-owner Ray Davis got that ball rolling when he called a news conference last month to reveal he was receiving unsolicited offers from other cities to move his team. Never mind, of course, that there are eight years remaining on his current ballpark lease. No doubt the Rangers’ value is rising by the day, given that this season they have the best record in the American League.
Renamed Globe Life Park, after three years of being Ameriquest Field, this stadium was officially declared obsolete at age 22, when Rangers management began lobbying the city of Arlington to go 50-50 with them on a new stadium. It would be adjacent to the existing one, but this time we’ll try air conditioning. And a retractable roof.
Fearing the Rangers might flee Arlington for greener pastures (perhaps, again, literally), the city’s elected officials all but tripped over chairs to accept the team’s proposal of a $1 billion arena, with tax payers taking care of half the bill.
So now we have a political football, er, baseball.
The people of Arlington will vote in November to determine if the necessary sales taxes will be implemented. Their elected representatives are telling them the Rangers are worth more than $70 million a year to the local economy. There are jobs at stake – in all tax brackets. No doubt city council jobs will be lost if the Rangers skip out on their lease and somehow relocate to another city.
Voters also are being told that if this new stadium is built, the Rangers will be tied to Arlington for 38 more years. Just like they were locked into Globe Life til 2024.
The politicos of Arlington argue that a half-cent sales tax and extension of current taxes on hotels and rental cars that helped finance the Dallas Cowboys’ nearby extravaganza is a small price. No one wants to be blamed for the nastiest sort of breakup, when a beloved sports team jilts its fans in favor of a new suitor and new tax gifts.
What makes this situation especially delicate is that one of the rival suitors is the next-door, but potentially bullying, neighbor, Dallas, which not for nothing proudly calls itself “Big D.”
The Dallas Morning News reported that Mayor Mike Rawlings spoke to Davis two years ago about relocating his ballclub to a downtown retractable-roof stadium. All the Rangers would have to do is pay for it, with little help from taxpayers. Mayor Rawlings prefers public funding to go to metro rail service. As he put it, in perfect politicospeak, “We’re strategically making decisions for multimodal transportation vs. building a stadium.”
Frankly, I’m surprised he can muster support for trains, which fell out of favor in Texas ever since Sam Bass started robbing them in the 1870s. Texans now are more concerned about modern-day robbery, which we call taxes.
The mayor admitted it would take him another two years to line up a stadium deal, whereas Arlington is only too ready to begin constructing a 38,000-seat arena scheduled for use by 2021.
Under the proposed stadium deal, the Rangers will be responsible for demolishing Globe Life, although they’re thinking about preserving most of the fateful office building. “We haven’t found any good solution yet,” Davis said. “What I don’t want to have happen is like the Astrodome, where you end up with a white elephant.”
Indeed, much of this stadium issue is about that eternal intrastate rivalry between Dallas and Houston.
But there’s a significant difference between the sliding roof the Rangers want and the one that shelters the Astros. The Houston ballpark, so unimposingly named Minute Maid, is a high-rev engine for a city that, boosted also by nearby Toyota Center, home of the Rockets, is almost becoming a tourist destination.
Dallas will always have Dealey Plaza, with its peerless macabre appeal, and for another decade or two its entirely accommodating basketball/hockey arena — before it too becomes fatally anachronistic. Progeria, which makes children age decades faster than they should, inevitably afflicts sports venues.
But a big-league investment in downtown is rarely regretted. It could be the difference between conventions going to Houston instead of Dallas. Consider the impact, financially and aesthetically, of downtown ballparks in Cleveland, Denver, Baltimore, San Francisco. These cities have figured out how to create both downtown stadiums and mass transit to deliver people to them.
The Rangers think of Arlington as a bridge between Dallas, the state’s second-largest city, and Fort Worth, its fifth-largest. But it’s pretty much a bridge to nowhere, this being a modestly sized city of 380,000. It’s actually eight miles closer to downtown Fort Worth than to downtown Dallas, which will become a more popular destination as its modern-transit system develops. The Rangers are going for the wrong base in the wrong place.