Paul Lewis on sport
Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Stadium controversy

Candelstick Park. Photo / Getty Images
Candelstick Park. Photo / Getty Images

Eden Park provokes both reactions - a traditional love of the place and dislike sparked by the belief that it is out-moded and poorly located.

Auckland is not alone in stadium controversy; San Francisco will close down Candlestick Park when the San Francisco 49ers move down the coast to a new stadium in Santa Clara - not an entirely popular move.

"The Stick" is not universally loved either. The big concrete bowl will literally be blown up at the end of this NFL season, an end to over 50 years of icy cold winds, famously rowdy patrons and its location in a rough part of town.

Meanwhile, over at Emirates Team NZ's base at Pier 32 on San Francisco's waterfront, both sides (residents and developers) are drawing up battle lines over the building of a US$1 billion (NZ$1.3 billion) privately funded, waterfront stadium for the basketball team, the Golden State Warriors. That is due to happen if this America's Cup ever ends...

But the thing that sets great stadiums aside is not just price and location - it's the history and the fans' attraction to some of the great customs and traditions that grow up within them.

Some modern stadiums can be planned and programmed so much that they are almost ascetic and certainly antiseptic.

AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team is popular - it somehow manages to fill its 42,000 seats even when the Giants play, as they sometimes do, the same team four times in a row. But it hasn't yet earned the place in San Franciscan hearts that the old ground, Recreation Park, did.

It had features that modern stadiums would never include - a "booze cage", a section separated from the players only by chicken wire and where the 75c admission fee included either a shot of whiskey, two bottles of beer or the sensible option - a ham and cheese sandwich.

Option two was rarely taken and women and children nowhere to be seen within the booze cage but even that wasn't as weird as the gas meter home run. There was a smallish gas meter hole in the ground; any ball that rolled in there was an automatic home run.

Even that wasn't as weird as the buzzer boy - the park employee whose job it was to buzz once or twice if a home run was hit out of the park. One buzz meant it was heading down Valencia Street, two meant it was going down 15th Avenue. That was a signal for another park employee to sprint down the pertinent street, attempting to get to the ball before the neighbourhood kids made off with it.

That was obviously before the baseball clubs all became multi-million dollar outfits who hit and lose balls into the crowd almost every other minute these days; there is even a thriving market among fans and collectors for baseballs which mark a record home run or some such.

Personally, I like Eden Park, always have. But the security, the loss of the old terraces and the modern trend of stage-managing everything and preventing people from bringing in their own food and drink have bled it of a little personality.

I can remember sitting there one blazing hot cricket season when the row of guys behind us got progressively - but amusingly - drunker until one of them ate my ex-wife's straw hat. There was no violence, no threats and no problem but lots of banter. I know that, had that happened in 2013, we would likely have all ended up in the slammer and appeared in court the next morning; there is no doubt that behaviour has worsened and tempers shortened these days.

But places like the terraces or the booze cage help to shape the heart and wit of a stadium.

As a cancer survivor, I can tell this story - in another blazing summer, when the English cricketers were touring, a packed terraces were sweltering in about 40 degrees in the sun. Suddenly a new arrival poked his head up from the stairs, seeking an empty seat. He was clearly English - tall, reedy, pale, glasses and inexplicably in the heat wearing a full-length gabardine coat and a white hanky on his heads, knotted at all four corners.

The terraces regarded this wonder for some time. Until someone finally yelled out: "So, how's the chemotherapy going?"

Ah, those were the days. We need more of that and more gas meter home runs philosophies and less corporate slickness.

- NZ Herald

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