Number of games seen: 4, plus 1 tour
First game: July 17, 2010 (2nd game of doubleheader)
Most recent game: May 16, 2019
PHOTO GALLERY at bottom of page
By: Cole Shoemaker
Written in 2011; parts rewritten and updated in 2017 and 2019 for changes during 2010s, ratings updated yearly when necessary
What is a “retro ballpark”?
Well according to conventional wisdom, it’s an intimate red brick edifice, one that has taken on cookie cutter status throughout the new millennium. But according to the architects who designed Camden Yards in Baltimore, retro is nothing of the sort. My absolute favorite tidbit of the neoclassical ballpark renaissance is how the one that started it all blatantly rejected the term.
“We never felt that Camden was a retro ballpark”, Janet Marie Smith said, the revolutionary architect who spearheaded the so-called retro concept. “We were trying to design a ballpark that was responsive to the surroundings. We wanted the building to be contextual.”
And all of the Camden Yards architects pretty much echoed that sentiment, understanding the danger of the red brick aesthetic becoming a Disneyland-type experience, if you research the news archives. And yet 15 years later, we saw retro cookie cutters popping up all over the place.
Well, they got it right with Progressive Field, a staple of everything that neoclassical ballpark architecture was intended to be.
In 1994, those who recognized its symbolic representation of Cleveland, and its well-executed contextual design, deemed it a worthy successor to Camden Yards. But as the red brick retro movement gained traction into the new millennium, people realized that many of the superficial elements of Progressive Field were in direct opposition to the template of the time. Some dubbed it “overrated,” and as of now, the consensus view is in flux.
Despite a renewed sense to move away from the red brick, wrought iron formula, the wild success of Baltimore’s park has had an undeniable effect on most new parks to this day. For Cleveland to oppose that aesthetic directly after Camden opened took true vision, a vision rooted in authenticity.
But it’s not just about the opposition to a blind red brick façade. Throughout the past two decades, excessively cozy dimensions, short porches, numerous nooks and crannies, along with your occasional gimmick, made for heavy-handed attempts to recall the ballparks of yesteryear. Want an overhang in left field? Why not? How about a hill in center field? Sure.
I think Cleveland got what the “retro movement” was supposed to be, not what it became.
The significance of the best “retro” ballparks aren’t red bricks or silly old-fashioned gimmicks, but the connection to their cities. With Camden Yards, the fact that red brick worked perfectly in the Baltimore context was a mere coincidence. The many post-1992 ballparks that engaged in this red brick McMansion mimicry did so at their own peril. The best parks didn’t blindly imitate the red brick aesthetic, but emulated the concept of crafting a ballpark that fits with its context.
This especially comes to light when you compare Progressive to the other ballpark that opened in 1994, Globe Life Park in Arlington, which really suffers from that stage-set sensibility. Building a good ballpark should be about constructing a building that conforms to its own context, and you really see that inside and out Progressive Field. It’s as urban as a park you’ll ever see. Great ballparks authentically represent their cities, and the Indians’ park is pure Cleveland.
I think you see elements of Camden in every single park built from 1994-2010. You see little of it in Cleveland. Sure it’s going to have some superficial connections to Camden Yards, but it’s one of the few neoclassical parks that marches to its own drummer, if you really scrutinize all elements of the design.
In 2010, I truly went into Progressive Field with no preconceived notions. And while I was deeply impressed with its aesthetic design, I noted the many functional flaws.
The sightlines were a mess down the lines, the food options were about as limited as it got for a post-1991 ballpark, and the concourses were closed and on the small side. With an overabundance of suites, their premium-seating model was flawed as well.
While some issues are unfixable, Cleveland rectified many of the functional flaws and paltry amenities upon my return in 2017. Most notable are the additions of the Corner Bar, the Heritage Plaza, the Home Plate Club, and a bevy of local concessions. Progressive Field also emulated the dual concourse technique of the first base side on the third base side, marginally improving the overall concourse functionality.
The only blemish on an otherwise fine renovation project is the widely maligned white facades in the right field upper deck. Resembling shipping containers, not only do they subtract from the interior aesthetics, but they are dormant and non-functional throughout most of the year. On the plus side, this endeavor removed thousands of the worst seats in baseball, many of which were oriented past center field (sections 525-520). 426-420 still remain, unfortunately.
But overall, we have substantial improvements in nearly every objective category: concessions, local food, restaurants/bars/social areas, premium seating, kids’ entertainment, and concourse functionality. Progressive Field continues to do a very good job of honoring team history as well. The only subtraction was with the already fantastic interior aesthetics, and they need to replace/restore some of the seats. Progressive Field’s extensive renovations came after similar projects at the other early to mid 1990s parks like Camden Yards (Baltimore) and Globe Life Park in Arlington, but they are the best and most comprehensive of the bunch.
There’s a reason why baseball awarded Cleveland the 2019 All-Star Game over Baltimore, even though the latter had a longer All-Star Game drought and is generally considered to have the better ballpark.
From where I stand, Progressive Field is absolutely a worthy successor to Camden Yards as one of the gold standards of 1990s ballpark architecture, meaning it’s one of the more underrated ballparks of all time. If you took a poll in 2017, I don’t think Progressive Field would fare too well, as people say it lacks any sort of distinguishing or recognizable elements.
But that’s exactly the point: it doesn’t need to. Ballparks don’t need cheesy gimmicks; they need to visually represent their cities. The backdrop of the Cleveland skyline or Quicken Loans Arena are the distinguishing elements, much better and more authentic than the gimmicks seen in other parks from 1997-2004 (think pools, faux rocks, fake smokestacks, giant coke bottles, trains, etc.) Too many other parks try too hard. I flesh out more specifics in the architecture and aesthetics section.
Right now, Camden, PNC Park (Pittsburgh), and AT&T Park (San Francisco) are widely considered the best ballparks in the majors, with parks in San Diego, Minneapolis, Detroit, Philadelphia, and a few others often in the discussion (don’t forget, I don’t compare Wrigley or Fenway to the “new” parks). I believe Progressive Field will ultimately be one of the best ballparks in history as well, if circumstance bodes well of course. From an architectural design standpoint, in terms of originality, distinctiveness, authenticity, and overall aesthetics, Progressive Field should join the elites on the timeless scale.
If Progressive Field faces its downfall sooner than we anticipate, I think its basic structural design, explicitly intended to only accommodate luxury suites, will be the culprit. The park was built because of the revenue generated by these luxury suites, but that premium seating model is now flawed: no baseball market can support anywhere near this number of suites. The Indians have rapidly tried to repackage many of the suites as entertainment areas and clubs, but the structure can’t be changed. If anything, much of the renovation project itself proves stadiums with tiers of luxury boxes are difficult to retrofit for normal fans (unlike say with Yankee Stadium, where if they ever want to make their club seating regular seating, it isn’t structurally unfeasible at all).
But as of 2019, the bottom line is Progressive Field still excels in architectural and aesthetic design, but now with the requisite fan-friendly amenities of a world class facility, resulting in a top-10 ballpark.NEXT - Setting