Take A Pilgrimage To America's Sport Sanctuaries In 'The Arena'

Aug 5, 2017

If he had to choose two teams to play in the World Series based only on their home stadiums, Rafi Kohan would like to see the Boston Red Sox versus the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Red Sox's Fenway Park "really is a magical place and they've done a tremendous job with their renovations" he says, and the Pirates' PNC Park is "just a beautiful little park."

Kohan should know — he's traveled all over the country to research stadiums for his new book The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport.

He talks with us about those houses of hope, glory and hot dogs.


Interview Highlights

On whether the days of signature stadium names – Lambeau, Fenway, Wrigley – are over

I think they are, especially with naming rights deals being worth as much as they are these days. We have Yankee Stadium and we have Dodger Stadium, but I believe the Dodgers are in negotiation to sell the rights at least for their field. ... We should hold tight to Fenway and Wrigley and pray for the best from our corporate overlords.

On the fans at Wrigley Field

I would say that people have a lot of different motivations for going to Wrigley Field. I spoke to some folks who all they wanted to do was go to Wrigley and drink beer. And other guys who I spoke to went there and all they wanted to do was score the game. And some other folks I spoke to all they wanted to do was go to Wrigley and pee in the [men's room urinal] troughs. So we all have our unique motivations.

On whether tax-funded stadiums make sense

From an economic perspective they certainly don't seem to. All the evidence suggests that stadiums are not good economic drivers. But that being said, that doesn't mean that there's not value in a stadium. There are things like quality of life ... civic pride.

But ultimately, a lot of the economists I spoke to landed on the fact that what you need to do is have honest conversations among taxpayers and voters in terms of: What you want to spend and why? Don't tell taxpayers that the stadium is going to make them rich, because it's not going to. But it may enrich your life if you're a fan. So take that into account and think about it the same way you would a golf course or an arts district. Is this something that you want to pay for? It's not an investment, but it's consumption.

On being impressed by stadium grounds crews

A grounds crew can tailor the field in very small ways that might impact the outcome of the game. Gone are the days of legendary Kansas City groundskeeper George Toma and his ilk. ... They really would tailor the fields in unbelievable ways. They would tilt the foul lines in a certain way so that bunts wouldn't roll foul. They would harden the turf to make it more difficult for players to slide if they didn't want the opposing team to slide.

Nowadays, uniformity is really something that is mandated by Major League Baseball, but there's still small ways. I visited with Trevor Vance, who's the head groundskeeper for the Kansas City Royals — and this was during 2015, the year that they would ultimately win the World Series. And he talked about how he made the infield play very fast — shorter grass — because they had young, athletic infielders and they felt that that was an advantage for them ... they knew that their guys could get to the ball and the other team probably couldn't.

On the Superdome in New Orleans

I think there are bad memories, and there are ghosts. ... There are people who go back to that Superdome now, not because they want to, but because they have to to try and make a living. One guy I met, Raymond Smith, he has no choice but to strap a beer tray around his neck and go up and down the aisles shouting for beers during games. And he had to live through [Hurricane] Katrina inside the Superdome and it is not a happy memory for him in any way — it's something he suffers with. But for the rest of the community it is also a symbol of ... if not redemption, reclamation.

Stephan Bisaha and Cindy Johnston produced and edited the audio of this interview. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The places in which sports fans watch their favorite teams often become as familiar to them as great churches, mosques or synagogues. Who are we kidding? Maybe even more familiar. Rafi Kohan has written a book about some of those houses of hope, glory, hotdogs and infamy around the country, pro and college. His book is "The Arena: Inside The Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Hunted Monuments Of American Sports." Rafi Kohan, who's written for The New York Observer, GQ and the Wall Street Journal, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

RAFI KOHAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And I'm afraid after that long title, we've run out of time.

KOHAN: (Laughter) It's great to be here.

SIMON: A lot of stadiums these days don't have signature names - do they? - like Lambeau, Wrigley or Yankee Stadium. Are those days just gone?

KOHAN: Well, I think they are if - especially with naming rights deals being worth as much as they are these days. We have Yankee Stadium. And we have Dodger Stadium. But I believe that Dodgers are in negotiations to sell the rights for, at least, for the field. So, yeah, I think you're right. I think, you know, we should hold tight to Fenway and Wrigley. And, you know, pray for the best from our corporate overlords.

SIMON: I've got to ask you about Wrigley Field, where the Cubs play. You seemed to like the park more than the fans.

KOHAN: (Laughter) Oh, I don't know about that. The fans were delightful. But I mean, how could you not love the park? I mean, Wrigley is one of the gems - Wrigley and Fenway.

SIMON: But you suggest that those of us who go to Wrigley Field don't necessarily have the game on our minds.

KOHAN: Well, I would say that people have a lot of different motivations for going to Wrigley Field. You know, I spoke to some folks who all they wanted to do was go to Wrigley and drink beer. And other guys who I spoke to went there, and all they wanted to do was score the game. And some other folks I spoke to - all they wanted to do was go to Wrigley and pee in the troughs. So, I mean, we all have our motivations.

SIMON: We should explain the men's room have a unique system of relief. Let's put it that way (laughter).

KOHAN: Well said.

SIMON: A couple of generations after they started, do taxpayer-funded stadiums make any sense?

KOHAN: From an economic perspective, they certainly don't seem to. All the evidence suggests that stadiums are not good economic drivers. But that being said, that doesn't mean that there is not value in a stadium. There are things like quality of life, things like civic pride. But ultimately, a lot of the economists I spoke to landed on the fact that what you need to do is have honest conversations among taxpayers and voters in terms of what you want to spend and why. Don't tell taxpayers that the stadium is going to make them rich because it's not going to. But it may enrich your life if you're a fan. And so take that into account and think about it the same way you would a golf course or an arts district. Is this something that you want to pay for? It's not an investment, but it's consumption.

SIMON: You are awfully impressed by the art and craft of grounds crews.

KOHAN: Oh, I was.

SIMON: A clever grounds crew can mean a difference in close games, can't it?

KOHAN: Oh, definitely. Well a grounds crew can tailor the field in very small ways that might impact the outcome of the game. You know, gone are the days of legendary Kansas City groundskeeper George Toma and his ilk - the (unintelligible). They really would tailor the fields in unbelievable ways. They would tilt the foul lines in a certain way so that bunts wouldn't roll foul. They were harden the turf to make it more difficult for players to slide if they didn't want the opposing team to slide.

Nowadays, uniformity is really something that is mandated by Major League Baseball. But there are still small ways. I visited with Trevor Vance, who's the head groundskeeper for the Kansas City Royals. And this was during 2015 - the year they would ultimately win the World Series. And he talked about how he made the infield play very fast - you know, shorter grass - because they had young, athletic infielders. And they felt that that was an advantage for them because they knew that their guys could get to the ball. And the other team probably couldn't.

SIMON: There's so much joy in your book. But I have to ask, are there bad memories, if not ghosts, at the New Orleans Superdome?

KOHAN: Well, I think there are bad memories, and there are ghosts. And it's such an interesting place to visit. There are people who go back to that Superdome now not because they want to, but because they have to, to try and make a living. One guy I met, Raymond Smith, he has no choice but to strap a beer tray around his neck and go up and down the aisles, you know, shouting for beer during games. And he had to live through Katrina inside the Superdome. And it is not a happy memory for him in any way. It's something he suffers with. But for the rest of the community, it is also a symbol of redemption in some ways or if not redemption, reclamation.

SIMON: I promise not to take this personally. World Series - two parks you'd have to go back and forth between. What would you choose?

KOHAN: Well, as a Yankee fan, I suppose I should say Yankee Stadium. But if the ballpark is the sole measure of where I want to be, then, unfortunately, it has to be Fenway. And, you know...

SIMON: It takes a lot for Yankee fan to say that, right? I appreciate that.

KOHAN: It does. But you know what? Fenway really is a magical place. And they've done a tremendous job with their renovations. And as perfect as the symmetry might be of going back and forth between Wrigley and Fenway, I'm going to say PNC Park.

SIMON: In Pittsburgh?

KOHAN: In Pittsburg, where the Pirates play. It's just a beautiful little park. And they have a raised wall, which I think is sort of a tribute to Fenway. I haven't fact checked myself on that. But at least there would be some symmetry in that way.

SIMON: Rafi Kohan, his book "The Arena." Thanks so much for being with us.

KOHAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.