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Progressive Field: Time To Start Calling New Baseball Stadiums Old?

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PROGRESSIVE FIELD
The Indians started offering Progressive Field as a winter attraction last year, and now are hoping to get more creative about the stadium's uses during the season as well. | AP

CLEVELAND -- Progressive Field hasn't played host to a baseball game here in almost a month, since the Indians' playoff hopes were dashed in September.

But that hasn't stopped top baseball executives from watching closely what's happening at this stadium. The ballpark, which opened in 1994 as Jacobs Field, was one of the first in a new generation of fields that are intimate and fan-friendly, more like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field than Shea Stadium or the Metrodome.

And now the Indians owners are some of the first in baseball to begin thinking comprehensively about what changes, if any, need to be made to their park.

They certainly won't be the last. Since Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992, almost every baseball team that wanted a new stadium has gotten one. Huge sums of public money have been -- in many cases controversially -- invested in these facilities, sometimes just to keep fans and owners happy, other times with hopes of revitalizing downtown areas.

But baseball and its fans have changed throughout the two decades of rapid construction, and now some of what Jim Folk, the Indians vice president of ballpark operations, calls "young but mature" stadiums may require some work.

Progressive Field, which has a more contemporary look than most of the new parks, has by all accounts been a huge success. For the first 455 games after it opened, the team managed to sell out every seat in the house.

The combination of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the weakened economy brought ticket sales down significantly in 2001 and beyond, though, and the Indians are still trying to address the weak economy and its younger fanbase. Folk said today's fans are more interested in connecting socially -- both in person and digitally -- while at the park than in sitting still and keeping score. Some fans now just want to buy the cheapest seat in the house, often about $10, and walk around throughout the game.

"What that means," he added in an interview, "is that we can no longer think of this as a traditional baseball experience."

Instead, the team is looking for ways to add more interactive and digital signage throughout the stadium, and to expand on its existing bar and party areas. One idea -- in part motivated by the the departure of many Fortune 500 companies from Cleveland -- is to repurpose some of Progressive Field's luxury suites as a kind of club space, similar to what the Detroit Tigers have done at Comerica Park. Another idea for the suites is to take an approach similar to the Minnesota Twins, who have operable walls between their suites so the spaces can be combined in different permutations.

The Indians, the first franchise to install solar panels on its stadium, now have plans to add a wind turbine at Progressive Field. And they've been innovative in marketing the stadium as a winter-weather destination, too.

Joe Spear, the architect responsible for Progressive Field and Oriole Park, among many other stadiums, said the Indians got exactly what they wanted and needed in 1994.

"But baseball parks have to change over the ages," he went on. "Look at any great park, and the stadiums have evolved over time. Some of the most recognizable parks today you wouldn't recognize if you saw what they looked like in the first place."

And many of those recognizable parks are still changing. Fenway Park has added seating above its Green Monster, and now even the Cubs, who only put advertising behind home plate when Major League Baseball forced the team to, are looking at ways to bring Wrigley Field in line with other parks.

Jahaan Blake, the Cubs's director of fan services, said the franchise's new owners are interested in adding restaurants and expanded food offerings as well as other improved fan amenities over the next few years.

For now, though, she said fans can enjoy nachos in a helmet and look forward to what's next, "because baseball's always changing."

This post is part of Patch: The Road Trip. Read Arianna Huffington's introduction to the project, and be sure to follow Paul on Twitter and MapQuest.

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