Cheering Alone

05/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Baseball season has just begun: I am already heartbroken. Not because of an early loss but rather because the new New York stadiums have diminished not only the game but its place within our culture.

Until very recently, going to the ballpark was a great democratizer. It really didn't matter what the guy next to you did for a living, where he lived, or how much he made: if he and you both knew the game, you spend a couple of hours as equals. It was one of the places I learned to respect, like, and enjoy people with whom I had nothing else in common (as a writer, a very important lesson, indeed).

One always ran the risk of running into absolute boors, of course. The ballpark could teach you whom to avoid, but, again, that ignorant, screaming, boob could as easily have been a banker or lawyer as a construction worker. The lesson remained the same: ballparks were where we learned to judge people based on knowledge and behavior, not background.

My wife is astonished when we go to our local farmer's market together. She's treated as a vaguely familiar passing customer while I'm embraced like a long-lost cousin. I think it's because I know how to start a conversation with a stranger with whom I share a common passion. I learned how to do that at the ballpark.

But New York's new ballparks will not be democratic institutions. The stands will be homogeneous, economically segregated, more stratified than La Scala.

Seats at Citi Field, the ill-named new home to the Mets, top out at $695. At Yankee Stadium, the top single-game seat is $2,625 (although for a mere $525, you can get a pretty decent view). Spend less than a hundred dollars a ticket in either ballpark, and you're sitting by the foul pole, in the outfield, or in the upper deck.

To put this in perspective: a decent seat at a ballgame will go for five, six, or seven times the price of a center orchestra seat on Broadway. This has never been true in my lifetime.

For the game, this is a disaster: the experience that created life-long fans has now become a Very Special Occasion (if it happens at all).

But as bad as it is for the sport, it's even worse for us as a society (a society which, I should note, has subsidized these stadiums with multiple millions of tax dollars). As Robert Putnam pointed out in his famous essay "Bowling Alone," when America loses the places in which we come together, our sense of ourselves as citizens diminishes. The ballpark was an American agora. On opening day, 2009, it was gone.