Durable Growth

Clinging to the past

Minor league ballpark in Asheville, North Carolina

Minor league ballpark in Asheville, North Carolina

As I publish this, I’m in the final days of a vacation.  Every year, I meet friends for a week of minor league baseball, regional food, and enjoyable beverages.  (The friends also humor me by agreeing to look at cool downtowns and walkable neighborhoods.)

This year, we traveled to New Mexico where most of the professional baseball teams are in the independent Pecos League.  The week of independent baseball caused me to think back upon my years in independent ball.  In particular, I recalled a story that illustrated an urbanist moral.

We had a season-ticket holder whom I’ll call Bridget.  (The actual woman was in her 70s and in failing health when I knew her nearly twenty years ago, so has likely passed away.  But I’ll let her rest in peace by using a pseudonym.  Otherwise, the story is fully true.)

Bridget was the kind of season-ticket holder who is important to lower level minor league ballclubs.  She could barely scratch together the cost of her season ticket and never patronized the concession stands, so she didn’t make much of an impact on club finances.  But she was eager to help the club in other ways.  In particular, she often undertook sewing tasks such as stitching commemorative patches onto jerseys and mending torn uniforms.

Her mending duties led to a conversation that illustrated a bit of her character.

We had a center-fielder, Marco, who was a player, in every sense of the word, both on the field and off.  One evening, Marco tore his baseball pants, requiring overnight repairs.  About twenty minutes after the game ended, with the primary stadium lights turned off and all but a few fans long gone, I spied Bridgett waiting in the shadows near the clubhouse.

Not knowing about the mending task that we’d asked of her, I asked her if she needed help.  She replied, “I waiting to get Marco out of his pants.”

“Bridget, I’m shocked!”

She shook her white hair, pursed her thin lips, and admonished me, “You know what I mean!”  But she couldn’t hide the small hint of a grin at the naughty suggestion that she might still have something to offer a 24-year-old athlete.

But Bridget really showed her colors on the Star-Spangled Banner.  Like many ballclubs, we had a choice of playing the same scratchy recording of the Star-Spangled Banner for 45 games each season or inviting local musicians to audition for a chance to play at one of the games.

Of course, we choose the latter.  Not only did we hope to sell tickets and concessions to the friends and family of the musicians, but we hoped some of them would enjoy the experience enough to return for another game.  (It may sound mercenary, but balancing the books in independent ball, not to make a profit but just to keep the gates open,  requires being mercenary.)

As might be expected, with 45 local musicians for 45 games, some of the musicians weren’t particularly good, or had renditions that diverged substantially from traditional, or both.

Several times a season, after a particularly inventive version, Bridget would feel obligated to berate the owners for the sacrilege.  As she slowly worked her way down through the stands, the other owners would find refuge in the press box or think of urgent cell phone calls that had to be made at that moment.  But I was often willing to chat with her.

“That was wrong!  The Star-Spangled Banner needs to be played as it was written.”

“What do you mean, Bridget?  The words were written as a poem.  Do you mean that we should recite the poem?”

“No!  You know what I mean.  The music should be played the way it was written.”

“But the melody was written as a drinking song for a London social club.  Do you mean we should import slightly inebriated Brits to sing the song?”

“No!  It should be played the way it was when I was a girl, when my daddy first brought me to this ballpark.”

“And when was that, Bridget?”

“1936.”

“So, in the entire history of the Star-Spangled Banner, the way it was played in this ballpark in 1936 was the only way it should ever be played?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, I’ll advise the general manager.”

“You do that.”  And she would stomp back to her seat while the fans within earshot tried to stifle smiles.

I t appreciated Bridget’s passion and her commitment to the ballclub.  But her insistence that 1936 was the apogee of the Star-Spangled Banner was silly.

However, her contention, as ridiculous as it may have seemed to those in earshot, is unfortunately similar to the attitudes that many take toward land use.  And it’s an attitude that’s ultimately harmful to our future.

Trying to preserve the 1980s form of land use is a bad idea, particularly because of what we now know about the financial and environmental impacts of that land use configuration.  But trying to preserve the 1890s land-use pattern is just as bad.  We’re a different people now, with different lifestyles, and our land use needs to reflect that.

Some try to disparage urbanism by claiming that it’s a foolish attempt to recapture the past.  But that’s a strawman argument, falsely attributing a characteristic just so it can be criticized.

No, urbanism is about taking the best of all past practices (admittedly, there were more good ideas before World War II than after) and applying those ideas to who we are today.  Urbanism isn’t about walking around in top hats; it’s about walking around in cargo pants, using our phones to navigate through a city that is environmentally and financially sustainable.

I still appreciate what Bridget did for the ballclub two decades ago.  And if she wanted to complain about the occasional electric guitar riff in the middle of the Star-Spangled Banner, then I was willing to listen to her in good humor.  But if she, or anyone else, were to take the same rigid attitude toward land use planning, then I’d be unhappy.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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