Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

I blew it. Given the chance to throw out the first pitch at a game between the great, World Series–bound Reds and some other team, I tossed a ground ball. Honestly, during warm-up I was throwing strikes, or close to them. I blame it on the space. It is one thing to toss balls to some friends in your backyard or even the tunnel next to the dugout. It is another to see that catcher way down there at home base, while thousands of people look down on you from tiers reaching up into the night sky. I have a new respect for ballplayers who can saunter into that arena and act as if it is their stage and they know how to act.

I could blame it on being a somewhat overweight, middle-aged museum director and critic who rarely throws a curve ball unless it is in criticism. I could blame it on all my colleagues telling me I was going to fail. But I still think it was the fault of that space.

Sports stadia are among the most grand and odd structures that we allow ourselves as a culture. Hugely expensive, they sit empty most of the time (especially football stadia, which see use only about a dozen afternoons a year, unless there is a rock concert or college game there). They tower over their surroundings, usually with little or no connection to that context. They have very few other uses, and they have only one focus: the field.

Jacques Herzog, who had designed several such monsters, once told me that the sole point of their work was to intensify the experience. Herzog & de Meuron want their stadia to be as loud and condensed as possible. Other designers want to open the space up, reveling in the structure that makes this massive gathering of fans possible. More recently, stadia such as the one for the Dallas Cowboys or the Miami Marlins have been designed to look good on television.

Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark is in the traditional mode made popular by Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles’ home. It has a relaxed demeanor, rambling around the half-trapezoid of the field while leaving the end open toward the Ohio River and the Kentucky hills beyond. Going there is an equally easygoing experience, whether you are down near home plate, from where the stadium spreads out like cupped hands, or whether you find yourself up in nose-bleed territory, where the structure sprawls.

Being on the field is something else. Space both opens up into the far distance (how do the batters ever get that ball out into home-run territory?) and rises up, stepping back to make it seem even more intense. I had been on the field at football games, but those bowls’ containment made them seem more manageable. Here space expanded. Especially because I had to step into it.

I had asked to wear Aroldis Chapman’s number, 54. I love the way that he ambles up to the mound, usually at the end of a game, glides and slides his body into a curve, and then snaps out bombs that most batters don’t even see. I should have aimed lower (actually, higher, in this case). Conquering space by design, or, even better, by writing about design, is one thing. Making it work with your body and your eyes is another. As I said in my tweet when I ambled off the field back into the spectator’s space that is mine, I think I will stick to my day job. There, I can pretend to control space.