“I want to go in the stadium,” said my nephew. We were standing on the campus of the University of Florida. Now my direct experience with stadiums– Notre Dame, Great American Ballpark, Riverbend, Riverfront, Ohio– strongly suggested that one simply does not just walk in. In fact, it’s a good way to get kicked out of them. In fact, I’d experienced exactly this. And the 17-year-old at my left hand did not need to know that part of it, but it did not seem the best introduction to his dream school.

So now I was left to apply my bitter experience of angering ushers without letting on how I came by this highly valuable knowledge. “Why don’t I just take your picture outside of it,” I suggested. When threatened, we introverts are world-beaters at invisibly standing outside of, next to, and right up on people, places, and things. This defaults seemed the safest tactic at the moment.

“But,” he said, citing TikTok as an authority, “I’ve seen it. You can just walk in.”

Well, perhaps this was a quick and easy way to save his parents an application fee and forty grand a year. We approached the looming concrete, saw no gates at the entrance ramps, and, indeed… walked in.

The place was hideous, of course, with gooey orange paint slathered floor to rooftop, but I let the boy have his Moment. My Moment, the first time I entered Great American Ball Park, was shared with an opposition fan (guess which team) who bumped my shoulder and screamed something in beer-ese, and because it was a bobblehead night I had to keep walking or die.

Florida’s sickening July humidity pushing down every limb, I was continually glancing over my sweaty shoulder until I noticed not just stadium employees, but the people.

Guy on his phone sitting in the middle of a row of the student section.

ROTC hopeful running the upper deck steps.

An exercise class of five sprawled on yoga mats beneath a ticket entrance.

A dad and his little girl taking a selfie by the field.

Best of all was a man wearing full firefighter gear, jogging the concourse; would that the concession stands weren’t shuttered so that I could buy him one of everything.

A Famous Place on TV had simply…. flung open its gates to the bobbing jetsam of the community, all of whom were going about their sweaty day. No one seemed awed except us. If people wanted to exercise by inhaling straight water-air for an hour, they were more than welcome to go at it. Bathrooms were open. Drinking fountains were running. The grey walls were graffiti-free, and an air-conditioned gift shop hawked logo dog leashes and Gatorade.

It was weird, this– the business of standing in a stadium to which I had zero emotional attachment and no grim expectation of encroaching on enemy turf. But the hour we spent wandering the empty seats made me attached.

My experience with GABP security was that of a system so (understandably) tight that the directionally impaired Brayan Pena met nearly every member of the Hall of Fame staff during his tenure as a Red. He kept forgetting how to get into the stadium, so he’d cheerfully apply for assistance at our front desk and we’d swipe him in, pointing the way to the clubhouse. And the first glimpse I had of the interior of Notre Dame Stadium was standing on my tiptoes on the other side of a vast, vast parking lot. The implications were sternly, inarguably clear.

But UF?  Come conduct your 10 AM Zoom call at The Swamp!

Democracy!

Imagine a policy like this at Great American. We can already peer into the stadium from the crests of various city streets, anyway– a visual invitation to gaze upon this jewel of the riverfront. What if we didn’t lock the gem away for the majority of the year?

Yes, darling: 2PM Silver Sneakers Jazzercise along Beer Alley and enjoying a very, very private cup of coffee on the Sun Deck on a surprise warmish Thursday in February. All the square dance classes. All the impromptu plastic-pin bowling matches. All the Rollerblading!

All in a place holy to baseball, but to those of us who live here, the cathedral would function as just another part of the house. Inspiring, encouraging, and right down the street. Hey, come see my ball park. It’s open.

A baseball park is a special occasion kind of place for most of us. But does it have to be that way? What if you didn’t have a tour or a wedding or a charity event and just… wanted to hang out at your friendly local ball park? Just a few minutes. Maybe get some steps in. Take a friend. Take a solo seat and think about hitting one out– or nothing at all.

You could just walk in.

12 Responses

  1. Mark Cramer

    Amen to that. My family history goes back to the 1910’s in downtown Cincinnati in the Over the Rhine area around the corner from Findley Market. As a teenager in the late 1940’s my mom and her friends used to climb on busses and go over the wall of the sundeck in crosley field to watch a game. When my mom was pregnant with me, she went to opening day 1956 and sat in the overflow seating which was a folding chair ON THE FIELD right by the bullpen. She said the whole game the bullpen pitchers had conversations with them and all the others in that overflow seating. How cool is that! Never happen today. How things have changed NOT for the better. Great article!!

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks. That is an awesome story about your mom! Crosley was wonderful for feeling close. The players used to have to walk through the stands to get to the dugout!

  2. Joe P.

    My experience has been that you can walk into most college football stadiums on days during the offseason and look around. Often, they have students and families who are visiting during student orientation and have recruiting visits, so most facilities are open.

    If anyone asks or tries to stop you, just tell them you’re visiting the area and you likely won’t get another opportunity to be back or are considering sending a family member to the school, and they will generally be more accomodating. If anything, they are proud of their facilities and want to show them off.

    However, when it comes to college basketball arenas – the doors are generally locked. Same for professional sports venues.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      We passed by the basketball arena and he said “I don’t think we could get in there!” We didn’t even try!

  3. John Christine

    Nice idea. It would be great if baseball “parks” were open to the public for free. They should be, especially since the communities pay for them in one way or another.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      That’s a very good point. I seem to remember a levy to pay for a couple of new stadiums…

  4. Joe Shaw

    I used to work at THE Ohio Statue University. You could walk onto any field you wanted – more or less – when there weren’t games or active practices in session. It made everything feel so … accessible. Like it was part of your community and you were part of it.

    Baseball used to be like that. There were sandlots and backyard fields all over the place. You could start up a game any time of the year, with anyone who wanted to play. And if you wanted to meet your heroes, you could shell out a few bucks and make your way down to the field before the game started.

    Now, baseball is a lot more like golf. You have to have the right equipment, know all the rules, act a certain way, BE a certain KIND of person, and maybe you can enjoy it. Maybe. If you’re lucky.

    Drive down the road from UF a little ways and try to experience the grandeur of walking into the Magic Kingdom. If you take out a second mortgage and genuflect enough before the entertainment gods, you MIGHT have the privilege of walking down the cattle chute of Main Street, to gaze through sweat-laden eyes at the abomination that is Cinderealla’s castle. And God help you if you want to actually ride some rides. Holy (*expletive deleted*)!

    Baseball needs to be accessible again. Be Sandlots, baseball. Not Disney

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      The Shoe was (understandably) locked down tiiiiighhhhhhht. But kids would play soccer on the band’s practice field until they were shooed off for practice 🙂 That was fun.

      • stuckonthenorthshore

        My brother and his friends would go up on the towers of the Shoe and drink at night, so not that tight….

  5. Mary Beth Ellis

    well now I think we know why it got locked down, lol! That’s a great story to have 🙂

  6. Mark Moore

    I remember the UC shuttle bus project we did in 2006. Sitting in one of the dining areas and looking out on Bearcat Stadium was fun. We walked around it, looking down the stairways. But we never got to go down into the “bowl”. Not once.

    It’s an interesting concept, to have these places more available. Doubly so during this especially trying time. I’m planning on seeing the inside of GABP again, currently in just a couple of weeks. It’s been a long time and I’m looking forward to selecting my seats, maybe meeting a fellow Redleg Nation member or two, and seeing baseball. Even though it will take a ticket, at least I’ll be “in”.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Nothing smells like a ballpark, especially near the caramel corn booth 🙂