Wednesday morning at MAPFRE Stadium, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer, and other Columbus civic leaders announced a plan to convert the Crew’s home for the past two decades into a new project that will serve as the Crew’s training facility, a public soccer complex, a community recreation center, and greenspace parkland. In terms of what could happen to the historic landmark once the Crew move into a new stadium, it’s a dream solution.
For the better part of a year, I had been preoccupied with the nightmare.
Long before Columbus did Columbus and overcame some long odds through a spirit of relentlessly determined focus and cooperation, it seemed all but certain that Anthony Precourt would uproot the first club in Major League Soccer from its home and replant it in Austin, TX. I involuntarily thought long and hard about what the last Crew game ever would be like. How it would feel. What I would do. How I would process my grief. That sort of thing.
But the thing that really got to me, perhaps because it was the most tangible, was thinking about the fate of MAPFRE Stadium. Would the most important and transformative piece of tinker-toy architecture in American soccer history, and that sacred patch of perfectly manicured grass that lies within it, be abandoned? Would it be grown over and consumed by nature like in one of those post-apocalyptic “life after people” shows on TV? I’ve seen modern overgrown images of Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, where the Miami Fusion once played, and it churned my stomach to think that the same fate could await the House That Lamar Built.
Or would it be torn down? Would I and many others be like those poor baseball fans in Brooklyn, who watched the wrecking ball destroy Ebbetts Field after Walter O’Malley absconded to Los Angeles with the Dodgers?
Destroy the Crew community and then destroy the communal gathering place that housed it. It’s a tough thing to contemplate.
Over the course of its history, League Park was the home of the Cleveland Spiders (National League), Cleveland Indians (American League), and Cleveland Buckeyes (Negro Leagues.) It was also home to the NFL’s Rams. Cy Young pitched the first game there. Addie Joss tossed a perfect game there. The first-ever baseball all-star game, a charity event after Joss’s untimely passing, was played there. Bill Wambsganss turned an unassisted triple play in the World Series there. Babe Ruth hit his 500th career homerun there. Joe DiMaggio hit in his 56th consecutive game there.
When I was growing up in Cleveland, it was an empty field. The old ticket office remained, plus a few other crumbling partial exterior walls, a small bit of grandstand, and the structurally unsound remnants of the player tunnel to the dugout that was used as a subterranean hideaway for God knows what over the years. Other than that, decades of history had been reduced to an empty field. Almost like it never existed.
Would historic Crew Stadium, after all it has meant to American soccer, become an empty field? Erased from existence?
This was stuff that kept me up at night.
Even if the Crew stayed, a new stadium would surely be part of the deal, so I still worried about the fate of the structure.
When the mayor and others unveiled the plan to turn the current site of MAPFRE Stadium into a public sports complex and park for the surrounding community, one of the first people I thought of was Arica Kress, the Crew’s Vice-President of Marketing and Communications. If you follow her twitter account, you’ll see someone who embodies Columbus’s sense of community. Over the years, Kress has become an avid supporter of the Linden neighborhood that MAPFRE Stadium calls home. It started with her work with the Crew’s foundation, but her involvement has grown into something more personal. She attends high school soccer and basketball matches, cheering on the Panthers. She has engaged with the students and has truly made herself part of the neighborhood that the Crew calls home. She does these things after work on her own time, not because she has to, but because she wants to. She takes pride in Linden’s successes and its residents.
I thought of all of those kids that Arica roots for and engages with and how they will soon have a premier park and athletic facility right in their own back yard. And how the Crew would still be very much a part of their local community as a result of the training facility. These kids and their neighborhood will not be abandoned by relocation after all, neither to Austin nor even a different part of Columbus.
This plan is so incredibly good.
On my birthday in 2014, as I drove from the east side to the west side in Cleveland, I decided to stop off and visit League Park. The city devoted $6 million to install a new field in the original dimensions, including the 45-foot fence in right field, so the local community could play ball on the exact piece of land that had been home to so much history. The renovation was not yet complete and the park was a few weeks away from re-opening, but a construction worker let me in the gate and onto the field. Sure, it’s fake grass for maintenance and durability reasons, but I stood in the left-handed batter’s box where Babe Ruth hit that 500th homer. And the right-handed batter’s box where Joe DiMaggio got that hit in a 56th consecutive game. I stood on the same mound that Addie Joss threw that perfect game and where Cy Young, Bob Feller, and other greats once toed the rubber. I stood in the area of where Bill Wambsganss turned that unassisted triple play. I went out to shallow center field, which Tris Speaker used to patrol in daring fashion. I looked back toward home plate from the base of the 45-foot fence in right field, imagining the towering shots needed to clear it.
History came alive. I felt so much electricity you’d have thought I was Ray Caldwell, the Indians pitcher who was struck by lightning on the mound at League Park in 1919, then finished the 9th inning after a brief delay to collect himself.
League Park is now home to the Baseball Heritage Museum, public meetings spaces, and that ballfield in the original dimensions. Every time I visit during baseball season, it is in use with youth, high school, and college teams, each of them playing on the identical patch of Earth that had been home to so many historic moments.
And now the field at MAPFRE Stadium will serve the same purpose. Columbus kids in the Linden neighborhood and surrounding communities will play on that field and there will be many memorable ghosts. The place on the field where Jeff Cunningham scored the first goal in stadium history. Where Oguchi Onyewu stared down Mexico’s Jared Borgetti during one of four Dos A Cero classics. Where the Crew won their first trophy. Where Brian Maisonneuve slide-tackled, Pipa chipped goalkeepers, and Dominic Oduro once ate a slice of pizza on the field after scoring a goal. Where Kyle Martino started his career and Eddie Gaven had his ended. Where local kid Danny O’Rourke won a high school championship, a college championship, and then was a starter for the Crew’s MLS Cup championship squad. Where Robert Warzycha buried that golden goal free kick and where Edson Buddle had a four-goal game. Where Seattle’s Tyrone Marshall once dug up the penalty spot while the referee was distracted before a PK. Where Chad Marshall dunked, Justin Meram meat-hooked, and Stern John bagged hat tricks. Where the scoreboard once caught on fire. Where Jon Busch, William Hesmer, and Zack Steffen protected the goal with differing styles and unquestionable success. Where the Deuce Face was made. Where Kirk Urso’s dream came true. Where Alejandro Moreno exhorted his teammates to do what they do, then did what he did. Where Gregg Berhalter bossed the sideline for club prior to country. Where Dante Washington muscled, Ethan Finlay hustled, and Mike Clark tussled. Where Brian McBride and Frankie Hejduk are honored and where Guille graced the grass. Where hometown hero and team captain Wil Trapp scored that ridiculous long-distance game-winning goal in the midst of this most-stressful summer. A goal for Columbus, by Columbus.
Unlike League Park, it won’t need to be rebuilt several decades after the fact. Local ownership, local politicians, and local business leaders saw to it that a locally-located national soccer treasure remains preserved and repurposed for the benefit of the entire community, including sentimental saps like me.
What was once a nightmare scenario is now a massively glorious dream come true.
The Crew’s time at MAPFRE Stadium may be drawing to a close, but like the club it was built for, the historic building will live on in Columbus for generations to come.
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