Willie Mays or AT&T


February 7, 2006


Browse in Advertising

Before Elvis, before the Beatles, way before Michael Jordan, there was Willie Mays. Willie was new. He was cool. The face on his baseball card was coltish and fresh, not like the grim old guys of our fathers’ generation. His cap had a cocky peak; the brim curved down past his temples. We curved our little league caps like that. Late into the summer night, we practiced his amazing, back-to-the-plate catch in the 1954 World Series, as he raced into the depths of center field at the Polo Grounds.

That’s where Willie played, the Polo Grounds, in Harlem. The place actually started out as a field for polo. Newspapers called it the polo grounds, and over time the capitals crept in — the Polo Grounds. That’s how stadium names happened back then – from the ground up, as expressions of locality and place. Sometimes they came from family names of local owners, such as Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Sometimes they came from the place itself, such as Boston’s Fenway Park.

But they were grounded in place. You heard Polo Grounds and you knew where you were. There actually were four different versions of that ballpark. But the name remained because it was what names traditionally have been – an identity, and a form of connection between people and a place.

Then the Giants moved to San Francisco, where they played in Candlestick Park, so named for Candlestick Point on the San Francisco Bay. It was hard to think of Willie in those cold winds rather than the loose hot New York summers. But he never lost his flair and joy; and now of course he’s in the Hall of Fame.

In 2000 the Giants moved to a new park at China Basin, also on the bay but closer to downtown, and less windy. It was in the corporate retro style of Camden Yards in Baltimore, a new park built like an old one, every quirk carefully designed. It was a success by all reports, except for one thing. The new field didn’t have a place name. It had a corporate name – Pac Bell Park – which made it sound like an office complex rather than a place to watch a ball game.

Then Pac Bell became the SBC Corporation, and the name of the field changed accordingly. Now SBC has bought what remains of AT&T, which was once its parent; and the name of the ball field must change again. With the Polo Grounds, the structure changed but the name remained. Now the structure remains but the name changes constantly, with the rootless contrivances of corporate finance.

In San Francisco, a group of fans saw the latest name change as an opportunity — for the team and for the city, and ultimately for the corporate publicity-seeker as well. Why not name the place Willie Mays Field? The name would say Giants, and San Francisco. It would bring a song to every ball fan’s heart. SBC, or AT&T, or whatever it calls itself, would become a good guy company, a corporate hero. Grabbing less, it would get much more by way of recognition and good will.

The fans created a web site, www.maysfield.org. They sold tee shirts to raise money, and they launched a petition drive. There were columns in the local papers, and even a comic strip. I know of no one who opposed Mays Field. Is there anyone who actually wants their local ballpark to be named after a telecom giant that, as it encloses the identity of the park, at the same time wants to erect a similar corporate wall around our internet?

The fans offered a compromise: Mays Field at AT&T Park. Win-Win, as they say. Something like that happened in Boston, where the Boston Garden became the Fleet (Bank) Center, which then became the TD Banknorth Garden. Mile High Stadium in Denver became Invesco Field at Mile High. Lame as such amalgams are, they at least recognize that sports venues aren’t just corporate billboards. They inhabit places with histories and these matter.

But in San Francisco even that much is not to be. The Giants have announced that Pac Bell Park which became SBC Park now will become AT&T Park. Instead of Willie loping in center, they have chosen to evoke telemarketing calls at dinner time. In a side deal, the right field section will become Levi’s Landing, under a “strategic partnership” with the Levi Strauss company in which the latter will pay one million dollars a year for six years. “It’s really a brain dead decision,” said Daniel Ben-Horin, a founder of the Mays Field movement, “bad for fans, bad for the Giants and bad even for AT&T.”

But Ben-Horin isn’t giving up. The Giants might own the park, and AT&T the naming rights. But neither of them owns the language, nor the words that come out of our mouths. We can call the place by whatever name we want. We can call it Willie Mays Field and if they don’t like it, tough. If enough of us do that, then it will be Willie Mays Field no matter what the moneychangers say. Here’s how Ben-Horin put it:

“What we the proverbial people, call the park is up to us. Maybe we’ve planted a seed that will take root. Maybe dads and moms will say to their kids, ‘Let’s go to Mays Field for a game today,’ and a whole generation will grow up calling the park by its rightful name. I know mine will…I’m looking forward to a biplane flyover during a game and everyone getting up and chanting ‘Mays Field.’”

Say hey. So am I. And why stop there? If we live in Boston we can talk about the “Garden”, if in Denver “Mile High”. (The Denver Post actually said it would refer to the new stadium that way, if it was called simply Invesco Field. Most people in Denver liked Mile High, the paper said, so that’s what it would call it.) If we live in Detroit we still can call where the Tigers play “Briggs”, regardless of the corporate name, which I can’t remember anyway.

Why not? What’s stopping us? The ability to name is the ability to define. When we take back the names of local places, we start to reclaim the places themselves.

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