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Metro Bank Park


The new old park on an island

Going back 17 years or so, I've managed to visit the ballpark of the Harrisburg Senators every few seasons. For instance, I was lucky enough to see the monster team that won the Eastern League by 19 games in 1993 and the budding five-tool superstar Vlad Guerrero in '96.

When I walked into Metro Bank Park in August 2010, though, I was absolutely convinced that I'd never seen the place before.

Ballpark Stats

Team: Harrisburg Senators of the Class AA Eastern League
First game after renovation: April 15, 2010, a 6-5 win over New Britain
Capacity: 7,600
Architect: 360 Architecture
Price:  $48 million
Home dugout:  First base side
Field points: South
Betcha didn't know:The original ballpark opened here in 1987. It was known then as Riverside Stadium

Gone were the ugly poles that created obstructed views. Gone was the homely outfield fence. Gone was the woebegone left-field entry. Gone were the cheap-looking aluminum bleachers.

In their place was a gorgeous, modern, comfortable baseball park. It was still right there in the middle of City Island, with the Susquehanna River flowing on all sides ... but my brain told me that I'd never been here before.

Here's what happened. The city of Harrisburg knew its baseball facility had fallen way, way behind in the ballpark arms race. After several fits and starts, a $48 million renovation project was planned, and an all-star group from 360 Architecture did the design. That group included John Eyler as the Project Manager, Ron Gans as the Project Designer and Jeff Verkamp was the Project Architect. 360, I should point out, did incredible work on both Huntington Park (Columbus, OH) and BB&T Ballpark (Winston-Salem, NC), both of which were honored as our Ballparks of the Year. They know what they're doing ... and, frankly, I think Metro Bank Park represents some of their finest work!

Phase I of the project was completed for the 2009 season, and it included a gorgeous new scoreboard in right field and, for the first time, a 360-degree concourse. The walkway around the outfield, dubbed the Capital BlueCross Boardwalk, really is like a boardwalk at Coney Island or Ocean City, as there are elevated wooden planks all the way around, with lots of fun stops along the way.

The heavy-lifting phase, though, was Phase II. Done between the end of the 2009 season and opening day of 2010 (and The Age Of Strasburg -- more on that in a minute), this featured the replacement of virtually every seating section, 20 sky boxes, three field-level suites, a kids zone and a whole host of other improvements ... all while making the flood-prone ballpark more water proof.

In essence, a new ballpark. It's in the same place, but it feels nothing like the same place.

Let's take a look at the beautiful butterfly that the caterpillar on the island has become. We'll pay particular attention to "before and after" scenes so you can see for yourself how different things look.

To see huge evidence of the metamorphosis, you need look no further than the main entry area. This is located near the left-field corner, which is the end of the park closest to the parking lots. Up until 2009, it looked like the photo on the left-hand side above. Now it is wonderfully modern (above right). And take a look at the cheesy old box office (below left) and compare it to the ticket windows at this new entry plaza (below right).

This box-office area is part of a new 8,600-square-foot operations building, which now houses a lovely souvenir shop, public restrooms, a concession stand and the team offices.

And while we're talking about the souvenir store (below left), it is an enclosed, air-conditioned area that is nicely arranged and has a first-class counter where you actually purchase the merchandise. And if you think that Stephen Strasburg items aren't a critically important part of their inventory, then you don't know much about baseball. Even though the big righthander only pitched 22 innings for the Senators, he put this franchise (which was fortunate to have this newly renovated facility to accommodate the extra fans and press) on the map.

The star of the renovation, though, has to be what was done with the main stands. All I can say is WOW. The old structure's dumpy grandstand (both pictures below) -- with poles obstructing your view, uncovered, cheap-looking metal risers behind the dugouts and aluminum bleachers down the lines -- simply had to go.

The seating that took the place of that mess is simply stunning.

As you can see in the two photos below, the main bowl has undergone a complete transformation. Except for the fact that there's a roof, this doesn't even resemble what was there before. The press area and broadcast booths are now at the first-base end of the uppermost level (the left-hand shot below was taken from the "working press" area), next to a row of 20 new luxury suites. The seats are now angled at a very nice pitch, reminiscent of the seats behind homeplate in Columbus. There is even a bar area nestled directly behind home.

To accomplish this, almost all of the main-grandstand structure was demolished following the 2009 season. This included the roof. Even though the new roof resembles the old one, it is completely new -- plus the architects felt the roof could accomplish a number of objectives. In addition to "providing coverage over the seating above the cross aisle," said 360's Eyler, "it creates enclosure and drama on the field. It also helps orient the ballpark and gives it a presence on the island."

The new luxury suites deserve special mention because the ones that back to downtown Harrisburg (i.e., on the third-base side of the park) have glass both on the field side and on the entry side (below left). That way you can see the beautiful skyline from within the suite. Very nice idea ... plus being encased in glass helps keep the mayflies out, which are quite prevalent, especially early in the evening (you are right by a river, after all).

Behind the seating bowl is a new elevated concourse, and below it, a less-congested ground-level concourse that features some of the best food in the park. In the area behind home plate, you'll find MoMo BBQ and my favorite, The Spot. The latter features some interesting hot dog concoctions, including the Ollie Dog (below right, with BBQ sauce, bacon, fried onions, pepperjack cheese and ranch dressing).

Another interesting feature is one that is popping up in a number of new parks these days: suites right on the field. In Harrisburg, they are called the Sutliff Dugout Suites, and they are literally adjacent to the third-base dugout (below left). Just behind them, located along the concourse that is under the elevated walkway that connects the entry area in left field and the main grandstands, is an extensive kids area with a number of inflatable attractions. Like all the attractions and concession stands on the ground level, they can be removed easily when floodwaters might be on the way.

Finally, the transformation of the outfield is also very noteworthy. The uninspiring old scoreboard and outfield ad signs (below left) were replaced by a brilliant, high-res color video screen, which is augmented by a ribbon board nearby, and a new, lower fence with a variety of seating options (below right). The boardwalk now lets you walk completely around the park, and there are interesting vantage points and stopovers -- like a cheesesteak stand and barstools along the fence -- all along the way.

Eyler pointed out that even though the boardwalk was "designed out of necessity because of the island’s propensity to flood, it is a connecting design element for the ballpark, taking fans to the balcony, the kids’ play area, the team store and the bar." Plus its elevated location gaives you great views of the action on the field.

I wasn't kidding when I said that Metro Bank Park represents some of 360 Architecture's very best work ... but it didn't just copy design elements from their other projects. "The ballpark is obviously unique in that it sits on a small island in the middle of the Susquehanna River and is a prime focal point from many vantage points in the city," Eyler told me. "Our goal was to incorporate as many aspects of the island’s history and culture as possible, to create a unique ballpark that could only be located in Harrisburg."

Frankly, this "new old" facility came quite close to winning our Ballpark of the Year award for 2010, as it was barely edged out by the stunning exterior and fascinating setting of BB&T Ballpark in Winston-Salem.

So if it's been awhile since you've visited the island in the middle of the Susquehanna River, make a point of coming to see this stunning stadium. Even if you've been to Senators games here before, you'll swear you've never laid eyes on the place.