Chattanooga's AT&T Field is most notable for its location and the overabundance of aluminum used to construct it.
Perched atop "Hawk Hill" in downtown and surrounded by things aplenty, the city’s ballpark didn’t cost the city’s taxpayers a thing as it was privately financed by the minor league team that plays there, which explains the prominent usage of a cheaper material to build it.
The ballpark’s location is responsible for its quirky orientation, as the grandstand extends primarily down the first base and then right field line due to the presence of US 27. The north–south highway is close enough to AT&T Field that nothing of substance could be added alongside its left side.
Meanwhile, the ballpark’s front side is missing a traditional façade. While most ballparks have a visible exterior wall made of brick, concrete or stone of some sort, AT&T Field has a somewhat latticework appearance, as its steel framework remains exposed. Attached upon many of the mid-level beams that cross to from the letter “X” are baseballs, or at least a circular frame in the shape of a baseball. Think of the temporary Christmas decorations that line the main streets of Anytown, USA during the holidays and that’s the décor at Dodgertown, Tennessee, which are the words arched above the entrance gates.
Since 2009 the Lookouts have been the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate, which explains the Dodgertown designation and why the once red baseball cap coverings above the ballpark’s outside escalator were repainted blue following the departure of the Reds, who had a 22-year affiliation with Chattanooga. The escalator takes fans from street level to AT&T Field, which is about a 30-second ride up the hill, and reverses its direction following the game.
Fans are deposited from the escalator onto an open-air plaza, where a few statues depicting ballplaying children are outside of the brick-walled Lookouts’ gift shop. Nearby, another statue, this one of a young boy in his batting stance, has a plaque at its base which reads “AT&T Field was built for the child in all of us."
In reality, AT&T Field was built for the well-heeled. Its predecessor, Engel Stadium, lacked suites and much in the way of modern amenities, which is why the Lookouts left the place that was built in 1930 for a $10 million replacement that opened in 2000 as BellSouth Park but was “rebranded” seven years later following the Baby Bell’s acquisition by AT&T.
In addition to a handful of suites, AT&T Field contains a smaller handful of places that groups can fill up, the most visible of which is directly behind the right field fence. That’s where a covered picnic pavilion wraps around the foul pole. Filled with folding chairs and nothing fancy circular tables, the pavilion is the nicest architectural feature in the ballpark and is the only place from which the winding Tennessee River can be viewed.
Fans sitting elsewhere in the ballpark have a backdrop of trees and mountains. The unique triangular panels that make up the Tennessee Aquarium's roof can be glimpsed from the left side of the park, where seats and fan areas are in short supply. Those sitting on the first base side of the park can glimpse parts of the BlueCross BlueShield “campus” through the trees on the opposite side of US 27, where the multiple buildings that comprise the Tennessee headquarters of the national health insurance company opened in 2009.
For a ballpark to be a memorable place it needs a healthy dose of creativity, the more locally inspired the better. AT&T Field fills that prescription with its version of the Chattanooga Choo Choo, which was actually unveiled in 1995 at Engel Stadium and makes an appearance whenever a Lookouts batter homers. When that happens a replica locomotive emerges from behind the right-center field wall to chug its way down an elevated track, billowing smoke while the batter circles the bases.
Encircling the outer limits of the playing field is a synthetic warning track that was installed by Chattanooga-based Competition Athletic Surfaces in time for the 2010 season. The running track-type surface replaced the traditional dirt warning track, but the retaining wall that surrounds the non-outfield portion of the playing field has a look that traditionalists will appreciate, as it’s built with brick a la Wrigley Field.
But the field-level brick wall is an aberration from the aluminum that most of AT&T Field was built with. Aluminum was used to construct the press box and suites, the roof over them, and the upper portion of the grandstand, which is primarily filled with bleacher benches with backs, although a few rows of stadium chairs are bolted into the aluminum base.
The lower portion of the grandstand has a concrete foundation but a much more limited number of seats, although all are actual green in color stadium seats.
The aisle that bisects the grandstand is the official line of demarcation between concrete (lower) and aluminum (upper) based seating and is entered from a main concourse that is behind and beneath the grandstand.
For a newer stadium sightlines are surprisingly substandard, specifically behind home plate, where the grandstand has some odd angles, and especially for anyone sitting past the first base dugout, where views of the right field corner are blocked by the inward banking grandstand.
While many sightlines are poor, shade is nonexistent regardless of where you sit within the unsymmetrical grandstand, which runs from even with the third base dugout to well down the right field line, as the ballpark’s roof covers only the seats that belong to suite holders. Four oversized ceiling fans hang from the roof but do little to improve air flow.
Perhaps the most airy area of the ballpark is wedged into the right field corner between the grandstand and picnic pavilion, but the large field-level patio that’s there is also a sanctuary for smokers.
Nearby, a lounge with glass sliding doors and corrugated aluminum siding occupies space at the end of the right field line grandstand that was vacant when the ballpark opened. The barebones building, referred to as the "stadium club" by the team, is fronted by a small porch that offers umbrella covered seating. Within the lounge is found the best selection of beer within the ballpark, while the sole creative cuisine at AT&T Field is found on its premises. The ballpark’s concourse-based concession stands have limited offerings that are about as lame as you’ll find in the minor leagues, regardless of level.
Chattanooga’s obscured from the playing field concourse is best known for being the home of the Lookouts’ air-conditioned gift shop and for having a wooden sculpture of the team’s mascot, Looie, on it near one of the entrance portals. If you look closely at the statue of Looie you’ll notice that the bat he is holding is cracked but held together with a nail, which is a clever nod to the long ago method employed by “bat doctors,” as players who fixed their broken lumber in a similar manner were known.
On an elevated platform that’s just to the left of the left field foul pole is a reminder of another bygone era, as a man stationed there mans a cannon during the game and fires away following Lookouts’ homers and victories. Cannons like the replica at AT&T Park were used in the Battle of Lookout Mountain, an 1863 Civil War skirmish that was fought atop the nearby mountain for which the team is named.
A hodgepodge of stuff resides down the left field line, where a 42-foot high screen had to be erected to protect the steady stream of traffic on US 27 from wayward foul balls. Among the offerings are an elevated beer garden, a small set of bleachers and a sizeable picnic area. There’s also plenty of empty space at field level, where fans can stand behind the tarp that’s stationed near third base.
The outfield is home to four score/marquee boards. The main one stands in left field and has an average-sized video screen and line score. A monochrome board in left-center displays the speed of each pitch. In right-center a pair of mini boards scroll through two lines of text, none of which is game related.
The bullpens for each team are behind the outfield walls. A half panel of walling has been removed in each of their respective locations so the pitchers can watch the game, which the visitors do from left field and the Lookouts do from left-center.
Both dugouts are topped with turf. The Lookouts’ resides on the first base side of the field.
Behind the seats behind the visitors’ third base side dugout is a tent, which if used as intended would join the choo choo train in memorable uniqueness. Within the tent is a barber’s chair, which like the train is a holdover from Engel Stadium’s days. The team rents the chair on a full season basis to any local barber who wants to carry on a distinctively Chattanooga tradition, but there haven’t been any takers since 2008. So the ballpark barber shop has been converted into just another beer and beverage stand and no hair is cut in the chair that’s still there.
Likewise, Engel Stadium is still where it always has been, which is roughly 1.7 miles southeast of AT&T Field. Rightfully referred to as “Historic Engel Stadium” on its exterior signage, the brick built beauty still hosts an occasional ballgame and has served as the home field for Tennessee Temple University since the Lookouts left.
Two years after they moved, the Lookouts claimed in their souvenir program that their corporate sponsored ballpark was responsible for the rejuvenation of "the spirit of baseball lost in historic Engel Stadium." But such a bold statement was more boosterism than a matter of fact, as a decade worth’s of attendance numbers have proven. In its inaugural 10-year period, BellSouth Park/AT&T Field averaged 251,550 fans per season. In the Lookouts’ final 10 seasons at Engel the average was 235,109.
So essentially baseball’s rejuvenation in Chattanooga has amounted to only an additional 235 fans per game (the average 16,441 per season surplus divided by a 70-game home schedule). That number isn’t very impressive and neither is AT&T Field, which excels in the all-important areas of location, location and location but has a cheap feel because of its omnipresent aluminum, less than appealing façade and concourse that’s situated behind a bleacher dominated grandstand.
To be fair, financial efficiency had to be an important factor in the feasibility of constructing a completely privately funded ballpark, which the Lookouts did. So kudos must be given to the team, who spared their market from the financial burden most franchises place upon local governments, and often the taxpaying public, in theirs.
But the cost cutting measures that were undertaken to make AT&T Field a reality have made it a ho-hum place on the ballpark landscape, which is a little ironic since the Lookouts earned a creative high mark for developing a quirky, cool, consumer friendly logo before such things became en vogue.
Although it has a bell and whistle attached to its home run celebrating choo choo train, AT&T Field can’t quite match the belles and whistles found within its 21st century-built ballpark brethren, which means that fans who choose to celebrate the national pastime in Chattanooga do so in a ballpark that's more functional than cutting edge.
Location and Parking
From its hilltop location, AT&T Field looms over downtown Chattanooga, which is nicknamed the Scenic City due to its own elevated and mountainous environs. The city center of the mid-size Southern city has an elevation of 676 feet and the ballpark rises above what is Tennessee's fourth largest city thanks to its placement upon Hawk Hill, which gives AT&T Field a unique urban setting and one that overlooks the Tennessee River and the assorted buildings that collectively revitalized Chattanooga's near the riverfront downtown. Chief among the area's attractions are the Tennessee Aquarium
, the IMAX Theatre
near it, and the Creative Discovery
(children's science) Museum
that's just down the hill from the ballpark.
Combined with numerous shops, restaurants and bars, Chattanooga has transformed itself into a popular regional weekend getaway tourist destination and two hotels, a Hilton Garden Inn and Residence Inn by Marriott, are ideally situated at the base of the ballpark to lodge some of those visitors, many of whom make the approximately 120-mile drive up from Atlanta. AT&T Field and downtown Chattanooga are just 8½ miles from the Georgia state line. Tennessee's second largest city and its state capital, Nashville, is only a 135-mile drive up I-24, the interstate that weaves its way through Chattanooga and comes within about 2 miles of AT&T Field, which is next to and serviced by US-27.
Because of its location, AT&T Field doesn't have an official parking lot. Instead, there is a drop-off circle outside of the main entrance, where a very limited number of handicapped spaces can be found. The only other parking available up the hill is reserved for staff and media members and their gravel and grass lot is wedged between the ballpark and US-27. Downhill and downtown parking is plentiful and ranges in price from $2 to $7. The cheapest option is the surface street lot behind right field while the more visible and numerous multi-story garages are on the more expensive end of the parking price spectrum.
When you spend a long time in a place that place becomes old, is considered outdated and eventually is abandoned. Such was the plight of Chattanooga's historic Engel Stadium, where teams bearing the Lookouts moniker first played in 1930.
Engel Stadium received a $2 million renovation that was finished in time for 1989, but just a decade later the Lookouts played their final game in the stadium, which the team left behind due a lack of amenities and a less than desirable location, combined with escalating maintenance costs.
Such an economically combustible combination was responsible for the abandonment of many ballparks at the tail end of the 20th century. In 1999 alone Tennessee had three that would see their final season of minor league baseball, as Bill Meyer Stadium (Knoxville) and Tim McCarver Stadium (Memphis) joined Engel Stadium on the abandoned ballparks list.
Engel’s addition to the list was made possible by the very public who had filled it for so long, as the Lookouts launched an "if you come, we will build it" campaign in November of 1998. The meaning behind the motto was a challenge. Simply, if 1,800 season tickets and 10 luxury box rentals were purchased over a three-month period then Lookouts ownership would privately fund a new ballpark to replace the then 68-year old one.
In their history, the Lookouts had never sold more than 800 season tickets but their goal was reached on January 28, 1999. Construction on the promised new stadium began in May. Four months later BellSouth officially bought stadium naming rights. The speculated $1 million they paid helped the Lookouts’ owners offset a fraction of the $10 million they spent on building BellSouth Park on land that had long been owned by Kirkman Technical High School, which closed in 1991 after a 63-year presence in the city.
Two years after the school closed the RiverCity Company, a non-profit downtown do-good developer, purchased all of Kirkland’s property. Their land grab included the hilltop athletic fields that had been home to the school's sports teams, which were nicknamed the Hawks. While Kirkland’s buildings were quickly demolished to make way for commercial redevelopment, little was done to or planned for the choice parcel of land known as Hawk Hill until the Lookouts made it their relocation destination.
RiverCity, however, was looking for a business with year-round clout. But with the help of influential philanthropist Jack Lupton, who donated millions to revitalize downtown Chattanooga, the Lookouts got their chosen land and on April 1, 2000 the first professional ballgame was played atop Hawk Hill, although it involved two out of town major league teams christening the minor league facility.
With former President and Yale first baseman George Bush on hand, and using his left one to toss the ceremonial first pitch, the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds wrapped up their spring trainings by playing the inaugural game at BellSouth Park. An overflow crowd of 6,512 saw the Orioles’ beat the Lookouts’ then major league affiliate 8-3. Baltimore back-up catcher Greg Myers hit the first home run in ballpark history, but severely strained his left hamstring while swinging. Myers slowly made his way around the bases, limped back to the dugout and ended up on the disabled list. But at least he made history.
Nine days later, the Lookouts finally made some history of their own by beating the Birmingham Barons, 5-4, in their inaugural opener at BellSouth Park, which would maintain that name through the 2006 season, after which the Park became a Field to reflect an acquisition by AT&T of BellSouth. The Lookouts won the first game at the rechristened AT&T Field when they defeated the Montgomery Biscuits, 6-3, on April 11, 2007.