Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Comiskey Park (New)
LATER KNOWN AS: U.S. Cellular Field
FIRST VISITED: July 31, 1994
CHRONOLOGY: 11th of 34
RANKING: 27th of 34
New Comiskey Park may have ultimately suffered from bad timing, but it represented good timing for me. It had the temporal luck to be open and hosting a ballgame at the outset of a four-day span in which Stephanie and I set out to see three baseball games in three different baseball facilities. A trip like that requires pinpoint precision, and we benefited from it: New Comiskey on a Sunday, County Stadium on Monday, Wrigley Field on Wednesday. It became known in family lore as Chicago-Milwaukee-Chicago.
It’s probably not that rare a triple play to pull off for the ballpark-ambitious, but in the summer of 1994, we needed to have our timing down, for if we were to try this, say, two weeks later, we’d have been severely out of luck. The baseball strike that killed one season’s World Series and wrecked another’s Spring Training went into effect a little more than a week after we executed C-M-C to perfection. It was no fun to have no baseball to watch from August 12 on in ’94, but at least we had our memories of the baseball we immersed ourselves in from July 31 through August 3.
Memories being what they are, New Comiskey was going to have a tough time competing, both for my affections and aficionado l acceptance. That’s where bad timing came in. New Comiskey showed up a year before Camden Yards. Camden Yards changed everybody’s idea of what a ballpark could be. New Comiskey came off, after a year as the new kid on the block, as the last dinosaur out of town. It had opened as a stadium that by not being multipurpose, by installing grass and by including a few touches toward the nostalgic figured it was a legitimate step up from the concrete circles of ’60s and ’70s.
Camden Yards blew that equation out of the water. State-of-the-art changed from 1991 to 1992. Oh, so THAT’S what a ballpark can be was the consensus across America. And if Baltimore was the Ball Ideal, then what was left on the South Side of Chicago?
Not Camden Yards. In a nutshell, that was half of its problem. It wasn’t human-sized. It wasn’t charming. It didn’t integrate itself into the fabric of its neighborhood or its city. Nobody much thought about this stuff before Camden Yards, certainly not me, but now I was acutely aware of it. I’d read up voraciously on OP@CY since it opened and in April of ’94 I made my first pilgrimage there. It meant New Comiskey was not the ballpark you wanted to discover after Camden Yards.
New Comiskey also suffered in comparison to Old Comiskey. It was impossible for me to shake off the “New” distinction, because Old Comiskey, which thrived for 81 seasons in what was now New Comiskey’s parking lot, was the real thing. I spent one evening there five years earlier and it made quite an impression. It may or may not have been falling apart as White Sox ownership claimed (while they demanded a new luxury-laden stadium, lest they vamoose to St. Petersburg), but damn was it real. This Comiskey, the one that devoured its predecessor, couldn’t help but feel synthetic.
For example, Comiskey’s arches represented legendary ballpark architecture. New Comiskey attempted to mimic them, but the fakery felt Disneyesque, and not in the seamless fashion Disney makes Disneyesque work in its theme parks. On paper, trying to recreate the arches probably seemed like a respectful or at least comforting nod to the Comiskey of yore. In the corporate present, however it served only as a reminder that Progress had just kicked the living daylights out of the Past.
So if New Comiskey wasn’t Comiskey and it wasn’t Camden, what was it? It was too high. That’s what we’d heard going in, and we weren’t disavowed of the notion once we left. Capacity was in the low 40,000s, but the upper deck negated any notion of intimacy. Original Comiskey, by dint of posts, kept the upper deck within striking distance of the field of play. Cantilevering (one of those words I learned when I was having my ballpark-consciousness raised in the early ’90s) removed such obstructions, but there was now the chance your view of the game would be blocked by a bird. The last row of the last tier the old park, I’d read, was closer to home plate than the first row of the last tier of the new park. I believe it.
No kidding, it was high and steep up there. I was a veteran of the Shea upper deck, but that was a dash up the steps next to New Comiskey. Bring water. Bring a guide. Bring oxygen.
Maybe don’t bring your wife on a 90-degree day, particularly when she is averse to glaring sun and has left her Mets cap in New York. (One adjustable White Sox cap never to be worn again: $15.)
The happy part of this, I suppose, is the park was crowded and their fans were enthused by the home team’s play. The White Sox were in first place and headed for the playoffs for a second consecutive season…except there would be no playoffs in 1994, darn it. It was widely known on July 31 that baseball was likely headed for doom — beloved organist Nancy Faust played Christmas carols that morning, which was something she usually did on the final home Sunday of the year. The White Sox would be on the road the following weekend. This was, in essence, their Closing Day. Consciously or not, no matter how far up they sat (and it was remarked again and again by the locals who had climbed to our vicinity that “boy, this is high”), they were into their team and their game.
That’ll make any ballpark feel genuine.
An added element to the excitement was the prospective “showdown” between arguably the sport’s two top young players, Frank Thomas of the White Sox and Ken Griffey of the Mariners. I had never seen either and, by the end of the day, I still hadn’t seen Griffey. He was given the day off, his first and only DNP of 1994. Thomas went 1-for-2, but the real star of the day was Lance Johnson, who hit a game-breaking grand slam in the sixth. When the same Lance Johnson became a free agent following the 1995 season, I insisted the Mets get him based almost entirely on that swing on that one hot Chicago afternoon.
The White Sox won easily. We cooled off eventually, about the time we were back in our downtown hotel room watching ESPN rerun the Hall of Fame ceremonies — it was the same day Bob Murphy received the Ford C. Frick Award in Cooperstown. Unlike Murph, New Comiskey wasn’t great, which wouldn’t have been a concern before Camden and the destruction of true Comiskey, but it did have baseball on a Sunday. By the middle of August, such simple summer pleasures would be unavailable to us.
A second visit materialized in 1999. Also hot, but a night game. I was in Chicago on business and got in touch with my friend Jeff, who didn’t much care for the White Sox (Indians fan by birth, Cubs fan by proximity), but a ballgame was a ballgame. This was a Monday night, and at New Comiskey in late of July of ’99, upper deck seats were five bucks apiece. “But I’m not sitting in the upper deck,” Jeff announced with uncharacteristic entitlement. He explained to me that these days, with the White Sox no longer exciting too many people, they weren’t about to kick you out of seats you didn’t pay for. Quite casually, I followed his lead into perfectly lovely and unoccupied field level seats behind first base. No way we could have done that at Shea.
It was a better view down there for sure. It was actually quite nice. A little generic, but not at all overwrought as it had seemed five years earlier. They’d been making improvements at New Comiskey in response to the generally negative reviews it had gotten and would continue to renovate well into the next decade (best improvement: the addition of a 2005 world championship banner). This time I had a chance to explore the lower concourse which was mall-ish, but not necessarily offensive. There was a neat little museum tucked away and an adequate slice of pizza to be found at the Old Roman stand. You could even see where Nancy Faust worked her magic.
If the only New Comiskey I saw was the New Comiskey I saw the second time around — from ground level, beneath the luxury boxes, removed from the incline above — I might have thought less harshly of it all along. And if I were judging it from one particular at-bat, I’d think it was greatest ballpark ever.
It’s the bottom of the second. Pat Hentgen is pitching for the Blue Jays. Leading off the inning for the White Sox is Carlos Lee, a rookie of some promise. As someone chronically unfamiliar with the American League, he is mystery to me. Yet he is about to become a household word, for Carlos Lee fouls one back to the first base side.
And it lands in our section.
And it rolls under a seat to my left, one row in front of me.
And the guy sitting in front of me reaches for it, but he can’t grasp it.
And I reach for it. And I do grasp it.
FOUL BALL! I GOT A FOUL BALL!
It was the only foul ball I ever got at a major league game. I had been to 160 games at Shea to that point, but never got a damn thing. The closest I’d ever come, actually, was at Old Comiskey ten years earlier.
You’d think this would cause my affection for New Comiskey to soar to upper deck levels, and in a way it did. Nevertheless, the image of picking up the foul ball is countered by the other image I maintain from that evening. It was generated when Jeff and I were making our way to the ticket windows where we were about to spend five dollars on seats we wouldn’t sit in. It was in the parking lot. I hadn’t seen it in 1994.
“Look,” he said.
There it was, a quiet five-sided marker.
COMISKEY PARK 1910-1990 HOMEPLATE
It was flanked by two batter’s boxes. Stemming from them were two white lines that stretched out forever. Progress won. Here’s where the battle ended.
The Carlos Lee foul ball still makes me smile. The Comiskey Park marker, however, can still move me toward tears.