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: Miller Park
HOME TEAM: Milwaukee Brewers
VISITED: August 31, 2007
CHRONOLOGY: 31st of 34
RANKING: 18th of 34
There was nothing I didn’t like about Miller Park, save for one enormous detail: you had to go indoors to watch baseball. Going indoors to watch baseball is a downer. Place Miller Park outdoors, and I think I’d have loved it.
Instead, it’s consigned to form the foundation of the Liked It A Lot pile or, perhaps, it tops the bunch that could be better if only one enormous detail had been altered. Either way, we’re approaching the halfway mark of the countdown and Miller Park is a good representative for this juncture. See, there’s nothing wrong with going to a ballgame, but if you can make it better, then everything would be right about it.
Miller Park could have been better had they left the roof on the drawing board where it belonged. Of course I’m not the one tromping out to Brewers games in April, happy as hell I’m not getting snowed out. There have been fleeting April moments in the first two seasons of Citi Field when I’ve rethought my instinctive objection to roofs over baseball fields, but then I’ve bucked up, buckled down and shivered Metfully, knowing it was the right thing to do — and that summer would be here eventually. If baseball can be played topless, it’s just better.
The roof was open over Miller Park three late Augusts ago when Stephanie and I returned to town for our third visit. It was appreciated but it didn’t help immensely. Retract all you like, it’s still an auditorium, an arena at best. It’s not a stadium. A stadium exists as an outdoor structure. Miller Park isn’t that.
But it’s about as good as it gets when you factor out that enormous detail.
We like Milwaukee. If you were to ask us to choose a medium-sized Midwestern city in which we’d like to be plopped down if we had to be, we might very well choose that one. It seems livable. It was definitely walkable (if you avoided the dodgier parts of town…which we didn’t). Thanks to a very negotiable grid and a reliable bus system, you don’t get lost without a car (though we did, when I misinterpreted the bus map and guided us into one of the dodgier parts of town). We liked it when we were there to see County Stadium. We liked it when we were there on beverage business and the Brewers were on the road. We liked it in 2007. It figured Miller Park would fit into its likeability equation.
Despite a reservoir of like for Milwaukee from our previous visits, Miller Park wasn’t altogether on our radar during its first six-plus seasons of existence. There was always some city to go where we hadn’t been before. It wasn’t even all that present in our thoughts until midsummer ’07 when I found myself reading accounts from what seemed like every other Mets blogger in the universe about having gone to Milwaukee to follow T#m Gl@v!ne’s quest for his 300th victory (in retrospect, a strange priority). Gl@v!ne didn’t get it there, but I began to feel like a bit of a piker for not having seen this place already. Call it virtual peer pressure — peppered by my own sense of growing stale inside the four walls of my home office — and suddenly I just had to go to Miller Park before Labor Day.
So we went. It was one of the more memorable sojourns we’ve ever taken, not so much for the ballpark but for the adventures surrounding it. For example, we nearly got killed on the way to our hotel. Well, maybe not nearly got killed but our airport shuttle driver was so busy playing tour guide for us and the other couple in his van that he didn’t notice he was about to drive through a barricade and literally off the highway. It’s one of those maneuvers that works a lot better in, say, The Blues Brothers than it does in real life.
The driver was yapping about all the sights we should see. The old lady in the other couple, in town for a World War II reunion, was yapping about Fred Thompson, who had just declared his ultimately sonorous candidacy for president. Stephanie had her earbuds in and was glued to her then new iPod. I was absorbing, from my phone’s prehistoric Web browser, the details of how a game that had been NYM 10 PHI 9 when we landed turned out NYM 10 PHI 11. The only one on the ball, just as he had no doubt been more than 60 years earlier, was the WWII vet husband of the yapping Fred Thompson lady.
“There’s a barricade straight ahead,” he plaintively told the driver just in time for the driver to swerve. The driver admitted he hadn’t seen it — clearly it was the one sight in Milwaukee he hadn’t seen.
We arrived alive at our hotel that Thursday afternoon, but discovered not long after a thriving nest of spiders hovering over our window. It was quite a welcome, and we were still a day away from Miller Park.
The hotel gave us another room and we settled in comfortably from there. We found a brewpub that made sensational root beer. We unearthed one of the last coffee shops in America whose menu still offered Freedom Fries. We reacquainted ourselves with the campus of Marquette University. We discovered Carlos Santana had donated one his Grammys to the Public Museum (leading us to decide Carlos Santana isn’t all that impressed with his Grammys).
Miller Park would be an easy commute from our downtown lodging. There was a bus that stopped practically at our front door. My, how I love public transportation to the ballpark. We got on a mostly empty Wisconsin Avenue bus and figured maybe the Brewers and Pirates on the cusp of Labor Day wasn’t that big a draw, or that only tourists didn’t drive and tailgate. But then we made the Marquette stop and everybody and his fraternity brother got on. The Brewers had some sort of Friday night college student deal, and these college students, barely back for fall semester, were into it. Lots of Brewer jerseys and Brewer caps. Lots of boisterousness. Couldn’t tell whether that was from being young or being Brewers fans.
It was probably a little of both. Our bus pulled into the Miller Park lot, and there was a lot of energy present. The Brew Crew was having its best season in 15 years. It was a holiday weekend. There would be baseball and plenty of beer available. The nighttime sky would be evident from indoors. Even if it was indoors, it was going to be a good time. You could just feel it. Hell, you could smell it, as tailgaters were plying their passion everywhere.
The Brewers built Miller Park next door to County Stadium and made great use of both spaces. County Stadium lives on, sort of, as Helfaer Field, a youth baseball field that was in use as we showed up. What a great idea! Better than paving it over and slapping down five markers and forgetting about it (for example). The area is also commemorated by a tribute to the Milwaukee Braves, original County tenants. Another great idea, remembering those who came before you even if they weren’t your direct descendants. Every Milwaukee N.L. player from 1953 to 1965 is listed out there on the plaza.
For random comparison’s sake, not a single New York N.L. player from 1883 to 1957 is acknowledged as such in any way outside or inside Citi Field, but we’re just little old New York, not history-rich Milwaukee.
Miller Park’s exterior was allegedly influenced by Ebbets Field. I suppose you can see it in the bricks and arches if you’re not looking for a carbon copy of what made Brooklyn famous. It’s attractive, all right, as are the statues for Brewer icons Robin Yount and Hank Aaron. Yount won two MVPs for the Brewers. Aaron played out the last two years of his career alongside the young Yount. He’s bronzed, however, for having begun his journey to 755 home runs as a Milwaukee Brave as much as he is for ending it as a Milwaukee Brewer. As we took pictures of Bad Henry, nobody came by to point out, “He was only a Brewer for two seasons.” Instead, people seemed to embrace their team’s and city’s association with one of the game’s true greats, same as New Yorkers and Mets fans might draw a similar connection to New York Giant, New York Met and baseball legend Willie Mays if he were given similar treatment at the Mets’ ballpark.
There was a memorial for the three workers who died in the construction of the park (involving installation of the roof). There was a Walk of Fame outside the park, honoring Milwaukee greats who were maybe a notch below Yount and Aaron in the local pecking order: Rollie Fingers and Paul Molitor; Cecil Cooper and (don’t laugh) Bud Selig; Bob Uecker (laugh if you like — he’d appreciate it) and a few others. In fact, we had stumbled into Walk of Fame Night. Pregame, on-field ceremonies would honor Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews and GM John Quinn, all from the Braves. It was the 50th anniversary of their only Milwaukee world championship, perfectly synched to the 25th anniversary of the Brewers’ only pennant, from their American League stay. Every Friday night at home, the team was wearing its 1982 unis and giving out miniature bobbleheads. Stephanie and I were handed a pair of Pete Vukoviches — one home and one road.
I never much cared about Brave or Brewer history, but Miller Park drew me in with its tributes and monuments. There were more inside, too. There were displays recognizing Wisconsin-born ballplayers (Tony Kubek sticks out in my recollection). There was one for the All American Girls Professional Baseball League…the Racine Belles were another Wisconsin contribution to the game. Gosh, the Brewers did a great job with this kind of stuff.
They did a great job on fan-friendliness all around. I had a hard time buying a program because they gave them out for free! I eventually found a standard scorecard for my collection and it only cost a dollar! The team store was an attraction unto itself. Merchandise wasn’t free or particularly cheap, but it was plentiful and imaginative. I took home a pair of t-shirts saluting a team for which I never had any affinity. I couldn’t help it.
Stephanie tried to talk me into spending a couple of bucks on a foam Prince Fielder crown — she wanted to take a picture of me in it (Prince, get it?). I declined. I have my limits. Maybe even a shred of dignity.
Oh, and the food! It’s America’s Dairyland, so we had to try the fried cheese curds. I regret to inform you that fried cheese curds are delicious. I regret it because I don’t feel they should be endorsed by a responsible adult. (So much for my shred of dignity.) The nachos, if not exactly a Milwaukee specialty, were as good as I’ve ever had. There was probably a sausage split between me and my wife in there, too. When it came, it did not disappoint. I think it was bratwurst, though I wouldn’t swear to it.
And how can you not order up a beer at Miller Park? Mine was a Leinenkugel Honey Weiss, and honey, it was crisp and refreshing. (The beer vendors were very voluble; the soda vendors seemed almost ashamed they weren’t hawking beer.)
I have the sense I’m leaving something out…maybe it’s the baseball game. Yeah, that’s it. It was good, too, I guess. My interest in the Brewers and Pirates was about what you’d expect from someone who spends next to no time tracking either team in the course of a season. But the folks were into it — more than I would have imagined. Peppy, peppy crowd. J.J. Hardy had a squealing teenybopper rooting section. Yovanni Gallardo won plaudits all around for homering as the starting pitcher. Two fellows invested in customized jerseys that read, when they sat together, “NED YOST WORLD’S BIGGEST CUBS FAN.” Yost’s managerial magic was running out as September approached and rival Chicago was opening a lead. Very Midwestern expression of dismay. Very nice.
The sausage race was as big a deal in person as it was on TV. They hyped that sucker hard. Only two innings away! When it came, it did not disappoint. I think Italian won, though I wouldn’t swear to it.
Oddity of the night: We sat next to a father and son from New York — Mets fans like us. The dad had his mobile device up and running to track the Mets in Atlanta, home of the former Milwaukee Braves. Maybe I should have made an effort to talk to a Brewers fan, but this seemed too fortuitous. We checked in with mets.com now and again to fill in the blanks on the Miller out-of-town scoreboard. Mets won. That I’d swear to.
It was a super fun evening in a really well-conceived facility. The only thing that holds it back from greatness is it’s an indoor facility. We did a 360 walkaround before the game and it drained some of the enthusiasm I’d gathered outside. The curse of the auditorium. Watching the game while it was still light out felt all right, but once it was a nighttime sky, I felt claustrophobic again. I’d wanted a ballpark trip to get away from feeling enclosed. Miller Park needed to breathe. It needed to step outside and make everything feel a little less cold and industrial. It should have been a fantastic showplace for baseball. It almost was.
Stupid retractable roof.
The Brewers won, their fans — even those who doubted Ned Yost’s loyalty — were sated, we gathered our matching Vukoviches and we found the downtown bus right where they said it would be. We gave ourselves one more day in Milwaukee and used it to take an expensive cab ride to the Steak ‘n’ Shake in Wauwatosa (definitely worth it) and then tool around by bus (which is how I briefly got us lost in that dodgy part of town, but didn’t nearly get us killed, though I thought I might; we sort of laugh about it now). All told, a rich weekend for the memory bank. We need to hit the road again one of these summers and take another ballpark vacation; we haven’t done so since this one. But if you have to have one to let linger top of mind until another comes together, you could do a lot worse than Miller Park, roof or no roof.
Monday, July 12 is AMAZIN’ ALL-STAR MONDAY, with Marty Noble and Howard Megdal. Come out to Two Boots Grand Central at 7 PM. It’s in the Lower Dining Concourse of Grand Central Terminal, 42nd Street and Park Avenue, accessible via Metro-North as well as the 4, 5, 6, Times Square Shuttle and, of course, the 7 train. Phone: 212/557-7992. Full details here.