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: The Ballpark in Arlington
LATER KNOWN AS: Ranger Ballpark in Arlington
HOME TEAM: Texas Rangers
VISITED: May 31, 1997
CHRONOLOGY: 18th of 34
RANKING: 17th of 34
I meant it as a compliment. In my head, it was a compliment. When it was spoken, however, I could see where it could be taken otherwise.
It was a late inning in my one and only visit to the Ballpark in Arlington, an event that took some doing on the part of myself and others to pull off. The key player in putting me in my seat was my wife’s cousin Lisa. She lived in Arlington and prevailed upon her employer to provide us — me and Stephanie, Lisa, her husband Todd and their infant daughter — with the company box, which was nine rows from the field between home and first. Lisa asked how I was enjoying the experience. I was enjoying it a great deal and told her so…in my own way:
“I’d say this is my ninth-favorite ballpark!”
Lisa was actually a little offended. She called me a “ballpark snob”. I tried to explain, no, you don’t understand, ninth-favorite isn’t bad at all. It means I like it more than nine others I’ve seen and, really, almost as much as eight others. The game went on and, fortunately, it didn’t become too touch a bone of contention as our weekend continued amiably enough.
This, though, is the problem of those of us who chronically rank things we like. We like all of it, but some of it we’re going to like a bit more. There’s no shame in being No. 9 of 18, as the Ballpark in Arlington was when I was in the midst of it, just as it speaks well that with 34 ballparks now in the books, it’s still in the top half. Calling something your 17th-favorite may sound like faint praise, but let’s be clear: it is praise.
I come to praise the Ballpark in Arlington despite it having become, in the years that have followed, a symbol for a type that is not so flattering. Every time a team builds a ballpark that goes the retro route yet fails to take into consideration that ballparks from the golden era of the early 20th century resonated because they were a component of a community, I think it’s another Arlington situation. The Ballpark in Arlington is as striking as can be, but there’s no escaping its contrived nature. It’s basically in the middle of nowhere, at least nowhere where a stylish, red-bricked ballpark would look most at home.
You know how Citi Field is sort of like that? The Ballpark in Arlington is exactly like that. It’s the original Ye Olde Ballpark attraction planted in a parking lot off a highway. Even if the highway is the Nolan Ryan Expressway, it feels cut off from the kind of baseball tradition it aches to evoke. You can’t approach TBIA and not be conscious how far you really are from anything having to do with it.
The good news is once you get close and then inside it, your ballpark snobbery fades because even if it is a bit of a baseball theme park, it happens to be a very good baseball theme park. And though those of us who value integrated neighborhood aesthetics and all that might be put off by a ballpark whose immediate community is a vast parking lot, it’s Arlington, Texas. Where else are they gonna put the darn thing?
They had to invent a little tradition on the fly down there. TBIA’s bloodlines didn’t stretch back to a Forbes Field or a Shibe Park. Its daddy was Arlington Stadium, described not altogether unlovingly by former Fort Worth Star-Telegram Rangers beat writer Mike Shropshire in The Last Real Season as “half-ass, backwoods, pissant little”. The Rangers’ first home was a converted minor league ballpark first called Turnpike Stadium. It didn’t look like much on TV and apparently it didn’t much impress the locals, either.
TBIA, on the other hand, was one of those parks that, when it opened (for a Mets at Rangers exhibition, of all things), I knew I had to see for myself. It was beautiful on television. Remember, this was April 1994, a mere two years after Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Retro wasn’t yet a trend. You might say that by being the second of its kind — it and Jacobs Field, which also opened in ’94 — TBIA made retro a trend.
All I knew was Arlington seemed a million miles from Long Island and I would need a good excuse to make a trip there. You don’t just go to Arlington, I decided. I needed to be sent there.
Enter a fine institution called the Dr Pepper Museum in Waco. Those good folks (genuine sweethearts) were dedicating the W.W. “Foots” Clements Free Enterprise Institute on the last weekend in May of 1997. Foots Clements was one of the guiding lights in the growth of the carbonated soft drink industry and he was going to be there along with other company and area dignitaries. The beverage magazine for which I worked, as title sponsor of the Soft Drink Hall of Fame — housed in the museum — needed to be represented. With the Rangers home the very same weekend, and Arlington a mere 80 miles north of Waco, who do you think was going to represent us?
Well, that took care of getting me to Texas. I’d have to spring for Stephanie’s airfare, but that was doable. As far as tickets to the Rangers, which were in demand at the time, Cousin Lisa took care of the rest. Not only that, but she and Todd were gracious enough to invite us to stay over. I’d never met either of them and Stephanie hadn’t seen Lisa since some long ago summer in Kansas when they were in high school. I’ve almost never been a houseguest and offered a dozen times to find a motel for the portion of the trip I couldn’t expense, but, no, I was told, we were family.
Who knew there were baseball-related benefits to being related to people you’d never heard of before?
We flew into Dallas on a Thursday night and (with characteristic trepidation) drove to Waco Friday ahead of a tornado. Earlier that month, a twister somewhere between the two cities had left a trail of death and destruction. I was aware it could happen again. I was also aware I suddenly had tickets for the Rangers and Royals. In other words, what tornado?
Our professional commitment in Waco was twofold: a black-tie dinner on Friday night and a ribbon-cutting on Saturday morning. The company that owned my magazine staked me to my very own Sy Syms tuxedo for the formal occasion (it hangs in my closet to this day). I was more casually dressed for the dedication when somebody told me to get on stage, I was going to be one of the ribbon-cutters. Surprising the things that make you nervous — I was almost done snipping my portion before the actual dignitaries began theirs. I pledged to take it slower next time I’m asked to cut a ribbon, but I haven’t been asked yet.
Eating dinner in a fancy suit, using a scissors and partaking in a post-ribbon Dr Pepper float — vanilla ice cream plus Dr Pepper; you won’t be sorry — was not the toughest assignment I ever put in for. Even the 80-mile car trip to Arlington didn’t throw me. We were making such good time that I acceded to Stephanie’s request to pull off I-35 when she spied an outlet mall. She was excited by the Fossil store. I was floored by a designer name, and not because I suddenly craved more formal wear.
JONES NEW YORK, the sign said. Not being much of a fashionista, I’d never seen it or heard of it before. After beating Pedro Martinez and the Expos three nights earlier, the only JONES NEW YORK I cared about — righty ace Bobby Jones — raised his record to 9-2 and lowered his ERA to 2.32. Deep in the heart of Texas, I thought, they have a store dedicated to our best pitcher!
If they were advertising the greatness of Bobby Jones, we couldn’t have been to far from the Met-roplex, and sure enough, we were in Arlington, at the cousins, soon enough. Lovely people, Todd and Lisa. Todd had been in the Air Force. Was stationed in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. They had a chunk of it in the garage if we wanted to see it. They were so cavalier about it, I said, nah, that’s OK. Their newborn daughter was quite precious. They had two adorable kitties, to boot, they were going ignored since the baby came along. As cat people, we were able to make up for the lack of doting.
I never knew a thing about Arlington except it was where the Rangers played since moving to Texas from Washington in 1972. I’m not sure I know anything about it after visiting it. Our cousins drove us the short distance to the ballpark and it looked like any suburb in America with strip malls and whatnot, but I did find it pretty cool that you could live in the same specific town as your team if your team played in an offshoot of its metropolitan area. Arlington equaled Flushing in my mind in that regard.
I suppose I could live in Flushing, or at least Corona; there are weeks I’m not sure why I don’t.
Lisa and Todd were quite amused, as the car radio played the kind of tunes you might expect to hear in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and they asked, “you hear a lot of country music in New York?” and I responded that we used to have a country station. The amusing part to them was that it was a country station, singular.
Everybody was all-out affable as we arrived in the vast parking lot, which is not a bad thing to have in a place where there is no 7 train. The stadium’s exterior was a beauty. I’d only been to Texas twice before, so I couldn’t say for sure, but I decided it had a very Texan feel to it, according the New Yorker who didn’t even have a country station to call his own. I loved the effect of arches and shadows and nostalgia as we entered. It wasn’t nostalgia for the Rangers perhaps (Shropshire, in Seasons in Hell, on the previous place: “Arlington Stadium bestowed about as much big league magic as a Wal-Mart store”), but it was old-timey…or lived up to our collective sense of what old-timey is.
I explained to our gracious hosts that I had certain rituals I needed to perform in the coming minutes, none of which were pagan (lest they wonder about us New Yorkers). I needed to walk around a lot and take a lot of pictures. I needed to spend quality time in the team store, a feature that amazed me since Shea didn’t have one. I needed a program for my collection. As this was my eighteenth ballpark, the process had become pretty institutionalized. Lisa said go right ahead, we made sure to get here plenty early so you could do whatever you wanted.
What a considerate cousin my wife has! I guess respect for/indulgence of my baseball Jones, as well as my Bobby Jones, runs in the family.
I did explore. I secured my program as well as a t-shirt (which I still have — the oldest in my rotation) and a discounted 1996 A.L. West champions Rangers cap. I had really wanted a Rangers cap in 1975 when I discovered they were sold at Shea Stadium, but my mother decided I wasn’t worthy of one and rejected my request. Twenty-two years later, I grabbed the makegood. (Though I bore the grudge for more than two decades, I discarded the cap in 2004…but I still have that tux.) I took in all the odd, built-in nooks and crannies that were there simply for the sake of being nookish and crannyesque. It may be pretentious to pretend you’re accommodating for crazy geographic quirks in a parking lot, but at TBIA, it didn’t make them any less charming. The whole stadium was a conglomeration of greatest hits from other parks: a bit of Tiger Stadium here, some Fenway style there, a sense of Wrigley and Camden…and even Shea; I saw a guy wearing a HUSKEY 42 jersey.
Like I said, very attractive overall, especially the out-of-town scoreboard — the Mets beat the Phillies 10-3 and I let out a Texas-sized hoot and a holler. I didn’t wake the baby, I’m happy to note, but I wonder how she slept through the horribly loud PA. That was my one and only explicit complaint for the Ballpark. I know they do everything bigger down there, but relentlessly souping up the crowd to make noise did not need to be one of those things.
Save for that one overbearing flaw and the inescapable intuition that there was something a little too faux about the whole setup, it was a great night. I told Lisa it was grand, “ninth-favorite” or otherwise. I also told her, after learning she was planning on soon leaving the job that provided us with these tickets, that all things being equal, I didn’t get that. “Why would you quit a place that put us in these seats?”
Just as with Stephanie, my baseball logic had an impact on Stephanie’s cousin. Lisa reconsidered her plans and wound up keeping the job a while longer based, she later affirmed, on my endorsement of the company box.
So yes, I was quite fond of a ballpark that ranked ninth of eighteen then and ranks seventeenth of thirty-four now. Why so relatively low? Well, that’s what happens when you rank things you like.
Speaking of the Lone Star State, congratulations to our own Landslide Lyndon, Howard Megdal. He swept the FAFIF primary referendum on his becoming the next general manager of the New York Mets by a margin of 71-29. Now that’s Texas-sized!