What? You didn’t get a ballpark for Christmas? Fear not, for I have regifted one of the presents baseball has given me — a quick trip to the 34 ballparks I’ve visited, passed on to you one paragraph at a time, from least to most beloved. Should you care to linger longer at a given venue, please click on the ballpark’s name and take the full tour. No ticket (or sleigh) required.
34. Olympic Stadium
Its main drawback was it was less like a ballpark than a basement, and not the National League East kind (the Expos were doing pretty well in 1987). Or maybe it was more like a warehouse, but I don’t mean in the fun Camden Yards sense. More like those refrigerated warehouses I’d visit when I was covering beverages full-time. It was cold, there were forklifts and there was plenty of beer. Beer’s not a drawback at the ballgame, but, as you probably saw if you watched Mets @ Expos games on TV, it never looked finished.
33. Jack Murphy Stadium
Pleasant beats unpleasant every time. But pleasant’s not the same thing as big league, and there was something about seeing a Padres game in their original home that felt less than major. It wasn’t bad — pleasant can’t be bad — but it didn’t fill me with anything approaching awe.
32. Royals Stadium
This was a multipurpose stadium in soul if not practicality. The artificial turf (replaced by grass in 1995) didn’t help. The schlep up to the top rows of the upper deck — I’d bought the seats in June, but the Royals were very popular — was frustrating, too. The Royals monarchical scoreboard was unique, but the fountain’s charms wore off quickly. Middle of the second: fountains spew water. Top of the third: fountains spew water. By the fourth, we got it.
31. Veterans Stadum
Veterans Stadium was as unpretentious as a ballpark could get, which was appropriate because what could it possibly have pretenses toward? It was hard. It was plastic. It was numbingly round. You didn’t rush to embrace it and you wouldn’t dare hug it. If you tried, I suspect you’d come home with bruises on the inside of both arms, and maybe a jab between your shoulder blades. But it got the job done, no matter how unpretty the job. Your job, as the fan, was to watch the game. You watched the game at the Vet. There was nothing else to look at.
30. RFK Stadium
For something that was so somnambulant for so long, RFK served its temporary purpose remarkably well. Don’t get me wrong. The place was a dump. I don’t mean in that Shea “it’s a dump, but it’s our dump” lovable way, either. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was used for a tire fire when it wasn’t being used for baseball. It was dark, it was cramped, it was MacArthur Park come to life: someone left this cake out in the rain, the sweet green icing was long melted and it showed. But it came to life in 2005 when the Expos became the Nationals, and you’d be surprised how beautiful a “dump” can be when it’s got baseball and baseball fans.
29. Renovated Yankee Stadium
I would have liked to have seen the real Yankee Stadium, the one that existed in full for a half-century. I only saw that one on Channel 11, and then only if the Mets weren’t playing (and even then in short doses and with distaste — distaste for Jerry Kenney, Rich McKinney and Celerino Sanchez…I was capable of hating Yankee third basemen well before Alex Rodriguez was born). That place was legitimately historic. The place I got to visit I never bought as the same one. I’d looked at too many pictures of the original to think the renovated version was anything but a knockoff. Granted, the ’76 iteration hosted its own history over 33 seasons, but I never had the sense I was in the house that anyone but John Lindsay built. The Yankees may not have moved to the Meadowlands, but their refashioned building, escalator banks and all, reminded me more of Giants Stadium (also class of ’76) than a pure idyllic ballpark. For anyone who wasn’t buying in to the myth in advance, it wasn’t an alluring proposition. It combined 1920s efficiency with 1970s charm.
28. Minute Maid Park
It’s in a part of Houston that, at least back then, contained nothing else with a pulse. Maybe a bar or two, but it felt plopped in as if to develop or redevelop downtown. I liked the idea of a converted train station, but it didn’t give off a ballpark feel from the outside. Nobody who worked there seemed particularly friendly (come to think of it, there were a lot of unfriendly people who worked for Mr. McLane). It was kitschy without being fun. Maybe it was an improvement on the Astrodome, which I never visited, but it was the first retro park I saw that I really didn’t much enjoy.
27. New Comiskey Park
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.)
26. Network Associates Coliseum
I’ve never encountered less grandeur en route to a major league stadium. That hoary quote from Gertrude Stein was obviously written with the home of the Oakland A’s in mind. There is no there there. It didn’t feel like there would be when Stephanie and I stepped off a BART train from San Francisco nine years ago and looked for something approximating a ballpark. Normally I’d just follow the crowd, but for a Thursday afternoon game in Oakland, there was no crowd. There was barely any “there”. There was, however, a bridge. There were some panhandlers. There was then a loading dock. Then there was an enormous pile of concrete. That’s the Coliseum. Welcome to A’s baseball. It’s going on in there somewhere. Perhaps it was because the outside was so uninspiring that once we were inside “the Net” (or as our local friends called it, “the Ass”), it actually surpassed our expectations. We expected a quarry, I suppose. We got a pretty decent setting for baseball, all things considered.
25. Old Busch Stadium
The tour ended on the turf. It was my first time on a major league field. Even though it was carpet, it was thrilling. We stood in foul territory on the first base side and were told to not step over the line lest we incur the wrath of the grounds crew. It was just turf, but who wanted to make trouble? As the guide wound down his remarks, my eye wandered to right field. On October 3, 1985, Gary Carter hit a fly ball over there with one man on and two men out in the ninth inning, the Mets down a run. When he connected, I was convinced it was going out, that the Mets were going to pull ahead of the Cardinals in the game and tie them in the standings and that everything would be great. Instead, the ball was routine and the outcome — 9-unassisted, caught by Andy Van Slyke — was predictable. Still, for a moment, I reveled in standing feet away from bittersweet Met history. We won those first two games in St. Louis that first week of October. They could call us pond scum, they could spill their beer on Lenny, but we went to the ninth inning of the third game with a genuine chance. Keith had singled for his fifth hit of the night, and Gary, on fire for a month, was up against Jeff Lahti. That was 1985. This was 1995. Baseball had been gone since the previous August. Now it was so close, I could taste its lingering heartache. Three seasons after having had quite enough of it, I would exit Busch Stadium the second time not particularly wanting to leave.
Our $50 pair of seats was in SkyDome’s upper deck, or “SkyDeck,” which sounds so much cooler than upper deck. Very futuristic, very tomorrow. Thing is while we climbed to said Deck, I wasn’t being whisked along by a PeopleMover or a GlideWalk or something else that smushed TwoWords together in a futuristic construction. There were just stairs. Outside the doors to the seating bowl, there was just a hallway. It was no more modern out there than Madison Square Garden. With a threat of rain, the retractable roof was closed. We were inside an arena, basically. A vast, carpeted baseball arena adorned by the largest JumboTron in North America. Where’s the future in that?
23. Anaheim Stadium
The comfort of the Big A came easy. And there was one overriding reason for it: I could have sworn I had been there before. Why? Because it was Shea! Anaheim Stadium was a thinly veiled, West Coast version of Shea Stadium. It couldn’t have been more like Shea had it had an apple and an airport over the outfield fence. This was Anaheim Stadium before gentrification. You see it on TV today and you see a Disneyfied ballpark-style attraction now known as Angel Stadium. But back then, it was Shea West. It was enormous and it could be used for a multitude of purposes. Sound like any stadium you once knew? That alone may not be specific enough to evoke Flushing in Anaheim, but it definitely had the feel. Anaheim had grass, like Shea. Anaheim was from the ’60s, like Shea. Anaheim had that sense of being somewhere not altogether where you imagined it might be. Shea was New York, but it was, in terms of access to anything that wasn’t inside the stadium itself, in the middle of nowhere. Anaheim wasn’t L.A. — and L.A. definitely isn’t “of Anaheim” — but you shrugged if you were from back east and figured you were close enough. Anaheim Stadium was the closest thing to Shea Stadium I ever experienced without a 7 train. I’m not surprised that I liked it as much as I did, and perhaps it’s telling that when stripped of all personal and Met association, I didn’t find much else distinctive about pre-renovation Anaheim Stadium.
22. Bank One Ballpark
There was a tension between the modernism necessary to execute a retractable-roofed stadium in the middle of a burgeoning downtown and the desire to at least partially ride the retro wave that had been in ballpark vogue since Camden Yards opened six years prior (thus, that pretentious dirt path). It was sort of like the desire to have a unique Arizona feel to the scene — accented by those garish teal and purple uniforms on which Showalter signed off — while accepting megabucks to plaster the rootless Bank One logo all over the place. It continued indoors, which featured, among many other attractions/distractions, a Hall of Fame exhibit, on loan from Cooperstown. The Diamondbacks had existed for little more than a year to this point, but they were trying to steep themselves in baseball history, just as the sculptures outside tried to give fans a cue as to what awaited them inside. That type of touch could have been taken as truly tradition-friendly or it could have been interpreted as a overly marketing-driven. It was probably somewhere in between.
21. Great American Ball Park
Great American wasn’t a great park, but it was a good time. There was even something to the corporate name on the door. There was a touch of Twain to that view of the mighty Ohio and the country that lay beyond it. If you can evoke Tom Sawyer and Tom Seaver in the same evening, that’s gotta be pretty Great.
20. Nationals Park
The Nats skipped the bricks and the overwrought homages to a mythic baseball past. The clean, well-lighted, modern approach was refreshing even if red brick can serve as an effective Pavlovian cue to get fields-of-dreamy about one’s surroundings. You don’t always, however, need to be enveloped by a manufactured past. That said, there was something about Nationals Park that made it feel — and this isn’t intended to come out as derisive as it will — like a very nice and very large Grapefruit League park. It wasn’t sterile as much as not yet defined, not yet lived in.
19. New Yankee Stadium
Once the game started, the consensus was this place was OK for ballgame watching, but it didn’t set any new standard for excellence. If you peered hard enough, beyond facades and pictures of championship teams in the concourses (and they’ve had a few) and the massive video board above the left field bleachers, there was something Natsy about Yankee Stadium — it wasn’t a whole lot different from Nationals Park. I had that sense at Citi Field in April and now I got it here. You could sell a lot of stuff and you could put up a lot of pictures, but when you got right down to it, there was a throbbing adequacy to Yankee Stadium. It was new, it was clean, it had ATMs…after a fashion, no matter how much pride and pinstripes one franchise can claim, all these new places — Nationals Park in 2008, the two New York parks in 2009 — seem to have their core come out of a kit.
18. Miller Park
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.
17. The Ballpark in Arlington
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?
16. Citi Field
Citi Field should have gotten everything right. It didn’t come close. But it didn’t screw up completely. If you’re a Mets fan, you understand that not screwing up completely is sometimes as good as it gets.
15. New Busch Stadium
Busch was beautiful from the outside. I rank it a hair ahead of Citi Field and that’s probably because it did unquestionably better with the aesthetics in my purely subjective opinion. The interior reds and greens are perfect. Busch’s exterior, meanwhile, looks like it belongs where it’s situated. The bricks hum in harmony with nearby buildings. The arches pay homage to that one really big one a few blocks east. There are reminders that we are near a bridge, the Eads, laced into the steelwork. And when you’re inside the park, particularly if you take the tour — as we did, mid-morning — and get the home plate vantage point, the St. Louis skyline makes for a glorious backdrop. All those years watching the Mets play in an enclosed Busch (and Three Rivers and Riverfront) revealed nothing of the environs they were visiting. It was nice to know that baseball teams actually played someplace. The attractiveness quotient was, like the temperature, high enough, but once we actually went to our game (praise be, the mercury plunged to 89 degrees at sunset and there was the slightest of breezes), it was less thrilling than I hoped it would be.
14. Citizens Bank Park
While I didn’t think CBP broke much new ground in 2004, it wears very well in 2010. It has a nice, easy slope to it. Its architecture doesn’t try too hard. It feels not like a drawing board project gone awry in the transition to real life but an actual ballpark, comfortable for its purpose, civilized in its approach. It’s intimate without the claustrophobia. It emits a lighthearted sense of self. The statues and other heritage-minded tributes (Ashburn Alley, Harry the K’s) burst with the kind of pride a fan — even an “enemy” fan — feeds off. I’ve sat in four different areas on my four trips, and they all have something to recommend them. It all looks good, it all sounds good — the PA is crystal clear and the music selection’s superb (though the announcer is overbearing) — it all tastes good and it all feels right.
13. County Stadium
My mother, had she ever made it to County Stadium, would have known what to call it. She would have broken out the Yiddish as she tended to do (American birth and upbringing notwithstanding) and declared it haimish. She usually invoked that word when she wanted to express how down-to-earth something was. Not prust, as in “common,” which was something we were told not to act (spitting, for example, was admonished as prust) but haimish…homey — unpretentious. County Stadium, Milwaukee. It was so comfortable, even the Yiddish language feels retroactively at home there.
12. Dodger Stadium
Damn that O’Malley, getting exactly what he wanted in Los Angeles and making it work to near perfection for decades, even long after he was gone.
11. Jacobs Field
It was the magnet in the middle of our minds from the moment we checked in until we got through our game. After dropping our luggage, we walked over and peeked in. There was no game in progress, but it was right there on the street waiting to be gazed upon. You could see the field and all the touches that made it special, like the toothbrush lights and the massive scoreboard (which seemed bigger in those days before everybody got one). You could enjoy the sandstone exterior, an unwitting antidote to the epidemic of Camden-style bricks almost everybody else building a ballpark was copying from Baltimore. Cleveland had itself an original. The game was Friday night, but I couldn’t wait 24 hours for more Jake. It was just too damn alluring and we were just staying way too close to pretend it wasn’t calling to us.
10. Coors Field
Saberhagen never much impressed me as a Met but seeing him as a Rockie, just eight rows away…wow! That was probably the beer talking. But sobered up and settled in after a fashion, my wowness never dissipated as the night wore on. Coors Field felt as fresh as what SandLot was brewing. It was crisp and open and electric, like no place I’d been for baseball. The house was packed and engaged by its baseball team. Intelligently engaged. Three years in the bigs and these were major league fans. Not only did they cheer their Rockies as three-quarters of their Bombers lay waste to Cubs pitching, but they were savvy enough to scoreboard-watch. The Dodgers had edged ahead of the Rockies in the N.L. West, but they were losing in Cincinnati. When that game went final, a roar went forth that was as majestic as the Rocky Mountains.
9. Turner Field
I developed a theory about Turner Field after spending nine sublime innings in its company. It had to do with the name on the door. Something about Turner Field looked and felt uncommonly perfect for baseball. It transcended what we were already calling “retro”. Turner Field didn’t feel retro. It felt traditional, like if you had to conjure a “ballpark” in your mind, you might come up with how this one looked while you were sitting in it. Ted Turner, I thought. Ted Turner’s in the entertainment business. Ted, I decided, put his best showbiz people on Turner Field. He called in his set designers after the 1996 Olympics were over, before the stadium would be converted for the Braves’ use, and said give me something that allows our patrons to get lost in baseball as they watch our games: not gimmicky, nothing distracting, just appropriate. If that’s the way it happened, then thanks Ted; it worked. And if it didn’t go down that way at all, it’s enough that I believe it.
8. Pac Bell Park
This place was Retro Version 2.0, an upgrade from the generation of trendsetting ballparks that preceded it. Pac Bell was evidence that nothing was static in this fast-moving era, that progress was only a mouse click or a Barry Bonds swing away. Camden Yards had been state-of-the-art just eight years earlier. Now baseball seemed poised to trade in their Camdens for Pac Bells. That’s how it felt up in the last row. As hackneyed an expression as “state-of-the-art” had become by 2001, it fit Pac Bell. Actually, maybe you could make do just by calling it “art”. Wow, what a venue for baseball.
7. Fenway Park
After touring the exterior, we made our way inside Fenway and to our seats in short right. We all had the same reaction: This place is small. “It’s smaller than the field at Shell Creek,” Rich said. Shell Creek Park, his and Joel’s place of employ, was a Town of Hempstead park, home to softball games. My ill-fated attempt to organize a team out of our high school newspaper staff took place at Shell Creek Park. There was nothing big league about Shell Creek Park. But Rich was right. It was smaller than Shell Creek. Felt smaller, at any rate. Definitely no match for Shea Stadium, the only frame of reference any of us had. Size, however, wasn’t everything. Fenway Park didn’t need a parking lot or logical access or an extra 20,000 seats. We were young, but we were wise enough to get why this place was a big deal. Everything we’d seen on television was here in bright green: the Monster; the hand-operated scoreboard; all the bizarre angles. There were the Red Sox and the White Sox, in living color, so much closer than we were used to the teams being at Shea (closer, in proximity, to Shell Creek Park). And there was, in our midst for the first time since 1983, Tom Seaver.
6. Shea Stadium
It meant home. Actually, in its way, it was better than home. You need a literal home, but you also need a place you just want to be…y’know? Home carries certain responsibilities, not all of them desirable, depending on what else is going on in your life. The place where you just want to be is there for you, free and clear of baggage. That was my Shea. I sought it out and it accepted me. Every time I needed to be, I could be there. When it was great, which was usually, I didn’t have to think about it. It was Shea being Shea. When it wasn’t, which was occasionally (and logistically), I could just write it off as, well, there goes Shea being Shea. I didn’t have to make excuses for it. Spend 400-some games with a ballpark, it will eventually explain itself.
5. Wrigley Field
It was a sweep! A Mets doubleheader sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field on a Friday afternoon that I took in from the kinds of seats reserved for the Eddie Vedders of the world. The Mets were the real rock stars, however. They were now 1½ in back of the Cubs for the Wild Card. There were still two months to go in the season, but this would be, thanks to expansion, realignment and general Seligism, the last series between the two old rivals. We had to get to the Cubs while the getting was good. The getting was very good this Friday. Wrigley was very great. I didn’t want to leave. Savoring victory, I took out my Chinon 35mm camera (huge by 2010 standards) and took some more pictures. The memories, however, would suffice. I can still see Wrigley filling up; Wrigley jammed; Wrigley filing out; the green, green grass of Wrigley, so close to me…I didn’t want to pull back from it. Who would?
4. PNC Park
PNC Park was the moment a decade of throwback ballpark construction was leading up to. There were breakthroughs before, there was innovation en route, but the culmination of the phenomenon that began in the early 1990s reached its peak with the opening and blossoming of PNC. It must have. I can’t imagine any newer place ever being better.
3. Tiger Stadium
I am not nor have I ever been a Detroit Tigers fan. But count me as a spiritual member of any organization dedicated to Tiger Stadium. I would have hugged her had it occurred to me as feasible. For what it’s worth, I kissed her goodbye on my way out. Literally. Tiger Stadium. Sweet, embraceable you. I guess all we had was a one-night stand, but you still bring a smile to my face and a pang to my heart. It was all I could do to see you once, before it was decided you had to go. I’m sure glad I got there just in time.
2. Camden Yards
Did I mention they got Oriole Park at Camden Yards right? That even with the slightly overdone name — does anybody who isn’t paid to actually call it Oriole Park? — and the implied (or not so subtly explicit) sense of class separation, that it was just the right place to be on that Tuesday afternoon? That the Baltimore skyline, accented by the Bromo Seltzer tower, complemented the Baltimore ballpark as if somebody took everything into account? That there was milling and teeming on the street between the park and the warehouse that was somehow part of the ballpark but was also a city street? Eutaw Street…they incorporated it into the footprint. Co-oped it during game hours, but it was open the rest of the time to pedestrians, just like the team store in the warehouse. There was a team store in the warehouse! Of course there was, why wouldn’t there be, but again, this seemed revolutionary for my pre-Camden mentality. All the interesting food stands and beer stands and Boog’s Barbecue — why had not this been thought of before? Or if it had been thought of, why was it not executed anywhere else? And how about that field? The angles of the outfield wall! And the ads for Coca-Cola and Budweiser that could have been from the first part of the century! And people….people, everywhere. People happy to have snuck away from wherever they were supposed to be on the sunniest Tuesday afternoon in the history of sunny Tuesday afternoons. My seat, in short right, was not bad. Not bad at all, especially in light of demand. Camden Yards was where everybody wanted to be, yet I could be in not the worst seat in the house. Did this house have a worst seat? I looked all over the place: the sea of green seats; the thousand and one perfect touches (the end of each row, for example, incorporated the 1890s Baltimore Orioles logo into its grillwork); and the green grass (not a detail to be taken for granted while the Vet, et al, still stood); and the way you could see the bullpens (they weren’t hidden like I was used to); and this marriage of urban setting and National Pastime… Christ, it’s like they thought of everything.
1. Old Comiskey Park
It reeked of baseball. That’s what Comiskey Park did. Reek does not carry pleasant connotations — “to be pervaded by something unpleasant” is the dictionary definition — but that was the word that came to me 21½ years ago. I meant no offense by it. To the contrary, it was the highest compliment I could pay it. What better to reek of than baseball? What better to sense oozing out of the pores of a building than 80 seasons of national pastime? I knew very little about Comiskey Park when I bought that ticket, but I could feel everything about it once I stepped inside. This place reeked unapologetically of baseball, baseball and more baseball. Baseball had infested this ballpark like termites. The baseball was peeling from its walls. The baseball formed puddles at your feet. You needed a bucket to catch all the baseball dripping from its ceilings. There was no mopping it up, no patching it, no stepping around it. You walked through Comiskey Park, you were immersed in a flood of baseball. Best. Reek. Ever.