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The Great West Coast Books-N-Ballparks Tour 2012

So for 10 days I was away from the Mets, but not away from baseball. In fact, there was quite a lot of baseball — through luck and a little driving, I was able to add three new ballparks to my list, bringing myself up to a respectable 15. I’ve now seen every big-league ballpark on the West Coast except Oakland’s, which would be headed for the wrecking ball if Bud Selig would just show some leadership and which I hear is missable anyway.

(If I get the chance I’ll be in Oakland first thing, of course. As any Mets fan could tell you from the late 70s until 2007, a crummy ballpark is still a pretty magical place. In the meantime, here’s Greg’s take on it [1].)


It's big, it's green ... it's Safeco Field.

My first stop was Seattle and Safeco Field, with tickets kindly obtained by my old friends Allan and Eleanor. Safeco is green and big — it feels much bigger than it actually is, perhaps because the retractable roof looms over the place. It’s got some nice touches. In The Pen, an area beyond the outfield full of beer stands and food, you’re right on top of the home and visiting bullpens, though people behave better here than in, say, Philadelphia. (Granted, that statement applies to most every place on Earth where people in groups watch an event.) There’s a statue of Dave Niehaus, the ushers are helpful and low-key, and trains chug by outside the ballpark, which is kind of cool.

For all that, though, Safeco is frankly a bit generic. It’s a nice park, but nothing really stands out about it, and some things are inexplicable. For instance, the Pen is an ideal spot to hang out, eat and drink beer (or fancy-schmancy cocktails), but instead of the game you hear loud club music, so you have no idea what’s going on until you go back to your seat. It’s baffling — why did the Mariners reserve the most interesting, attractive part of their stadium for people who aren’t interested in the game? It doesn’t work for baseball fans and presumably doesn’t work for people who’d rather be somewhere else, either — that’s a hell of a cover charge.

As for the game, Hector Noesi pitched well enough that I picked him up for my fantasy team, thus ensuring that he will be terrible. Jesus Montero hit his first M’s home run since being emancipated from the Yankees and their turgid villainy, a laser-beam line drive over the center-field fence. (His at-bat music, by the way: “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West. Nice touch.) I got to see Ichiro Suzuki play. The M’s beat the A’s, 4-0. A worrisome sign, by the way: It was Seattle’s second home game of the year, and there were acres of empty seats.


Best park I've ever seen.

My next stop was AT&T Park and a date long deferred: I’ve had tickets and/or plans to go see the Giants play in Candlestick’s replacement several times, but it’s never worked out. This time, my friend Pete set me up and I could finally check out what’s often called baseball’s best park.

So is it? I haven’t seen PNC, which also sometimes wins that title, so I can’t give AT&T the crown. (Here’s Greg [4] on the Pirates’ home.) But I will say that it’s the best park I’ve ever seen, and by a wide margin. It’s not just the great facility or the superb setting — it’s a customer-first attitude based around the idea that some little things matter and should be attended to, while other little things don’t matter and shouldn’t be worried about. The Giants understand which parts of a ballpark experience are which; seeing AT&T Park in action, I realized to my disappointment that the Mets fundamentally don’t. (More on this in a post soon.)

The setting, obviously, is great — on one side you have a lively strip of San Francisco restaurants and bars, while on the other you have San Francisco Bay. The place is dripping with Giants history — statues of greats such as Mays, Marichal, McCovey and Cepeda; plaques honoring lesser greats not much remarked by baseball fans in general but beloved by Giants faithful; markers recounting park milestones; baseball quotes and old uniforms and other things dressing up blank walls; a cable car (why the heck not?); the famous outfield glove and Coke bottle; the spot where you can watch a bit of the game through the outfield fence even without a ticket; and more, more, more. When I wrote [5] that I wanted Citi Field to be a scavenger hunt of Mets stuff, I didn’t know I was describing AT&T Park. (Here’s Greg’s take [6], from when it was Pac Bell.)

Here’s a small example: Beyond the left field fence there’s a bunch of eateries, and one of them is Crazy Crab’z — described winkingly as “back from the sea and fresh as ever.” Crazy Crab was a brief-lived mascot that Giants fans were encouraged to hate, a mission they took up with frightening vigor. Citi Field opened with barely a nod to the Mets’ own history (though much has been done since then to right this wrong); AT&T Park celebrates even ignoble bits of Giants history.

The food is good — I had garlic fries and a Cha Cha Bowl — but then I knew the food was good. I had no idea about the music, though — and it’s jaw-droppingly awesome. The Giants fired up that night’s crowd with the Karen O/Trent Reznor version of “Immigrant Song,” spotlighted “The Magnificent Seven” by the Clash, and broke out Green Day’s “Know Your Enemy” for the top of the ninth, to name just three moments in which I shook my head in admiring disbelief. I wouldn’t be surprised if Citi Field’s ballpark music was selected by polling frazzled moms who drive pre-teens around in minivans and are stuck hearing a ton of Radio Disney. (The Giants, by the way, beat the Phillies — Pat Burrell threw out the first pitch, drawing cheers from both fans’ teams. I booed him savagely, causing a good chunk of our section to stare at me in puzzlement.)


Big, red, and weirdly named.

I almost scrapped the third and final new park of the tour — Angel Stadium of Anaheim, which proves the Angels are just as confused about how to name a park as they are about how to name a franchise. My chance to go to Angel Stadium came on my first night in San Diego, after I’d had only a couple of hours’ sleep, which made driving a rental car 90-odd minutes to Anaheim for a game and then driving it back late at night seem not just crazy but borderline dangerous. But when would I get another chance?

I decided to make things safer by doing the unthinkable: I’d leave in the fifth inning. (What the heck, it was Angels-Orioles.) Five innings was long enough to get a sense of Angel Stadium, and to see the Angels wallop the Orioles rather cruelly. By the way, it’s fun finding a white rental sedan you haven’t really looked at in a huge, full, dark parking lot with very few signs.

Angel Stadium is … interesting. It’s been around since 1966, was expanded dramatically and rather poorly in the late 1970s to also house the Rams, and was renovated in 1997 to feel like one of the new HOK-style parks. You can see the old, rather generic bones in places, but the renovation’s pretty successful overall — and whatever flaws it has are made up for with lots of enthusiasm.

Lots and lots of enthusiasm.

There’s the exterior, with baseballs as bollards; a frieze of bats and balls that’s equal parts grand and goofy; giant Angels hats; a brick baseball diamond complete with a little mound; and more. Inside, the most notable feature is the weird rockpile in the outfield, but at least that turns out to hide a pretty nice picnic area. The food isn’t great (I had a singularly forgettable BBQ sandwich) but the ushers are super-nice. And the nicest thing of all? The place is saturated with Angels stuff. It makes AT&T Park look subtle. There’s a huge, luxuriantly happy display dedicated to the 2002 World Champs — why doesn’t Citi Field have two of these? There are big, splashy infographics about significant Angels seasons. There are giant posters of current Angels as Little Leaguers. Even the columns in the corridors are wrapped in pictures of Angels important and not so important. (Greg’s take is here [8].)

It’s gaudy and splashy overkill — but isn’t gaudy and splashy overkill exactly what one wants in one’s favorite team’s home park?

Descending the back steps at Citi Field, I’m always annoyed that they’re featureless gray. Why? Why don’t they feature murals of Todd Pratt and Felix Millan and Ron Hunt and Paul Lo Duca? Why aren’t they at least orange and blue? In Angel Stadium you never have a moment’s doubt which team you’re there to cheer on.


UN-DER-RAT-ED! (clap clap, clap clap clap)

On my last night in San Diego, after all this, I went back to Petco Park. I’d seen it before, but by then my life had settled into a rhythm of bookstore events by day and ballparks by night, so why not? The Phillies were in town, and Petco was about 70% Phils fans — I’d listened to the game the night before on the drive back from L.A. and thought it was in Philly. (Happily, the Phils lost — home teams were 4-0 with me in attendance.) My thoughts on Petco are here [10], from a couple of years ago, but the park’s grown on me. It doesn’t get a lot of attention or praise, but I think it’s underrated: I like its white-and-buff color scheme, its vaguely Aztec hanging gardens, and quirks like the park beyond center field (with Tony Gwynn statue), the warehouse in left field and the weird pulpit in right field.

Anyway, it was nice to see Petco again — that last night was an appropriate coda to a symphony of baseball. Now how do I get to Oakland Coliseum?