Monday, September 30, 2013

Thirty Ballparks: Our Life in the Major Leagues by Abby and Jesse Mendelson

When we had done it once, then done it a second time, seen a game in every major league baseball park, Jesse had contrived to have our names put on the Marlins' scoreboard, June 2013. Hail to the two of us, father and son, who'd made the journey of many thousands of miles once, then made it again.
Years before Jesse was born, Abby thought it a worthy goal to see a game in every major league ballpark—an idea so outrageous that it seemed prohibitive. Though Pittsburgh is uniquely positioned within a few hundred miles of nearly a dozen stadia, who would reasonably travel the 2600 miles from Pittsburgh to Seattle or California for a ballgame? In the ’70s, not many people.
Nevertheless, there was always the lure of the ballparks. At their best, they represent baseball's majesty and grace. At their worst, they’re dank warehouses where baseball seems an afterthought.  But with baseball being the only sport where the parks are permitted differences within the field itself—indeed, each has diverse dimensions, design features, views, approaches, and playing surfaces—they were all worth a look, all worth a try.
Then time and opportunity presented themselves.  And after Jesse was born, and grew into a baseball fan, we found reasons to go—planned family vacations around visits to ballparks, setting the pegs into place one by one.
At first, Jesse was not yet five. Within a year, he was holding up baseball cards of each batter. By the end of that summer, he was noting ballplayer idiosyncrasies, imitating their swings. Before he was halfway finished with elementary school, he was keeping his own scorebooks.
By 2000 Jesse had graduated college and had time and talent on his hands. Why not make a swing through the South and Midwest and knock off a bunch of ballparks? And the following year cheap flights took us far west. A drive to Milwaukee's new Miller Park did the deal in 2001. All 30! En route, we celebrated that the retractable roof meant the game must go on; in seat, we celebrated over Leinenkugels.

Almost immediately, cities from D.C. to San Diego built new ballyards—unceremoniously knocking us from our perch, requiring more travel. One by one, we filled those in, too.
Accomplishments like this take time and timing.  A willingness to pay the price—and a willingness to spend a great deal of time on the road. And in each other’s company.  Clearly, such journeys are not for the faint of heart or quick of temper.
Journeys like this take the ability to stare at endless mountains, prairies, and oceans white with foam—not to mention deserts—out of car windows.  But such journeys also promise a great deal of value added—sights like St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, Colorado Springs’ Garden of the Gods, San Francisco’s Alcatraz, Seattle’s Space Needle, and New Orleans’ French Quarter, among others.
But even with all those delights, they require deliberately ignoring burrs under saddles that are the inevitable part of any relationship in close quarters—and closer DNA.
One fellow, whom we ran into in Kansas City, said he could see himself driving the same 7,000 miles with his father—assuming they didn’t leave the driveway.
When Jesse was too young to drive, Abby did all the steering. Later, we shared the chores, Jesse generally acting as navigator. In the pre-GPS era, we relied on AAA maps—and Jesse’s trusty pretzel log to measure distances.  (It was just about 20 miles, as the road wound, and delivered us to Dallas’ Dealey Plaza in precisely the time the pretzel said it would.)
Eschewing expensive hotels, we stayed with friends or at nearby Motel 6’s—where, yes, they left the lights on for us. The rooms were clean, comfortable, and equipped with hot showers and ESPN. We didn’t need anything else.

Somewhere along the endless ribbon of highway we decided that we would rate the ballparks on a five-point scale.  Ones were the lowest, with nary a speck to recommend them as places to take one's ease and watch a ballgame. Fives, on the other end of the scale, all had a touch of genius—some incredible visual or experiential treat that was wholly unexpected, wholly unique.  In between were the serviceable (2), fine (3), and very good (4).  We never permitted a 4, no matter how inviting, to morph into a 5. (My, how Coors Field tested that statement.) A true 5 has something extraordinary about it.

People ask us if we ever fight about these ratings. Our answer is no—except Olympic Stadium.  Facing Montreal's earth-shatteringly hideous dungeon, which baseball has mercifully abandoned, Jesse gave it a Zero. He argued that irrespective of the fact that they played baseball in the building, Stade Olympique had not one redeeming quality. Abby argued against that rating, claiming on the basis of intellectual honesty that if we have a five-point scale, and if they play ball in a stadium, then it deserves at least a one.
It remains an unresolved dispute.

Cast, in Order of Appearance:
Although we began going to ballparks together in the early 1980s, and so saw many that are no longer in existence, for this accounting we pick up the narrative in 1984, when we saw our first still-extant ballparks.  Visiting friends and family in California, we laid hands on tickets up and down the coast.
We begin in Oakland; throughout, for continuity, we call the ballparks by their names when we visited.  (Oakland, for example, changed names four times since we first saw it, Miami five, and so on.)

Oakland, Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, 1984
Sadly recast as a multi-purpose stadium (the last of its kind in either baseball or football) when the Raiders returned to Oakland in 1996, they turned a solid 4—for its open vistas, and view of Northern California’s gentle, rolling hills—into a dull, enclosed, concrete-heavy 2.
Our first visit was on Jesse’s seventh birthday, our second on the West Coast Tour, 2001. Our first visit was on a sun-drenched Sunday. Our second introduced us to Ichiro. Both memories still bring smiles.
Rating: 4/2
Don’t Miss: The All-You-Can-Eat seats, upper deck behind Home Plate. Simply scrumptious.

Los Angeles, Dodger Stadium, 1984
Once touted as America’s most beautiful ballpark, and now one of the most senior, the old girl has aged well. Open to the sunny Southern California climate, it retains all its old glory.
Rating: 4
Don’t Miss: Dodger Dogs, the picnic area behind left field, and the celebrities.

Anaheim, Anaheim Stadium, 1984
First open, then closed, then opened again, now it’s just big.  When the fans get going, they’re the main attraction.  So try to see the Angels when they're winning.
Rating: 3
Don’t Miss: The size 649 ½ size hat outside the main gate, California Spectacular.

Baltimore, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, 1993

We simply fell in love with the retro atmosphere.  The intimacy of the park, the closeness of the adjacent—and indigenous—warehouse, made us rate Camden Yards as our overall favorite. Adding a level of dramatic tension, like Boston’s Green Monster, the warehouse—looming over the rightfield wall—seems to challenge hitters to hit the bricks— or take out windows.  (When we were there, a star marked the junior Griffey’s home-run derby clout that scarred the surface.) Clearly, this was the stuff of genius.
Rating: 5 (#1 overall)
Don’t Miss: Eutaw Street, the olde time city street built into the ballpark environs. Hall of Fame plaques, cold beer, and Boog’s BBQ. Is there more to life?

Cleveland, Jacobs Field, 1994
Having friends in Cleveland got us to The Jake in its premier season. Although the confines are close, the pitch of the seats was a bit much for us. As was the incessant marketing—a harbinger of things to come, as, these days, seemingly every available inch of every ballpark is dedicated to selling somebody something.
Rating: 4
Don’t Miss: Heritage Park, an homage to all things Indian, behind center field.  Also, the flagpole on the concourse behind left field.  Don't think we’ve ever seen one bigger.

Boston, Fenway Park, 1997
The second-highest four in our evaluation, Fenway Park has everything to recommend it: scale, size, setting, history, quirkiness. Like everyone else on the planet, we loved everything about it.

Having said that, no, we didn’t swoon over the huge pillars throughout the lower deck, and the Green Monster, less a clever design feature than an architectural afterthought.  Something had to keep the balls out of the street, even when a long hit in the deadball era went 100 feet.
Rating: 4 (Proof that ballpark atmosphere doesn’t count in the rankings)
Don’t Miss: Anything—so go at least an hour early and take it all in.

Toronto, Skydome, 1998
Hitting Canada on July 5th, we were just in time to see now-disgraced hurler Roger Clemens toss his 3,000th K en route to his second consecutive Cy Young as a Blue Jay.

While we were duly impressed with that achievement, we were less taken with the cavernous ballpark which looks out at—no, into a hotel. Granted, Toronto’s frighteningly variable weather wreaks havoc with baseball schedules, necessitating some sort of roof or dome. Nevertheless, the sheer size of such structures, here and elsewhere, make for something less than an aesthetically pleasing experience.
Rating: 2
Don’t Miss: More than $500 million worth of artwork positioned around the stadium.

Chicago, Wrigley Field, 1998
Our second-favorite ballpark, Wrigley Field seems the perfect place to watch a game. The neighborhood, the legendary ivy, the friendly confines—they did everything right with Wrigley Field, and never did it better.
Rating: 5 (#2 overall)
Don’t Miss: The upper deck. Walk up, look out at Lake Michigan. There’s nothing like it in baseball.

Chicago, Comiskey Park, 1998
Hailed as a modernist masterpiece when it was built, the so-called New Comiskey quickly foundered in the tide of Camden Yards-style retro parks.  While such revisionist critiques are inherently unfair, we were not overly impressed with any single thing but it was nice enough.
Rating: 3
Don’t Miss: The Chicagoland Plumbing Council Shower, and the eight sculptures honoring retired such White Sox greats as Minnie Minoso, Nellie Fox and Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas.

Detroit, Comerica Park, 2000
Our Midwest Swing began with a day trip to Detroit, the first of 7,000 miles we put on our then-new little blue Mazda Although Detroit is pretty much of a wreck, the view of downtown is rousing, and there are lots of things for kids to do, notably climb on the outsized tiger statue and ride the carousel (where every seat is a tiger, too.)
Rating: 3
Don’t Miss:
The action monuments behind the outfield.  It’s worth the trip just to see Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg back in action again, frozen in time.

Tampa Bay, Tropicana Field, 2000
Granted, you have to play indoors in Florida, at least if you want to draw more than mosquitoes. But the dull, dark Trop felt like nothing so much as a warehouse. Attention, K-Mart shoppers!
And baseball on a carpet still looks stupid.
Rating: 1
Don't Miss: When we went, they were still called the Devil Rays and the parking lot had lights swirled and made manta ray shadows. They were neat—and are probably gone now. Inside, the Cigar Bar is unique and worth a stop. A new feature, absolutely worth the trip, is the Ted Williams Museum/Hitters Hall of Fame. We saw it in its original, now bankrupt, location in Hernando, near where Teddy lived.  It moved, en masse, to the Trop, in 2006. Give yourself plenty of time. It’s grand.

Arlington, The Ballpark at Arlington, 2000
There’s all those urban myths about everything being bigger in Texas—and it’s the case at the Arlington Ballpark.  Everything about it is HUGE—the field, the stands, the T-ball field and office façade behind the outfield.  Brilliantly designed, it all works magnificently.  It's all Texas, and all terrific.
Rating: 5 (#4 overall)
Don’t Miss: The frieze atop the outer walls tells the tale of Texas. It’s a grand history lesson in relief, and completely unique across baseball.

Houston, Enron Field, 2000
Feeling honored that we saw it when it was still called Enron, we were less honored when we walked in. Sadly, they tried to be oh-so-clever—everywhere. Here’s a rising outfield like Crosley Field. There’s an in-play flagpole like Yankee Stadium. Here’s pinball-like Dr. Pepper advertisements—in left center field. Here’s a short left field like Fenway. And bleachers like Wrigley! To top it off, literally, there’s a moving train to remind the unwary that the site once housed Union Station.

Of course, it’s a story of architects overdesigning by half.  The best ballparks—Wrigley Field, for instance—simply, quietly, gracefully tell their story and step aside to let the game take center stage. Instead, Enron, now Minute Maid, keeps shouting, hey, look at me!

The enormous retractable roof is overwhelming and oppressive, making a relatively intimate ballpark into a huge edifice. And all the dojiggers in the ballpark are enormously distracting. We were exhausted before they played the game.
Rating: 3
Don’t Miss: Union Station Lobby—the park’s main entrance—complete with Roman columns and vaulted ceilings. 

Kansas City, Kaufmann Stadium, 2000
For our money, it’s the best of the modernist ballparks—open, easy, sunlit and serene. Great long lines, great views, great use of a fountain, and the nicest fans in the country.
Rating: 4
Don’t Miss: A stroll around the perimeter before the game—a ritual we always perform. The view from the outfield, including aforementioned fountain, is as lovely and restful as the view out of the park to gently rolling Missouri farmland.

Atlanta, Turner Field, 2000
Hightailing it from St. Louis in one day (by pretzel or Google, it’s still 555 miles, and one time zone change), we were thrilled just to get out of the car. Since Turner Field began as Olympic Stadium, it used to be larger by 36,000 seats. It’s still noticeably big but pulls off a very difficult feat: it feels intimate.
Rating: 4
Don’t Miss: The Fan Plaza behind the outfield, which inhabits the area where the rest of the Olympic Stadium once stood. Also, what feels like 363 pennant and division champion flags around the stadium.

Pittsburgh, PNC Park, 2001
Three Rivers Stadium (1970-2000), hailed in its time as an engineering marvel, was a cold, uninviting, multi-purpose monstrosity. Imploded in early 2001, it was replaced by PNC Park and Heinz Field, two infinitely better ballyards.

For its part, PNC is a splendid bandbox of a park, 38,000-odd seats, open to Pittsburgh’s compact downtown, magnificent skyline, Clemente Bridge, and the shimmering Allegheny River. While we disagree with what some say, that it’s America’s best ballpark—because we believe PNC lacks a touch of real genius that the other five stars enjoy (e.g., the outer façade is uninteresting, and it hardly takes a genius to open to the skyline and river)—it remains one of the most satisfying places in America to watch a baseball game. And to date we haven’t found a bad seat in the house!
Rating: 4
Don’t Miss: A walk to the park across the Roberto Clemente Bridge. Strolling high above the Allegheny River, you see the entire expanse of the park open before you. We don’t know of a prettier sight in baseball.

Denver, Coors Field, 2001
The best of the four-star ballparks, Coors Field. Truly a gorgeous place to watch a game. However, hard as we tried, we could find nothing amazing about it. Nothing, Jesse said at the time, age 23, about which he would tell his grandchildren.

An added bonus is, given the thin air a mile above sea level, man!, that ball really motors!
Rating: 4
Don’t Miss: The glimpse of the Rockies out right field, and the First Tribes vendors outside the stadium selling pees-TAH-choze.  They’re wonderful.

Phoenix, Bank One Ballpark, 2001
Oh, that desert sun. Hard to remember the strike count when you're wilting in the heat.

Of course, the ballpark formerly known as The BOB has a retractable roof. But between the black interior, and the huge panels in the outfield, it feels as though the structure was originally built to house a squadron of B-52s. For those of us who love baseball for its intimacy and subtlety, gigantic indoor ballparks like Phoenix simply defeat the purpose.
Rating: 3
Don't Miss: The pool! At least somebody was cool.

San Francisco, Pacific Bell Park 2001
When the Giants moved west in 1958, they constructed one of the worst baseball parks in baseball history. Candlestick was justifiably infamous—and woefully unpopular—for its impossible winds and frigid temperatures.

Brilliantly, the Giants replaced one of America’s most dreadful ballparks with one of the best. With respectful nods to the past, Pac Bell is an old-style park with some modern amenities—such as a two-tier open-air outfield walkway, the single best outside approach in the majors, and a startling, jaw-drawing view of San Francisco Bay. This is a beautiful, brilliant addition to the canon of American ballparks.
Rating: 5 (#3 overall)
Don’t Miss: A peak in from the knothole section at McCovey Cove. Lovingly, it reminds us of a time when, one way or another, fans could see games for free.

Seattle, Safeco Field, 2001
The Saturday we were in Seattle, it was gorgeous. The Sunday, aka game day, it was classic Pacific Northwest: rainy and grey. Who said retractable roofs have no place? Certainly not us, though they make parks like Safeco quite a bit less pretty. Inside, out of the rain, there was a bit too much dark and dread. Feeling as if we were somehow in an Edgar Poe story, we checked under the seats for mossy things growing out of control. While we didn’t find anything, we did enjoy Ichiro in all his rookie-year glory.
Rating: 3
Don’t Miss: The baseball bat chandelier and the Bainbridge Island ferry docked down the road.

Milwaukee, Miller Park, 2001
En route to the park, another domed edifice, Jesse proclaimed his everlasting love for retractable roof parks, since it didn’t matter if it hailed outside—inside we’d be completing the cycle! That said, The Beer Keg is big and brassy and domed, and from a distance looks like some alien spaceship in the Wisconsin dairy lands.  But we’ll always love it. That said, it’s no more than OK as a ballyard.
Rating: 3
Don't Miss: The Teamwork sculpture honoring the three workers who died in the stadium’s construction; the Sausage Race (this is the original—every other team has copied the Brewers); Bernie Brewer’s slide after a Brew Crew blast.

Cincinnati, Great American Ball Park, 2003
The first new ballpark to open after we completed our first go-round in ’01, Great American really isn’t. Down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, this park is a whole lot of nothing special. The Queen City's Labor Day fireworks, however, are the best these reporters have ever seen. Viewed from the Ohio Riverwalk, adjacent to the ballpark, it’s a truly wondrous, Earth-shaking event.
Rating: 3
Don’t Miss: The Gap, the 35-foot hole between home plate and third base, through which you can see the gleaming city skyline.

Philadelphia, Citizens Bank Park, 2004
As ballparks opened in the new millennium, we found them even more a lot of nothing special. The Philly skyline is too far away to be appreciated, and the stadium parking lots are positively airport-like. However, the park does boast the best team hall of fame (Ashburn Alley) this side of the Yankees' Monument Park—as well as a famous and passionate fan base.
Rating: 3
Don't Miss: The Liberty Bell. No, it’s not in the ballpark, or anywhere near it, but there’s not much else to recommend at the Philly field, and this monument to American freedom is worth a tip of your cap.

San Diego, Petco Park, 2005
Taking a page from Camden Yards, they incorporated an adjacent warehouse into the park, which seemed a bit too precious for us. In fact, everything seems to intersect the park in San Diego, including the adjacent hotel and the outfield berm. What bothered us most, though, was the lack of approach, since the front of the ballpark actually faces the river, where no one enters. It earns its high ranking largely as a neighborhood piece to rival Fenway, and as an architectural success—one can tell how hard it was to build this.
Rating: 4
Don’t Miss: The views from the grandstand, which include the skyline, Balboa Park, and San Diego Bay.

St. Louis, Busch Stadium, 2006
It’s hard to argue with the appellation that the Gateway City is the best baseball town in America.  If it’s not, we’d like to see one better.
To celebrate the game, and to replace the old multipurpose Busch Stadium, the new Busch Stadium features more red (seats, brick, concourse signs) than seemingly anywhere else on Earth, and a spectacular view of the Gateway Arch hovering above center field.
Our visit this time reminded us of one made a half-dozen years prior, in the good old PED days, when the balls flew out of the yard at an alarming rate and velocity. On our ’00 visit, 40,000 people showed up to see Messrs Bonds and McGwire take BP.  Bonds, hitting lefty, shattered lights on the scoreboard.  Not to be outdone, Mac parked ’em in the fourth deck.  This time, things were understandably a bit more subdued.
Rating: 4
Don’t Miss: The eleven statues around the outside of the park. Even more, take a trip to the Gateway Arch and the Lewis & Clark Museum underneath.  Not in the ballpark, of course, but if there is another indication of the size and scope of the American Dream, we haven’t found it.

Washington, Nationals Park, 2008
With baseball back in the nation’s capitol, the Nats moved out of the cavernous and ugly RFK Stadium and into a ballpark very much in the vein of Comerica, Citizens Bank, and Great American. A nice enough place to watch a game, but special is not a word to describe anything in this park.
Rating: 3
Don’t Miss: The stunning view of the U.S. Capitol building from the left field upper deck. It’s far, but worth the trek.

New York, Citi Field, 2011
Don't get us wrong: we like Citi Field. We just think it’s wrongheaded. Designed as an homage to Ebbets Field and Jackie Robinson, the Mets, as a franchise, never had anything to do with either of them.  (But owner Fred Wilpon grew up a Dodgers fan, so…) Yet #42, and the old Dodgers home, are everywhere, in outsized photos and excessive overdesign. Worth nothing is that only after the team received innumerable complaints did they add Mets history into the building, which makes Citi Field more palatable, but not enough.
Rating: 4
Don’t Miss: Shea Bridge and the Mets Hall of Fame.  Rightly, the latter recognizes the Mets’ many great players, from the Terrific Tom Seaver and Tug McGraw to the severely troubled Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.  Somehow they managed to stuff all that greatness into New York uniforms without the Yankee bombast. Makes you think of great baseball feats and gives you hope for humanity.

New York, Yankee Stadium, 2011
Well, it’s New York, New York, and it has to be bigger than everything else (yes, even Texas).  This, the third iteration of the House that Ruth Built, is simply massive—it seems to dwarf the entire borough of the Bronx.
Not warm, the antithesis of inviting, nevertheless this Yankee Stadium, with the trademark fluted facade, is sufficiently majestic to say baseball.
Rating: 4
Don’t Miss: OK, they tout their own mythology endlessly, to a fault.  We mean, how many more tearful memories of Mickey Mantle can we tolerate?  Having said that, the newly recast Monument Park is the best of its kind by a mile, if for no other reason than it celebrates some of the game's greatest players. Worth the long lines, it’s a fitting tribute to guys like Whitey, Yogi and Joe D who really earned it.

Minneapolis, Target Field, 2012
In some ways, the perfect way to shoehorn a contemporary ballpark into an urban setting, Target Field feels so comfortable in Downtown Minneapolis it’s hard to believe it wasn't always there. We especially liked the retro sign in center featuring the original Twins’ logo!
Rating: 4
Don’t Miss: The Metro Ride right to the ballpark. The train runs all the way from the airport, and is quick, inexpensive, and loaded with fans talking baseball.

Miami, Marlins Park, 2013
By now, it’s a familiar refrain: indoor baseball simply doesn't feel like baseball at all.  It certainly doesn't in Miami.
Replacing the bloated and grossly unpopular Joe Robbie/Pro Player/Dolphins/Dolphin/Land Shark/Sun Life Stadium, at the Sunday afternoon interleague tilt we witnessed in 2000, we counted a mere 52 empty sections.  Marlins Park puts forth a nice effort, but ultimately isn't much better.
For openers, the park—in just its second season—is so underused, unwanted, and huge that the club has permanently closed the upper deck. With a chance to create a baseball-themed interior, the art gallery owner chose nauseous green and stark white walls, which seem more antiseptic and alien than interesting.
OK, the lights of Downtown Miami make a nice display out of the outfield windows, and the steel and glass views from the outside are unique, but the feeling is less of sitting at a baseball game than sailing on a bilious cruise in choppy waters.
And the Red Grooms sculpture in centerfield is more silly than stirring.
Rating: 2
Don’t Miss: The bobblehead display case—quite possibly the best value-added of any stadium in the majors.  Jiggling like an old Buick on a stretch of bad road, your favorite ’heads from every team dance before your eyes.  Makes you want to be a kid again. 

The Next Act:
The major leagues seem to have taken a well-deserved building breather.  Although the A’s are talking about moving from Oakland to San Jose, the turf wars down there in the Peninsula aren’t comforting.  The Giants claim the territory is theirs.  The A’s say they’ll open San Jose's proposed Cisco Field in 2016.
Will they?
We have no idea.
But our bags are packed and sitting by the door.
We’re ready.

Abby Mendelson is a writer and educator in Pittsburgh whose books include histories of the Pittsburgh Steelers, studies of Pittsburgh neighborhoods and houses of worship, among others.  Jesse Mendelson, his son, is a healthcare consultant in Washington, D.C., inveterate baseball traveler like his dad, and skilled fantasy player.

No comments: