Spring Training has traditionally been the time when Major League Baseball players head for warmer climates to shake off the rust of the long winter. This year, however, it's the game's fans who need to recover from baseball's lengthy off-season. Fans have been bombarded over the last few months with stories of baseball players using steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. We've been subjected to leaked grand jury testimonies, former players promoting "tell-all" books, and press conferences about yet another way baseball has lost its innocence. Through all this strife and off-field static, where can true fans turn to shake off our own winter discontent and get re-energized for baseball?
Simple. The game itself.
If baseball therapy sounds like a good idea, perhaps the best way to see the game is in person. While baseball is conducive to television viewing (and for that matter, radio listening), it's best experienced in person, where the game becomes a true sensory experience. The sights and sounds, however, are not the same in every stadium. All of North America's 30 Major League Baseball facilities offer their own take on America's national pastime.
I am fortunate enough to have been born and raised a baseball fan in the American Northeast, specifically in the very center of the great state of New Jersey. Because of that, I grew up a stone's throw from Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium in New York and Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Central Jersey is also a reasonable drive to Boston and Baltimore (if five hours in the car seems reasonable to you). So these five stadiums were pretty easy for me to get to over the years. In addition, I once tacked an extra day onto a business trip in Cincinnati to visit Cinergy Field and took a long weekend in Toronto to visit the SkyDome. Again, relatively easy.
Feeling ambitious, in the summer of 2002 I embarked on a six-day, five-city baseball odyssey through the Midwest that covered Jacobs Field in Cleveland, Comerica Park in Detroit, Miller Park in Milwaukee, Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago, and PNC Park in Pittsburgh. And while I highly recommend a trip like this, it's one you may very well take alone. The odds of making the game schedule and travel schedule coincide with the available vacations of more than one person are unlikely at best. The upside to traveling solo, however, is that single seats (usually very good ones) seem to be readily available at most parks.
Baseball stadiums seem to fall into three categories at the moment: the old, hallowed parks, the new gleaming stadiums, and, for lack of a better term, the rest. Baseball has seen an explosion of new ballparks in the last 15 years, which has really helped to shape and define these three categories. The new parks have drawn a lot of attention, and have subsequently trained a microscope on the oldest ballparks left in Major League Baseball. In many ways, it is just what the old parks lack in comparison to the new that some fans seem most fond of. I have been fortunate enough to visit the three oldest, most revered baseball stadiums still in operation: Boston's Fenway Park, Chicago's Wrigley Field, and New York's Yankee Stadium.
The similarities between Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are striking. If you were not specifically looking for these parks, you could very well drive or even walk right past them. Both are nestled into neighborhoods, not parked in some suburban industrial area or strategically placed in an urban revitalization zone with a centerfield view of the city's skyline. Both are known by the uniqueness of their outfield wallsFenway with its famously high left field wall (the Green Monster) and Wrigley with its brick outfield wall covered in ivy. Many diehard baseball fans can even tell you the names of the streets where these stadiums sit; Lansdowne Street for Fenway, which lies behind the Monster, and Waveland Avenue, where souvenir seekers wait for home town sluggers to send them another collectible (souvenirs from the other team get sent back over the wall). These are the kinds of places built when America was beginning its love affair with the game. Fenway and Wrigley exist for one purpose: baseball. If you're not interested in watchingand I mean really watchingbaseball, you should probably scratch these parks off your sight-seeing list.
Fenway Park opened on April 14th 1912, the same week the Titanic sunk. To put that into perspective, 11 new Major League Baseball stadiums have opened since the movie "Titanic" premiered in 1997. Naturally, Fenway has had its share of improvements over the yearsmany of which revolve around the never-ending need to create more seats for the Red Sox-crazed citizens of Boston. But from a baseball-viewing perspective, little has changed at Fenway in the last 93 years. A manual scoreboard still operates from the base of the Green Monster, and the right field foul polePesky's Pole (named for Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky)is still tantalizingly close to home plate. Gaze into left field and you can almost see Ted Williams hitting doubles against the Monster, or Carl Yastrzemski expertly fielding balls off of it, turning doubles into singles. Once inside Fenway, fans are treated to a cozy, intimate parksimilar, I'm told, to Ebbets Field, the long-gone home of the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers. Because of its close quarters, the Fenway faithful are right on top of the action, injecting themselves into the game with passionate, knowledgeable commentary. In some cities, a team that hadn't won a World Series title in over eighty years (a streak that ended last fall) and occupied an old park that is largely devoid of bells and whistles would play to empty houses and apathetic fans. In Boston however, the Red Sox are an institutiona religion. For the three hours that I sat in the small, uncomfortable seats in Fenway's lower deck, my soul was treated to baseball as it should be.
Wrigley Field opened two years after Fenway. It is equally long on charm and short on amenities, and is similarly revered. I arrived at "The Friendly Confines" early for two reasons: I wanted to experience the ballpark before the game, and because every Chicagoan I talked to said "get to the game early" (right after they said "leave your car at home and take the train.") After having an "Old Style" beer at the famous "Cubby Bear" bar across the street, I gave my regards to the statue of legendary Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray and took my seat as soon as I was able. The Cubs play more day games than any team in the league, but I happened to get a ticket for a night game. No matter. When I arrived, the sun was still shining on the ivy-covered outfield wall. Watching batting practice, I listened to a grandmother a few rows away explain the intricacies of baseball to her granddaughter. You hear a lot today that baseball is "losing the kids," and that the game must change to adapt to a younger demographic. This may or may not be true, but you would never believe it if you saw this little girl in her Cubs cap listen with rapt attention as her grandmother explained the basics of the game. It was a lasting image befitting a baseball shrine like Wrigley Field.
Since the passing of Harry Caray, who led the Cubs faithful in singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh inning stretch, Wrigley has taken to having celebrities lead the fans in the song. On my trip, former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon did the honors. For those of you who remember "The Super Bowl Shuffle," I'm happy to report that McMahon sings slightly better than he raps.
The third oldest ballpark still operating in Major League Baseball is New York's Yankee Stadium. At the risk of divulging my own baseball allegiance, I'll admit that Yankee Stadium was the first park I visited and is the stadium I have visited most often. And while it is linked to Fenway and Wrigley based on its age, it is also very different. For, while Fenway is a park and Wrigley is a field, Yankee Stadium is, well, a stadium. (In fact, many baseball fans and broadcasters simply refer to it as "The Stadium.") It was built to be largelarge enough to hold the crowds that wanted to see its first and most famous tenant hit home runs. And while "The House That Ruth Built" has changed since its opening in 1923 (including a major renovation in the 1970s), left-handed batters still dig into the same batter's box where Ruth and Lou Gehrig stood. Unlike some other parks that favor a green color scheme, Yankee Stadium is decidedly blue. It is framed around its perimeter by a white crown, and its storied outfield features "Monument Park," home to plaques and retired numbers that celebrate the fabled history of the most successful franchise in sports. Like Fenway and Wrigley, Yankee Stadium is home to vocal, knowledgeable, and passionate fans. Among its current traditions are the "roll call," where the fans in the right field bleachers (the "Bleacher Creatures") chant the names of each Yankee starter, and don't stop until the player acknowledges them. Also, the stadium grounds crew skillfully performs The Village People's "YMCA" to standing ovations while cleaning the infield after the fifth inning. And while you're at Yankee Stadium, listen carefully to the eloquent gentleman doing the public address announcing. His name is Bob Shepherd, and he's been giving the lineups at Yankee Stadium since "number five, Joe DiMaggio, number five" was patrolling the vast expanse of its centerfield. When the game ends in a Yankees victory, Mr. Shepherd hands it off to Mr. Sinatra (on tape, of course), who sings "New York, New York" to the departing crowd as he has done for years.
If Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Yankee Stadium are beloved for their history, the newest ballparks are loved for their novelty. Beginning with the Baltimore Orioles in 1992, beautiful, functional, and fan-friendly parks have popped up across America. Most of these new ballparks are small, featuring smaller capacities in the stands and smaller dimensions on the field. In the 60s and 70s, teams began putting up larger parksparks designed in some cases to accommodate both baseball and football. Lost were the intimate settings and the eccentric outfield layouts of the past. In their place were circular stadiums with logical, symmetrical outfields that only a social scientist or city planner could love. And in many cases, these stadiums also featured Astroturf, a bouncy, faux-grass eyesore that haunts the memories of most baseball fans like Roseanne Barr "performing" the National Anthem prior to a Padres game in 1990.
Builders of the newest parks derived their inspiration from the earliest days of baseball, where places like Wrigley and Fenway provided a small, close environment. They turned their backs on Astroturf and symmetrical dimensions and created baseball parks where outfields were unpredictable and the fans were close enough to feel like part of the action.
Detractors of these new small ballparks frequently cite their outfield dimensions as culprits in the home run explosion that has taken place over the last ten years. (Allegations of juiced baseballs and yes, juiced baseball players, have shared the blame.) There is surely something to this, especially when one sees films of Willie Mays tracking down long drives in the cavernous centerfield of the Polo Grounds or Mickey Mantle launching home runs over the centerfield wall in the old Yankee Stadiumsome 461 feet away.
Another knock you occasionally hear about the new stadiums is that they look too similar to each other. Most of these parks have a no-doubt focus group tested dark green color scheme to them, and many of them feature brick walls somewhere in their design. Some fans and writers have charged that they look too much like franchised bistro-restaurants. I pondered this while dining in the T.G.I. Friday's in Miller Park's centerfield area. Yes, new ballparks are also big on restaurants in centerfield. Still, while the purist in me might chuckle at this, there are worse places to watch a game.
Perhaps the most commonly discussed issue with stadiumsparticularly new stadiumsis their names. More and more, sports arenas are being named for corporate sponsors who fork over big money for the naming privilege. Nearly all of the new parks are adorned with a sponsor's name, including many of the fields I've visited. Some of these names are less reprehensible than others. For example, an outsider might be able to convince himself that the Miller in Miller Park (or even the Coors in Denver's Coors Field) is just some wealthy, benevolent old baseball fan who helped the team out and was rewarded with his name on the stadium. It would be fiction, but a pleasant fiction. There is just no warming up to names like "Comerica Park" or "PNC Park". To combat this, some fans have taken to creating alternate names for these fields. Bank One Ballpark in Arizona is frequently called "The Bob," as Edison International in Anaheim was called "The Ed," and so on. It's an improvement, I guess.
The other trend in stadium naming was the odd and somewhat pretentious use of the word "at." Where once stadiums were identified with two or three word names, Baltimore decided their new field deserved fiveOriole Park at Camden Yards. Not to be outdone, Texas gave us The Ballpark at Arlington. (In an attempt to further confuse baseball fansand to cash in on millions of "naming rights" dollarsTexas has since changed the name of their facility from "The Ballpark" to "Ameriquest Field," and replaced the pretentious "at Arlington" with the nearly as pretentious "in Arlington." Got that?) Still, few people really use those names in their entirety. Camden Yards and The Ballpark have been more than sufficient. In Anaheim, "Edison International Field" has recently been re-named "Angel Stadium of Anaheim," and the Anaheim Angels (formerly the California Angels, formerly the Los Angeles Angels) are now officially called "The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim." Six words, two cities, one team. Please write small on your scorecards.
I truly enjoyed most of the new ballparks I've been to. They're spotlessly-clean, something the oldest parks can't always claim. They're also are very convenient. The hallways are wide, and at field level they stretch the entire perimeter of the stadium, meaning you can make a right turn, walk the entire stadium and end up back at your seat. (If you make a right turn inside Yankee Stadium, you'll eventually run into a dead-end somewhere in right field, causing you to turn around and come back.) And while baseball purists like myself may scoff at the "enhancements" some new ballparks tout (swimming pools in the outfield, an uphill-graded centerfield with a flagpole in the playing field, trains that run noisily behind outfield walls, etc.), some of them can be quite nice. Walk behind the right field wall in Camden Yards and you can visit Boog's Barbeque. Comerica Park features beautiful statues of Tiger greats beyond the left field stands. Cleveland's Jacobs Field has interesting architecture and dramatic views of the city's downtown area. And at PNC Park, the openness of the stadium treats the fans to stunning views of Pittsburgh, its rivers, and bridges from almost anywhere inside.
Lost in the nostalgia for the oldest parks and the excitement of the newest are a few somewhat non-distinct ballparks. These stadiums all seem to lack something, and in my mind fall into the category of "other." In my travels, the stadiums that rank in this somewhat forgettable grouping are Shea Stadium in New York, U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, The SkyDome in Toronto, and the recently closed Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and Cinergy Field in Cincinnati.
To a baseball fan, this may seem like a strange grouping. Indeed, Shea Stadium was opened in 1964a full quarter of a century before The SkyDome and U.S. Cellular. But Shea still isn't old enough or unique enough to merit a place with Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Yankee Stadium. The same is true for the now-gone Veterans Stadium and Cinergy Field (called Riverfront Stadium by baseball fans in the Queen City in more innocent times). I suppose the thing these stadiums all have in common is that they were built after Yankee Stadium and before Camden Yards. And therein lies the problem.
For its part, Shea Stadium is not an offensive place to watch a game. It has very competitive and reasonable outfield dimensions (in today's baseball it's called a "pitcher's park") and an overall good baseball layout, and it has always had a well-manicured grass playing surface. The problem with Shea is that it lacks the ambience and history of the oldest parks and the spotlessness and aesthetic beauty of the new ones. It's kind of stuck in the middle.
The Vet and Cinergy Field fell into the previously discussed category of multi-purpose parks constructed in the early 70s. Both of these stadiums were round, utilitarian places, and unlike Shea, both featured various Astroturf surfaces during their short, unspectacular 30-plus year existences (though Cinergy switched to grass a few years prior to closing). Both of these parks are gone now (thank God), replaced by two smaller, more intimate, grass-surfaced, corporate-named parks: Citizens Bank Park and The Great American Ballpark respectively. And before you wax too poetically about the patriotic name of Cincinnati's new park, be aware that "Great American" is a corporate name, rented from an insurance company with the same moniker.
The SkyDome and U.S. Cellular were built a few years before Camden Yards, and missed out on the character that made that park and its contemporaries such good places to watch a ballgame. Both of these parks do feature the spotlessness of the stadiums that followed them, and neither of them are plagued by the stale, circular shape or symmetrical style of the cookie-cutter parks of the 60s and 70s. U.S. Cellular (called Comiskey, like its predecessor, until 2003) has a grass field, wide concourses, and the wrap-around field level that enables fans to walk the entire park. However, it doesn't have the same feel as the post-Camden Yards parks. It's not as small, not as friendly or accommodating. To their credit, the White Sox are currently in the midst of design improvements aimed at making the park more intimate and aesthetically pleasing. They weren't too far off the mark to begin with.
Toronto's SkyDome was much heralded when it opened in 1989, mostly because of its retractable roof and centerfield restaurant. The first few years of its existence were filled with winning teams and sold-out stands. And while it is an interesting park in a nice area of Toronto (right next to the CN Tower), I think it falls a little short in the baseball department. First off, it's an Astroturf field. A friend of minemore militant than I, perhapslikened it to watching baseball played on a clay tennis court. As I sat in the centerfield restaurant one afternoon and watched the grounds crew stretch a faux chalk foul-line over the faux grass, I couldn't really disagree with him. Also, some of the seats (at least the seat I was in) didn't exactly face the infield. I had to twist my body to see the action. I know that SkyDome is a multi-purpose facility, but when rating the field as a baseball stadium, I just can't forgive them for that. Lastly, the sound effects person at The SkyDome was the busiest I have ever heard. It seemed like there was a sound effect after every pitch (broken glass for foul balls, a frequent Homer Simpson "D'oh!" if a Blue Jay was struck out, etc). However, I did have the pleasure of watching them close the retractable roof while I was inside. That was pretty interesting, if for no other reason than it disrupted some of the noise coming from the sound system.
I really don't mean to disparage these "other" stadiums. They were all part of the learning process that builders went through on the way to creating the ballparks of today. And I'm certain that fans of the teams occupying these stadiums have lasting memories of them. Shea Stadium has been home to several winning teams, including two World Series Champions. Riverfront housed some fantastic Reds teams in its brief historyincluding "The Big Red Machine" that was a constant playoff team in the mid-70s and won two World Series titles. SkyDome has seen lots of exciting baseball in its short history, including two World Series Champions. As for the Vet, aside from the 1980 season, it saw more losing than a Las Vegas craps table. But it was home to several Hall of Fame players, and it's certain that thousands of fans saw their first game there and began a love affair with baseball inside its doors.
Of course the best part of North America's ballparks is the fact that baseball is still played there. From the stands, you don't see the steroids, you can't hear the press conferences, and if you take your eyes off the jumbo-sized video screens and centerfield swimming pools long enough to take a peek at the field, you'll see a game that is still graceful and smart. Regardless of the name on the building, the dimensions of its outfield, or the accessibility of its snack bars, that's a pretty good way to end a long day of driving.