Inspired in part by Jonah Keri’s story on Grantland, I thought I’d write a post about my favorite ballparks. It’s hardly as comprehensive as Keri’s; I’ve only been to twelve Big League stadiums (that includes two that have been demolished, Shea and the old Yankee Stadium, and one that will be soon, Candlestick), so it seems like a Top Five countdown, with one honorable mention, seems about right. I have no pretense toward objectivity here: These rankings are about my personal experience at these parks, and as such are entirely predicated on my biases. If you don’t like what I have to say, write your own list. (For the record, the ballparks I’ve visited that didn’t make the cut: Safeco in Seattle, the Big A in Anaheim, Coors in Colorado, old Yankee Stadium, Shea, and Candlestick.) Now, on to the countdown!
Honorable Mention: Dodger Stadium
This will probably surprise many of my friends, as I’m a diehard NorCal guy who bitterly hates all L.A. and Orange County sports teams. But I went to college in Santa Barbara, a two-hour drive from Dodger Stadium, and was good friends with a few Dodger fans, so I’ve been to several games at Dodger Stadium over the years. And somewhat surprisingly, I’ve always enjoyed the experience. From an outsider’s perspective, there’s something very “L.A.” about going to a game there: The stadium is nestled in the hills just above and to the east of downtown, lending it a panoramic feeling with lovely views that capture the landscape of the region. Of course, as befits L.A., the traffic is horrible getting in and out of the parking lot–the main reason for the at least somewhat true stereotype of fans who show up in the third and leave in the seventh. But in spite of the fairweather element to the team’s fan base, there are a lot of true diehards, many of them from the largely Latino neighborhoods that surround the stadium (one of my college roommates grew up ten minutes from from the ballpark).
The downside of the true-diehard-fan element is there’s a sense of violence in the air, surpassing perhaps even Philadelphia’s sporting events: there’s no beer sold in the bleachers, where I once saw four fights in my section alone during a Dodgers-Padres game; gunshots have been fired in the parking lot; and of course there was the horrible Bryan Stow incident, when a Giants fan was nearly beaten to death after a game. My Dodger fan friends swear that the violence is a product of Raiders fans who needed a new team after the silver and black went north. I don’t know. At any rate, aside from this black mark, which as a diehard sports fan I actually understand (at least a little), Dodger Stadium is a lovely, classic (third-oldest park in the Majors) place to watch a ballgame. Although I fail to see the hype behind the Dodger Dog.
5. The Oakland Coliseum
I know, it’s a concrete pit. I know, it’s in a brutal neighborhood. I know, it’s usually empty. But allow me to explain: It used to be different. In the early 1990s, when I moved to the Bay Area from New York, it was an open stadium, with views of the East Bay hills, a grass lawn above the bleachers (which were actual bleachers, and which were $4 a pop for seats), and great food options, from the sausage stand Keri mentioned in his story, to the Black Muslim Bakery’s sandwiches (before the deeply disturbing Yusuf Bey scandal), to the steamed Chinese pork bun I had at my first game there.
Then, in 1995, Al Davis moved the Raiders back from L.A. and conned the city of Oakland into building a monstrosity of a centerfield grandstand that destroyed the ballpark’s ambiance. And then the A’s robber baron owners began tarping off the upper decks in a not-so-subtle attempt to drive down attendance so they could move the team to the tech money-fertilized greener pastures of Silicon Valley. The team’s attendance has languished since, though fans did come out in droves for the A’s playoff series against the Tigers last year. At any rate, there is still a diehard fan base in Oakland, and the Coliseum was once a great place to watch a ball game. I could write 10,000 more words about this, but instead I’ll just say, Fuck you, Al Davis, and Fuck you, Lew Wolff.
4. Phone Booth Ballpark
Or, Corporate Telecom Field, if you prefer. Or, as the brilliant Grant Brisbee at McCovey Chronicles calls it, Mays Field. Aside from my snark about the name, the Giants truly do have a beautiful homefield, with views of San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge. McCovey Cove beyond right field has become the home to all sorts of shenanigans, from people diving after Barry Bonds home run balls, to a guy cruising around in a floating Back to the Future-style Delorean, to the time I saw two drunk guys jump in and race each other across the cove, only to get arrested when they reached the other side (Addendum: One of the guys lost his wallet when he jumped in, and a homeless guy saw it floating there and jumped in to get it. He was also arrested.) There are also great food and beer options (the garlic fries, ye gods). There’s the way Giants fans turned it into the loudest stadium in baseball during the 2012 NLCS and World Series. And finally, I’m partial to the place because it’s the rare stadium that actually fulfilled its promise to revitalize its neighborhood–China Basin, once home to a sea of industrial warehouses, now sports a lovely embarcadero, restaurants and bars, and sometime in the next few years, a new Golden State Warriors basketball arena. And Giants owners payed for the ballpark themselves, instead of taking public money and then pocketing the profits, as so many other sports owners have.
And I mean, hell, just look at this photo. It makes me want to hop a flight to SFO right now.
3. PNC Park
There’s a sneaky secret about Pittsburgh: It’s actually a beautiful city. During its industrial heyday, the city was rightly known for being a polluted hellhole (the skies could be so black with pollution that noon could seem like midnight).
But a funny thing happened when all those steel mills closed: The skies cleared! This was an economic disaster, but an environmental blessing that revealed a city perched at the lovely confluence of three might rivers, bright yellow steel bridges crossing those rivers, and hills on either side that afford great views of the town (panoramically, the city reminds me a great deal of Portland). If you’re coming from downtown, you walk across those bridges to get to the ballpark, and from your seat in the stadium, you can take in the river and downtown–the best sight lines in all of baseball. And the food at the ballpark is great, too, especially Pittsburgh’s signature dish: the Primanti Brothers sandwich.
2. Camden Yards
As much as I love Mays Field and PNC Park, Camden Yards, the stadium that started the retro design craze, is my favorite of the newfangled ballparks. Maybe because it was the first. Maybe because when I saw a game there I ate three pulled pork sandwiches from Boog Powell’s BBQ (they were sublime). Maybe because they filmed a scene for an episode of The Wire there (I’m really pissed I can’t find the clip). Maybe because the old B&O Railroad warehouse looks so cool beyond the rightfield fence. Maybe because there’s a strip club like a block away (or there used to be, anyway). No matter how you shake it, I love Camden.
But at a certain point, the self-consciously retro can’t top the true vintage experience, which is why my favorite ballpark couldn’t be any other than…
1. Wrigley Field
Look, Wrigley’s not perfect. It’s a strangely bland structure from the outside. The food and beer options suck. The bathroom situation is a nightmare. But none of that matters when you’re in the midst of the true Wrigley Field experience. The uniqueness begins with the time of first pitch: Unlike any other big league club, the Cubs play the vast majority of their home games during the day, so everyone at the stadium has the day off. Ditching work, or in Ferris Bueller’s case, school, to go to Wrigley is a time-honored Chicago tradition. No matter which way you come to get to the stadium, you pass through ten straight blocks of watering hole after watering hole, seemingly every storefront dedicated toward getting you snockered. Then you sit in your cramped seats (or packed bleachers), and while the beer options suck, at least the vendors are bringing those Old Styles right to your seat. And then you watch the game, staring out over a field that’s so old-timey it seems older than time itself, with ivy draped in vines over the brick walls, the old scoreboard and the pennants whipping in the wind, and you look at the buildings across the street with their rooftop grandstands, and you feel for a moment like you’re really in a Rockwell painting, that this is what America is supposed to be. And you hope one day the Cubbies can win the World Series, that a championship celebration does come to this magical place. And once the game’s over, you exit the ballpark and you barhop your way back toward home. Maybe you’ll meet the girl of your dreams–it seems like every pretty girl that graduated from a Big Ten school in the past five years is at the game or in one of the bars afterward. But more likely you’ll find yourself stumbling alone into your bed, though it’s barely dark yet, and you’ll pass out with a smile, knowing that you just spent a day in paradise, or as they call it in Chicago: Wrigleyville.