It was late afternoon one July day in the summer of 1966, and three of my brothers and I were driving back from Philadelphia to Long Island in a Dodge station wagon, a half hour or so after seeing the Phillies lose a lopsided game at the dilapidated Connie Mack Mack Stadium. Doug, snoozing in the back of the car, perhaps feeling the effects of several beers and the heat, cracked the rest of us up when he snapped to attention as the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” played on the local AM station, and, wide awake, belted out the first verse with David Ruffin. I was 11 at the time, and that’s about all I remember from the afternoon—we were in Philly visiting my oldest brother, who was finishing up at Wharton and living with his wife in a roach-infested walk-up—but it was a swell road trip.
As a lifelong baseball fan, I’m eagerly anticipating the start of the 2009 season, wondering how badly attendance will suffer due to the recession, whether my team, the Red Sox, can compete without much pop in their lineup, and what day in April the Baltimore Orioles will record their lowest single-game crowd, dipping under 10,000 spectators for the first time at their justly renowned Camden Yards. An article by Paul Goldberger in last week’s New Yorker—an architectural tour of the new Yankee Stadium and the Mets’ Citi Field—got me thinking about how many ballparks I’ve been to and how they rate. Unfortunately, I’ve never allotted the time to participate in the ritual cross-country trip that thousands of fans enjoy each year, racking up as many baseball games in different cities as possible, but my total of 17 stadiums isn’t, I reckon, too shabby. And, as it happens, I’ll add three to that total this summer, including the new homes of the Yanks and Mets, as well as Nationals Park, where the exceedingly dull Nats will take on the Bosox in three inter-league games this June.
So, Connie Mack dispensed with, a few comments on the remaining 16 parks, in no particular order, I’ve had the pleasure, or annoyance, to visit.
Polo Grounds. My dad took me there in 1962, a birthday present when I turned seven, and we saw, from partially obstructed seats, the Mets—in their first season—lose to the San Francisco Giants. I was too young to grasp the historical significance of the Polo Grounds, chiseled in baseball lore because of the athletic heroics of men like Christy Mathewson, Bill Terry, Bobby Thomson and Mel Ott, but say hey, what can compare to a kid’s first major league baseball game, having a hot dog with his dad and actually seeing Willie Mays live instead of on the tube?
Shea Stadium. The Mets, of course, moved there in ’64, the year of the World’s Fair in Flushing, and aside from the opening months, when you could still smell the paint, it was a dump, like so many of the monstrosities built in that era. I’ve seen about 50 games at Shea, and with the exception of sitting near home plate, never left without a crick in my neck due to the very weird slant of the seats. The constant deafening sounds from nearby LaGuardia Airport were irritating as well, the parking lot was a mess, and the food was awful. One exception: hearing the crowd scream Len-ny! Len-ny! after Lenny Dykstra hit a homer in the ’86 playoffs against the Astros. The Mets advanced to the World Series that year against the Bosox… and for obvious reasons I’ll stop there.
Fulton County Stadium. Another dud, which I visited just once, with no recollection of who the Braves were playing or what team won. The stadium was nearly empty, which made it easy to gab with my childhood buddy Howie, living in Macon, Georgia at the time completing his residency at a hospital. It was also the September day in 1987 when Maureen Dowd—not yet a self-parodying op-ed columnist—broke the news of Joe Biden plagiarizing the words of the British Labour Party’s Neil Kinnock.
Skydome. A mid-summer game in ’89, in which the Bosox creamed the Blue Jays, and notable, at least to me, as the first time I ever saw McDonald’s as an option at the concession stands. Also, I went on a whim, and though the game was nearly sold out it was very easy to buy a ticket from a scalper, and at face value. The name has changed to the Rogers Centre, but this facility remains a great place to watch baseball, with a very friendly crowd and the bonus of being located in Toronto, one of the most underrated cities in the world.
Candlestick Park. I was in San Francisco in ‘93 for a bachelor party and this was the main event—the guy was getting married for the third time, after all. Dressed in a summer suit, I absolutely froze with the legendary winds whipping up every five minutes. Again, can’t remember who won the inconsequential game—in fairness, aside from the postseason, I regard almost all National League games as inconsequential—but it was a lot of fun, resulting in a bear of a hangover the next day as I sat awaiting my flight back to New York. I nursed a few curative mugs of beer and smoked freely at the bar, another tradition that’s gone by the wayside.
Citizens Bank Park. Love the Liberty Bell, the amenities, great seats, attentive ushers, but man, the fans in Philly are not a lot of fun to be around. I was there just once, a couple of years ago when the Sox played an interleague game, and the family and I left in the sixth because of an incredibly obnoxious drunk who swore at me for having the audacity to stand and cheer when Boston scored. He also took exception to the David Ortiz t-shirt one of my sons was wearing, which occasioned another R-rated tirade, in front of his toddler daughter, I might add. I’ve no interest in returning.
Metrodome. An atrocity of a stadium—although I can’t fathom why the Twins have built their new stadium without a retractable roof, considering the weather—and at the ’85 game I attended with my friend Tom Bartel one thing stood out: the fans clapped very daintily, as if they didn’t want to offend neighbors in their section. Very strange, especially to someone from the East Coast. Also, it was nearly impossible to tell whether a ball hit was a pop-up to short or headed for the warning track. I’ve never been to the Rays’ Tropicana Field, which some cite as the worst ballpark in MLB with its catwalks and balls that drop from the dome’s ceiling, but without first-hand experience, the Metrodome is my choice.
Rangers’ Ballpark at Arlington. This terrific stadium opened a couple of years after Camden Yards and is very similar, although it has more restaurants, a ridiculous petting zoo and another confusing parking lot. I was fortunate to be sitting at a ’94 contest in my buddy Jim Larkin’s (now the co-owner of Village Voice Media, who then counted the Dallas Observer among his fat weeklies) season tix, third row, just to the left of home plate. Most memorable was that one of the Rangers’ owners at the time, George W. Bush, was sitting just a row behind us, and we could hear him schmoozing with the parade of well-wishers, reciting arcane baseball statistics. That fall, he’d upset Ann Richards for the Texas governorship and… well, this article isn’t about politics.
Dolphin Stadium. During a family visit to Miami (somewhat disastrous since both kids got sick and the maid at the then-tony Delano Hotel lifted my wife’s wedding ring and emerald earrings), my older son and I took an hour-long cab ride to see the Marlins play and it was a lot of fun, but for the wrong reasons, at least for the team’s management. The attendance didn’t top 2000 that night, and the stadium was so barren that we almost snagged a foul ball. Again, I have no recollection who won the game, but Nicky, then seven, was captivated by the club’s mascot Billy the Marlin, who was giving away freebies every inning. I’ve written about this before, but it’s absurd that the Marlins don’t move to a city that can and wants to support them.
RFK Stadium. My in-laws were in town, and since the O’s were on the road, we took Amtrak down to DC and saw the Nats in their first season at the mausoleum known as RFK Stadium, long ridiculed as perhaps the worst place to watch a baseball game. And it did really suck, although the Pirates’ then-phenom Zach Duke pitched a dandy of a ballgame. Why the Expos moved to D.C., never a baseball town, I haven’t figured out, and the team is still floundering both on the field and (until recently) in the front office. Still, I’m looking forward to my first visit to Nationals Park in June, hoping that the Sox’s ace Jon Lester will be pitching that day for Boston. I ought to note that the feelings fans have for baseball parks is highly subjective: for example, my friend Lelia, grew up rooting for the Reds, and so her favorite stadium is the now-departed Riverfront Stadium, another of those what-were-they-thinking architectural goofs of the mid-20th century.
Wrigley Field. In Chicago for an alternative newspaper convention in ‘83, a friend from Denver and I skipped an afternoon seminar—something asinine about the ethical dilemma of accepting lucrative adult advertising, which bothered publishers more in theory than practice—for my first trip to baseball’s second-oldest stadium. This was back at a time that, while the Cubs were a draw, you could still buy great seats the day before the game, and I wasn’t disappointed. Like Fenway Park, Wrigley isn’t all that comfortable, and the bathroom situation is close to intolerable—although the troughs in the men’s rooms instead of individual urinals was kind of quaint if you’re not overly shy—but it really did have the intimacy of a high school field, and the intense urban atmosphere was easily as interesting as the game itself.
Fenway Park. Surprisingly, I have mixed feelings about Fenway, despite a slavish allegiance to the Sox. I haven’t been there in several years—the prices are prohibitive for a family of four—and so have thankfully missed out on the bandwagon fans since the team broke their curse in ’04, but the myth of the “lyrical little bandbox” is a little rich for my blood. Until recently, the groundskeeping and drainage was awful, so much so that one June night in the late 90s, after a violent but short thunderstorm had flooded not only the field but the ground floor inside as well, the game was postponed even though the sun was suddenly shining at the schedule start time. In addition, the seats are cramped and not built for people who weigh over 150 lbs. The hardcore fans can be very nasty, even to fellow Sox partisans, and only in puritanical Boston would a 40-year-old have to show identification to buy an overpriced Coors Light beer. That said, the atmosphere both inside and outside Fenway is truly electric; no baseball icon, in my opinion, tops the Green Monster; and I’ll never forget the day Pedro Martinez, then in his prime, fawned over one of my sons, giving him a piece of Bazooka bubble gum.
Yankee Stadium. The hagiography—which wasn’t nearly as pronounced when I first attended a doubleheader there in 1963—is stifling, and promises to be worse at the new stadium. Yes, the Yanks are the most famous franchise in American sports, but its Hall of Fame players aren’t exactly in the same league as Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, Franklin and Paine. As Goldberger writes in his New Yorker piece, the “cathedral” about to open will have far better amenities, which is key, since you’d often miss two innings waiting on line at a concession stand. Nevertheless, much like Fenway, when you attend a Yankees game it’s more like a championship boxing match, with spectators hanging on every pitch, in stark contrast to the more “friendly” stadiums, and that suits me fine, even if I’m wearing a Sox cap. I haven’t the space to recite the countless indelible memories of the perhaps 200 games I’ve seen at Yankee Stadium, but seeing Roger Clemens throw a splintered bat at Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series, with the ensuring bench-clearing melee, ranks right up there.
Memorial Stadium. Younger fans, especially in Baltimore, don’t remember when the Orioles, year-in, year-out, fielded one of the top five teams in baseball. Memorial Stadium, which never drew as well as Camden Yards, was a great park, although I’m somewhat biased since I spent so much time there as a beer and hot dog vendor as a mid-70s college student. That was when a bottle of National Bohemian cost 60 cents and a Coke was 35 cents. Still, it was a true neighborhood stadium—Camden Yards is in downtown Baltimore’s Inner Harbor—and on game nights the traffic was fierce, the local bars jammed with customers and after the sixth inning the gates opened for anyone who wanted to catch the rest of the game for free. Sadly, when the O’s moved downtown, the neighborhood of Waverly went to seed and is currently not an area of town you want to walk around after dark.
Angel Stadium. Oddly enough, as a Northeasterner, this is my favorite place to watch a ballgame. The seating is great, the food even better (incredible burritos) and I’ve never seen a more efficient out-of-town scoreboard, one that wraps around the stadium. It helps that I like the Angels a lot, except when they’re playing the Sox, and I never imagined I’d get caught up in the “rally monkey” phenomenon, but it’s pretty infectious when you’re in the stands.
Camden Yards. My local stadium since 2003, and it’s still a dandy, despite the congestion around the park, the lousy grub at Boog’s Barbecue and New York prices at the concession stands. Still, for a park that’s been around since ’92, Camden Yards isn’t yet run-down, almost all the seats are good ones, and the crowd is engaged but not hostile to fans of other teams. In fact, given the Orioles’ decade-long reign of incompetence on the field, the park itself is probably the most attractive feature of this now-beleaguered franchise. (It’s said that GM Andy MacPhail is slowly but surely building a contender, but I’ll believe that when the O’s finally finish above .500.) The kids and I go to a lot of games here, often accompanied by my longtime friend Michael Yockel (his favorite stadium is the pitiful Pirates’ PNC Park), who’s a perfect seatmate. He’ll chat with my older son (not a huge baseball fan) about garage rock in the ‘60s and then turn around and talk baseball with my Sox-obsessed younger teenager. It’s a relaxing place to spend time—except when the Sox or Yanks are in town—and although the tradition of still playing John Denver’s horrific “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy” at the seventh-inning stretch drives me nuts, you can complain about the level of play on the field but certainly not the stadium the O’s play in.