Mar 07, 2019, 06:29AM

Twenty-Two Ballparks and Counting

Onward to Cleveland and Detroit!

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It was late in the 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 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 pregnant wife in a roach-infested walk-up—but it was a swell road trip.

I’m keenly anticipating the March 28th start of the 2019 season, wondering if the professional worrywarts are correct that attendance will decrease, whether my team, the Red Sox, can repeat their magnificent 2018 season, and what day in April the Baltimore Orioles will record their lowest single-game crowd. (Ten bucks says the O’s surprise fans this year, perhaps winning 70 games. The team just can’t be worse than last year.) 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 22 stadiums isn’t, I reckon, too shabby. Then again, at 63, I’ve had a lot of time to collect parks.

So, Connie Mack dispensed with, a few comments on the remaining 21 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 stars 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 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 Jets played there, too). 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. I’ve yet to visit the present ballpark, Citi Field, but I’m told it’s pretty good. But who wants to see a Mets game? Time for the Wilpons to sell.

Fulton County Stadium. Another dud, which I visited just once, with no recollection of who the Atlanta 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 New York Times op-ed columnist—broke the news of Joe Biden (in his first attempt at the presidency) plagiarizing the words of the British Labour Party’s Neil Kinnock. Also strange: back in Macon at a spectacular ribs joint for dinner, Howie told me that several of his neighbors asked if he were Jewish. Responding in the affirmative, they’d shake their heads in bewilderment. Haven’t been back since, but one, if charitable, would assume the city’s more tolerant.

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 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, still one of the most underrated cities in the world. 

Candlestick Park. I was in San Francisco in the early-90s 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 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 airport 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, in 2006, when the Sox played an interleague game, and the family and I left in the sixth because of an uncommonly 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 built Target Field 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 who mainly follows the A.L. East. 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 (now called Globe Life Park)—soon to be replaced—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 season tickets, 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.

Joe Robbie 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 then-Florida 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.

Marlins Park. My son Booker and I, on a road trip to Miami in 2012, saw a game here and the park was okay: opened that year, I thought the place was built on the cheap—not so, said my old friend Ron Mann, a BMOC in the city—but given the historical weirdness associated with the Marlins, most notably the crackpot owner Jeffrey Loria—and his successors, led by frontman Derek Jeter, are cheesy as well—who’d expect anything different? The game was actually incidental, just a bennie, since we had a better time at the local Cuban restaurants. Not so much fun, however, was getting lost on the outskirts of Little Havana, searching in vain for the strip of Santeria shops that I remembered from an ’87 visit, and winding up in a dodgy area.  

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 a pit. And it did really suck, although the Pirates’ then-phenom Zach Duke pitched a dandy of a ballgame. It’s a shame the ’94-’95 strike snuffed out the Montreal Expos (here’s hoping the Tampa Bay Rays move to Montreal), but the Nats—although the Buffalo Bills of MLB—have flourished. I ought to note that the feelings fans have for baseball parks is highly subjective: for example, my friend Leila 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.

Nationals Park. I was glad when the Nats relocated to their new park in 2008 in the SE district of D.C., a once-blighted area of the city that’s created a lot of jobs and nearby businesses. The ballpark’s a little confusing, but our seats were great and, even if the Yankees defeated the then-struggling Nats, the family had a fine outing.

Wrigley Field. In Chicago for an alternative newspaper convention in ’83, a friend 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. Thanks to Theo Epstein, the Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016, insuring the former Boston GM, at the helm when the Sox ended their own championship drought in 2004, is an automatic Hall-of-Famer.

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 are 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 (the accompanying picture of my son Booker and me is from 2012). I haven’t been there in several years—the prices are prohibitive and it’s easier to see the team in Baltimore—but the myth of the “lyric little bandbox” (a nice turn of phrase by John Updike in The New Yorker about watching Ted Williams’ last game in 1960, but since prostituted by lesser writers) is a little rich for my blood. Until a decade ago, the outfield 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 scheduled start time. A pain in the ass for people who traveled to see the game; not like a raincheck would do much good. 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.

The “Old” Yankee Stadium. The hagiography—which wasn’t nearly as pronounced when I first attended a doubleheader there in 1963—was stifling. 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. 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 150 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. Oh, and also in 1967, when Yaz hit a pinch-hit homer to win the game for the Red Sox in their “Impossible Dream” season.

The “New” Yankee Stadium. NYC fans still indulge, at this late date, in talk of “Yankees class,” but their current park, opened in 2009, is creepy. Walk in and you think the ghost of Albert Speer designed the ground floor, cold and steely, with huge banners of past and present Yankees stars instead of swastikas. The concession stand lines aren’t as long, but the place is claustrophobic, with a garish Jumbotron and rotating neon advertisements. It’s like a snippet from a bad acid trip. I’ve no idea why the classic Yankee Stadium, opened in 1923, not far from where my mother lived in the Bronx, was given to the wrecking ball, but it’s not an improvement.

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 (at least in the early years of the newer venue), 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. It’s unlikely, given Baltimore’s craven government, but some of those millions of dollars lavished on Harbor East and beyond, could go a long way to gentrify a once-splendid neighborhood.

Angel Stadium. Oddly enough, as a Northeasterner, this is one of my favorite places 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, except when they’re playing the Sox, and I never imagined I’d get caught up in the “rally monkey” phenomenon that mushroomed in 2005 (the year we visited), but it was pretty infectious.

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. The kids and I went to a lot of games here, often accompanied by my longtime friend Michael Yockel (his favorite stadium is the Pirates’ PNC Park), who’s a perfect seatmate. He’d chat with my older son (not a huge baseball fan) about garage rock in the 1960s and then turn around and talk baseball with my Sox-obsessed younger teenager. My wife Melissa, an O’s fan, loves going there on Sunday afternoons. 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.

Oakland Coliseum. As I’ve noted above, a lot of ballparks are dumps, and though the A’s home—when the team ever receives permission to relocate to a new venue is up for grabs—fits that description, there’s a charm that can’t be denied. It’s not the excessive security measures we encountered in 2015, or the freezing temperatures at night games, but just the fact that the confines are so ridiculous, with such an expansive foul territory, and that superstar executive Billy Beane—still searching for his first title—almost always, out of nowhere, fields a competitive team.

Safeco Field. A lot of fans insist the Seattle Mariners’ home field is tops in baseball, and I wouldn’t argue too much. My sons and took in a Red Sox game there in 2015, accompanied by my niece Jenny and husband Rick, and it was almost perfect. I like the trains that toot every 10 minutes or so, the convenient downtown location, the ease of finding your seats and—although overrated—the food’s varied and not the usual crap on offer at most stadiums.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955


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