Ballpark Bracket and Dodger Dogs

In eight days, the sports news outlets will find themselves with a surplus of airtime to fill.  The NBA Finals will end by Wednesday, June 26th at the latest, the NBA Draft will commence and conclude on Thursday, June 28th, and the Olympics won’t begin until Friday, July 27th — and even then, NBC owns the rights to everything Olympic-related.  Given the upcoming month-long sports news lull, I was surprised to see ESPN publishing a feature story like Battle of the Ballparks now as opposed to the week of July 1st.  Either way, ESPN’s Jim Caple has devised a 30-stadium bracket to determine the ideal ballpark as voted by the fans.

The parameters outlined are fair and comprehensive: location, architecture, history, seating, price, concessions, scoreboards, transportation, roofs, and grass.  My only issue with the bracket was Angel Stadium coming in as the #8 seed out of 30; this unofficially ranked in my bottom ten.  Other than idyllic weather and plenty of parking, I wanted more out of this park and its fans.  The seating bowl is still too expansive for a baseball-only venue, despite an extensive renovation after the Rams moved out.  And the fans in Angel Stadium on May 7, 2011, made a caricature of their laid back Californian stereotype by showing up in the 2nd inning and by minimizing their applause to golf claps for most of the evening even with Jered Weaver on the bump.

The most notable attribute of this bracket is a reflection on how much ballparks have improved over the last 23 years.  I would argue that there is more variance from ballpark #27 (Nationals Park, as seeded by Jim Caple) to #30 (Tropicana Field) than there is between PNC Park (seeded #1 by Caple) and Nationals Park.  When Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks author Bob Wood parsed out his stadium grades for the ballpark class of 1986, only Dodger Stadium, Royals Stadium, Milwaukee County Stadium, and Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium were given an A or A- grade.  Consider that Royals Stadium was #2 in 1986 according to Wood; the park has since replaced its Astroturf with natural grass, undergone a sizable renovation which included a new scoreboard and outfield concourse, yet somehow slipped to #12 in another journalist’s rankings.  The only current stadium that might get a D by Wood’s 1986 standards would be Tropicana Field, and the narrow band of C-graded parks might be just Rogers Centre and the Oakland Coliseum.  After all, the Coliseum garnered a B (T-7th out of 26 parks) in 1986 and not even Mount Davis could drop a stadium by two full grades.

Parks on the whole have improved vastly; even though Nationals Park was my least favorite park under twenty years old, I’ll take it any day over this, that, and the other.  I’m curious which park will receive top billing from the polls, and my guess would be AT&T Park in San Francisco due to its wow factor and its immediate visual recognition even amongst casual fans.

On an unrelated note, one of my favorite blogs for the last few years been newballpark.org, a site dedicated to tracking the progress of a new ballpark for the Oakland Athletics.  There hasn’t been much real progress of late towards a new park, but the blog’s primary author (who posts under the pseudonym “Marine Layer”) captures the spirit of an Athletics fan and an informed Bay Area citizen.  After the Twins jumped out of the contraction discussion into perennial AL Central Champions and now into tenants of a sparkling new ballpark, I can’t help but share some of the same sentiments at newballpark.org.  Give it a read.

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Miami: The Last New Ballpark

The Major League ballpark revolution is now complete.

Beginning with the opening of the Skydome in June of 1989 and ending with Miami’s stadium unveiling two weeks ago, Major League Baseball has opened 24 new ballparks over the last 22 years.  Toronto’s Skydome, which bears the same age as senior in college, is the league’s 7th-oldest stadium.  Arizona’s Chase Field is actually older than most ballparks, despite having opened just 14 years ago.  Major League Baseball has produced ballparks faster than the Duggar family, and this generation’s final baby has been born: Marlins Park.

For the last three years, the only baseball stories in Miami focused on the funding, design, construction, and ultimately, the opening of the Marlins’ new ballpark.  The fanfare has finally subsided, and the end result is a new home for the Marlins designed in a contemporary style on the site of the old Orange Bowl.  From the outside, the stadium is a work of art.  Curved white pillars hold the retractable roof in place, while blue-tinted outfield windows give the stadium an aquatic aura.  However, the first impressions of Marlins Park on a national level have little to do with the smooth exterior.  Instead, the memorable feature is the left-centerfield lawn ornament.  The concept of creating a spectacle when the home team hits a home run can certainly be a positive.  When the Mets hit a dinger at Citi Field, the home run apple pops out from its hideaway; but for 99% of each game, the apple resides in seclusion.  The difference here isn’t necessarily the simplicity of the apple versus the gaudiness of Miami’s sculpture.  Miami’s outfield flora & fauna accessory is out there 24/7, serving more as a perpetual distraction than a spectacle reserved for taters.  The tackiness of leaving one’s outdoor Christmas decorations on display year-round is the rough equivalent; even if Santa’s elves aren’t illuminated in July, the neighbors probably aren’t thrilled about seeing them in the summer.

I’ll reserve my full review of the stadium until my wife and I make a 2014-15 pilgrimage to the park, but I’m delighted that the Marlins opted to not utilize a retro design for their stadium.  After all, this is only the 20th year of Major League Baseball in the Miami area, and loading up Marlins Park with 1950s architecture would be pretentious.  The modern architecture, the all-important retractable roof, and the sparse seating capacity of 38,000 were three wise decisions implemented by the Marlins, even though all three seem like no-brainers.

So why is Marlins Park the last new park for the foreseeable future?  There are absolutely no solid plans on the horizon for any new ballparks, though two teams have intriguing circumstances surrounding possible stadium bids.  Despite thousands of conversations surrounding the Oakland stadium situation, the Athletics have had myriad ballpark plans fail within the last five years.   No progress is likely until the Athletics and Giants broker an agreement wherein the Giants relinquish their territorial rights to Santa Clara county, which would allow the A’s to move to San Jose.  On the other end of the country, the Tampa Bay Rays are vying for a new stadium, though their lease with the city of St. Petersburg runs through 2027.  Until that deadline draws nearer, the city of St. Petersburg has diminished incentive to publicly help fund a new stadium, given that Rays cannot move to the city of Tampa or beyond.

By the time the next stadium opens, Miamians will have likely returned to their oldest and dearest baseball tradition: not showing up for baseball games.

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Merry Christmas

To all of our friends & family, to all the characters we met during the 30in11 trip, and to anyone who ever visited 30in11.com…. Merry Christmas!

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Factoring the Ballparks

Visiting each of the major league’s thirty ballparks laid the foundation for countless comparisons.  A handful of universal ballpark factors are significant enough to form one’s impression of a given locale, such as the scoreboard, seating layout, cleanliness, food, and ballpark staff.  For each of these ballpark factors, certain aspects in some parks helped significantly swing my impression of the overall park, positively or negatively.

Scoreboard: Wrigley (+) , Kansas City (+), Houston (+), Arizona (+), Seattle (-), Oakland (-).  Wrigley’s manual scoreboard is essential to its own definition; scoreboards in Kansas City, Houston, and Arizona are nothing like Wrigley’s, but sharp HD graphics on immense, borderless displays offer a world of possibilities.  Seattle’s scoreboard is shrouded in semi-permanent advertisements, while Oakland’s board is both dinky and inconveniently placed high above right field.

Cleanliness: 28 of the 30 teams (+), Texas (-), Florida (-).  Having arrived at nearly each park when gates opened, we saw each park in a pristine, untouched state.  Almost all teams got this one right; windows were smudge-free, corridors were swept clean, and stainless steel concession stands were actually stainless.  Except in Miami and Arlington.  I can understand the rationale in Miami: 2011 is the Marlins’ final year in a venue dominated by football and crowds rarely top 10,000.  But at the home of the defending American League champions, crowds average over 35,000, and team pride is second only to their vaunted Lone Star pride.  Yet hallways were littered upon arrival, encrusted food from previous nights speckled the counters, and the open air upper deck concourse was accentuated by bird droppings galore.  Perhaps the cleaning crew was spending its time drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse rather than working on their craft, leading to this ballpark’s unsanitary demise.

Food: Atlanta (+), Philadelphia (+), Houston (+),  Milwaukee (+), Chicago A.L. (+), NY Yankees (+), Chicago N.L. (-).  Most teams realize that a trip to the ballpark will encompass at least one of the day’s meals, and thus, food has gradually become a larger slice of the ballpark experience.  Atlanta’s full centerfield food court gives all patrons (not just the lucky few in padded seats) the opportunity to taste a vast menu with six hot dog varieties, barbecues galore, and all the Coke products under the sun.  In Houston, we took advantage of free samples throughout the concourse and felt the explosive flavor of their beef and pork sandwiches, then capped the afternoon with Blue Bell ice cream cones, all of which hoisted Houston near the top of the ballpark food chain.  The tasty varieties at the homes of the Yankees and White Sox made for menus as eclectic as their respective cities, while Milwaukee focused their energy on local favorites like sausages and beer.  For fans visiting Chicago’s north side, utilize the common Wrigley Field 1:20PM start time to load up before going into the park.  Of all the places to eat in Chicago, choose somewhere other than Wrigley.

Seating layouts: Pittsburgh (+), Philadelphia (+), Milwaukee (+), Kansas City (+),  Toronto (-), Chicago A.L. (-), Washington (-).  With the ballpark construction boom that began in the early 1990s, the seating layouts across all parks have markedly improved.  Multipurpose setups of the 1970s and 1980s were vanquished along with the mustaches and stirrups that were prevalent in those stadiums.  Layouts range from the surprisingly effective octagonal layout in Philadelphia to the haphazard levels and sections in Washington.  Pittsburgh offers one of the highest concentrations of lower level seating in the bigs, while Kansas City’s upper deck slowly disappears as seating desirability wanes.  Milwaukee’s Miller Park offers four fairly equitable seating levels which means that very few patrons sit beyond row 25 of any level.  Just two hours south of Milwaukee, Chicago’s South Side features the steepest upper deck of any park.  And don’t plan to mosey about the lower deck at U.S. Cellular Field if the heights are too much — that upper deck ticket confines you to the upper deck for the entire contest.

Ballpark staff:  On a personal level, the staff in just about every ballpark was overwhelmingly cordial.  Notably, the personnel in Kansas City, Oakland, Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, and Detroit all went out of their way to provide an experience for their parks that far exceeded the price of admission.  A member of the K-Crew in Kansas City offered us free Royals pins while she gathered other K-Crew teammates via walkie-talkie for a comical, disjointed group picture with us.  In Oakland, both my camera and Alex’s camera died before the game could begin, but two generous ladies in the A’s team store offered a pair of spare batteries; they absolutely saved our afternoon.  Around every corner in Atlanta, the phrase “southern hospitality” came to life with a united ballpark staff sincerely concerned that its patrons were satisfied.  In Boston, an intern by the name of Rob ushered into an off-limits club area so we could nab our 30in11 panorama shot from the same angle as every other park.  Philadelphia was home to baseball’s best pitching rotation in 2011, but also to our most beloved usher on the trip.  Mel from Delaware, who graced sections 321-323, officially welcomed Kyle, Tania, Elizabeth, and me — one at a time — to Citizens Bank Park with thoughtful words, a firm handshake, and a certificate marking our inaugural visit to the ballpark.  And in Detroit we met Larry, the head of Tigers security, immediately upon passing through the feline-trimmed gates.  He initially stared in disbelief at the idea of this 30-park conquest, then insisted that we meet him in the same spot during the 5th inning for a behind the scenes tour.  Upon this largely positive backdrop, the few substandard interactions we encountered in Anaheim (laziness), Baltimore (grumpiness), and Arizona (where an overzealous usher imposed her will on a 4-year-old girl) were the only soft skills remembered as lowlights.

As the sun sets earlier and the temperatures drift lower, more articles will appear on 30in11.com — certainly more than the zero that appeared in August, September, and October.  Upcoming articles will highlight hectic, sometimes unfathomable 24-hour periods throughout the journey, as well as detailing more pluses and minuses of each ballpark to arrive at overall rankings of the 30 parks.

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The Final 10 Parks

30! This past Sunday, the 30in11 journey reached its final destination, Fenway Park, just before the All-Star break. A full recap will detail eventually recap all of the trip’s happy totals, such as total miles traveled, top non-baseball adventures along the way, and our most memorable aspects of each ballpark. But for now, I’ll continue my previously established practice of summarizing the parks in a group of ten (including a link to my previous post of stadiums 24-29). For those who may have missed the previous recaps, here they are:

  • Stadiums 1-10
  • Stadiums 11-20
  • After Gareth survived a pregame mold-burger scare at Cheli’s bar in Detroit, we entered Comerica Park, a stadium that sharply celebrates both the history of the city and the team. For a park that has as many classic touches as Comerica does, it struck me as an odd place to have a merry-go-round, ferris wheel, and general circus atmosphere in certain corners of the stadium.
  • How many meals do Milwaukeeans eat each day?! Even for a cold, rainy Wednesday morning preceding a noon Brewers game, tailgaters were scattered throughout the parking lot with rain-covered grilling gear. Inside the park, food stands are everywhere and each one has a sizable line as fans await bratwursts, hot dogs, and Polish & Italian sausages. Miller Park is a splendidly fan-friendly venue, which has easy accessibility from the interstate, ample parking, four distinct seating levels, a brand new centerfield scoreboard (run by someone with a sense of humor), and there’s never a rain delay. Even when open, the roof and its track retain the park’s sense of enclosure, a small price to pay to ensure baseball on rainy Milwaukee days.
  • My methods for evaluating thirty ballparks would fail the scientific method; after all, it’s impossible to keep varying team success and weather from entering the equation. Both of these aspects certainly did not help Wrigley Field’s case. On a 42-degree, drizzly, frigid Thursday afternoon pitting the 23-25 Mets against the 21-26 Cubs, fans were more concerned with preservation than seeing a Cubs victory. Wrigley, our family’s hometown park while I was growing up, holds a special place in my heart with its neighborhood setting, ivy-covered walls, and intentional lack of technology. Wrigley’s age makes it a difficult park to compare to others, save for Fenway, and frankly, personal experiences at Wrigley vary wildly from one fan to the next. The food is substandard, guaranteed unobstructed lower deck seats require deep pockets, and the lakefront breeze can be a blessing in June and a curse in May. But the simplicity and old-world feel keeps the place perennially sold out, even when the Cubs settle into their familiar position below .500.
  • Parks 24-29 are detailed here, covering the trips to Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago (AL), Miami, Arizona, and Los Angeles (NL).
  • After seeing Dodger Stadium on June 18, I took a three-week hiatus from travels before the culmination of 30in11 in Boston’s Fenway Park.  Phil and I flew into Logan International on Saturday, July 9, and did a loop through the northern New England states.  After lobster and a dip into the Atlantic Ocean in Maine, miniature golfing in New Hampshire, and an all-natural dinner in Vermont, we were back in the Boston area shortly after nightfall.  I woke up Sunday with the same anticipation a child has on Christmas morning.  Fenway Park was about to open its arms as the conclusive point on this 30-ballpark journey.  The atmosphere outside the stadium rivaled that of a state fair, with heavy pedestrian traffic and food carts abound.  At the park itself, age was apparent in terms of rich history, plus narrow aisles & seats.  But the newly renovated concourse and HD centerfield scoreboards offer modern conveniences without detracting from the park’s history.  Our remarkable seats, generously provided by Bostonian friends Jesse and John, landed us 30 rows back from the 1st base dugout, and gave us an iconic Green Monster backdrop during gameplay on the gorgeous Sunday afternoon.  The score jumped to 6-6 after two innings, but scoring simmered for the final seven innings and the Red Sox won 8-6.  After the final pitch, the 30in11 quest came to a close, and I was able to sneak a foot onto the Fenway dirt.

So what’s next for 30in11?  With so much energy spent on traveling and logistics, the expository aspect of this journey has only grazed the surface.  Future articles on 30in11.com will include full write-ups for select ballparks, interviews of the fellow 30in11-ers about their most memorable aspects of each city & park, and the grand totals from the entire trip.

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29 Down, 1 To Go

After the initial 23-stadium marathon (April 28-May 26), I’ve had time to breathe between each of the last three baseball weekends.  The first of the three weekend adventures polished off the AL & NL Central Division venues as Dennis and I tackled Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Chicago.  Friday, June 3rd, produced a 2-1 Reds victory and a brilliant postgame fireworks show.  A steamboat motif and red ocean of seats clearly defined Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, while its placement overlooking the Ohio River was icing on the cake.

The following morning, Dennis and I traversed the rolling Kentucky hills and the plains of Indiana and Illinois en route to St. Louis, a city that greeted us warmly.  Very warmly.  The pregame temperature rose to 95 degrees, and stagnant, humid air pushed the heat index into the triple digits.  This new rendition of Busch Stadium, opened in 2006, offers a view of the St. Louis’ iconic Gateway Arch, while sprinkling subtle arch-shaped touches throughout the ballpark architecture.  The Cardinals defeated my Cubs 5-4 in 12 innings, thanks to the intersection of a hanging breaking ball and Albert Pujols’ bat.

We spent Saturday night at my Aunt J.J.’s house in Springfield, then spent a rainy Sunday morning driving northeast through the delightfully bland Illinois farmscape to Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field.  Despite bearing little semblance to a ballpark from the outside, this White Sox stadium on the South Side pays plenty of homage to its franchise roots throughout the concourse walls.  Detroit’s Ryan Raburn blasted a grand slam, powering the Tigers to a 7-3 victory over the White Sox.  The highlight of the game, however, was meeting Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks author Bob Wood, as he joined Dennis and me for the game.  Our conversation bounced from family and education systems to the massive ballpark turnover that has taken place over the last 20 years.

From June 6-10, I worked a full five-day week for the first time since mid-April.  When Saturday arrived, Matt Eller and I embarked on the most ridiculous stretch of 30in11.  Taking off from the Minneapolis airport just before 9AM, Matt Eller and I flew to Miami…. not to watch Game 6 of the NBA Finals, not to party on South Beach, but to see a Marlins game in a dilapidated multipurpose stadium.  Other than the high-quality turf, it’s clear the Marlins have put all their eggs into their new stadium opening next season.  Before the game, we ventured to the construction site of the new ballpark, which looks more like Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum from afar than any existing ballpark.  That evening, upon entering Sun Life Stadium, we were blinded by the 70,000 orange seats, but enjoyed the peculiar experience of having the upper deck to ourselves for the first half-hour upon entering the stadium.  We rounded out our Miami experience with Cuban sandwiches, a trip down the A1A, and a Sunday afternoon on South Beach.

And this past weekend marked the end of the National League parks on the 30in11 tour.  Friday, I flew out to Phoenix, hopped off the plane, and devoured lunch with my aunt Sally at “Alice Cooperstown” sports-themed restaurant in Phoenix.  That evening, my aunt & uncle took me to their hometown park, the home of the 2011 MLB All-Star Game: Chase Field.  The simultaneous combination of an open roof and air conditioning at my back left me scratching my head, but frankly, it worked.  I was comfortable without feeling trapped inside a dome; and luckily, the Chase Field cooling bills aren’t delivered to my home address.

Saturday morning, the three of us left the Arizona heat nearing 100 degrees, and arrived in Los Angeles six hours later and 30 degrees cooler.  We met my friend and former co-worker Matt in the parking lot, where he coincidentally parked within a row of us, and the four of us marched into the major’s 3rd-oldest ballpark.  Dodger Stadium has a distinct 1960s feel, from the shapes of their scoreboards to the colors of their seats.  My favorite aspect of Dodger Stadium, which I initially had trouble articulating, is the pure focus on baseball –just a naturally idyllic backdrop and an utter lack of gimmicks.

Were it not for a rainout in Boston, the 30in11 tour would be complete by now.  Kyle, Tania, Elizabeth, and I were rained out of our first trip to Fenway Park on Tuesday, May 17th.  As a result, Phil and I will be wrapping up the 30in11 tour with a trip to Fenway Park on Sunday, July 10th, baseball’s final day before the All-Star break.  In the meantime, our 30in11 experience at each park will be detailed on 30in11.com.

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Thoughts After 23 Stadiums

The World’s Largest Teapot, an 1,100-mile day, and walking through one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in country were all part of the first leg of 30in11, which spanned April 28-May 28.  The happy totals so far: 23 stadiums, 1 rainout, 36 states, 2 countries, 10,976 miles, 3 nights in Brooklyn, 7 tumbleweed sightings, and 6 time zone changes.  After seeing the U.S. at 65 miles per hour for the last month, it’s taken a full 72 hours just to catch up on sleep and energy.

The question on everyone’s mind so far: “Which ballpark has been your favorite?”  It’s too close to call, and there are still seven stadiums left to see, but aspects of each stadium stand out: the simplicity in Kansas City and Atlanta, the scenery in San Francisco and Pittsburgh, the food in Houston and Philadelphia, and the homage to history in both New York parks and Detroit.  Instead of picking a favorite park just yet, I will anoint Oregon as the absolute best state that we drove through.  Simply a breathtaking landscape.

Upon seeing all 30 ballparks, the actual venues will be ranked on one scale while my personal experience in the park will be ranked on another.  For example, Oakland-Alameda Coliseum won’t rank among my top five ballparks, but the experience we had in Oakland just might.  After all, the Athletics employ some of the most pleasant staff in all MLB, the half-full crowd cheered louder than some sold-out crowds, and we enjoyed free hot dogs, a free program, and a free Cinco de Mayo “Atleticos” t-shirt on the cloudless Thursday afternoon.  On the other hand, Target Field is a contemporary venue with a concourse that has the ability to appease any appetite, but my experience included a Twins 15-3 loss in the 41-degree drizzle.

The 30in11 tour continues this weekend, when Dennis and I do a Midwestern loop through Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Chicago’s South Side.

Before that stretch begins, check out the recent news coverage of 30in11 on Rockford WIFR-23 — big thanks to Pat Gostele and Zach James for covering the story!

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