For relaxation with an energetic buzz of people, I go to the ballpark in whatever city is handy.
By David G. Molyneaux, editor, TheTravelMavens.com
On a chilly April evening, rain water dripped from the bill of my baseball cap as my nephew Scott and I hurried down an old brick street toward the ballpark. In most major league cities, the night would bring either a damp downer of a game outside -- if the teams played at all -- or a dry game inside an artificial dome with fake grass and a plastic ceiling.
What would it be? Sport in a drizzle or in a bubble?
Lucky for me, work had taken me that April day to Seattle, where baseball is played outside under a novel umbrella, the retractable roof of Safeco Field, one of the country’s newer ballparks that reflect the nature of local life.
Where else but in soggy Seattle can you feel the breezes from the bay and hear the trains rumble by, yet remain dry at a baseball game on a rainy night, eating salmon sandwiches and garlic fries with a wok-fired veggie chaser?
The world’s best places have a distinct feel. Their sounds, smells and tingles lift us away from the daily humdrum. For contemplation and silence, I crave the sanctuaries of the sea and the shore. For relaxation with an energetic buzz of people, I go to the ballpark in whatever city is handy.
Baseball is a timeless game. I feel at home in ballparks all over the country, surrounded by men and women and children who appreciate the game’s simplicity and complexity -- the improbability of a human using a skinny round stick to strike a swirling, bobbing ball speeding at nearly 100 miles per hour, while the ballet of defense awaits.
Bonding with the extended family
For more than a century, American baseball fans have forged bonds in ballparks, finding other lovers of the game and passing on their passions to their sons and daughters. I am reminded of that bond every summer at Cleveland’s ballpark -- once Jacobs Field and now Progressive Field -- when I sit beside a great-grandmother who reminisces of childhood days when her dad took her by train from rural Indiana to old Yankee Stadium in New York to see Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
I know the stories well, as I am sitting next to my mother, born in 1922. Meanwhile, my daughter the lawyer returns from the hot dog stand, crouches low in the aisle so as not to block anyone’s view, waiting out the finishing of a play on the field before standing to retake her seat.
“Somebody taught you well,” says an appreciative fan behind us. “My dad,” she says.
In summer, the ballpark in Cleveland and other ballparks around the country are homes away from home. Wherever my work takes me, I check the baseball schedule.
For travelers, ballparks are great places to learn something about American cities and their styles. In each park, the crowd, the views, the food, the atmospheres and behaviors are different -- from the raucous passion in New York and Boston to the beachball-tossing, late-arriving-early-leaving, laidback folks in southern California who seem to see baseball as just another volleyball contest on the sand, shirts against the skins.
With 30 major league teams – and hundreds of unique fields in minor league cities and towns – the list of ballparks to visit seems endless, like the baseball season that starts in April and slogs through the summer into October.
New York, Chicago and Boston
The baseball scene changes in every city, especially at the food stalls. Sidle up to the Wok in Seattle. Try the sushi in San Francisco, the mountain oysters in Denver, crab cakes in Baltimore, sausages in Milwaukee and local beers just about everywhere. If you are lucky to be traveling outside the United States, stop in a ballpark in the Dominican Republic, Mexico or Puerto Rico, where the games are family affairs with lots of good cheer.
Less than 20 years ago, travelers were lamenting the demise of unique ballparks, as older buildings had been replaced with cookie-cutter, sanitized stadiums that looked more or less alike. But that all changed in the 1990s, starting with Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1992 and the great parks that followed in Cleveland, Texas, Denver, Phoenix, San Francisco, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Seattle and now Washington, D.C.
At the top of the list of the old parks are Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park, well worn dens of history, successes and failures. The Chicago Cubs continue to lose, year after year, decade after decade, but you wouldn’t know that by observing their fans who fill Wrigley with faithful enthusiasm and endless, though apparently hopeless, support. Boston, meanwhile, the city that couldn't pull off a world series win for more than 80 years, has now won twice in this decade.
No matter how you feel about the Yankees and their payroll of a gadzillion dollars, I would start with Yankee Stadium, home for a century to some of the game’s best players. The old stadium is gone but the memories linger in the new one.
Don’t pay a lot of attention to what you may have heard about the Bronx.
“With so many cops standing around, it’s one of the safest parks in the country,” says David Briggs, a student at Ohio State University who grew up in Connecticut and is a frequent traveler to ballparks with his dad. “You take the subway and get off with the crowd, then follow the crowds back to the subway after the game.”
Briggs ranks the old Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Busch Stadium in St. Louis among his top experiences. “It’s because the fans are really into it, more passionate about the game. They seem more knowledgeable. Fans, who don’t know you, still want to talk about the game. Going to ballparks is a great thing to do with your dad, an American thing.” Briggs hopes eventually to see every ballpark in the country.
Walking to the ballpark
I like ballparks that are within walking distance from downtown or your hotel, so you gain a feel for the city and can pick a restaurant or bar nearby, before or after the game, to talk baseball with the locals in cities such as Cleveland, Baltimore, Seattle and Chicago’s Wrigley Field on the north side but not the White Sox home at U.S. Cellular Field on the south side.
In San Francisco, you can walk to the park from downtown, a jaunt of about 40 minutes. AT&T is an airy park, and you can walk all around the stadium to see the game from different perspectives.
There’s no airiness in St. Petersberg, Fla., where the Tampa Bay Rays play inside a domed park that feels somewhat like being in a basement recreation room, the walls and carpet damp from humidity. Tropicana Field is a dingy place with no windows. Outside, St. Pete has plenty of sunshine; the rains and oppressive heat of summer make the dome essential, though not terribly popular.
If you must be indoors, I like Rogers Centre, the SkyDome in Toronto, which is attached to a hotel with windows looking out on the field. I awoke one morning, before a day game, to watch players arrive and workout, long before any ticket-holders could enter the stadium.
Choosing a seat
As you wander around the Americas in search of a ballpark, think about where you want to sit before buying a ticket. Often, I am torn between finding a close seat for the best view or sitting farther away where I tend to meet more passionate baseball fans.
As ticket prices have risen, corporations have bought seats to give tickets away to their staff and customers. Many of the recipients don’t understand the game, which becomes more of a social than sporting event. Because they didn’t pay for their tickets, they don’t have the same investment in the game. In some of the fancy corporate boxes, you’ll see ties and business dresses, folks sipping champagne and waiting for the big moment – when the desert cart arrives. They only know to cheer when the modern ballparks turn on the neon signs requesting “NOISE.”
So, you might want to head for the bleachers, baseball’s cheap seats where you can assume that most of the fans actually bought their own tickets. The bleachers, however, are farther away from the heavy action of the infield and usually offer less comfortable seats.
For me, given a warm night for baseball, I will sit anywhere at any of America’s major league or minor league fields, focus on the game and chat with the folks around me.
Baseball is best as a shared experience, with old friends or family, like Briggs and his dad, my grandfather and his daughter, my mom and dad and me.
These days, I often sit with my children, who love the game. We talk about baseball, as well as some of the important happenings in our lives -- but always between pitches, of course.
David Molyneaux is a season ticket holder in Cleveland, where his Indians have great years and years that are good but not great, much like his own life.