The Great Ballpark Debate: The Ten Best
Ballparks can be sacred places. There is a particular connection, an emotion that every fan has when they enter their hometown or favorite team’s park. Memories or callbacks to a previous time, a crushing defeat, or a lesson learned. Anyone can experience these feelings and they are unique to not only the town and team but perhaps more importantly the individual.
I have been lucky enough to travel with my father to 47 different Major League ballparks., and I am often asked, “What is your favorite, or which is the best?” As I sat down to write my first piece for Third Down Thursdays, I contemplated how to accurately and objectively answer this painfully subjective question. The teacher in me wanted to create a rubric and rank each and every stadium by certain criteria, and maybe I will save that for another time. For this, I wanted to tap into that feeling of awe that one gets when one experiences their first game. Without a doubt, this article will anger quite a few people, but that’s the point, isn’t it? If your team’s ballpark isn’t on my list, and it doesn’t anger you, are you really even a fan?
10. Fenway Park-Boston, Ma.
Bob Wood wrote the book “Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks…”, ultimately this book and the fact that the Red Sox were honestly, and let’s be frank, heretically in the process of tearing down one of the few remaining cathedrals to baseball, drew my father to drag me to Boston. I grew up a Yankees and White Sox fan and wanted to hate every part of Fenway. This place was supposed to be a decrepit landfill of rusty beams, on the verge of collapse, poorly housing a cursed team. Instead, it was an intimate venue with (mostly) welcoming, knowledgeable fans. Yes, the seats were and still are cramped. My first time there, the seats did not angle towards home plate, so everyone had to crane their necks to get a view of the at-bat. Yep, that's right, the Red Sox honestly expected every fan to strain their neck, and my teenage self wasn’t having it. Frustrated, I took a Carl Everett at-bat off. Sure enough, it would lead to my one, and only foul ball (and a nasty bruise on my thigh) in all the years of baseball games and stadiums. The perfect souvenir. The Fenway Franks was a nice distraction, and the Green Monster was an imposing sight, seamlessly attached to the rest of the outfield's asymmetric walls. Although it was an early entry into our quest, I could tell it was a special place. Eventually, years later we would go back. This time, we had heard about the Red Sox putting seats on the Monster. This all-inclusive package may have been overpriced, but it provided one of the most unique and dynamic experiences (plus I got a couple of free jerseys, but that’s a different article), ultimately better than the rooftops at Wrigley.
9. Wrigley Field-Chicago, Il.
Perfect segue into number nine, home of the Cubs, Wrigley Field. This ballpark has withstood the test of time. Like Fenway, Wrigley is one of the last true monuments, a temple to the sport of baseball. And just like Boston, I want, with every ounce of my being to dislike this place. There is no denying as a White Sox fan how difficult it is to put this place anywhere near the top ten. In fact, I contemplate dropping it as I put pen to paper, especially when I think of the trough surfing that at one time was popular (look it up or don’t, better that you don’t). This park should hold a special place in my heart, it was my first game, after all, and while I don’t remember that game too well, it goes without saying that it still sparked something. Wrigley has the unique ivy lining the outfield wall, which also has a Major League oddity, baskets that hang over that same outfield wall. Originally designed to keep the bleacher bums in the bleachers, the baskets have undeniably, if not unintentionally assisted in a few home runs for the beloved Cubbies. Wrigley having a manual scoreboard reminds everyone that they aren’t in some standard cookie cutter, but a piece of living history. The Northside has taken on many new projects, and Wrigley has made some attempts to modernize as well, keeping the stadium in working condition while expanding on what works for the team. The foresight the club has carried since the beginning of the 21st century has ensured no need to tear down or move to the suburbs and even helped win one (although probably should have been more) World Series.
8. Comerica Park-Detroit, Mi.
While Fenway and Wrigley have seen enough upgrades to avoid being torn down like so many other parks, Comerica is a testament to moving on. It is no secret that the city of Detroit has seen a fair share of struggles throughout the years, and Tiger Stadium showed all the signs of being beaten down like the city it resided within. A decision was made to build a new park, one near the city’s waterfront and downtown area. A ballpark that could usher in a new era for the Motor City, and it did just that. Comerica Park was an instant modern classic when it was built, with its ornate tiger sculptures lining the outside walls, matched by the tiger-themed carousel at the main gates. The Tigers got it right, designing the stadium so the city skyline takes center stage beyond the outfield, even if the Lions tried to ruin it with their giant Ford Field logo overlapping in left field. One of the only drawbacks comes with their odd choice of plexiglass on their banisters. In theory, this is a great way to protect fans while also allowing them to see the game better. In practice, it warped the sights and made it more of a challenge depending on the seat.
7. Yankee Stadium II-Bronx, New York, NY
Where the Tigers learned to begrudgingly move on from their historical digs, the Yankees seemed to be willing to move as soon as George Steinbrenner got the notion. Honestly, the only reason why this stadium, (not ballpark, let's be honest this place is massive) isn’t higher on the list, is because I think the team could have waited a few years before moving on from the house that Ruth built. They did a great job bringing over as many features from Ruth’s house to Jeter’s. In reality, I was hard-pressed to find something missing. The frieze that hangs over the roof, Monument Park, they even replicated the limestone used in 1923 for the main gates. There is a museum dedicated to Yankees history, that only seems cramped because of how much history the Pinstripes have. This was also the first Major League stop on our quest where I noticed the food was elevated to a different level. Yes, they have Nathan’s hotdogs and other standard fare, but I saw unique sandwiches and honest cuisine for the first time. The Yankees even built a membership-only steakhouse and a Hard Rock Cafe within their walls. Yankee fans are on another level as well. Where the average fan goes to the game to unwind and maybe forget about their lives for a few hours, Yankee fans come out in droves, pack their stadium, and are on it from the first pitch to the final out. One could write an entire love letter to this stadium and its predecessor, but we’ll leave this as is for now.
6. Oracle Park-San Francisco, Ca.
Much like Yankee Stadium this ballpark should probably be higher on my list. However, Oracle Park lost quite a bit in my eyes because they forgot to include bullpens in their original design. They have rectified this in the years since, but the ruse of wanting to make it feel like an older park was pure hogwash. Nevertheless, the Giants have built a real gem. The best seats in the house are in the upper deck behind home plate. The view of the bay is unmatched by most of the league while fans being able to hang out in McCovey Cove waiting for splashdown homers adds a real dynamic to this park. Other features like the asymmetric outfield and classic brickwork allow for that true modern classic feel. The right field wall being twenty-four feet high in honor of Willie Mays is a nice touch. The only downside is the one time we were able to go, Barry Bonds was walked every single at-bat.
5. Comiskey Park II (Guaranteed Rate Field)-Chicago, Il
Evolution is the epitome of this ballpark, and yes, I still call it Comiskey, and I’d rather call it the Cell than Guaranteed Rate. Originally built in 1991, and stuck in the awkward time where multi-purpose, cookie-cutter stadiums were all the rage and just before the modern classics (Camden Yards in Baltimore) took center stage. In Comiskey II we see a baseball-only park with generic accommodations and a steep upper deck that defines the term nosebleeds at their original attempt. In fact, one of the few things the White Sox got right off the bat was angling all the seats toward home plate providing a great view regardless of where one sat. The other thing the White Sox have never struggled with is their food choice, over 30 years old and this place has the most underrated food and beverage in all of sports, not just the MLB. Ownership realized pretty early on that their ballpark on the Southside wasn’t going to cut it. They missed an opportunity of seeing the best skyline in the world along with a stadium that was average in every sense of the word. Since then, Comiskey has undergone two renovations and just as many name changes to make it look unrecognizable by comparison to the original. Now, the White Sox have one of the nicest stadiums with their own touch of ivy, modern classic amenities, and still the best food in the game. Of course, this is a biased view of my favorite team, but some of my best memories come from this team and this park.
4. Coors Field-Denver, Co.
Coors Field is an icon of the sport, firmly and perfectly planted in downtown Denver. The Rockies' first park of their own, and they hit the nail on the head. With picturesque views of the Rocky Mountains, this simple design will go down as one of the best things they’ve done. Like many other parks built during this time, the outside has a subtle appeal to it with dark bricks and a classic analog clock outside the main gate. The Rockies also do a great job paying homage to the Mile High city with their row of purple seats that proudly show off where the stadium reaches exactly a mile above sea level. Being a mile high and the short asymmetric (are we noticing a pattern?) outfield helps with dingers, and who doesn’t love dingers?
3. PetCo Park-San Diego, Ca.
The Padres were able to build a new park in downtown San Diego, something the Chargers couldn’t do as they were forced to be tenants to the Rams in LA. Typically I’m not a fan of the new modern ballpark aesthetic, where the attractions are the focus and baseball is secondary. I usually scoff at circus-like attractions and pitcher-friendly parks. However, the Padres do it right, and arguably in the perfect city. They still went for the retro-modern look with sand-colored facades and a faux warehouse in left field. One of my favorite ideas lies in their time capsules, one under each base and home plate to be opened every 25 years. This means at some level the Padres ownership thought about staying in PetCo for at least a hundred years, which is unheard of in the day and age of building the newest and shiniest as quickly as possible. Plus it is hard for any team to beat a day at the beach and the park.
2. T-Mobile Park-Seattle, Wa.
Nothing will replace the Kingdome, or so I’m told. I have absolutely zero fond memories of that place. Watching Griffey round third to eliminate the Yankees in ‘95 was soul-crushing for my nine-year-old self. I couldn’t be happier when that place was demolished, and the Mariners did an excellent job replacing their dome with an industrial classic park. T-Mobile Park has an understated charisma that most teams can only hope to replicate. The train whistles echoing just outside of left field coupled with the local atmosphere are a true nod to the city of Seattle and its great fans. The house that Griffey built comes complete with an eye-catching nautical mosaic inside their main gate. Sadly for me, the Mariners' park is the only one on my top ten list to have a retractable roof. When I was a kid, going to the Rogers Centre, I decided all ballparks needed to have retractable roofs. It was such a novelty at the time and is now in Seattle a true necessity.
1. PNC Park-Pittsburgh, Pa.
Maybe because it is such an improvement on Three Rivers Stadium, or maybe because I simply love the city of Pittsburgh, but PNC Park is after great consideration the best park I’ve ever visited. I love everything about this park, except the Pirates being awful. It has the right touch of retro limestone lining the facade, mixed with the city’s renowned steel beams jutting out and visible everywhere I walked. The Pirates did the McCovey Cove thing, which isn’t hard to do considering the ballpark itself is on the waterfront. As with most of my favorites, the view from behind home plate looking out toward the downtown area is a sight to behold. Much like how the Pirates got their nickname, they stole this show and set the bar incredibly high for other teams to match. Since 2001 no team has even come close to the beauty of PNC Park, except in artist renderings and initial concepts.
There you have it. Quite the read, but if you’ve made it to the bottom, well, top and you’re from anywhere but Pittsburgh, I’m sure you’re livid. Let the debate begin, but I encourage you to visit any, and all baseball parks. Take in their history, individual beauty, sights, and sounds. Set aside your biases, and fall in love with this children's game all over again.