My favorite road ballparks? Good question.
Through the course of the season, I’m asked probably a dozen or so times which road trips I look forward to taking more than any other. That sounds like a simple enough question, but the answer is more complicated than you might think.
If you’re asking what my favorite city is to visit, I’d say New York, which ironically enough might be one of my least favorite cities to be in when I’m working. For baseball purposes, to be perfectly honest, I’d rather be in Pittsburgh. More on that later.
For this particular blog, I’m going to keep it simple and list my top five road cities based on all of the criteria — the city, the ballpark, the surroundings and the overall experience. After that, I’ll list my favorite road cities for work-only purposes and I think you’ll be surprised how much it differs from the first one.
5. San Diego
The eyesore that was Qualcomm Stadium is but a distant memory now that the Padres have sparkling PETCO Park to show off 81 days a year. A city as beautiful as San Diego needs its sports facilities to live up to equal standards, and PETCO certainly does. The ballpark has first-rate facilities for players, media and fans, and its location in the trendy Gaslamp Quarter leaves plenty of options for establishments to wind down once the game is over.
From a culinary perspective, the ballpark experience is also a lot more pleasant than others. PETCO is one of the few ballparks where there are a lot of healthy options that stray far from the standard hot dog and popcorn fare. A must-taste: the fish tacos.
Nope, I’m not kidding. Sure, the weather leaves a lot to be desired in April, May and September and most years, the Astros will have a doubleheader sometime in the second half, to make up for a rain or snow out early in the season. But when I think of the best trips for baseball, Pittsburgh’s right up there near the top of the list.
First of all, PNC Park is gorgeous. Empty most nights, but nonetheless, breathtaking. The Pirates have a rich history, one of the best in baseball, and they did a good job showcasing it when they opened their ballpark a little less than a decade ago. Walking around PNC Park is like walking through a museum, with the statues of Willie Stargel and Roberto Clemente as the center pieces.
The press box is the only main drawback, because it’s at the very top of the stadium and you lose all sense of depth perception when you’re watching a game from that high up. Every pop up to the second baseman looks like a home run, and I’m fairly certain when our broadcasters see that I listed Pittsburgh as one of my favorite baseball stops, they’re going to wonder if someone slipped a mickey in my Mountain Dew. I do admit that the vantage point there is terrible, but a few times a year, it doesn’t really bother me that much. But I see where the broadcasters are coming from. Writing about a game is one thing. Describing the action as it happens is quite another.
Still, even though the Pirates’ fanbase dwindles a little more with every losing season, Pittsburgh is a great sports town and its facilities are all first-rate. There’s a nice little pocket of nightlife around the ballpark as well, which adds to the all-encompassing baseball experience.
3. San Francisco
I blogged about this a lot when we played there last month, but any list of top baseball cities to visit would be incomplete without mentioning San Francisco. It’s hard to top any ballpark that sits on water, and the view of the bay beyond the outfield at AT&T Park is alone worth the price of admission.
The seating area seems more intimate than a lot of the other ballparks, and like Denver, the higher you go in the stands, the better the scenery. The Giants draw great crowds every night and there are lots of fun places to go around the ballpark when the game’s over, making this one of baseball’s best attractions.
The working conditions are just so-so — the press box is somewhat cramped and you feel like salmon swimming upstream when walking against the flow of fans while trying to get to the clubhouse after the game. But these are minor inconveniences that don’t really matter from a big-picture standpoint. San Francisco has always been, and will continue to be, one of my favorite stopping points during the season.
Several years ago, I was at dinner with a bunch of my MLB.com colleagues and we got on the subject of road ballparks. Wrigley Field (shown at the top of the blog) came up and one reporter said, “Ugh. That place is such a dump.”
I cringed at the comment, even though in a lot of ways, he’s right. Wrigley is old, run down and as we’ve seen over the last several years, parts of it were, or are currently in, the process of falling apart. All true. But Wrigley to me is a little slice of baseball heaven, a place so historical in nature that you have to appreciate that little has changed over the course of the nearly 100 years it’s been around.
Sure, you have to dodge a few dozen smashed hot dog buns when you walk down the concourse, and it’s hard to escape the smell of stale beer that resonates from all points of the ballpark. But that’s a small price to pay for the overall Wrigley experience. It’s a simple place — no Jumbotron, no between-inning promotions, no ear-splitting loudspeakers blaring “Charge!” 97 times a day. It’s just an organ, the game, and the roof-topped surroundings, and it’s pretty spectacular.
But I have to add, from a working standpoint, it’s the pits. Going to and from the press box involves walking up and down about a half-dozen ramps, and reporters have to muscle their way through largely inebriated crowds to get to the clubhouse for postgame work. Because the press box is located at the top of the ballpark and there are no elevators, reporters have to begin their journey downward long before the game is over. If they wait until the end, they have no chance of making it to the clubhouse on time.
This can be problematic with the way games are covered these days. In my years as a reporter for MLB.com, I had to file a four-to-six paragraph game story immediately after the last out was made that would carry the site until I could write a full report later. At Wrigley, I’d file my initial game story at the top of the ninth when the Astros were losing, or just before the bottom of the inning when they were winning, and then begin my journey to the clubhouse.
This was all well and good as long as there wasn’t a scoring change, in which case I’d have to dart back up to the press box and rewrite the game story (this isn’t so much of a problem now with Blackberrys and iPhones.) I remember one particular instance in 2005 when Jeff Bagwell had just come off the DL and was added to the roster in September. The Astros were down by a run in the ninth and with a runner on, he came in to pinch-hit. He sent a fly ball pretty deep to right field and I was torn — I really, really wanted him to get the home run but if he did, I was really, really in big trouble. The ball died at the warning track and the game ended, and I remember feeling sad for Jeff’s sake but relieved for my sake.
Anyway, back on topic, Wrigley is not ideal for the working stiff, and the players are packed in like sardines in the tiny, cramped clubhouse. But who cares? Chicago is a wonderful, vibrant city and Wrigley is simply one of the best places on earth. I wouldn’t trade those treks up and down those ramps for anything.
Truthfully, I probably look forward to the trips to Chicago more than any other city. But the Rockies trip is, in many ways, in a category all its own. Why? Because the people who work there are just so darned nice.
Through the eight years that I traveled on my own as a beat reporter, I always knew the Coors Field experience would be completely void of any stresses for the simple fact that the people who work there are the most helpful and friendliest in the league.
Visitors are treated as welcomed guests from the moment they pull up to the entrance to the moment they walk out at the end of the night. Everywhere you turn, a friendly stadium employee is ready to point you in the right direction or give you a simple greeting. You’d be surprised how stressful the mere act of parking a car can be at some of these ballparks. Invariably, asking where you should park will give you more blank (and occasionally, hostile) stares than helpful answers. Not at Coors Field. They’re there simply to assist.
Coors Field is one of the older stadiums in the “new stadium” era, and it’s one of the best. It’s pretty easy to navigate from the field to the dugout to the clubhouse to the press box, and even though the ballpark’s been around for a while, everything still looks brand new. The press box is comfortable and spacious, as is the visiting clubhouse, and while you can’t see the true beauty of the city from the lower seats, the view is still a pretty one. Teams that are located in the really visually-pleasing cities have an advantage in that the higher the seats are, the better the view is. So really, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
And now…the real list
With all of that said, from purely a work standpoint, my criteria for what makes a good baseball trip is much simpler. It’s so simple that it’s laughable.
After 13 years of being on the road every other week for the better part of six months every year, here’s all I really need:
1. A ballpark that is in walking distance of the hotel.
2. A place in walking distance of the hotel to get a hot cup of coffee and a bagel in the morning.
3. A place near the hotel that stays open late enough to get a cold beverage after the game.
4. A hotel room that gets good reception and doesn’t interfere with my wireless card.
Yep, that’s it. For a vacation, I’d go to New York. For a baseball roadie, give me St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati any day. Guess I’m in the right division.
Back to the National League
No one was sad to say goodbye to Arlington or the Rangers on Sunday, for many reasons. First, the obvious — the Rangers took two of three and tore into Astros pitchers in the two games they did win. Second, it’s just really, really hot there, even at night. And third, it’s enough already with the four-hour American League-style games.
On to Milwaukee. But first, some images from a steamy Sunday in Arlington:
The sign said, “No. 9’s No. 1 fan.” I felt kind of bad for her that Pence wasn’t in the lineup for the game.
Castro, Humberto Quintero.
Chris Johnson, Pedro Feliz
Carlos Lee, Brad Mills.
Wilton Lopez signs autographs.
Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.