Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mike's Top Five Ballparks

While I'm working on a full list of one through thirty, the ballparks we visited in order from best to worst, I thought I'd post a top five to let everyone following know we're still alive. It's also the most frequently asked question, so I might as well put this up for all to see.

My top five list of the best ballparks in Major League Baseball are based on ballpark design, view, neighborhood, and the overall atmosphere.

Number FIVE:
Safeco Field, Seattle Mariners (1999)

An easy walk from downtown Seattle, Safeco Field sits next to Quest Field, the home of the football Seahawks. The pair sit perfectly next to each other, with the matching curved shape of the retractable roofs the forefront image when entering Seattle on I-90. From the umbrella style roof to the left field bleachers that sit in front of the Seattle skyline, Safeco Field is a great place to watch a baseball game from any seat.

Number FOUR:
Minute Maid Park, Houston Astros (2000)

Here is the MLB's best example yet of what makes a perfect indoor outdoor stadium. Minute Maid Park offers a retractable roof that fully encloses the stadium, allowing it to be air conditioned in the Houston summer, while opening for some cooler evening games. What Houston does better than any other ballpark of its kind is that it feels very open. Giant windows spanning from left field to beyond the hill in center provide a great view of downtown Houston. And did I mention that hill? The Astros have a very unique ballpark - it's small, quirky, and a lot of fun to visit.

Number THREE:
Citi Field, New York Mets (2009)

All of my other top ballparks are in exciting neighborhoods and have great views. Citi Field doesn't have either of those things going for it, but the stadium design itself is so well done that it can stand alone and be one of the best. Enter through the Jackie Robinson Rotunda and walk across the bridge in right center field to enter the scoreboard concourse. Walk towards your seats with a great view of the field from the open concourses and take in everything this ballpark has to offer – even the lighting towers bend in the shape of a bridge. The Mets thought out every inch.

Number TWO:
PNC Park, Pittsburgh Pirates (2001)

A small, intimate ballpark with the best view in baseball sits on the Allegheny River and overlooks downtown Pittsburgh. Outfield seats are almost nonexistent letting in an awesome panorama of the city skyline. Connecting the ballpark and downtown is the Roberto Clemente (6th Street) Bridge, open only to pedestrian traffic during games.

Number ONE, the best ballpark in baseball:
AT&T Park, San Francisco Giants (2000)

Located on the bay in San Francisco, everyone attending a Giants game is sitting right on the water. You can watch yachts and kayaks float by beyond Levi's Landing, or spend an inning or two standing on the landing for a great view of the field. Everywhere you look in AT&T Park there is something beautiful, like the Bay Bridge beyond the Coke bottle in left field, not to mention a great view of the diamond from every seat and stand in the ballpark.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Monday Morning

It's Monday, July 20th, at 1:45 AM - and I should be asleep. We're driving back to New York City in the morning, passing through many hours worth of upstate New York. The Blue Jays game was fun, although I always hate seeing my team get completely shut down offensively. Roy Halladay pitched another one of his many complete games, this time holding the AL East leaders to only one run - and doing the Blue Jays a huge favor by showing off his utter dominance to every GM around the league.

Justin pointed out that we may have witnessed Roy Halladay's last home start ever for the Jays. He has one more start at home before the July 31st trading deadline, this Saturday verse the Rays.

After the game we checked out the Hockey Hall of Fame here in T.O. A very interactive place, they had goalie simulators that kids (or adults) could test their skills blocking rubber pucks that shoot out of a video screen. They have a large room dedicated to international hockey. And they have trophies. Lots of them. I definitely recommend the Hockey Hall of Fame if you ever find yourself in Toronto.

I've now been to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. Not to mention the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. Every one of those places is well worth the admission price, a necessary pilgrimage for every sports fan (or music fan, as the case may be). The only big one in sports that I've missed is the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but that's in Springfield Massachusetts... I think I can manage it. Does soccer have anything worthwhile like that, in this country or overseas?

Time to head back to the city where we kicked this whole thing off. Yankee Stadium on Tuesday. Fenway Park on Friday.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Justin's Review: Busch Stadium

Ballpark Design:  The new Busch Stadium, which opened in 2006, is, for the most part, very similar to many of the other new ballparks built in the past 15 years, while at the same time having enough unique features and looks to distinguish it from other parks.  Like most new parks, it has an irregular field with angled outfield walls, a set back upper deck that allows views of the whole field from every seat, large scoreboards and video screens, wide concourses, and no shortage of exclusive clubs and party areas.  In large part because it incorporates so many typical features without really adding a unique touch to any of them, the stadium looks very generic when you are watching a game from the stands – with the huge exception of the gigantic Gateway Arch looming above centerfield.  That view alone saves the ballpark from being “just another” retro ballpark – with no stands or scoreboards blocking the view, the St. Louis skyline acts as a wonderful backdrop to the game.  There are some other great unique features of the ballpark – there is a bar (open to anybody) located on the second level past the left field foul pole that is as a great place to watch the game if you want to leave your seats.  For that matter, there are a bunch of very cool standing room areas throughout the stadium to watch the game from, such as the gap in the upper deck behind third base.  The upper deck concourse itself is great – for the most part, it is open on both sides, allowing great views of the field as well as of the area around the ballpark, and it is extremely wide, preventing overcrowding.  The lower level concourse is decidedly less impressive – Busch Stadium is one of the few new ballparks in which the lower concourse is not open to the field, meaning that you can’t watch the game while getting food or drinks.  A few other notes: the ballpark looks deceptively huge, with four completely separate levels of seating, giving it a stadium look that you normally would see at football stadiums.  The 10 World Championship flags above the right field video screen look great, and are a constant reminder that you’re watching the most successful team in the National League.  In the end, Busch Stadium is a nice stadium with some interesting areas to watch the game from – however, it fails to match up to some of the other new ballparks that have opened in the past decade. B

Scoreboards/Soundtrack: The primary scoreboard is a large video board, with three smaller black and white boards, located in right center field.  It shows both lineups and the line score at all times, plus all the at bat information, etc.  Another video screen immediately to its right acted as the out of town scoreboard – it showed all games at once, but, frustratingly, only had details (such as outs, people on base, etc) for four out of town games – and it didn’t rotate which games had details.  Small boards above each bullpen gave pitcher info, as well as saying who was warming up in the bullpen.  In general, the scoreboards were fairly typical – they weren’t amazing, but they provided all the necessary info. B+

Food/Drink:  While there may not have been quite as much as in other new ballparks, the food options weren’t bad at Busch Stadium.  There was no shortage of stands selling typical stadium food, and there were a bunch of other options (including a very large Hardee’s in the upper deck).  As mentioned before, there was a big bar in left field that looked like it had a lot of options, and there were a lot of different types of stands on the lower level.  Options in the upper deck were slightly fewer. B

Fans:  Everybody has heard good things about Cardinals fans, and most of it is true.  The game was almost sold out (despite being a weekday night), and the fans were definitely paying attention to the game.  However, the fans were not quite as loud or boisterous as I’m used to in other big baseball cities, and despite how close the game was, there were wasn’t a lot of spontaneous cheering or extended noise.  To a certain extent, I’m probably holding Cardinals fans to a higher standard – if we had this crowd in many other cities, I probably would have been more impressed.  But when you consider how good a baseball city St. Louis is, there seemed to be a lack of energy in the crowd. B

City/Stadium Neighborhood:  We had a pretty good time exploring downtown St. Louis the night before and the day of the game.  While downtown is definitely a business district first and foremost, we found some cool sports bars and some other places around Laclede’s Landing (which was a pretty cool looking area).  Probably the coolest thing about the city, however, is how it feels as if the entire city is revolving around the baseball game once it starts – I don’t think there’s any city where you see as many people just walking around in team colors as in St. Louis.  While it certainly is a small city, it’s not totally dead like some other cities we’ve seen.  And the ballpark, located right downtown, practically under the Gateway Arch, is definitely one of the best ballpark locations we’ve seen yet.  City: B-/Neighborhood: A

Game:  Probably the best pitchers' duel of the trip: the Giants’ Matt Cain and the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright matched each other pitch for pitch.  Both allowed one run, with Wainwright going nine innings.  However, the game was decided in the 11th inning – with Colby Rasmus up, Pablo Sandoval dropped a popup in foul territory, giving Rasmus new life and allowing him to hit a walkoff home run, the first we’ve seen on this trip.  It was a great game, with drama, incredible pitching, and a few great plays. A

Overall Experience:  Busch Stadium is a perfectly nice new stadium, if not particularly distinctive.  However, having the stadium located right downtown, with almost always capacity crowds watching a good team and, of course, the best player in baseball, makes for an all around great experience.  Everybody should see a game in St. Louis at some point in their life. A-

Too many innings

We've had quite the variety of games on this trip - we've been to a bunch of blowouts (in Detroit and Colorado, to mention a few), some close offensively loaded games, and a few great pitcher's duel.  However, one type of game that we've seen a shockingly high numbers of times is the 1-1 extra inning.  After last night, we've been to FOUR games that have gone to extra innings with the score tied at one (NY Mets, Houston, St. Louis, and now Pittsburgh).  What are the chances of that? 

Last night's game was great - after a 50 minute or so rain delay before the game started, we were treated to a great pitchers duel between Pittsburgh's Paul Maholm and the always dominant Tim Lincecum of San Francisco.  Pittsburgh scored in the first on a long home run by Garrett Jones, and nobody scored again until San Francisco tied it on a rather silly error by the Pirates.  For the 5th time on this trip, we had a game go into extra innings, and for the 2nd time in 2 weeks, we were treated to the always fun "14th Inning Stretch", and a second rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame".  Luckily, the same Garrett Jones hit an even longer home run in the bottom of the 14th (which landed in the Allegheny River) to end the game.  After the game, we passed by a couple guys near the river who were completely soaked head to toe - they had jumped in the river to try to get the HR ball (unsuccessfully).  All in all, it was a fun night, and a great way for Mike to spend his 23rd birthday.

Right now, we're getting our passports ready to cross the border.  We're at the game in Toronto tomorrow afternoon, and then it's back to NYC on Monday!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

All Star Break adventures

Justin and I are staying here in Cleveland with my brother and sister-in-law, and the four of us spent All Star Tuesday BBQing on the beach at Lake Eerie. It was a great time, despite lighting the corn on fire, and we brought baseball gloves and had a catch on the beach.

At the same time, N.E.R.C. was having a picnic in the same area. What is N.E.R.C.? We had no idea... but a search of likely acronyms told us the group was most likely a group of runners. They decided to have an egg toss... my brother and I ended up joining them... and we didn't do very well...

Well we're watching the all star game, here we go AL!! It's good to see that we have a president who isn't afraid to root for a baseball team. He was afraid to predict a world series winner though... smart move. I'm not, but I'm not as smart as Obama. My All Star Break predictions will go up at the conclusion of tonight's game...

Monday, July 13, 2009

Justin's Review: Kauffman Stadium

Ballpark Design: From 1973 until 2008, Kauffman Stadium, from what we’ve been told, was a nice stadium to see a baseball game in, but nothing particularly special (other than some cool fountains in the outfield). Well, starting in 2009, because of brilliant off-season renovations, Kauffman Stadium is one of the best and most fan friendly stadiums in baseball (and without a doubt the best ballpark that’s been around for more than 20 years). The biggest addition is the new outfield concourse (before the renovations, there was no seating and no concourse past either foul pole). The new concourse is extremely wide, and leads to new seating sections that offer some of the coolest outfield views in all of baseball, a bunch of food stands, a bar/grill overlooking right field, and the Royals Hall of Fame. Most notably, it surrounds the fountains, which remain the defining feature of the whole ballpark. The renovation also widened the concourses in the rest of the ballpark, making them easy to get around and great places to stand and watch the game since the ballpark has open concourses. But perhaps my favorite thing about the ballpark is something that is not new at all – how open it feels. As soon as you approach the stadium, you notice that it’s different from most others – it looks like half a stadium, almost as if it’s a minor league park with an upper deck. Because there are no stands in the outfield (other than the low profile new stuff they added), the ballpark is completely open to the sky and the area surrounding it. When you sit in the main concourse and look out, you can almost imagine that you are watching a softball game in your neighborhood park (and with the way the Royals have played the past decade or so, it doesn’t take that much imagination). Of the other ballparks we’ve been to, only Dodger Stadium comes even close to having a similar feeling, and it really isn’t that similar at all. There are a few negatives to Kauffman Stadium – it certainly feels old in some respects, from the drab concrete that the park is built out of, to the very utilitarian and not welcoming exterior of the park. Also, the renovations, while keeping most of the fountains, took away from the charm of the park by removing some of the fountains, causing the outfield to look somewhat lopsided and asymmetrical (and not in a particularly good way). However, other than these few design flaws, Kauffman is a completely unique and beautiful stadium – while it may not be new, the renovations did such a great job that it’s no wonder the Royals are calling it “the New K”. A-

Scoreboard/Soundtrack: The primary scoreboard is a video screen that is one of the biggest in baseball – a truly gigantic vertically oriented board capped with a golden crown on the top. And they use the scoreboard quite well, with the lineup of the at bat team, the players stats, a graphic of the current defensive team, past at bat results, and all the game status info in one place. Furthermore, when they do the fan cam and other video stuff, it’s pretty impressive seeing everything so large. Strip scoreboards on top of the Royals Hall of Fame in left and the bar in right gave the stats and pitch counts for the home and away pitchers respectively, and were probably the best pitcher info scoreboards that we’ve seen yet. The out of town scoreboards were located on video boards inbedded in the left and right field walls – they gave plenty of information, but unfortunately did not show every game at once and sometimes were used for something other than out of town scores. Still, this was one of the best scoreboard systems we’ve seen in terms of the presentation of information. A-

Food/Drink: Another thing that probably benefited from the renovation. There were choices everywhere – the new outfield concourse was chock full of stands, including Kansas City’s signature food: barbeque. The variety was similar throughout the stadium, although there wasn’t a ton of other unique food. Still, simply because of the quantity, there was little to complain about. B+

Fans: Surprisingly (for us), a lot of fans showed up, and they were as loud and in to the game as almost any ballpark we’ve seen. We’ve got to hand it to KC – despite having truly awful teams for over a decade now, the fans still truly care about the team and show up, even on a Monday night. While there were certainly a lot of fans there rooting for the visiting Twins, they were easily outnumbered and outmatched by the home fans. It may not have been the best crowd that we’ve seen yet, but I now know why Kansas City has always been considered a big baseball city – when (if?) this team gets good, those fans will rival those in any Northeastern baseball city. A-

City/Stadium Neighborhood: Kansas City was probably the city that we visited on this trip that I knew the least about before visiting, and I left with a pretty positive impression. We didn’t get to see a ton of the city, but we spent most the afternoon prior to the game in the Plaza, a very commercial neighborhood outside of downtown. While it was clearly the glitzy, high-end area of town, it made for a nice walking area that seemed like a good place to live. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the city seemed much more sprawled out and more suburban – but at the very least, we know that it does have some very urban neighborhoods. Kauffman Stadium is located a good distance outside of the city center, and, like most stadiums built in the 60s and 70s, is located in a large parking lot right next to a football stadium. It gets points for not being completely outside of the city, but it certainly did not seem to be easily accessible without a car. City: B-/Neighborhood: C-

Game: The game against the Minnesota Twins was marked by some costly errors by the visiting team, big home runs by the home team, and some great pitching by Kansas City’s Luke Hochevar. Hochevar went 7 innings without allowing a run (although he walked 4), getting the win after Kansas City took a 4-0 lead, with two of the runs coming on back to back homers by Alberto Callaspo and Miguel Olivo. Justin Morneau got two of the runs back for the Twins in the 8th before Joakim Soria came in and shut the door for the Royals win. B+

Overall: Kauffman Stadium was, without a doubt, the single biggest surprise of our trip. I went in thinking it would be similar to Dodger Stadium or one of the other ballparks built in that era, but, in large part thanks to the renovations, it is one of the prettiest, most unique, and most fan friendly ballparks in baseball. The great fans added to the experience, and it didn’t seem like anybody (other than a few Twins fans) left the game unhappy. Truly one of the nicest and most well-rounded ballpark experiences we’ve visited yet. A

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Justin's Review: Safeco Field

Ballpark Design:  The first and most obvious thing that you notice about Safeco Field, even before you walk in, is the roof.  Safeco Field has a retractable roof that is different from those at any other ballpark – not only because it looks completely different (it has very cool looking arches and trusses sticking out of the top of it), but also because it acts very differently than others.  While ballparks such as Houston and Arizona use their roofs to make their stadiums fully enclosed, allowing them to both stop the rain and air condition the ballpark, Seattle’s roof doesn't enclose the stadium; rather, it acts as an umbrella, working to simply keep the rain away.  Because of this, Safeco Field does not have the problem that others do, where the ballpark feels enclosed even when the roof is open.  While the relative openness of the ballpark is one great thing, there is a lot more to love at Safeco Field too.  It has all the important features that make other new ballparks so great – open concourses, good sightlines, and so on.  One of my favorite areas was the centerfield bar, open to anybody, and located at field level with awesome views of the bullpens and the field.  It’s definitely one of the cooler views in baseball, and having a place like that where people can meet for drinks and mingling before the game is very cool.  What else?  The rotunda that you enter behind homeplate is very cool looking, with a very bizarre sculpture made out of glass bats hanging above it.  The views of the city behind left field are nice, if not quite as impressive as in some other cities.  All in all, the stadium is just very well designed – the field itself might not have the same uniqueness and recognizablility as those in other new parks, but there is little else you can criticize about the park. A-

Scoreboard/Soundtrack: The main scoreboard hanging over right field has an average sized video screen and a larger matrix board, which combine to give all the primary information about the game, lineups, and individual batters.  A manual line score board in the wall in left field adds a nice touch (although I will say that I’m getting tired of teams trying to make stadiums seem “older” simply by adding manual board somewhere in the outfield wall).  The out of town scoreboard appears on a matrix board in left center field, and while I like the look of it, it was one of those frustrating boards that sometimes switches to just graphics after something happens in the game.  B+

Food/Drink:  Food options galore, with stands located all around the concourses, and all kinds of specialty food – garlic fries, sushi, barbeque, Mexican food, and plenty of coffee (of course).  We didn’t check out the upper deck, so no idea if the food options are as good up there, but at least on the lower deck you didn’t have to wander too far to find something good.  A bar featuring tons of beer options behind third base was also good (and the two bartenders, one a Yankees fan and one a Red Sox fan, were fun to talk to). A

Fans:  Unsurprisingly for a Thursday afternoon game, the crowd wasn’t huge – around 27,000 people showed up.  While it wasn’t the most energetic crowd ever, the stadium wasn’t quiet or dispassionate, unlike those at some other low attendance games we’ve been to.  While I can’t say it was a particularly impressive crowd, it’s easy to picture how, with a consistently good team, Mariners fans would be a big part of making Safeco a great place to watch a game. B-

City/Stadium Neighborhood: We spent two nights (and one full day) staying right in downtown Seattle and had a good time.  On one hand, downtown is definitely a business district first and foremost (we had a lot of trouble finding any place open to grab food after arriving at 10pm on a Wednesday night).  However, we spent quite a bit of time walking around on Thursday, and saw a lot of other people out and about and found a few cool places.  It certainly doesn’t have the same downtown vibrancy as New York or San Francisco, but there’s not doubt that it’s a very active and seemingly very fun city.  Safeco Field itself is located just outside the center of downtown, and is an easy walk from much of the center city.  Furthermore, it’s location right next to a train station appears to make getting to the ballpark from the outer parts of the city and region easier. City: B+/Neighborhood: B+

Game:  Ichiro started off the Mariners offense with a leadoff homer, and the team never looked back, scoring 4 runs in the first en route to a 9-3 victory.  It was never close, but 4 hit games by both Ichiro and Mike Sweeney gave us something to cheer for and kept the game entertaining throughout.  Not the best game, but it was fun to watch some really good hitters do their thing. B-

Overall:  Safeco Field is without a doubt one of the gems of the recent ballpark building boom, and going to a game on a beautiful day with the roof open was perfect.  Hopefully the Mariners can put a good team together soon, because going to a sold out game there is probably one of the better experiences in baseball. Even without a full house, it was one of my favorite stops on our tour. A-