Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ranking the Ballparks

Here is it, my ranking of the current Major League Baseball stadiums. All of them.

Rankings were based on grading each park on a zero-to-ten basis in these categories:

* Automobile access.

* Public transportation access.

* Layout. As in, how does the place look, overall? And how easy is it to get around the place, get to the concession stands and bathrooms, to the "special stuff" at the ballpark, and back to your seat?

* Upkeep. Is the park in good condition? (Since the average ballpark is now 14 years old -- and that includes 99-year-old Fenway and 97-year-old Wrigley -- it better be.) And is it kept clean?

* Seating. How comfortable are the seats? Do they offer good views? Any obstruction?

* Field. How good does the field look? (This is separate from Upkeep.)

* Scoreboard. Does it look good? Is it informative?

* Food. Are there enough concession stands? How long do the lines get? Is there a good selection? How much does it cost? Does it taste good?

* Restrooms. Are there enough of them? How long do the lines get? Are they kept reasonably clean, considering that anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 fans can be expected at a game on any given day?

* Fans. Do they generally behave themselves? Are they into the game? Or are they just businessmen there to entertain clients?

* Atmosphere. Admittedly, a judgement call. It boils down to this: Does the place "feel like a ballpark"? Or does it feel more like a multipurpose facility that, today, is hosting a baseball game?

You will not be shocked at the part that's at the bottom. You will be shocked by the fact that Yankee Stadium II is not Number 1. Or Number 2. In fact, you may be really shocked by which park is Number 2.

Note that I have not been to all 30. I have observed all 30, at the very least, on television, and checked the teams' websites to see what's available at the parks I haven't visited.

30. Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg. It's a dome. Not a retractable one. It's got artificial turf. It has catwalks. It has a ray tank. It damn near has an echo, what with all the fans not showing up -- and, of those who do, half of them root for the other team, because, while they may live in Central Florida, they're usually from somewhere else. For years, we were told what a great baseball area Tampa Bay was. Sure: For spring training! After the Twins, Mariners, very nearly the White Sox, and damn near the Giants almost moved there, the Devil Rays came in, and showed that all those other teams were right to stay put. The Rays need to build a new ballpark, but do their fans deserve one? Get 'em out! Move them to a better baseball city. I understand Montreal has a stadium ready to go. At least, as a stopgap facility. At least the few fans who came out to see the Expos in their last years were all root, root, rooting for the home team.

29. Chase Field, Phoenix. Formerly known as Bank One Ballpark, calling this thing a ballpark is like calling Rebecca Black's "Friday" a song. Sure, you CAN, but WHY? The place looks more like an airplane hangar. True, it has real grass, but it doesn't look good. Yes, the roof can open, but why would you, when Phoenix is usually over 95 degrees -- even at night? And the fans have the same problem as Tampa Bay, with whom their franchise arrived in the majors in 1998: Too many of them come from somewhere else. Note that this has nothing to do with the 2001 World Series. This would still be a bad stadium even if the Yankees had won it.

28. Rangers Ballpark, Arlington. What's wrong with this place? Not a whole lot, really. It only scored poorly in 2 categories. One was Fans: They hardly showed up until last year's Pennant, and that stupid Antlers thing has got to go. The other was Access, Public Transportation. There isn't any. No subway. No light rail. No city buses. In Dallas, there are light rail trains and buses. But to the ballpark? Not so much as a shuttle bus from downtown Dallas or Fort Worth. It was the only zero I gave in any category. (Even the Tampa Bay and Toronto fields, the only artificial surfaces left in the majors, got 3s.) So if you don't have a car, you can't get to a Rangers home game. If so much as one bus line went out here, it would rise from 28th to 24th. Plus, the heat drives down the atmosphere. Until the Arizona and Florida teams came along, Texas was the State most in need of ballpark roofs. The old Arlington Stadium was a quirky, sometimes fun ballpark, but was nonetheless a frying pan. This place is an improvement, but not enough of one.

27. Rogers Centre, Toronto. Formerly known as the SkyDome, this place wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. The turf is bad, but the seats -- in the 100 and 200 Levels, not the faraway 500 -- are reasonable. The place looks weird when closed, though, and the carpeting in the concourses makes it look like an oversized movie theater. I especially don't like that it's a 10-minute walk from Union Station -- and thus from the nearest subway stop. This is a far cry from the Air Canada Centre (the home of the Maple Leafs and Raptors is attached to Union Station), Maple Leaf Gardens (the former home of the Leafs was a 2-minute walk from the subway), and BMO Field (a streetcar goes right to the home of Toronto FC). Canada has done great things, but they've still never built a good Major League Baseball park. (The old Exhibition Stadium, on whose site BMO Field was built, may have been the worst MLB park of the modern era.)

26. Dolphin Stadium, Miami suburbs. Admittedly, the Marlins' ballpark rating will go up when the new stadium opens next season. But sharing a stadium with the local football team should have been a five-year proposition at most, not 19 seasons like it turned out to be. The atmosphere is dreadful, and aside from access (right off the freeway and it has a MetroRail stop), the former Joe Robbie Stadium does not excel in any category.

25. Turner Field, Atlanta. Looks terrific. But being built just south of Fulton County Stadium was a mistake, because that makes it an even further walk from the subway. And Atlanta, as another city with a lot of transplants, is another city with attendance problems: Not enough show up, and many of those who do are rooting for the other team. And, face it, with their stupid War Chant and Tomahawk Chop, Braves fans are dumb. Just plain dumb. They make the Met fans who sometimes outnumber them in their own house look brilliant.

24. Oakland Coliseum. Not that long ago, this was a great place to watch a ballgame. Granted, the miles of baseline foul territory kept a lot of seats a long way away, and it's not exactly in a great neighborhood. But once you got in, you were usually guaranteed a good time, whether the A's were great (1971-75, 1980-81, 1988-92, 2000-06) or lousy (1977-79, occasionally since). But the Raiders moving back in led to the building of the outfield seats known as Mount Davis, and it ruined the atmosphere. The A's need to get out of the Mausoleum, and if they don't, they will be getting out of the Bay Area entirely. Note that, once the new Marlins' ballpark opens next spring, the A's and the Blue Jays will be the only remaining MLB teams sharing their home stadium with a professional football team.

23. Minute Maid Park, Houston. It's better than the Astrodome. A lot better. It's right downtown. The terrace is quirky, the train is cute. And Astro fans are a lot smarter than Ranger fans. But there's nothing really special about this park. Maybe it's because the Astrodome was once hailed as the wave of the future, but the former Enron Field's retroness doesn't make it feel like professional baseball has been played here since the Houston Buffaloes won the 1928 Texas League Pennant (which they did -- and again in 1931, led by Dizzy Dean). Copying the CITGO sign from Fenway wasn't as nice a touch as anyone thinks. Let's face it, nobody is going to be fooled into thinking they're in Boston. Not even if the Astros win a World Series (by any means, fair or foul).

22. Angel Stadium. Formerly Anaheim Stadium and Edison International Field, the Big A has managed to feel lived-in while staying fresh, especially now that the bleachers built for the Rams have been demolished. The ThunderStix and the Rally Monkey need to go, but Angel fans are better than their blue bretheren up Interstate 5.

21. Fenway Park, Boston. Don't let the bottom-third ranking fool you: I love Fenway. Hate the Red Sox, hate many of their fans -- which is probably a big reason why Fenway didn't make the top half of this list -- but love Fenway. No, you shouldn't drive there: Access from the Mass Pike is bad, parking is worse. Yes, the bathrooms, while not 1912-quality, are decidedly 20th Century. Yes, the corridors can be a little creepy. But Fenway Park IS baseball. Every fan should see a game here. Preferably one not involving your favorite team, so Red Sox fans can treat you like a tourist and not as one of the enemy. I've been there as a neutral and as a Yankee Fan. Believe me, the former is better.

20. Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles. It's easy to drive to. It's clean. It's got history. (Hard to believe that Walter O'Malley's monument to himself and his own greed is now the 3rd-oldest stadium in the majors.) But you can't get there without a car, except maybe by shuttle bus from Union Station. The view of the San Gabriel Mountains is no more special than the view of the Rocky Mountains from Coors Field -- or of the downtowns from the ballparks in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and Baltimore. Face it, if Sandy Koufax had played basketball like he once preferred, there would be very little special about Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers have won a bunch of Pennants at their current stadium? So have the A's, and who calls the Oakland Coliseum special?

19. Miller Park, Milwaukee. I loved Milwaukee County Stadium. This retractable-roof facility isn't bad, but it doesn't have half the atmosphere of its predecessor. Still, Milwaukee's a terrific city, it's easy to get in and out of the park (by car or bus from downtown), it's clean, the food is great, and Wisconsonians know their baseball.

18. Coors Field, Denver. This is one of the nicer ones. Although there's little about it that's great, there is nothing it does badly. Good access, clean, good sight lines, nice view, and Colorado fans are wonderful -- as long as you're not wearing Oakland Raider gear, but that won't be a problem in this sport.

17. Safeco Field, Seattle. The retractable roof hanging over right field, ready to slide over and close to protect you from the Pacific Northwest rain, looks very weird. And the horns from the adjoining King Street Station are a bit loud, although not nearly as bad as the planes in Flushing. Other than that, I have no complaints about Safeco. A lot of people love it, and it's certainly a ginormous improvement over the hideous Kingdome. I don't think it's one of the very best, though.

16. Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City. For years, there was only one complaint about the former Royals Stadium: It had artificial turf. Other than that, it was held up as a model of modern baseball construction. Then came Camden Yards and its wave of copycats, just as K.C. switched to real grass (in 1993). Out went the plastic-grassed suburban concrete doughnuts of the LBJ and Nixon years. In came the downtown classic-feel baseball palaces. Next thing anyone knew, K.C.'s famed fountains didn't seem special anymore. In his book Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks, written about his 1985 tour of the 26 ballparks then in use, Bob Wood, a teacher from Michigan then living in Seattle (now in Cincinnati), and a childhood Tiger fan and a grownup Red Sox fan, had Royals Stadium tied with Dodger Stadium for best ballpark overall -- and few thought his choice a bad one. Now, I can't even put Kauffman in the top half. It's still a decent ballpark -- especially if you can get one of the shuttle buses that goes around the major hotels -- but it's no longer a big deal. And Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Chiefs next door, while it has one of the best gameday atmospheres in the NFL, is a really, really weird-looking place.

15. Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati. I don't know about great, but the replacement to the concrete ashtray that was Riverfront Stadium is a pretty good American ballpark. It's right downtown. It's easy to get into and out of. It's got a nice view. There's hardly any bad seats. It's got some quirks. And Reds fans are really good fans. There is only one thing that I don't like about the Cincy park: There aren't a lot of food options.

14. Comerica Park, Detroit. It is a crime that Tiger Stadium was demolished, but I understand. There's only so much you can do to modernize an 87-year-old stadium, and the surrounding Corktown neighborhood was rather dodgy. Comerica is right downtown, next-door to the Lions' Ford Field, and the fact that it isn't where Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline and "TramWhit" played is the only bad thing about it. No, the Tigers haven't played there since 1901, but it feels like that COULD be true. Even your car will be safe from the legendary Detroit crime.

13. Target Field, Minneapolis. Baseball's newest park until the Marlins open their new place next season, but even the Marlins couldn't improve as much in one off-season as the Twins did in 2009-10 when they got the hell out of the Metrodome. Or, rather, they got themselves out of the hell. The Metrodome was awful well before that December 2010 snowstorm tore and collapsed the roof and forced the Vikings into the University of Minnesota's new football stadium. Although Harmon Killebrew died a few weeks ago, he did live long enough to see this place open, and if you forget that the 1987 and 1991 World Series were played at the Homerdome, it's not that hard to believe that this is where "the Killer" crushed tape-measure jobs, where filthy curveballs were tossed in Pennant-winning seasons by Camilo Pascual in 1965 and Bert Blyleven in 1987, where Rod Carew stole home 7 times in 1969 and nearly batted .400 in 1977, and where Kent Hrbek and the late Kirby Puckett thrilled the loudest fans in baseball (at least, they were the loudest when they had a dome to keep the sound in). The Twins were seriously considering moving to Tampa Bay in the late 1980s and were nearly contracted out of existence in the early 2000s, but with Target Field in place, they have a good home for baseball for at least the next half-century.

12. Jacobs Field, Cleveland. I refuse to call this place Progressive Field. I would, however, call it a dandy. Designed as a retro park before construction began on Camden Yards, it's no copycat. In fact, Citi Field and the new parks in Philly, Seattle and Denver seem to be copies of this one. Good choice, the atmosphere is great, and even when the Indians aren't winning, their fans are a lot louder here than they were at the old Municipal Stadium (though I can't say for sure how loud they were when the Indians were really good in the 1940s and '50s, capable of packing over 80,000 into that place).

11. Nationals Park, Washington. How wonderful it must have seemed to the Expos/Nationals who had played the last days of Olympic Stadium in Montreal and the 3 years at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium -- which was a great football stadium and is still a very good soccer ground, but not a very good place for baseball. Nats Park has good freeway and subway (Metro) access, the statues (Walter Johnson, Josh Gibson and Frank Howard) and the Washington Wall of Stars display give it a history it doesn't really have, the Racing Presidents give it fun, and the food... The best ballpark food I have ever eaten, even better than a Tiger Stadium hot dog and a Milwaukee County Stadium Polish sausage, is "The Rough Rider" barbecue sandwich at Nationals Park. Twelve bucks and worth every penny. The old Washington Senators had the problem of D.C. being a federal government town, and thus a lot of people who showed up at Griffith Stadium and RFK were from elsewhere and didn't become Senators fans, and those who did didn't stay Senators fans when they returned home. But with the growth of Washington's Maryland and Virginia suburbs (for a long time it looked like northern Virginia, rather than the District, was going to be where the park was built) has led to the locals having a real pride in their hometown and its team. The Nats may not be very good yet, but the ballpark experience there is.

10. AT&T Park, San Francisco. Perhaps the biggest improvement in the history of ballparks was from Candlestick Park to this place, originally known as Pacific Bell Park. You had to be a real solid 49ers fan to love The Stick. I don't think any baseball stadium has ever been more hated by its own team's fans. But the new park, just off downtown in the China Basin region, has the easy access, the close seats, the big glove, the promenade and McCovey Cove. And now it has a World Championship. All it needs now is to not get wrecked by The Big One: If The Stick can survive the 1989 World Series earthquake, hopefully The Phone Booth can survive the next big quake.

9. Busch Stadium, St. Louis. The 3rd stadium to have the name -- the first was the renamed Sportsman's Park, the 2nd the one we know from the 1967, '68, '82, '85, '87 and 2004 World Series -- it's the best. The Cardinals really tried to make Busch II not feel like one of the concrete ashtrays of the Sixties, by replacing the turf with real grass, planting those flowers behind the outfield fence, putting up the hand-operated scoreboards. Nothing worked like building a real park, with close seats and a great view. There are a lot of people who say that St. Louis is the best baseball town in America. Busch III is a big argument in their favor.

8. PNC Park, Pittsburgh. A huuuuge improvement over Three Rivers Stadium. The view alone is magnificent: Those skyscrapers, old and new, with their height and their contrasting styles, make Pittsburgh feel like a much bigger city than it actually is. And yet it feels like an oversized small town, too. PNC is one of the smallest parks in the majors (or, at least, with the fewest seats), but it's not a forced intimacy. No, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell didn't play here -- but it was built pretty much on the site of Exposition Park, where the Pirates played before Forbes Field, so you can say, more or less accurately, that Honus Wagner did play here. All PNC needs is another name (not a fan of that bank), and a winning team. Hey, look, the Pirates may finally have one again.

7. Petco Park, San Diego. Another suburban football stadium (Jack Murphy/Qualcomm) is replaced by a downtown gem. Like Camden Yards, it had a warehouse built into the park, with seats built into the warehouse wall. The Padres, the team of Nate Colbert, Randy Jones, Dave Winfield and Tony Gwynn, always did feel like they deserves a homey ballpark. Now, they've got one, and they don't have to play second (or third) fiddle to the L.A.-area parks anymore: This one is better than Chavez Ravine or Anaheim.

6. Wrigley Field, Chicago. If it could be modernized, it might well be a contender for Number 1. You'd have to be a serious Met or Cardinal fan not to like Wrigley -- or someone who visited at night, when the locals have had more time to get tanked. Chicagoans really, really like to drink. But in daylight, as God and Ernie Banks intended it, Wrigley is everything they've been saying it is for nearly a century. The only thing bad about it is that you'd have to be an idiot to drive there. And the food is, for whatever reason, well below what you'll get at the Sox' park. Who cares, you can get decent food at Murphy's or the Cubby Bear after the game.

5. Citi Field, New York. WHAT? Mike is rating the Mets' park ahead of Wrigley? No, you're not imagining things. I like Citi Field. I'd like it a lot better if it wasn't full of Met fans... well, half-full of Met fans. And I'm glad Fred Wilpon finally put that Mets Hall of Fame off to the side of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda in the Ebbets Field-like entry. It's about time the Mets, who will have (if not quite "celebrate") their 50th Anniversary next year, admit that, no, they are not an expansion team anymore; and, yes, they do have some good history. Shea Stadium always topped Yankee Stadium in two categories: Parking and food. Citi Field tops YSII in those categories as well. Just make sure you hit Shake Shack before first pitch, or else you're going to miss an inning. The only thing I don't like about the place. That, and all those Met fans.

4. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore. Or, as it's better known, just "Camden Yards" -- the one U.S. baseball park whose name sounds like that of an English soccer ground. (Highbury, Anfield, Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, etc.) Having been to Memorial Stadium 3 times, I really liked it, and I know that the Orioles haven't been playing in the Inner Harbor since the Roaring Twenties. But it sure feels like they have. This is the park that every post-1992 park wanted to be. And, a generation later, it still has a great atmosphere. Especially when there's 20,000 Oriole fans dueling with 20,000 Yankee Fans to see who's louder. THAT is when it sounds like an English "football ground"! One thing bothers me, though: The light rail isn't as convenient as it appears, and trying to get back to Baltimore's Penn Station (so you can get back to New York's and not have to pay for a hotel) in time to catch the last Amtrak out is not easy.

3. Yankee Stadium, New York. That's right, it's only Number 3 on this list. It deeply saddened me that the original Yankee Stadium was demolished. After all, you can't go to the new one and say, "This is where (great historical moment) happened" -- unless you're talking about the 2009 postseason or Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit. But... In every measurable way (except, obviously, for prices), the new Stadium is an improvement on the old one. More escalators. Elevators. The concourses are wider. The seats are wider and have more legroom. You can see the game while on line for food. There's more concession stands with a much wider variety of food (although the Mets do still do food better). The scoreboard is an improvement. And, as George Steinbrenner demanded, there are more and bigger bathrooms, and you won't lose an inning in there. If there HAD to be a new Yankee Stadium, they got it right. Except for "Monument Cave." That bothers me. But, overall, the new Stadium has done everything we've asked it to do... including host a World Championship.

2. U.S. Cellular Field, Chicago. A lot of White Sox fans did not want to leave the old Comiskey Park for this place, originally named the new Comiskey Park. A lot of them hate it, calling it "Mallpark," and pointing out that the first row of the upper deck is further from the field than the last row of the upper deck at the old Comiskey. But the alternative to getting this park approved in 1988, to open in 1991, was the White Sox moving to Tampa Bay and playing in the Number 30 stadium on this list. Maybe it's the physical resemblance to Yankee Stadium, 1976-2008 style (wraparound blue decks, big white bleachers, before the exterior and seats were painted and the little roof was added), but I liked it the moment I saw it. Some changes have added a little bit of intimacy, and it's still got the same Dan Ryan Expressway and El access, gritty South Side feel, and amazing variety and great taste of food that old Comiskey had. And it's got an "exploding scoreboard" that's a good copy of the old one. As with Yankee Stadium, if the old one had to go, this was a good replacement.

1. Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia. The Phillies, formerly in rundown Connie Mack Stadium and the much-maligned Veterans Stadium, now have the best ballpark of them all? As Richie Ashburn would say to his broadcast partner, "Hard to believe, Harry." No, more like, "Bet yer house on it, Harry!" Now that, as Harry Kalas would say, the Vet "is... outta here," Delaware Valley fans are enjoying what they were missing all those years. I don't like that it was built to the right of the Vet, thus making for a longer walk from the Broad Street Line subway. Other than that, this park does not have a flaw. It's spacious in the concourses and in the seats, yet every seat, even in the upper deck (the 400 Level, not the 700 Level like in the Vet) is a good one. I love the Liberty Bell that lights up and tolls whenever the Phillies hit a home run or win the game. No ballpark has more food, and hardly any has better food. The Phillies embrace their history with Ashburn Alley in center field, including a statue of the man himself, Philly's version of Phil Rizzuto, with a bar named for Kalas, Harry the K's, in the left field corner and Bull's BBQ, run by Greg Luzinski (and he's usually there), in right. Philly fans love their football, their basketball and their hockey. But it took Citizens Bank Park to remind them of just how much they love baseball. And they're much better behaved while watching that sport than the others, too. Anybody who goes there is going to come away loving baseball, too.

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