Ranking the Best Ballpark Experiences, Part 2

Last week, I ran down no. 36 through no. 21 on my rundown of favorite ballparks. Note that these rankings are highly and in some cases ludicrously subjective. Though the list does come with some objective criteria (covered in Part 1), your interaction with a stadium can vary wildly based on plenty of purely personal preferences. There are days when a stadium experience will deliver everything you could’ve ever imagined, and others where through nothing but happenstance, you have as bad a time as one can possibly have while watching three hours of baseball, eating, drinking, and sitting with friends.

Onto the top 20:

20. Olympic Stadium, Montreal: All of the things that have been said about this place are true. It was a cold, damp place, with a malfunctioning roof that kept tearing, and failing support beams that unleashed falling, 55-ton concrete slabs. And those are just the structural problems. The Big O was dingy, cavernous, and uninviting. It was located in an unremarkable neighborhood nowhere near the city’s killer downtown core. Concessions everywhere except the lower level right near home plate were terrible, and despite the old place being gigantic, somehow there weren’t enough bathrooms.

I freaking loved it.

We’re all going to have fond memories of the stadium in which we grew up, which obviously raises this ranking. But I’m here to tell you the Big O could be a great place to watch a ballgame under the right circumstances. The concession issue? Walk down to the good seats and you had a panoply of foods you couldn’t get anywhere else: smoked meat, poutine, all manner of Greek food, and beaver tails (giant slabs of fried dough stuffed with chocolate, apples, and cinnamon, or any number of other sweet toppings). The beer was cheap. The old-school scoreboard was, for much of the team’s existence, delightfully trollful, serving up cardboard cutout chickens every time a pitcher threw over to first (Tim Raines has said he’d purposely take big leads just to goad the pitcher and up his chicken count). The bilingual PA guy was cool. Walking from the Metro directly into the stadium’s entrance tunnel was cool. And despite its reputation as a lifeless place to watch a game, Olympic Stadium could be wild. When the Expos were winning, the Big O might have been the loudest stadium in baseball, with party-happy crowds screaming like mad for Raines and Carter and Dawson, then Walker and Grissom and Pedro a decade later. The day gigawatt technology gets perfected, you’re all coming with me in the DeLorean back to 1994 so you can see for yourselves.

19. Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg: Some bias here, too, which will happen when you spend three years writing about a team. But the Trop is really an eye-of-the-beholder place. Purists prattle on about the evils of indoor baseball, choosing to ignore that May through October in that part of the country vacillates between sauna and monsoon. Critics of South St. Pete willfully ignore Ferg’s, home of cheap pregame, ingame, and postgame beers and divish good times. They know not of Mazzaro’s, five minutes up the freeway and one of the best Italian markets this side of New York, perfect for taking advantage of the Trop’s liberal, post-Naimoli policy on bringing food into the stadium. You might hate Viking Quest callbacks, cowbells, and home-run horns if you’re cheering for the other team, but all of those suit Rays fans well.

The building itself isn’t much to look at. But if you’re willing to think like a local, the Trop is a solidly good time.

18. Busch Stadium (old), St. Louis: Another of the dead-and-gone multipurpose stadiums, Busch still got high marks for atmosphere. Riding the light rail to the game with family after family decked in Cardinal red was a blast. So, too, were the 48,392 fans who showed up for this classic game, one that featured Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa getting bombarded by flashbulbs a year after the great home-run chase, Sosa going deep twice, the Cards walking off with two in the bottom of the ninth, and a win for the legend himself, Ricky Blowttalico.

Is it fair that Busch gets elevated because the one time I made it there, half the city packed the ballpark and lost their minds in a walk-off? If these were objective rankings, certainly not. Here, not a problem. Besides, given the support the Cardinals got even in many of their lean years, we can’t call that great day too much of an anomaly. The whole Best Fans in Baseball thing might be wildly overblown at this point. But they turned a giant, dull concrete bowl into a (relatively) cool place to catch a game.

17. Chase Field, Phoenix: On the scouting scale, you’d call Chase a 50 on the nose. Chase sits in underrated downtown Phoenix, though you need to hike a bit to get to some of its better spots. It’s a comfortable place to see a game, though its only memorable feature is the pool in right field you’ll probably never get to use. All-year climate control is most welcome in the desert, though again, indoor baseball isn’t for everyone. And nothing against the fine citizens of Arizona, but the best atmosphere I ever experienced at Chase came during this spring’s WBC games.

16. Yankee Stadium (old), New York: Here’s what you expect when walking into the House That Ruth Built for the first time: Majestic grandstands, moving moments at Monument Park, and a palpable, historical feel that overwhelms your senses. Here’s what I got on my first visit instead: a case of food poisoning, and the overwhelming smell of hot garbage.

You overlook all of Yankee Stadium’s flaws — the overzealous stadium staff who confiscated sunscreen on 90-degree days, in-seat lockdowns during each of the park’s 79,000 performances of “God Bless America,” the worst concessions in baseball (for several years anyway) — because the old place really could be magical. When Paul O’Neill, Jorge Posada, or Derek Jeter did something special and the Bleacher Creatures lost it, you could close your eyes and imagine similar reactions for Thurman Munson, Joe D, and, yes, even the Babe. Even if the first impression was bad, you go back, catch Yankee Stadium on a better, albeit spleen-freezing day, and see it in all its flawed, yet majestic glory. And swear never, ever to eat ballpark Arby’s again.

15. Citi Field, New York: Unless downtown Brooklyn is willing to house yet another gleaming, new home for a sports team, we’ll have picturesque minor league parks in cool locations, with the South Bronx and Willets Point as backdrops for the city’s two big league teams. That was always going to limit the upside for the new parks the Yankees and Mets got last decade. Citi Field’s still a nice place to watch a game, one that beats new Yankee Stadium for subtle reasons: no heavily guarded moat to keep the unwashed masses away from the beautiful people, more inviting/less antiseptic architecture, and Shake Shack. The Jackie Robinson Rotunda, however, remains confusing as well.

14. Minute Maid Park, Houston: A pleasant surprise! The train tracks, the train lugging oranges, Tal’s Hill … it all looked so gimmicky on TV. But the whole somehow exceeded the sum of its parts, with behind–home plate seats offering a nice view of the skyline and the park itself offering intrigue with the short-porch Crawford Boxes. I caught Minute Maid on a perfect night, with unusually good seats, unusually temperate evening weather that allowed the roof to stay open, and the usual array of strong barbecue choices, both in and near the ballpark. Fans were friendly, ushers were helpful, and everything about that night was relaxed and inviting. Take your family here, pay only light attention to the product on the field (at least till 2016 or so), and you’ll have a delightful time.

13. Petco Park, San Diego: Going back to the scouting scale, you can call Petco solid-average. Still feels like it could be a little better. The view’s nice enough, but it’s certainly not PNC-level. The upper deck felt steeper than many other parks, and even field-level seats along the baselines felt a little farther from the action than you’d expect. (My favorite vantage point might’ve been The Beach, a section in right-center with a sand pit and backless seats that doesn’t really have a comp at any other park.) The fish tacos were OK, but in San Diego you expect better.

OK, I’m going to stop besmirching now, because any stadium that borders the Gaslamp Quarter is fine by me, and the beer choices at Petco, while pricey, are stupendous.

12. Progressive Field, Cleveland: The second park in the Camden Yards–or-later era that I got to hit in the ’90s, the Jake (it’ll always be the Jake) remains at or near the same level of many newer ballparks, showing no signs of age or obsolescence as it nears its 20th birthday. (It might seem crazy to consider a park obsolete after two decades, but the Georgia Dome is 19 months older than the Jake and the Falcons’ owners can’t wait to replace it.) The Jake helped lead the move by new-wave parks to attract people to a downtown core; despite the city’s ummm … mediocre reputation, this was a good thing, with a surprising number of pre- and postgame spots, plus fries-in-sandwiches options that rivaled far more famous options two hours away. Did I love the animated pig-and-chicken friends on the scoreboard beckoning me for a ribs combo? Yes. Did I adore the Belle-Manny-Lofton-Thome talent on the field the first time I got to visit? Hell yes. The Jake might not quite have that vibe now that the team’s not nearly as successful. But it’s retained most of the charm that made it a gem on the day it opened.

11. Marlins Park, Miami: No North American sports stadium looks anything like Marlins Park. That bugs a lot of people, with the neon green walls and gaudy home-run sculpture being two of the biggest sources of ire. I liked it all — the walls, the sculpture, the gigantic white pillars, even the giant letters planted into the ground along the periphery of the stadium, meant to symbolize the implosion of the old Orange Bowl. What critics might consider garish struck me as very Miami, which was precisely the point. Continuing my streak of catching perfect weather in ballparks where the opposite is the norm, my night here featured a rare open roof and a cool environment unaffected by the usual sparse crowd.

You should question the means used to build the place. But Marlins Park really is as close to a work of art as a major league stadium can be. And art can be highly subjective, even divisive.

10. County Stadium, Milwaukee: A brief summary of my trip to County, back in 1996:

• That night’s Brewers game marked our second game of the day, after catching a matinee at Wrigley then doing the short drive up.

• The Brewers game completed a rare all-sausage day, with sausage links for breakfast in Sarnia, Ontario, sausage-and-cheese pizza at Wrigley, and a brat at County, topped with Secret Stadium Sauce, which is amazing. That year’s Yom Kippur required a lot of atonement.

• We somehow ended up in a special Harley-Davidson enthusiast section, where we exchanged pleasantries with dozens of fiftysomething bikers. It was great.

• Also in our section: The reigning Miss Wisconsin, Pamela Polk. Seated right next to us, in fact. The pickup attempts fired by my severely outclassed friends remain legendary to this day. Fortunately, Ms. Polk could not have been nicer to a bunch of idiot college kids from Canada.

• During the seventh-inning stretch, everyone in the park suddenly got up and started chanting something. Turned out they were yelling “Bud! Bud!” for then–Brewers owner Bud Selig. After an appropriate amount of exhorting from the beer-fueled crowd, Selig stepped toward the front of the owner’s box and acknowledged the fans. The joint went nuts.

• The Brewers hit three home runs that night. Bernie Brewer popped out of his beer chalet and slid down his glorious slide each time. Having never seen this ritual in person before, it remains one of my top 10 favorite goofy baseball memories.

County Stadium itself was nothing special, and that’s being kind. Seeing a game at County Stadium that night was more fun than any of us could’ve ever hoped.

9. Fenway Park, Boston: It’s as simple as this: I can’t sit for nine innings in most seats here, not at 6-foot-4 with stork legs. While many older ballparks have this problem to varying degrees, grandstand seats at Fenway are the single most uncomfortable experience I’ve encountered at a sporting event, short of 100-degree days and blizzards. I’ve tried sitting in other sections that at least don’t have the added problem of being oriented completely away from home plate, with only slightly better results.

That’s a damn shame, because Fenway does live up to the hype in pretty much every other area. Game night consumes the entire surrounding area, giving the place more pregame buzz than perhaps any other park. The Monster drops your jaw when you see it for the first time in person. I’ve been to the park in both the pre– and post–pink hat era, and found loud, fully engaged, often delirious crowds in both cases. Even “Sweet Caroline” has its charm, though less so now than it once did. The stadium’s recent upgrades also have made walking around much less of a chore than it used to be. Tear out all the seats, replace them with ones that actually face where they should, only cushier and with 5,000 fewer of them, and you’d have the platonic ideal of a ballpark.

8. Safeco Field, Seattle: The team has stunk for a few years now, and even at its loudest Safeco doesn’t generate the same electricity that Fenway and other parks do. OK, but try to find a better pregame ritual than bar-hopping from Pioneer Square on down to Pyramid Alehouse and into the ballpark. Then soak it all up with some of the best food choices anywhere — burgers, garlic fries, and tacos, yes; Ichiroll sushi, less so. Oh, and more beer. Oh yes, so much more delicious beer. Look kids, drinking in excess is dangerous and irresponsible and you should never do it. But a sunny*, sudsy afternoon in Seattle never disappoints, even if the Mariners usually do.

*Winters are dark and gloomy, but between the city’s natural beauty and, yes, its sunshine, summer days in Seattle rival those anywhere. It’s just that everyone there’s committed to keeping that a secret.

7. Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles: Between the paralyzing traffic and hellscape parking lot, it’s a bigger logistical pain in the ass than any other ballpark. It also provides a backdrop that feels exactly how baseball should feel — idyllic no-frills setting, swaying palm trees in the distance, good sight lines from everywhere, a mid-century feel that crushes the faux-throwback vibe many newer parks try to convey. I’ve been to Dodger Stadium at least 30 times. Not once have nine innings and a Dodger Dog disappointed.

6. Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City: In the summer of 1999, I drove across the country, moving from Washington, D.C., to L.A. The plan was to hit several stadiums (somewhat) along the way, including Kauffman. We showed up to the ballpark early, figuring we’d walk around a bit and sneak a peek at Arrowhead Stadium next door too. Pulled the tickets out of my pocket. They’re for the night before. Somehow, in planning a life-changing move and cross-country trip, I’d messed up this crucial detail. Dejected, I walked to the ticket office, prepared to take my medicine, dig into my mostly broke, two-years-out-of-college pockets, and spring for another pair of seats. As a Hail Mary, I told the lady behind the counter my sob story.

“No problem, hon,” she said in her Midwestern twang. “We’ll get you fixed up.” Two minutes later, she handed me two tickets for that night’s game. No charge. I looked them over. Club-level seats, infinitely better than the cheapies I’d originally bought.

Kauffman is the most underrated park in baseball, with the towering light standards, crown-shaped scoreboard, and waterfalls behind center field offering a terrific combo. There’s Kansas City barbecue in the stadium, and good seats are cheaper than just about anywhere else, with or without others’ assistance. But it was the people, from the cheery, towheaded families who all seemed to have boys named Brett to the sweetest ticket agent I’ve ever encountered, who made Kauffman such a happy experience. Midwestern hospitality at its absolute finest.

5. Wrigley Field, Chicago: The first time I went to Wrigley, the crew and I splurged for box seats, about 20 rows over the first-base dugout. It was … fine, close to the action, but also exposed all of Wrigley’s flaws, from its Old Style–and-not-much-better beer selection to its tight walkways and close-quarters troughs. If you were going to pay up for seats near the field, there were probably 20 other parks where you’d have a better time.

The second time I went to Wrigley, we bought seats in the left-field bleachers. It was incredible. Three hours of beaming sunshine, chants of “Right Field Sucks,” kibitzing with Henry Rodriguez during pitching changes, endlessly jeering late-career Gregg Jefferies (Gregg Jefferies!). You hear stories of frat boys invading the park now, but my favorite day there featured a spirited, rowdy atmosphere that never crossed the line to bad taste; even the Jefferies taunts were somehow more goofy and nerdy than truly cruel. What Wrigley lacked in amenities it more than compensates with fun — then, now, and hopefully no matter how the park gets altered in the future.

4. Coors Field, Denver: A long foul ball away from the park, you can get a cheeseburger bracketed by glazed donuts and all the NBA Jam you can handle, 75 of the best craft beer choices under one roof, plus all the sports bars, meat markets, rooftop patios, and other hot spots you can possibly dream up, depending on your proclivities. In the park, you’ve got killer sight lines, wide concourses, food and beer diversity, and a spectacular view of the Rockies. Coors is lively but stress-free, easily accessible by car or public transit but never feeling too cramped. Pick any objective criterion for ballpark quality and Coors will score highly. Though it doesn’t quite have a best-in-the-game reputation, you can make a great case for Coors as the top ballpark experience in baseball. Only the truly special nature of the next three keeps Coors a bit lower on the list.

3. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore: The prototype for the ’90s stadium boom, Oriole Park remains the model for stadium construction that teams would follow for the ensuing two decades. You’ve got the seamless blending of adjacent buildings with the B&O Warehouse; the park spurring (or at least coinciding with) the revitalization of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor; the popularization of tasty, branded food options (Boog’s Barbecue); and expansive gathering spaces beyond the outfield for pregame events — all of the traits that developers tried to copy in later stadium builds and likely will when the A’s, Rays, and any other stadium-needy teams come calling down the road. Writing this, I’m actually angry that I can’t be there to snarf a plate of crab cakes with Old Bay on a Sunday afternoon.

2. AT&T Park, San Francisco: Maybe it’s unfair that AT&T gets the benefit of an incredible backdrop like McCovey Cove while other stadiums settled for generic urban backgrounds, but such is Mango. Food choices range from Cha Cha bowls to calamari and the league’s best garlic fries, beer choices from … really, you will never run out of choices. The architecture’s terrific. The location, once considered a bit of a risk because of lack of surrounding activity, is now a big plus. And the backdrop … oh, man. Meet at the Willie Mays statue, walk in, and let the whole experience blow you away. With apologies to PNC Park, Target Field, and a handful of other new-breed sites I haven’t seen yet, the only stadium built with close-to-exclusively private funds is also the reigning jewel of all current ballparks …

1. Tiger Stadium, Detroit: … but it’s the venerable, now-deceased Tiger Stadium that tops my all-time rankings. Look at this place. This is what baseball looks like in movies, and these are the ancient features that strike a visceral chord in a way that even the most picturesque new parks can’t. My first trip to Tiger Stadium came on the Fourth of July. We sat just on the fair side of the right-field foul pole, under the overhang, so close to the right fielder we could practically bonk him on the head on a warning-track fly ball. It all felt like something out of a Ray Kinsella fever dream, right down to the night-capping fireworks show.

There’s no perfectly objective way to say that Tiger Stadium outshined Oriole Park, AT&T, or any of the other amenity-stuffed palaces built with modern-day creature comforts in mind. But when you walk into a ballpark and instantly feel like you’ve been transported to a point in the distant past, when the sport was first rising to popularity and the first steel cathedrals were going up, that transcends any other point in a competing park’s favor. There’ll be plenty more trips to plenty of other stadiums, all of them likely to engender the kind of good feelings that any ballpark might. Only Tiger Stadium will have left the kind of impression that sticks with you for the rest of your life.

Filed Under: MLB

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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