Ranking the Best Ballpark Experiences

It started with Charlie Pierce’s excellent piece on PNC Park in Pittsburgh, a post that only deepened my sense of shame and sadness for having not yet seen a game there. This started a wide-ranging Twitter discussion. Which ballparks are the best? Worst? And for the analytical crowd … what makes a ballpark great (or not so great) anyway?

With summer road trip season upon us, we figured this would be a good time to offer a top current ballparks guide, with some historical rankings thrown in for good measure. Because this is my own, extremely subjective list, here are my own, extremely subjective criteria for the best ballpark experiences:

Food: If I had to rank the world’s greatest advances from the time I grew up going to games until now, the list would like this:

1. Internet

2. Vastly improved ballpark food

3. Mostly irrelevant things

At the risk of “In my day”–ing you to death, in my day, ballpark food was terrible, and the choices were severely limited. Crappy hot dogs, stale popcorn, and (from what I was told by adults), limited, watery macrobrew beer selections do not enhance a ballgame experience. Today, every ballpark can and should capitalize on the explosion in concessions growth. The stadiums that do this best blend in the best local fare. Think Skyline Chili at Reds games, Tony Luke’s at Phillies games, etc.

Beer: As with food, there’s no excuse for not tapping into the best that local beer scenes have to offer. Something like this is offensive and cruel for anyone who believes beer choices shouldn’t stop at Milwaukee’s Best Light Ice.

Field sight lines: Seats angled toward the field, and wide, open concourses that offer both ease of movement and clear views of the action while you’re away from your seat.

Views: Stadiums without views are perfectly fine. But as any visitor to PNC Park will tell you, the right view can be a major plus.

Comfort: I’m 6-foot-4 with freakishly long legs. While I appreciate the charm that many of the old ballparks have to offer, a couple offer such cramped, uncomfortable seating that it greatly reduces game enjoyment. One old park in particular is a pain in the ass (and legs, and back, and neck, and every other body part) for fans of pretty much all sizes.

Atmosphere/fans: Having a winning team obviously helps on this front, since winning tends to lead to higher attendance and more fan enthusiasm. But I love to kibitz with random fans at random games. Having a great conversation will enhance my memories of a stadium experience, even if said park falls down in other areas.

Surrounding neighborhood: A pretty damn big deal. There are few (zero?) better ways to spend a summer day than pregaming, followed by day baseball, followed by postgaming, all without walking more than a few blocks to reach your destination.

Access: Fast, reliable public transit to downtown parks is a nice bonus, especially if beers are on your priorities list. And while surrounding neighborhood would seem to conflict with access in the case of easy-in, easy-out, right-off-the-freeway parks, the right stadium can be terrific even if the area around it has little more than on-ramps.

Cost: You can get cheap seats anywhere. But the worst, non-obstructed-view seats at Yankee Stadium run $23 for walk-up purchases, versus $4 for Rockpile tickets at Coors Field. On the flip side, you can grab incredible, memorable seats in many ballparks for less than $100; in some parks (Yankee Stadium), you’ll pay multiples upon multiples higher. Yes, this is a simple supply-and-demand issue. But we’re assuming fans are traveling from Anywhere, USA (or Canada, Mexico, Bhutan, or wherever) to see a game, so this is about having total choice, not an economics lesson.

X factor: Think back to your favorite ballpark experience ever. There’s a good chance that something beyond all of the above helped make that day so memorable. Maybe you had a great date there. Reunited with a long-lost buddy after years apart. Caught a ball, a killer postgame concert, or a vintage Ump Show. You’ll have your own favorite moments, just as I have mine.

This list isn’t comprehensive by any means. Despite writing about baseball for a living, I don’t travel for work nearly as much as, say, a beat writer would. That means I haven’t seen several excellent (from what I hear) new parks. It also means that many of my ballpark experiences are the product of going as a fan and not as a writer, in many cases quite a few years ago. But having been to either the old park or the new one in every MLB market except Minneapolis/St. Paul (I know, I know, Target Field is great … will get there one day), there’s a good starting point here.

So with a nod to Page 2′s (R.I.P.) comprehensive ballpark rankings from a few years ago and anyone else who’s given these rankings a shot, here are mine — Part 1 today, Part 2 coming soon.

36. Exhibition Stadium, Toronto: The only time I ever left a game as early as the third inning without a rainout happened here. If you ever went to the Ex on a broiling summer day, you know why: The place was stuffed with metal benches that absorbed heat and cooked your entire body when you sat on them. Some hunt-and-pecking on Baseball-Reference.com leads me to believe it was this game, a 13-3 rout by a terrible Indians team over a good Blue Jays team. Even with my dad and I nearly burning to a crisp because of our Eastern European paleness, the baseball nerd in me now wishes I’d stayed. Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven tossd a complete game, and some of the names in this one are baseball nerd heaven.

Heat aside, the only redeeming feature for this park was the Canadian National Exhibition, the gigantic annual summer event that included amusement park rides, concerts, and all manner of other shenanigans. The CNE is still around. Mercifully, Exhibition Stadium, with its metal benches, terrible sight lines, seats that seemed 100 kilometers from the action because of its orientation for football, and Dave Winfield–menacing seagulls, is no longer.

35. Sun Life Stadium, Miami: We didn’t include weather on our list of ballpark criteria because even temperate cities can serve up brutal conditions on the wrong day. But as bad as having a soulless, usually empty multipurpose stadium was for Marlins fans, Fish games at Sun Life were usually defined by the elements (even more than scorching-during-the-daytime, freezing-at-night Exhibition Stadium). May through October in and around Miami (really in most of the state) is either brutally hot and humid or drenched with torrential rain. We’ll get to Marlins Park and Tropicana Field later. But those who lament indoor baseball as a deal-breaker, ask yourself if two-hour rain delays and melting into a puddle is any better.

34. RFK Stadium, Washington: I had a lot of different writing jobs before landing at Grantland, many of them not covering sports. One of the first was as a hybrid commercial real estate/sports business writer for the Washington Business Journal back in the late ’90s. One of my first ongoing assignments there was covering Washington’s efforts to lure a baseball team to the city. Specifically, luring my beloved Montreal Expos. One of D.C.’s most aggressive moves was to court an exhibition game pitting the Expos against Mark McGwire’s St. Louis Cardinals in the spring of 1999. The professional side of me wanted to cover that story, and that game, diligently. The fan side of me wished for a disaster.

It was a giant disaster. Not remotely equipped to host a modern baseball game, RFK dealt with everything from scoreboard malfunctions to concession problems to fans cranking their necks to see the specks on the field, off in the distance. Granted, RFK was never going to be more than a bridge until a new, proper ballpark was built. But the bush-league feel of that game, and even the 2007 regular-season game I attended after the Expos finally did move to D.C., did supply at least a bit of schadenfreude-fueled satisfaction. Having never been to Nationals Park, I’ll just assume that Nats fans are still living in misery as they watch their team.*

*Not actually able or willing to wish ill on the Nationals or their fans, because Canadian politeness trumps allegiance to a long-dead baseball team.

33. Candlestick Park, San Francisco: It was just as windy as you’ve heard, had no charm whatsoever, and was a bitch to get to. But I got to see Deion Sanders in his first home game as a Giant, a week after he played the last game of his first stint with the Reds. That alone could’ve easily raised this ranking by 20 spots or more.

32. Riverfront Stadium, Cincinnati/31. Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia/30. Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh: Riverfront delivered Skyline Chili but featured stadium employees who wouldn’t let my idiot pals and me take brooms into the stadium in anticipation of a potential Expos sweep (which never happened anyway). Veterans offered little in the way of neighborhood charm, but the Phillies fans were delightful, and delightfully ornery. Three Rivers wins on location and for being early to the decent-local-beer-at-ballparks trend with Iron City. But overall, these were three unremarkable multipurpose bowls that offered little beyond the basics. New stadiums were going to be built everywhere sooner or later. But the stadium boom that started in the early ’90s and ripped through baseball owed nearly as much to the undesirability of incumbent parks as it did to that decade’s economic boom and owners’ keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality. So … thanks Riverfront, Veterans, and Three Rivers for being so drab, I guess?

29. Turner Field, Atlanta: The stadium feels like it was designed for something other than baseball (it was), the food and beer choices are unimpressive, the surrounding neighborhood adds nothing, MARTA might be the worst major transit system in America, and the Tomahawk chop is somehow far more annoying in person. Big fan of the city of Atlanta, but not of its ballpark.

28. Yankee Stadium (new), New York: Schiphol Airport is an ultra-modern, highly functional, wholly antiseptic hub, a key connector for people traveling from North America to parts farther east. It’s a hulking mass of metal and glass, designed to house travelers for an hour or three, then spit them out efficiently, with nothing sticking with those who entered other than some half-decent food and the most generic of travel experiences. Schiphol was put on this Earth to serve a singular purpose, with not a single value-add.

New Yankee Stadium comes filled with Yankee fans, including the hearty Bleacher Creatures who carry on cool rituals, as well as less rehearsed souls who bring plenty of baseball knowledge and esprit de corps. Other than that, it’s a dead ringer for Schiphol Airport.

27. Shea Stadium, New York: Shea was a dump, a rickety old ballpark abutting one of the most depressing, Mad Maxian sites on the East Coast, another multipurpose stadium in theory but far more outdated and run-down than its counterparts in Philly, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere. But the day I went, an older gentleman and I spent a solid three innings talking about the first game he ever attended as a kid: a thriller at old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, in which Jackie Robinson stole home. We could have been seated in a nuclear waste treatment plant and it still would have been an enjoyable afternoon. Shea truly was a dump … and I ended up kind of liking it.

26. O.co Coliseum, Oakland: Another place with a terrible reputation that I liked more than expected. The first visit was highlighted by a walk around the park in search of sustenance, a trek that led me to an impressive sausage stand that featured a wide array of brats, Polish, Italian, Cajun, and other selections. And this was in the late ’90s, years before the stadium food boom really took off. Coming back last year, I expected an even bigger disappointment, given every team with a supposedly undesirable park save the Rays and A’s had moved into nicer digs by then. Maybe it was a perfect, sunny Sunday afternoon, maybe it was making the trip with four childhood buddies, or maybe it was Derek Norris’s walk-off, three-run blast. Whatever it was, a good time was had by all.

25. Angel Stadium, Anaheim: Do you like endless freeways, faceless business parks, a nearby El Torito, a scoreboard operator who can’t possibly imagine fans MAKING SOME NOISE without incessant prompting, plus a Panda Express and a Jack in the Box in the ballpark? Then boy, have we got the place for you!

24. Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego: It’s tough to have a legitimately bad experience in any ballpark, and it’s even tougher when said ballpark is located in the great city of San Diego. The park had wide walkways within the seating bowl that made it easy to stroll and watch at the same time, trolley service offered excellent access, and Randy Jones BBQ was phenomenal. Other than that, Qualcomm was just OK, unless you want to add bonus points for the successful catch of a foul ball that may or may not have been scuffed by Pete Schourek.

23. Rangers Ballpark, Arlington: You can make a strong case for Rangers Ballpark as the most ordinary of all the next-generation stadiums built during the ’90s and early aughts. The architecture’s nice enough, with plenty of red brick on the outside, with bunting adorning the big structure out behind center field. Also, how many other ballparks advertise a hot dog that has a 42 percent chance of killing you by the sixth inning? Mostly, this is a me-too edifice with nothing around it except hotels and a Six Flags that offers the bonus of stultifying weather for 85 percent of the season.

22. U.S. Cellular Field, Chicago/21. Rogers Centre, Toronto: The first two parks out of the gate during the stadium boom, both U.S. Cellular and Rogers feel like cautionary tales – perfectly acceptable places to watch a game that didn’t have anywhere near the charm of the next stadium up, Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Miller Lite Bullpen Sports Bar is a good, boozy time on a hot summer day on the South Side. Rogers Centre is perfectly pleasant when the roof’s open, and isn’t far from the bars and restaurants lining vibrant King and Queen Streets in downtown Toronto. Still, neither’s a stadium around which you’d want to plan a big road trip.

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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