As I sat in the left field corner of Nationals Park last Friday evening, enjoying baseball, banter and beer with friend and colleague Jimmy Chiang, I was reminded once again that watching a baseball game live at the ballpark is one of life’s greatest pleasures. The crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, and even the occasional cry of “Get your ice cold [nine-dollar] beer here!” all make the ballpark a special place, even for those with only a passing interest in the game.
In my 24 years, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the home venues of ten of MLB’s thirty teams. While each may provide a different type of baseball atmosphere, some ballparks are certainly better than others, so as I wait to add to the list, I decided to rank the ballparks I have already visited. Rankings are based not only on the quality of the parks’ bricks and mortar, but also on the experience each provides on any given night at the ballpark. I am hopeful to one day compile a comprehensive list of all thirty ballparks, but now that I am a third of the way there, here is how each of the first ten stacks up:
10. Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles, CA)
Though Dodger Stadium is full of history, having hosted games in eight World Series in addition to an All-Star Game and the final round of the 2009 World Baseball Classic, it is quite frankly getting on in years. Some of the seats are also at an awkward viewing angle, parking is a nightmare and there’s nothing to do around the stadium. But what puts this venue squarely at the bottom of the list is the ballpark atmosphere. Fans arrive in the third inning and, if the Dodgers are losing (even by one run) often leave in the eighth. Many appear to treat the game as an event, not as a competition, and though the pre-game montage does a great job of firing up fans, few are there to see it. Vin Scully’s proclamations that “It’s time for Dodger baseball!” give Dodgertown a few extra points, but not enough to pull it up out of the cellar.
9. PETCO Park (San Diego, CA)
PETCO is much newer than Dodger Stadium and is a considerable improvement over the aging structure a couple hours to the north. The seats are better positioned and the gorgeous view of the San Diego skyline is a beautiful backdrop for some evening baseball. The Western Metal Supply Co. Building gives the stadium some color as well, but other than that, the ballpark feels somewhat institutional, and more apt to be called a stadium than a park. In addition, PETCO suffers from a milder degree of the same fan apathy that plagues Dodger Stadium. My lone experience in PETCO Park was a labor day weekend game last season with the Padres in first place against the hard-charging Rockies, and yet the cheers for my Rockies were almost as loud as those for the hometown Friars. Fans left en masse in the eighth inning when the Rockies took a four-run lead, though to be fair, it might as well have been six or eight because PETCO Park is the toughest hitter’s park in baseball three years running. Still, Padres fans who hadn’t seen their team in a World Series in twelve years should’ve been living and dying with every pitch just as I was.
8. Chase Field (Phoenix, AZ)
Chase Field is the only indoor ballpark I’ve ever visited, and indoor baseball is certainly a different experience from your conventional open-air ballpark, even with the roof open. Hot dogs aggressively priced at $1.50 help Chase’s cause immeasurably. Located squarely in downtown Phoenix, though, the park’s visitors tend to be a bit of an older crowd, some of whom were likely already on the other side of sixty when the Diamondbacks played their inaugural season back in 1998, so there’s not an abundance of action in or around the ballpark in the hours leading up to game time. The “party pool” beyond the fence also seems to be somewhat of a gimmick, and unlike in the parks of some other struggling teams, it very quickly becomes obvious when watching the game that the home team is sitting squarely in last place. Plus, call me old-fashioned, but there’s just something unnerving about watching a game in air conditioning.
7. Citizens’ Bank Park (Philadelphia, PA)
Fan enthusiasm is no issue at Citizens’ Bank Park, nor is it at any Philadelphia sports facility. The stadium’s atmosphere was electric for the opening game of the 2009 playoffs, and taking in a postseason contest there was everything I’d hoped it would be—except a Rockies winner. Despite the awful stories one hears about Philly fans, they were mostly cordial to me as I arrived at the ballpark decked out in purple and black. Though hoagies and cheesesteaks aren’t my favorite ballpark fare and the park loses some points for its location—near the Wells Fargo Center and Lincoln Financial Field, far from Philly’s bustling downtown—it is still overall a great place to watch a ballgame. The stadium is very new, and my very cheap seat in the top deck still provided me a great view of the ballgame. I sure hope I’ll be back this October to see the Rockies finish off the Phils in Game 5 of the NLCS.
6. Nationals Park (Washington, DC)
Nationals Park is a fun place to go any night of the week. For just $5 (or free if I can swing the company seats behind the first base dugout) I can see a major league baseball game in a beautiful facility. Nationals Park is in just its fourth season of existence, and the team will see yet another season end after 162 games this September, but South Capitol Street is still a great place to take in a ballgame. The Racing Presidents are somewhat annoying, and there still isn’t very much to do after the game other than get on the Metro and head north, but there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Most of the fans at Nationals Park are, like me, young baseball enthusiasts who have grown up with another team. At last Friday’s game against the Marlins, I didn’t have to look very far before I counted a Pirates jersey, a Reds hat, a Phillies t-shirt, a whole family of Dodger fans, and one Brad Hawpe 2009 National League All-Star Batting Practice Jersey—though I didn’t have to look far for that last one. But the fact that many fans consider the Nationals to be their second team doesn’t temper the crowd’s enthusiasm, as the Nationals faithful (though frequently small in number) can still cheer on their team with great vigor. In two years, when Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth (and Albert Pujols?) are all on the team together and the Navy Yard area has undergone even more development, look for Nationals Park to jump significantly higher on this list.
Check back next week for Justin’s Top Five Ballparks in the conclusion of this two-part series