Your top five might differ a bit, and I don’t suppose there was ever any question as to which park was going to be No. 1 on my personal list.
5) Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore (last visited, 2017)
I went to this ballpark the year it opened, just because it was such a curiosity — the very first of the retro parks. It was impressive then, and 25 years later when I returned to see the Cubs play there, not much had changed.
That’s mostly by design (and lack of funds for renovations). The park was designed in such a way that it would blend in with city life in downtown Baltimore, incorporate the old Camden Yards railroad building, and it was set up to last generations.
Even though 25 years had passed since it was first built, everything holds up well. The rail building holds team offices and shops and it borders Eutaw Street, a city street that was vacated for the team and has outdoor food stands and produces a lively gathering hours before the game begins:
The concourses are wide, clean and well-lit:
The views from the seating area are outstanding:
Heck, they even have Wrigley Field ivy (yes, they actually took cuttings) growing on one of the bullpen walls:
The food’s good and they do Maryland crabcakes right. The staff is outstandingly friendly and helpful (and, I found out, mostly volunteers — the Orioles can be ridiculously cheap).
Most folks cut “Oriole Park” out of the description when talking about it and just call it “Camden Yards.” Whatever you term Baltimore’s gem of a ballpark, it’s a must-see.
4) Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City (last visited, 2012)
I first visited when it was still Royals Stadium, as a friend of mine who grew up there (and wasn’t a baseball fan) told me his family had an extra World Series ticket in 1980 and I could have it if I drove him home for the weekend.
Well, twist my arm, that was a great deal. It was the first World Series game I ever attended, Game 4, the one where future Cub Dickie Noles knocked George Brett down and almost started a brawl. The Royals won the game, but lost the series. This was the first park I’d seen with just acres and acres of parking lots, which had to serve both the baseball stadium and Arrowhead Stadium next door.
I didn’t return until the Cubs were there in 2011, by which time the park had been extensively renovated (2009), adding outfield seating, some luxury clubs and a Royals Hall of Fame, which is one of the best of these I’ve seen. (Hint, hint, Cubs.)
I went back again the following year for the All-Star Game, and the Royals really put on a nice show. I specifically got an outfield seat for the Home Run Derby, hoping to get a baseball, but all I accomplished was this shot of a beautiful sunset over Kansas City:
I’ll never forget this, a little slice of life during player introductions. Melky Cabrera, then with the Giants, was introduced, and right then, a female Giants fan sitting next to me got up and yelled, loud enough so she was heard in the entire section, “MELKY! I LOVE YOU!” Never did find out who she was and why she loved Melky.
The All-Star Game itself was enjoyable, although the result was never in doubt after the N.L.’s five-run first inning (the final was 8-0) and perhaps the best entertainment was 19-year-old Bryce Harper, in his first ASG, losing sight of a ball that dropped behind him:
And, here is actual proof that Bryan LaHair played in the ASG (he grounded out):
The ballpark was nice in 1980 and they managed to make it nicer with the 2009 renovations. The food’s good — including KC BBQ, and ballparks don’t always get local specialties like that right — and staff was friendly and helpful.
The only thing I’ll warn you about is the parking lot, because if you don’t park in the right location closest to your seat, you are going to get stuck for a very, very long time getting out. Trust me on this one.
3) Oracle Park, San Francisco (last visited, 2018)
This one and the next could be 2A and 2B, that’s how close they are.
The Giants played for four decades in perhaps the worst ballpark ever built (as I noted in Part 1 of this series), and if you don’t believe me perhaps you’ll believe Grant Brisbee, who wrote this article recently about how San Franciscans knew how bad Candlestick Park was very, very soon after it opened in 1960.
Now? They’ve got one of the best. The location is perfect with spectacular views of San Francisco Bay:
They built little nooks and crannies into the park which don’t seem contrived but instead let you know that you’re definitely in San Francisco. The seating area has wide concourses and excellent sightlines and there are plenty of bleacher seats which are inexpensive even when popular opponents like the Cubs or Dodgers are in town. The few times I’ve sat in the bleachers there, they appear to have created a bleacher culture somewhat like Wrigley, but with a Giants fan twist to it.
The food is absolutely outstanding, they’ve put together a menu of Bay Area specialties along with ballpark favorites and absolutely, positively don’t miss the garlic fries, they are the best I’ve ever had.
This ballpark, of course, is the site of one of the most incredible comebacks in Cubs history, Game 4 of the 2016 Division Series. Among other things in their spectacular four-run ninth inning, the Cubs accomplished this that night:
Cubs: 5th team with game-tying RBI in 9th inning or later of back-to-back postseason games (last- 2001 Yankees) (via @eliassports)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 12, 2016
And the Giants fans — who were hoping for a fourth straight even-year World Series win — could not have been more gracious after that game, and series, loss. All of them seeing me depart wearing my Cubs gear wished us luck going forward. Of course, the Cubs were about to face their bitterest rival, the Dodgers, but they also expressed the wish that the Cubs would win the World Series. That couldn’t have been easy after suffering one of the most crushing defeats in Giants postseason history. I’ve got nothing but nice things to say about Giants fans, they are passionate and knowledgeable and still (mostly) fill the ballpark even when their team is bad.
Heading to the airport to go back to Chicago after that series, I spotted this street sign:
Seemed appropriate. KB hit .375/.412/.688 (6-for-16) in that series with two doubles and a homer.
Last note about this park: Don’t drive there. Trust me on this one.
2) PNC Park, Pittsburgh (last visited, 2018)
One of the best things about PNC is the fact that it looks like it’s been there forever. Like Target Field, the exterior is faced with limestone and it is absolutely gorgeous:
The views from inside are even better:
If you’ve never been there, the yellow bridge you see beyond center field (now named the Roberto Clemente Bridge) is closed to auto traffic during games so fans can walk across the Allegheny River to and from games. The park seats just 38,362, one of the smallest current MLB capacities, so the seating is all fairly close to the field and it has an intimate feel.
It is, of course, the site of one of the biggest wins in Cubs history, the 2015 Wild Card Game. And I know you can’t ever get enough of this home run [VIDEO].
Pat Hughes said on that call that the ball could have landed in the Allegheny River, and I believe it did.
As was the case in San Francisco in 2016, Pirates fans were gracious in defeat that night and urged us to “beat the Cardinals.” Of course, their disdain for the Cards is just as big as ours, so that’s understandable.
There’s a neighborhood of bars and restaurants that’s sprung up around PNC Park and it creates a lively scene. Not quite Wrigleyville, but they certainly did this one right.
Pittsburgh is an underrated city with lots of interesting things to see and do. If you go to PNC, take a side trip to see the site of Forbes Field, which is on the Pitt campus a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh.
1) Wrigley Field, Chicago (last visited, 2019)
I thought about just leaving the line with the ballpark name and when I last was there to finish up this post and series, because really, how much more could I possibly write about my favorite place on Earth than I already have at this site?
You know Wrigley is much more than a ballpark to me. It’s home for much of the summer, normal summers anyway, and I have made many, many lifelong friends who I first met in the bleachers. We all were there for the same purpose, to see the Cubs, and of course for decades wondered if we’d ever see them win the World Series.
I was interviewed for a Psychology Today article back in 2007 regarding my love for the Cubs and Wrigley Field. “Psychology Today”, you’re asking? The article was titled “Champions of the Lost Cause,” talking about why people continued to do things when they seemed hopeless. Also interviewed was my friend Holly Swyers — someone else I met in the bleachers — who summed things about Cubs fans up neatly:
The bond among these fans is profound, says anthropologist Holly Swyers of Lake Forest College in Chicago, who studies Wrigley regulars and counts herself among them. “Each year, we all come together and share that hope. And when our hope is lost, as it frequently is, those same people buoy us up. The more you suffer at the hands of the Cubs, the deeper the ties you feel to the people who’ve suffered with you.” If the Cubs do win, you get to celebrate with your best friends. If they lose, the disappointment only tightens the bonds.
And so we did celebrate with our “best friends” in 2016, though not at Wrigley, that’s something I still want to see, the Cubs celebrating a WS win in front of us at Wrigley Field.
I guess the remaining things I have to say about Wrigley that I haven’t said before revolve around the fact that we have this gem of a renovated ballpark on the North Side of Chicago mostly by historical accident. Team owner P.K. Wrigley, not really a baseball fan, took over the club after his father’s untimely death at age 71 in 1932. P.K. didn’t care much about the team — that showed in his indifference to building a winner. But he did spruce up the ballpark, creating its bricks-and-ivy look in 1937. In this image from the 1935 World Series, the only bricks to be seen are on the exterior wall in left field. Everything else is mostly steel:
After 1945 P.K. Wrigley’s attitude toward Wrigley Field appeared to be one of benign neglect, though he did try to use the beauty of the park to attract fans (the team certainly wasn’t the attraction for most of the 1950s and 1960s). The park I first went to in 1963 didn’t look much different than it did when the bleachers were first built in 1937. And when Tribune Company took over in 1981, there still hadn’t been much changed. Only the addition of lights (1988) and suites (1989) made the park look somewhat different by 2005, when the first major renovation (the first bleacher reconstruction) began.
It all could have been different under a different owner. Earlier this year I mused about what would have happened to Wrigley Field if P.K. had installed lights in 1942 as originally planned:
Mike Bojanowski, who grew up in the neighborhood around Wrigley Field and still lives there, and I have discussed this topic on many occasions. We agree that if Wrigley Field had night games beginning in 1942, the buildings on Sheffield and Waveland would likely have been torn down after World War II for parking for newly-mobile fans who had cars and lived in the suburbs, the new type of baseball fan rather than the stereotypical working-class guy who lived in the city and took the streetcar to the game. If that had happened, it would have changed the entire character of the neighborhood.
The conclusion I draw is that if lights had been installed in Wrigley Field in 1942, it probably wouldn’t have lasted until 1970 and the Cubs would have moved somewhere else. P.K. Wrigley’s stand against night baseball for his ballclub is, essentially, what wound up preserving Wrigley Field for us to enjoy in the 2020s, newly refurbished and renovated, an historical accident that’s paying dividends for our favorite team decades after its owner refused to go along with the then-modern trend of night baseball.
In the 1960s, many team owners abandoned parks built in the 1910s for what was then supposed to be superior — a multipurpose stadium good for baseball and football. As we have learned earlier in this series, those parks turned out to be good for neither and most have been replaced. The architects who designed the retro parks that replaced those monstrosities came to Wrigley Field to see what had charmed generations of Cubs fans.
So P.K. Wrigley’s benign neglect kept Wrigley Field going into the 21st Century, when the Ricketts family spent over $700 million bringing it into the present day with excellent amenities for players and fans.
We’re fortunate that we’ll have Wrigley Field around long past my lifetime, and perhaps yours as well. Hopefully, by next spring life and baseball will be back to normal and we’ll all be able to go back to the beautiful ballpark at Clark & Addison.