Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Baseball Trip of a (Half-Century) Lifetime

If you're a friend on Facebook, you may have seen photos and updates during the trip I just completed with my sons. About a year ago, my wife suggested I take a trip to visit multiple ballparks to celebrate my 50th birthday (this September). I certainly didn't forget her idea, and from August 2 through 17 I made the idea a reality.

We flew to Detroit, and from there drove to Cleveland, then Cincinnati and finally Pittsburgh, where we returned the rental car. We took the train from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, and from there to Washington, DC, where we rented another car (and picked up my dad at the airport). We saw a game in every city, including Baltimore (which we drove to from DC). (We actually saw two games in DC.)

I'll spare you the suspense. Here is my overall ranking of ballparks, most favorite first:

  1. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore
  2. Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati
  3. PNC Park, Pittsburgh
  4. Progressive Field, Cleveland
  5. Nationals Park, Washington
  6. Comerica Park, Detroit
  7. Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia

I would absolutely go back to every single one of these seven. I had a good time at every one, and no bad memories of any of them. It was a little tricky to rank them too, especially 5, 6 and 7, which were pretty close in my mind.

From what I heard before the trip, I would have predicted that PNC Park would be my favorite. And it was beautiful. We watched the moon rise over the skyscrapers and the Roberto Clemente Bridge over center field, and fireworks above them after the game. And the fans had plenty of energy. But the bandbox field in Cincinnati was fun, and their scoreboard was gorgeous. Maybe it's not a fair comparison, but we were a little closer to the field in Cincinnati and the view of the whole field felt perfect. Plus there was a great sense of history, with banners and statues all around the park, and a fantastic hall of fame museum. But Camden Yards left the best overall impression. Eutaw Street won me over. I've heard many new parks built since Camden Yards copied its modern take on an old-fashioned style ballpark. But none of them (that I'm aware of) copied the idea of actually including a street (with shops inside the B&O Warehouse on the opposite side) inside the ballpark complex. That and the fan energy won me over. Plus the Orioles are a fun team to watch--especially Adam Jones.

My top four ballparks were all right in the center of their cities, which I enjoy. It was easy to find a hotel within an easy walk of each of them (even easy for a 10 and 8 year old). And it's fun to walk among the crowd of fans to and from the field.

If Camden Yards isn't right downtown, it's certainly feels like it. We ate in a restaurant right across the street, walked past several crowded pubs and souvenir stands, and walked two blocks to the Babe Ruth birthplace museum. Yet we parked one block away (for only $16!) and were on the freeway back to DC 5 minutes after leaving the parking structure.

Great American Ballpark is on the Ohio River, right next to downtown. We took a shuttle bus across the river to Newport, Kentucky before the game and saw the impressive aquarium, and ate lunch looking back across at the ballpark. The shuttle took us back to the park in plenty of time for the game. After the game we walked with a friendly crowd that barely thinned out before we got to our hotel.

We walked to PNC Park from the Carnegie Science Museum (very highly recommended) along the river. I enjoyed watching the "tailgaters" in their boats moored along the river walkway. After the game we walked with the rest of the crowd across the Roberto Clemente bridge (which is closed to vehicular traffic before and after the game).

I don't remember anything in particular on the walk before and after the game in Cleveland, but it was certainly pleasant, and family friendly. Not that I didn't enjoy staying in a hotel downtown within walking distance of the ballpark (and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame). I enjoyed seeing several beautifully restored skyscrapers, especially from the inside. One contained Sammy's Grille where Sammy still cooks after 45 years later. The kids loved the friendly service and delicious breakfast. Cleveland's downtown has a feel of a city that is painstakingly restoring many buildings worth saving.

Detroit's downtown, in contrast, is a wasteland. We walked about 4 blocks from our hotel to the ballpark, past boarded up buildings (many with broken windows on the high floors) and decaying signs over shops and restaurants permanently closed for business. We did not walk among many fans. Even though there were over 30,000 fans at the game, after we walked one block after the game we were almost by ourselves. Another block and we were by ourselves. I expect almost all fans drove in from the suburbs.

Nationals Park is in a "neighborhood" of DC called Navy Yard. It reminds me of China Basin in San Francisco right after Pacific Bell Park opened. I'll bet in 5 years it reminds me of China Basin now. New condo towers are going up all over the area. And restaurants are starting to make an appearance. The walk to the park in daylight was pleasant enough--there were plenty of families and many Nats fans walking from parking lots and the subway station a block from our hotel. But after the (second) game, we walked by a big lot gated by shipping cargo containers that was setup by Miller Beer (I think) as a party (drinking) area. The spillover resulted in an uncomfortable walk back to our hotel listening to foul-mouthed 20-somethings talking trash.

The ballpark in Philadelphia was easy to get to via subway from our hotel, but it's surrounded by large parking lots for it and other sports venues across the street, making for a surprisingly long, rather boring walk from the station.

To avoid making this unbearably boring (if it's not too late) I'll now abandon the prose for lists of my favorites and trivia in different categories...

Best scoreboard video screen: Cincinnati (better picture than my 1080p set at home)

Best scoreboard stats and info: Baltimore showed the lineup for both teams and (IIRC) detailed stats for all batters, every at bat

Best scoreboard pitch information: Philadelphia (showed pitch type and speed) and Pittsburgh (showed horizontal and vertical break of pitches and speed)

Best sense of history: Cincinnati (banners and statues in and around the ballpark, plus a fantastic hall of fame museum); Cleveland had a nice hall of fame plaque area in center field

Worst sense of history: Washington (the worst was hanging a banner of Jordan Zimmerman amongst classic Washington baseball greats like Walter Johnson; the only acknowledgements of their past as the Expos were the names Carter and Dawson with players from the Grays and Senators--but no numbers--and a timeline in a history of baseball in Washington series of posters)

Best post-game fireworks: Pittsburgh (possibly the best fireworks I've ever seen); the only other fireworks were in Washington--they were pretty good

Best beer selection: Washington and Philadelphia had kiosks above nearly every section; though I couldn't really go looking for craft beer at any of the ballparks with kids in tow

Best food: My favorite was the the Pitts-burger from Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh, which had fries and coleslaw in the sandwich; I also liked the cheesesteak at Tony Luke's in Citizens Bank Park, though it wasn't as good as the cheesesteak at Steve's Prince of Steaks (also in Philadelphia)

Friendliest ballpark employee (that we encountered, at least): an "ambassador" came to talk to us before the game in Cleveland and game us each "first game in Cleveland" certificates

Ballparks where the players didn't sign autographs for kids: Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Baltimore

Surprised to find the home team dugout on the 1st base side: Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Baltimore

Cities with the most to do during the day before a night game: Washington, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland

Cities I could see myself living in: Pittsburgh, maybe Cleveland

Rainouts: none!

Star players we didn't see because they were on the DL or not playing due to injuries: Troy Tulowitzki (the Rockies played the Tigers), Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen, Chase Utley (except for one--albeit exciting--pinch-hit at-bat), Manny Machado, Jason Werth

Fans most into the game: Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit

Fans more interested in the wave than the game: Washington, Philadelphia

More intense, energetic, loud fans than Oakland: none