Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Ballpark Mini-Tour Review: Overview

Let's face it: baseball is pretty boring. Oh, it has its moments and all, but for the most part, 30 teams each playing 162 games per season generate about as much excitement for me as one period of regular-season hockey...AHL hockey.

OK, that's a bit harsh, but the point is that I'm not a baseball purist by any stretch. There are a few players I've loved over the years: George Brett, Reggie Jackson, Buddy Bell, Gary Carter, David Ortiz (yes, still). And there have been some games and some seasons and some teams I've very much enjoyed. But I rarely watch games on TV, and while I kind of enjoy "following" teams, I don't often take time to pour over stats or check out who's on a hot streak. I don't watch Baseball Tonight. I don't even have MLB Network (for now).

However, there are a couple of things I like about baseball because they're unique to the sport, at least among the four big US sports and soccer. First off, baseball has no clock. A team can be down 12-0 with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning and still come back to win. Oh, sure it's unlikely, but it's possible. Only hockey among our American sports comes close to having this quality--it only takes a second to score a goal--but the fact is that a 6-0 hockey game has usually devolved into a massively entertaining fight-fest by the middle of the third period.

Beyond that, a football team that's ahead 42-0 in the third quarter is going to win--and it's usually going to find some dull way to run out the clock and kill the game. But, with baseball, it takes (at least) 27 outs to get the victory. There's some appeal to that, even if the process of getting 27 outs isn't the most exciting thing in sports.

Also--and I'm getting to the point here--baseball parks have atmosphere that other sports stadiums don't have. Hockey and basketball arenas, despite some having more raucous crowds than others, are pretty cookie-cutter for the most part, especially in the modern-arena era. College football stadiums can have lots of atmosphere, especially in their parking lots, but a football field is a football field is a football field--they're all 120 yards long (don't forget the end zones) and look pretty much the same. European football stadiums gush atmosphere--sometimes too much--but, again, a pitch is a pitch for the most part. Same goes for rugby.

Baseball parks, though, have all sorts of funny quirks. Aside from the regulation base paths and the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate, baseball parks can ramble around pretty much all they want. There are funny little outfield corners, weird angles, tall walls, short "home-run" porches--you name it. Ever since Camden Yards brought much of baseball out of the multipurpose-stadium era, ballpark designers have been finding new ways to keep a boring game interesting and to make a large-scale sports facility as pleasing to the eye as possible.

That's a pretty cool idea, and that's why I like visiting ballparks so much--especially new parks built to accommodate the bottom, slake the thirst, feed the belly and please the eye. I go not so much for the game but for the experience: I like to see how the fans mesh with the park itself and how comfortable and interesting the park is. I go because there's something immensely pleasurable about watching a sporting event on a beautiful summer evening in a place built with the express purpose of being beautiful and interesting. (Actually, I don't go that often--some years, I don't make a game at all, but when I do go, that's why I'm there.)

OK, I'd rather go to a hockey game, but ballparks are cool. That's really what I'm trying to say. This summer, circumstance gave me the opportunity to visit three parks: Nationals Park in Washington, DC (about which I've already gushed considerably); Busch Stadium in St. Louis and Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. The first two of those parks are just about brand new; the "K" in KC underwent a major renovation prior to this season and is now known as the "New K," even though it stands where the old K did and is really just a (significantly) gussied-up version of the old park. Of course, my home park is Fenway Park, the oldest park in baseball (yes, older than Wrigley, I think--I haven't looked it up) and--forgive me, purists--pretty much a dump. I've been to two home Red Sox games this year, so my impressions of Fenway are fresh.

As time permits over the next few nights (weeks? I hope not...), I'll offer reviews (with photos!) of the three "foreign" parks I visited this summer as well as some thoughts on Fenway. Baseball purists, beware--I like gimmicks, kitch and creature comforts. After all, I need to have something to do while a boring old baseball game is going on in the background... Just kidding. Mostly.

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