Summer has finally arrived, and I don't know what your plans are, but mine are in full swing. In June, I went to Seattle for a first look at that city's snazzy ballpark. In a month, I'll be in New York to see one last game at Yankee Stadium.
Fifteen years ago, traveling anywhere other than to Boston or the north side of Chicago to visit a baseball stadium wasn't my (or anyone's) idea of fun. Sure, I'd take a quick trip to catch my beloved Angels, but the parks themselves were something to be endured, not enjoyed. Most were multipurpose monoliths of blocky concrete more suited to the politburos of Eastern Europe than the talents of Nolan Ryan. The nation was strewn with cookie-cutter hulks from the nadir of stadium building--the '50s through the early '70s.
But in 1992, a new park in Baltimore changed the landscape. Camden Yards was a stadium integrated into an inner city, not the 'burbs. The design motifs and building materials--brick and steel--recalled the game's roots in the early 20th century. It opened to rave reviews, happily influencing a frantic era of construction.
This decade alone has seen 10 new baseball parks, one of them not quite 4 months old. By 2010, bizarre as it sounds, the second-oldest spots in each league will be the parks in our backyard, Dodger and Angel stadiums, with Dodger Stadium due to unveil a $500-million renovation in 2012. And over the next two seasons, three more stadiums will open nationwide.
I decided to become an informal inspector general of these places, striving to uncover their ambient secrets, unique design touches and baseball-enhancing qualities. For the last couple of decades, I've done my best to match my domestic travel to a game. Mind you, this pursuit isn't unique. Others--completists--strive to hit all 30 major league parks. I'm pickier, avoiding the few miserable mistakes that blight the landscape in Oakland and Tampa Bay.
At the same time, there is a micro-industry committed to ballpark-chasing at a velocity I don't care to match: Tour buses stocked with cases of beer ply the highways, offering acolytes six games in six parks in seven days. Do a mash-up of "Bull Durham" and "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium" and you're pretty much there.
My snail's-pace approach differs but is equally indefensible. Lifestyle authorities, including workaholics, non-baseball fans and wives, don't see the virtue in "spending all that money to go see another game when the Angels are right here" or (my way of putting it) "enjoying the murmuring music of a crowd in the background while I explore the latest castle built to showcase the national pastime." But that's OK. Who cares if a benign passion lacks virtue, or even a name? To me, it's valid as long as it spurs one to pursue it.
Circling the national base paths, I have seen 20 parks, current and past, and suggest a road trip to these six essential stops. Go to any of these and I promise inner bliss . . . or, failing that, a mustard stain and the afterglow of a timeless afternoon shared with your tribe.
San Francisco, a stadium masquerading as a mini-theme park, gets the nod even though Giants fans will be unavoidable. Visiting Wrigley Field in Chicago or Fenway Park in Boston is like stopping by to see revered great-grandparents--always worth the trip. And it's last call for Yankee Stadium before that imperious fortress is torn down for a $1-billion replacement. A perfect double-header would be Baltimore and Washington. A 35-mile drive contrasts the classicism of Camden Yards with the shiny steel of new Nationals Park. But it's OK if your ambitions and energies are less about exploring and more about enjoying. Loll in your seat, eyes open a squint, something cold to drink at hand, the background sounds taking over. It's what at least one afternoon of your summer should be all about.