The question was predictable, whether asked reflexively or apologetically. It came from the rental car attendants in Chicago, Kansas City and Cincinnati; the front desk managers at our hotels in Houston, Baltimore and Miami; the waiters and bartenders in Philadelphia, Detroit and Toronto; and those sitting next to us in New York, Milwaukee, Denver, Washington D.C., and just about every other city we visited.
They all asked, “So, which has been your favorite ballpark?”
When my daughter and I began what became a two-month journey scattered over parts of the last five summers and an occasional spring break, we thought the answer would be an easy one. After all, we had heard amazing things about AT&T Park in San Francisco and PNC Park in Pittsburgh. We were well aware of the history oozing from Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. We had heard friends and colleagues rave about Busch Stadium in St. Louis and San Diego’s Petco Park. And, of course, there were those ballparks whose compromised reputations preceded them, but this proved understandable since each was embroiled in local stadium debates linked to renovation or relocation.
So, how difficult could it be to rank Major League Baseball’s 30 stadiums? It proved to be impossible.
One cannot compare the experience of an opening day with all its pageantry to that of a Tuesday afternoon game when the home team has already been eliminated from the playoff race. It was made more complicated when considering things beyond the control of the team or venue, including weather and if a particular ballpark was visited at the end of a two-week trip, one that felt as if we had barnstormed the entire Northeast in the process.
But, I am getting ahead of myself.
This massive undertaking began innocently enough as we visited the five stadiums within driving distance in California during the summer of 2011. Once completed, it seemed like the next logical step would be to see the other 25. How hard could that be? How extraordinary would it be if, in fact, we could pull it off? And so it began, our national trek in search of the best hot dog, the craziest fans and, of course, to embark upon the best father/daughter experience imaginable. Throughout it all we attempted to capture the essence of each stadium in an effort to rank them as so many had done before us.
But compiling such a ranking is beyond subjective. It is impacted by so many adjacent, yet important things that the United States has to offer. Intangible factors, or halo effects such as extraordinary barbeque throughout Missouri, the ability to soak in the importance of the monuments in our nation’s capital, or simply bask in the natural beauty that surrounds cities such as Seattle, measurably added to the experience.
So too did the ability to visit important landmarks, including the Freedom Trail, the 9/11 Memorial, and the MLK Center.
Self-guided tours of many of the country’s top colleges and universities including Georgetown, Washington University in St. Louis, and Atlanta’s Emory University delivered an important element to each trip.
Museums and halls of fame, ranging from The Christmas Story Museum and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to the NHL Hall of Fame in Toronto and the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit contributed to the allure of each city.
And there were the restaurants. The Buckhorn Exchange in Denver, Dangerous Dan’s in Toronto and Tom’s Restaurant in New York (made famous by the hit comedy Seinfeld). Each made visiting those cities and their respective stadiums an even more memorable experience.
Then there were the more tangible elements that directly added to the quality of the gameday experience. The courteousness of ticket takers and ushers, knowledgeable and accommodating merchandise vendors and concession workers who actually seemed to care about us as customers. Further, combine the location and layout of the stadiums and related creature comforts, as well as the overall buzz and look and feel of the ballpark, and each stadium’s brand became further differentiated.
Not surprisingly then, and with regard to ranking the stadiums, it must be noted that there is far more to it than just the aesthetics of the stadium and the quality of the team. It was about where the team and the ballpark fit into the fabric of the community, how people treated us from city to city, and the myriad priceless experiences enjoyed along the way. It was riding the 5 Train to a game in New York, enjoying the Presidents Race at Nationals Park, and river boating to Great American Ball Park to see the Reds.
“Our” national pastime over the last five years, which concluded earlier this month with a visit to Turner Field, may have initially been about visiting each and every MLB stadium, but it morphed into a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see the country, and do so on our terms, with baseball serving as the compelling backdrop only it could.
So, which was our favorite ballpark?
Believe it or not, we’re still debating . . .
David M. Carter is principal of the Sports Business Group and executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute, as well as editor-in-chief of TheFieldsofGreen.com.