Life is truly a strange and remarkable thing, my friends. You go to an Expos-Marlins game at Comiskey Park, have an entire left-field section to yourself. You sit in the bleachers at Wrigley after a three-hour rain delay. You go to literally dozens of abandoned weekday games at the Oakland mausoleum. You go to spring training games at Maryvale, where you can sit anywhere in the stadium and hear Bob Uecker’s voice without a radio. Then you sit among a dense crowd of friendly drunken Cubs fans at one of the better-attended Rockies games of the season, and that’s the game you catch a home run.
I wish I could say I made an impressive leaping grab or something, but the fact was, I didn’t even see the ball being hit. After devouring one of those great Coors Field ultimate nacho platters (seven bucks and worth every penny, extra sour cream, please) I was more concerned with a cheese stain on my Ron Santo jersey than Jeromy Burnitz at the plate. I did bring a glove to the game, which I never do, but on account of the nachos, I wasn’t wearing it. My friend Matt (who just so happens to also throw left-handed) was borrowing it for the inning, put it on hurriedly when Burnitz made contact, and then saw the ball bounce straight up in the air off the glove.
For a moment, everything was in slow motion. I saw an army of hands all around. I don’t remember whether I even stood up or not. I don’t remember which hand I caught the ball in. But indeed, I caught it. I kept sneaking peeks at it for the remainder of the game to be sure it really happened. My uncle called from Chicago to say he saw me on TV. (Apparently Bob Brenly made fun of me.) Perhaps I made a bit of a fool of myself, but so what? I caught a home run! If ever there was a good reason for a straight man to hug another straight man in public, it’s catching a home run at a major league game.
Lost in the natural high was a pretty good ballgame. The Rockies won two of three and shut the huge Cubs contingent at Coors right up. Many people besides me caught home runs, as both teams brought their hitting shoes. I suppose I will write a proper recap later. If you’ll excuse me, right now I have to call everyone I know.
The MLBlogs homepage is encouraging us to write about our favorite ballparks, so I thought I might jot down a few thoughts about the parks which I’ve visited. First, though, it’s not every day that the New York Times (registration required) runs a feature on the Rockies, so that’s worth a link. It’s nothing you haven’t heard before (ballpark wacky, pitchers sad), but it has that classy Times sheen. On to the ballparks, rated off the top of my head from best to worst:
- Wrigley Field, Chicago. A real no-brainer. Other than the ones immediately behind support columns, there are no bad seats, and the view from the upper deck (which seems closer to the field than the mezzanines at a lot of newer parks) of sailboats on Lake Michigan is postcard-pretty. The surplus of day games and lack of annoying JumboTron animations are added bonuses. You have to love the ragtime band that wanders around entertaining fans between innings, too. On the other hand, the food is not great, the concourse is ridiculously crowded, and Cubs fans have grown obnoxious in recent years.
- SBC Park, San Francisco. They could have cruised on the design of this one and gotten by on location alone, as the park is tucked into an artificial extension of the San Franciso Bay. You take a trolley down from the Embarcadero (or a ferry across from Oakland, which I’ve never done but I’ve heard is cool) and pass a statue of Willie Mays on your way in. The "portholes" in right field through which passersby can stop and watch the action are a great touch. The park is a little crammed with advertising (the little car that pops out of the left field fence is extremely tacky) and everything is Bay Area-expensive. The outfield could stand to be a little bit less self-consciously eccentric. And why are there only four fingers on the giant glove in left?
- Coors Field, Denver. A field with all the conveniences of the recent renaissance in ballpark architecture, but one that doesn’t constantly scream new, new, NEW at you. The nature of the games there, where no lead is safe, is part of the charm as well. Compared to the stadiums I’ve ranked above it, it’s a cinch to get to and cheap to park around. The view of the Rocky Mountains from the right-field upper deck is so beautiful at sunset that it can actually make you forget there’s a game taking place below you. However, the upper deck is needlessly hard to get to, and why does it extend all the way around the right-field foul pole? And what’s up with the Rockpile, the bleacher-style centerfield upper deck?
- Miller Park, Milwaukee. The nicest of the new retractable roof parks to which I’ve been. It looks very high-tech approaching from downtown. The interior has the weird not-quite-outside feel that all of the pseudodomes have, but the perks are great. The food is spectacular, Bernie Brewer’s slide is hysterical, and the sausage race is something everyone should witness once in person before they die. With the roof closed, though, the place has the atmosphere of a very gauche airplane hangar. Go on a nice day. And go early. People from Wisconsin have refined tailgating to an art, and Miller’s parking lots are thoughtfully designed as a gallery for it.
- Fenway Park, Boston. Fenway is encrusted with history, sure, but it hasn’t aged gracefully as Wrigley has. The seats are cramped and don’t point directly at the action, the field itself looks like a swamp after even a drizzle, and they wrap the hot dogs in stale bread instead of buns. I haven’t been there since the new seats were added on top of the Green Monster, but they look cool on TV. God help you if you’re an out-of-town fan. I remember quite distinctly being cursed out musically and at length by an inebriated Red Sox National for wearing an A’s hat to a game I attended with my uncle. I was ten years old at the time.
- Minute Maid Park, Houston. It slightly resembles a sardine tin from outside, but on the inside it’s an interesting mix of pretty and silly. The concourses are broad and the restrooms immaculate. The grass looks incredible for a retractable-roofed joint. You get a lot of different and interesting views, at least from the lower level. However, a lot of the exaggerated touches are goofy. The short porch in left field (the Crawford Boxes) provides a great view, but at the cost of the cheapest home runs in the majors. The ramp in center field (Tal’s Hill) looks even dopier in person than it does on TV. And the giant train with the payload of baseballs painted like oranges, what’s the story there?
- Comerica Park, Detroit. Generally I give a new park the benefit of the doubt if it’s open-air, but Comerica isn’t the best of its breed. The upper deck starts too far back from the field. The moat between where the outfield fences used to be and where they are now after Juan Gonzalez had a hissy fit looks dumb. The gigantic statues of fierce tigers are tacky. For some reason all of the interesting food selections have been placed in one circular arcade near home plate, which features epic lines and when I visited bigger crowds than the stands. Worse still, the concessions were handled by volunteers and not employees, and one trip for a pretzel with cheese ended up taking the better part of three innings. At least the park is oriented and constructed such that the hideously decrepit Detroit skyline is obscured.
- Bank One Ballpark, Phoenix. A pretty generic newfangled poptop job. All the decorations commemorating the D-Backs World Series victory seem somehow wrong. If ever there was a climate that required a retractable roof, however, this is it, and it is comfortable within even when it’s furnacelike without. They have a McDonald’s, in case you ever wanted to pay eight dollars for an Extra Value Meal. This was the first park I visited that had a radar gun, pitch indicator, and pitch count scoreboard, a feature a lot of places have adopted. The best thing about the BOB is how much information it gives the fan, from expanded stat lines to scoring decisions. That said, the upper deck is way too big, and the food isn’t anything special.
- U.S. Cellular Field, Chicago. A relic, and it’s only fifteen years old! The former New Comiskey mixes all the impersonality of the multipurpose parks of the ’60s and ’70s with the bombardment of advertising found in the next gen fields. The fireworks after home runs are cool, and they do have a real organ. Upper deck seats are completely worthless, but the left and right field bleachers offer really good views for a somewhat reasonable price. For years they would show this surreal animation of a fox wearing a Sox uniform clapping completely out of sync with the canned clap-clap-CLAP sound effect they ran along with it. That always threw me. The food selection is pretty good, but it always seems you’re sitting on the opposite end of the park from where the funnel cakes are no matter what your tickets say.
- McAfee Coliseum, Oakland. The stadium itself is hideous, from the caged bridge that comes across from the BART to the colossal facade of Mt. Davis. The atmosphere is pretty excellent, though. There’s no reason to go to an A’s game except to watch baseball, and the fans really make the place, from the irrepressible Guy With the Horn (listen for him on TV), to the Hammer Kids, to the bums with the drums (IS!-RING!-HAU!-SEN!). I hated the Coliseum the first time I went there, but most of my fondest memories of baseball games ended up occurring there, as well as some of my most crushing defeats. Plus: cotton candy in a silly hat.
- Busch Stadium, St. Louis. By far my least favorite of the parks I’ve visited. The field is OK, but the seats are not, and the concourse looks like a refugee camp. Cardinals fans at least are friendly, fierce, and extremely knowledgeable. They don’t leave early, either. I really like the collection of flags Busch has in the outfield for all of their retired numbers. The experience that most sums up my impression of the happily soon-to-be demolished park, however, is going to the restroom and finding — how shall I put this? Someone had used one of the stand-up toilets for an activity usually reserved for the sitting-down ones.
I’ve also visited four parks that aren’t in service any more — Old Comiskey, Candlestick Park, whatever they called the old park in Milwaukee, and Tiger Stadium. None of them was particularly memorable, except for Candlestick’s extreme cold and the proximity to the players offered at Comiskey the First. You could yell stuff at the guys in the on-deck circle and know they were hearing you, which the south side fans took full advantage of, I assure you. This year I hope to make it to Kansas City and Minneapolis for games.
There’s no one perfect place to go to a baseball game. if you could combine Wrigley’s atmosphere with Coors’ amenities, Fenway’s history, the BOB’s air conditioning, St. Louis’s fans, and Oaklands’…Oaklandness, you might have it, but why would you want to? The frustrations of going to the ballpark, whether it’s the mosh pit bathroom lines on the North Side of Chicago or having to go down a whole level because the upper deck is out of dollar dogs in Oakland-Alameda, only add to the whole experience. And people costumed as sausages running a footrace would be truly bizarre anywhere other than Milwaukee.
There’s a Buster Olney article (subscription required) in the new ESPN Magazine that repeats several things you may already know about Todd Helton. Apparently some pundits have no faith in Helton’s greatness due to the Coors Effect. He hates the losing but admires many of the new wave of young Rockies, believing that winning days are coming sooner rather than later. Todd loves Colorado but would waive his no-trade clause if the team really wanted him to do so:
"If the Rockies came to me and said ‘You don’t fit into our plans,’ I’m not going to sit here and kick and scream not to get out. But I was drafted here, came up through the organization. If I went somewhere else, I don’t know how it would feel. I know how it would feel to win here. It would be very rewarding for me, having gone through all we’ve been through, to finally get to the top of the hill."
The only thing remarkable about Olney’s piece is that a major national magazine is bothering to run a feature about the Rockies at all. Appearing next to the Helton article, however, in scarlet type, is a sidebar by Steve Phillips (whose sparkling career as Mets GM certainly qualifies him) on that ever-popular old chestnut, How To Win at Altitude. I’m summarizing what Phillips says only as a service to you the reader, because as I’m sure I’ll mention again, the Rockies have a .560 (or so) lifetime home winning percentage. I think I might get that stat tattooed on my arm, actually.
The first thing Phillips says is interesting appearing as it does next to a glowing article about Todd Helton, loyal Rockie: trade the guy to anyone who’ll take his contract. "Cut your losses and move on," Steve writes. I’m not sure what the Rockies’ "losses" on Helton are exactly, but I disagree that Todd should be traded for no talent at all. If the Cubs were able to get a few marginally useful players for Sammy Sosa, Helton should be worth more than a bag of balls.
The next three bullet points are the usual assortment of crackpot Coors theories: get pitchers with sinkers and/or weird arm angles, hitters who get on base rather than slug, prioritize defense. The problem is the usual one: What would any of these strategies do to improve the Rockies’ woeful road performances? Take a team with a bunch of singles-hitting glovemen on the road, and you’re going to lose a lot of ballgames (which is kind of what the current Colorado group is doing). One of Phillips’ more interesting suggestions is that the Rockies move their AAA affiliate from Colorado Springs, so organization pitchers can build confidence at normality. I have always thought quite the opposite: the Rockies should endeavour to put as many of their minor-leaugue teams as possible at altitude, so pitchers, batters, and coaches alike can get used to the wild home/road splits.
Phillips’ final, and most interesting, suggestion is to play the Coors Field home advantage to the hilt. Granted, this sort of contradicts the first several things that he says, but give the man credit for finally making a good point: "Don’t apologize to anyone for how the park plays. Relish the fact that it’s your home. Understand that opposing pitchers are intimidated there, and that your staff can outlast and outman the opponent because of its depth and balance." Perhaps Phillips remembers, as many forget, that the most successful team in franchise history won with a great bullpen.
Reading this article reminded me of several more things I want to touch on in the near future, like the structure of the Colorado farm system, the possibilities for Helton trades, and the makeup of that ephemeral 1995 playoff team. Remind me if I forget to do all of them.
Now make no mistake, I love Woody Paige. The man brightens my day nearly six times a week, between his columns and his blood feud with Jay Mariotti. In today’s column, however, I believe the Woodman to be off the mark when he writes:
Coors Field has the largest acreage of outfield in the majors. Home runs are not the trouble. Bloop singles, doubles in the gap and rattling triples are. So you reduce the dimensions (from left to right field) of 347, 390, 415, 375 and 350 feet by a lot and raise the outfield walls by a lot…. The Rockies’ management should commission the construction of a series of interlocking, Plexiglas 20- to 30-foot-high outfield wall panels….
Several different wall distances and angles would be tried. (I favor keeping the distances down the lines the same and reducing the distances in the gaps and, most certainly, in center.) The Rockies would position outfielders in various locations (bunching them, bringing them in, playing them near the walls) and have club employees sit in various seats behind the outfield walls to check out the sightlines (and find out if some sections might have to be closed).
My initial response to this would be my usual boilerplate Coors Field speech, which is to say that nothing needs to be changed and the thin air effect is just so much local flavor, like Houston’s fly ball-gobbling Crawford Boxes or San Francisco’s right-centerfield Death Valley. Not everyone agrees with this standpoint, however. So let’s examine Woody’s idea on merit. Would short, high walls really make games in Denver more closely resemble major league baseball at sea level, cosmetically and statistically?
I think for certain that the answer to both is no. Unless a rule change was made to make catches made on the carom outs, the number of hits would probably increase rather than decrease. Boston, whose ballpark has a giant wall of note, had 23% more doubles than league average from ’02-’04 — more than Colorado at 17%. The result of a pull-in, push-up on the walls would likely be a huge spike in doubles at the expense of triples (69% more than league average at Coors). Don’t many people call the triple the most exciting play in baseball?
Woody also writes about experimenting to find the best configuration of outfielders to handle the new dimensions. This is where I really think he’s lopping off a nose to spite a face. Isn’t the whole argument against Coors Field that the games it hosts aren’t "real baseball?" 17-14 scores are meant for football games, they say. Wouldn’t reorganizing the outfield so it looks more like a cricket pitch than a baseball field be the opposite effect from what we want? If Matt Holliday starts playing silly mid-off instead of left field, I’m calling it quits with this team.
If high-scoring games are anathema to baseball, there shouldn’t be a team in Denver. If folks however believe that cracking the altitude nut is somehow the key to solving the Rockies’ winning woes, I remind them (again) that the team has played .551 ball at home the last five years, and .457 ball overall. Good teams win on the road, and no Great Wall of Woody is going to help the Rockies do that.