What Makes A Good Ballpark?

It’s Not Whether You Win Or Lose, But Where You Play The Game

I joined a softball team in my Brooklyn neighborhood called the Saints and the Sinners. The league is run out of a bar and played on asphalt baseball fields across the street. There are dirt and grass fields nearby too –fields I thought I was signing up for. But we play on asphalt, where breaking up double plays involves putting your face between the ball and first base and diving in the outfield is an act of suicidal courage. There’s one thing I like about the field though: the view from home plate. I can see the Manhattan skyline from the batter’s box. If I were to call my shot over the left field fence, I’d be pointing toward the Empire State Building.

There’s something to be said, I think, for atmosphere. And while playing on what amounts to a giant playground basketball court is not the thrill of my career, I can’t get over the New York-ness of it all. The chain link fences and the East River and the city rising up behind the outfield create a sort of urbanized Field of Dreams atmosphere. It completely makes up for the playing conditions, which suck beyond comprehension.

Citi Field is nothing like McCarren Park. I saw my first game there on a blazing hot Sunday afternoon last week and left without much of an opinion. The field itself, I imagine, is perfect. And from a cold, aesthetic point of view, the whole ballpark is really kind of nice. But the fact that I came, watched the Mets get pounded by the Nats, and left without really feeling anything about the stadium one way or another probably tells more than enough. It’s nice. It seems more like somebody else’s idea of a stadium than an actual stadium itself. It looks like it was built to blend into an urban landscape, like the one I play softball in. Only instead of an urban landscape, there’s a parking lot, a train station, the tennis center.

This all has me wondering what a stadium should be. What are the ingredients, tangible and intangible, that make a ballpark work? It starts with the fans, I think. Safeco field, I know from experience, is a great place to watch a game. But when the Mariners suck and the place is 2/3 empty, a lot of that is lost. I haven’t been to Fenway or Wrigley but I’ve always defined them first by their fans, and second by the Green Monster and the Ivy.

There’s history to consider, and atmosphere, and food, and sightlines, and comfort, and parking. There are a million little details that go into a ballpark. And of course a stadium can seem an entirely different place in the playoffs. But what matters most? Do the good parks have something in common that the bad ones don’t? Am I totally off base in distinguishing between good and bad baseball stadiums in the first place?

I have some vague ideas about this, but no real answers. Softball on the asphalt is a joy but baseball at Citi Field is a dud. Stadiums are subject to every bit of hyperbole that the rest of baseball is. They are our Cathedrals, the cliché goes, our Coliseums. So why the hell can’t we consistently make good ones? Is it because the Coliseum was built to entertain the masses but our stadiums are built with profiting as much as possible off the super-rich in mind? Maybe making great ballparks, like all the best things in life, is an art and not a science. Or maybe making great ballparks is a science, just not as important as the science of making money.

Anyway, this post is not about money, it’s about baseball. What makes a ballpark good or bad. Why is PNC Park lauded and Great American Ballpark generally dismissed as relatively ungreat? I haven’t been to either.

Please tell me.

image courtesty of flickr user @msg

6 Responses to “What Makes A Good Ballpark?”


  • To me, the greatest ballparks, Wrigley and Fenway, are great because there is very little distinction between the stadium and the city. In both cases, one minute you’re walking down a stimulating city street, the next you are in the shadow of the ballpark. Part of the fun of being inside each of them is that the city is just outside.

    Given that, you can build a great physical park, but if it’s the centerpiece of a suburban parking lot, much of the pleasure is negated, as you note in this post with Citi Field. In other words, getting to and leaving Wrigley and Fenway is as much a part of the experience as the parks themselves.

  • Reeves Wiedeman

    Fountains.

  • Fountains are good. So are cities. That was actually something I thought about with Citi Field. It looks like it was designed to rise between brownstones in Jackson Heights or Fort Greene or some other leafy outer borough neighborhood, not sit alone in a that massive complex. It doesn’t look like that part of Queens. Safeco meanwhile, looks like the South Downtown neighborhood it rises from. Petco and Pac Bell do a good job of this and from tv it looks like so does Camden Yards.

    But maybe Fenway and Wrigley are special because they’ve been around so long that the neighborhoods have evolved around them. Instead of being built to fit into a city, they become the pillar. It might be fair not to judge the newer parks until the communities they’re in have time to undertake that kind of organic growth.

  • I think it’s an intangible factor that makes a really great stadium. Once you’ve accounted for all the tangibles you mentioned (history, atmosphere, food, sightlines, comfort, parking), there’s still an intangible factor that you can’t really describe. It’s like everything in life.

    I think you’re right though that one of the reasons Fenway and Wrigley seem special is because the cities grew around them. It contributes to the way the people, the fans, see them and as you said at first, the fans are, perhaps, the key factor.

    By the way, Safeco can be great even when it’s 2/3 empty but only if you’re sitting in the bleachers. Even when it’s full I think the bleachers are the place to sit there.

    Sometimes I miss the Kingdome. Maybe that’s just childhood nostalgia, mostly. I mean the Kingdome did have a huge flaw as a baseball venue in that baseball wasn’t it’s only purpose (or even primary purpose). It was interesting though, I’d say special…the would set of fireworks (from the rafters) for every home run and fireworks in doors are pretty fun.

  • What makes a good ballpark?

    …a toasted bun, stone ground mustard, and mounds of relish…

  • Ted, Eric and Beth all hit on it – the neighborhood feel.

    I grew up in the burbs of Boston, enjoyed many many games there, took it for granted that there was no massive parking lots surrounding the stadium, that you generally needed to that the T to get close and walk the rest of the way in to Fenway.

    In my mid 20’s I moved to Atlanta. Fulton County Stadium was one of the many dumps at that time that sprung up together in the 60’s, along with Three Rivers, Riverfront, Busch, and Veterans these fields/stadiums lacked any character at all.

    Even today in Atlanta with the freebee Turner Field, you park a 1/4 mile away in huge parking lots and walk in, across said parking lots. Even when the team was doing well, there is a blandness that overcomes you walking in.

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