Category Archives: Feature
I first visited Safeco Field in 2001, during the Mariners’ 116-win season. The place was hopping back then the way it hasn’t since. When I planned this trip to Seattle I didn’t expect much. The M’s had the Brewers in town, so I wasn’t expecting thrilling baseball by playoff contenders. I looked closer at the schedule and found out that I was in for a treat. Saturday was Ken Griffey Jr.’s induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame, and there was to be an extensive pregame ceremony commemorating the event. There was also a Junior bobblehead, which was to be distributed to the first 20,000 fans (very A’s like number there), which forced many fans to line up six hours or more before the scheduled 6:10 game time. Needless to say I wasn’t interested in the collectible, so I took a tour and grabbed lunch instead.
During that first visit in 2001, I took a cab down 4th Avenue South from a downtown restaurant. The cab dropped me off on the east side of the railroad tracks from Safeco Field. Like many had done, I crossed the tracks at grade, looking both ways for freight or passenger trains. At the time local planners were working on a light rail extension that would finally link downtown and the neighborhoods to the south, including the SeaTac airport. The line finally came to fruition in 2009 and I was eager to try it out.
In conjunction with the light rail launch, additional road infrastructure was built to better support cars and pedestrians traveling to Safeco and CenturyLink Field. 2010 brought the Royal Brougham Way overpass, a simple two-lane structure that feeds pedestrians from light rail and parking facilities to Safeco and cars to a nearby garage. This overpass and another on the south side of the ballpark were part of an $84 million road project. During the intervening years, four pedestrians had been hit by trains on the BNSF tracks adjacent to Safeco, including one fatality. Naturally, ongoing safety concerns prompted the overpass(es) project, to good effect.
Like Seattle, Oakland’s Howard Terminal has an active, working rail line adjacent to the site. We’ve highlighted the train safety issue before. Seattle has dealt with the problem properly and elegantly, if also rather belatedly in the process. When you exit the light rail station just two blocks to the east, you can easily negotiate the gently curling ramp that leads over the BNSF tracks. There’s even a little plaza at the midpoint that provides a good view into the park. Once you cross, you can take stairs down or take an elevator straight to the center field gate.
Unlike Seattle, where Safeco is in the middle of the street grid with multiple entry and exit points, Howard Terminal is hemmed in on three sides by the Oakland Estuary to the south, Jack London Square to the east, and Schnitzer Steel to the west. That means it’s extremely important to ensure that there’s safe, reliable way to get thousands of fans from the north side of the Union Pacific tracks along the Embarcadero to the south side, where HT and JLS are. If thousands of parking spaces or a garage are built at Howard Terminal, it’ll be even more important as no one will want to compromise the rail line by having cars create gridlock around HT before or after A’s games. Chances are that a HT ballpark will need one vehicular bridge (probably at Market Street) and another dedicated pedestrian/bicycle bridge near JLS.
As you can see from the video above, the solution is working. It may have taken a decade, but Seattle finally got its rail and pedestrian solution figured out. Oakland can thank Seattle for leading the way. Stadium name sponsor Safeco, a nationwide insurance company based in Seattle, probably abides too. The issues for Oakland – if Howard Terminal moves into a real planning stage – are what kind of solution they can come up with, how much it will cost, and how long it will take. Seattle set the example. Oakland fans deserve the same kind of safety.
If you’re still skeptical, ask yourself this: Can you imagine the Coliseum without the BART bridge?
Before I begin, I feel I need to make something clear.
There is no such thing as a perfect ballpark.
Our very perception of a ballpark is framed in terms of quirks, imperfections, and uniqueness. We can go on and on talking about how the experience at one was wonderful or breathtaking, and in a particular moment with the right weather or a great team, it may well seem perfect.
As we know from merely watching the game, one game is a ridiculously small sample size. If I had the time and money, I’d spend at least one homestand at every park just so that I can get the feel for it. The nooks and crannies, the neighborhood outside, day and night games, weekdays and weekends. One game provides a pretty small subset of those variables. Knowing that makes me reticent to judge a ballpark based on one game.
This is why I like to take ballpark and stadium tours. They allow for the opportunity to strip away much of the game fervor (or lack thereof), which can boost or mar an experience without the observer realizing it. I can take in much of the trivial minutiae from the tour guides while filtering out the occasional rah-rah bombast. My mind can turn towards the technical matters, the details that often get lost during a game.
When I took a business trip to Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, I had just missed the A’s visit to PNC Park. As a result I couldn’t take in a game with the Pirates on the road. I did have a lunchtime slot for a 90-minute tour before an appointment, so I drove over to the North Shore for a visit. I had seen a game there in 2001, the park’s inaugural year. At the time the place had only been open for a few weeks, and I was eager to see this shiny, new, yet undoubtedly retro ballpark. I was so eager back then that I had mistakenly locked the keys to my rental car in the car. After a blissful afternoon in the right field bleachers, the Allegheny River rolling behind me, I spent a highly stressful hour trying to get the keys out, and then upon giving up, calling the rental car company to report that I was abandoning the car. I hailed a cab for the airport and hadn’t been back until this most recent trip.
Trying to block out the car crisis, what I remember about PNC Park was that it was the friendliest park I had been to, more than even Wrigley. When I took my seat in RF, the usher directed my down to the seat, took a towel, and brushed it off. I would’ve given him a tip except that I was shocked I didn’t know how to react other than to give a polite thank you.
The seats and steelwork at PNC Park are deep blue, a nod to the Pirates’ ancestral home, Forbes Field. One of the first concrete-and-steel ballparks, Forbes only grew in stature as the Pirates moved into cavernous Three Rivers Stadium. Baseball at Three Rivers was the archetypical cookie-cutter experience: Astroturf, bad seating angles, and a fully encompassing upper deck that killed views. Despite a decent amount of success on the field, the team frequently struggled at the gate, leading many to wonder if the market could fully support the team in the long run.
The Pirates were saved when legislation was passed to build two separate, new stadia for the baseball club and the Steelers. PNC Park opened first in the spring of 2001, Heinz Field followed in the fall. Three Rivers is now a parking lot serving the two stadia. Both are reachable by one of the many bridges that cross the Allegheny River. You could park along the North Shore for a game, but you’d be best served parking downtown and taking in the approach to the ballpark by walking across the Roberto Clemente Bridge. You’ll end up in centerfield, where you can walk along the river or check out the bars and restaurants along Federal Street.
12 years after my first visit, PNC has maintained its handsomeness. The tan limestone facade still looks lovely. Walk in the main gate behind home plate or at third base/left field and you’re greeted a sweeping, octagonal rotunda. For years teams have struggled to figure out how to integrate vertical circulation, and HOK managed to make it a feature at PNC. The rotunda in LF also acts a nice standing room vantage point for a game, regardless of level.
The third base gate is also called Legacy Square and is worth a visit because of the numerous tributes to great Negro League players like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and one-time Athletic James “Cool Papa” Bell. Pittsburgh was once home to two great Negro League teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. A team store stands alongside. The outfield concourse is at street level, while the main lower concourse is up a level. Take the rotunda ramp, you’ll enjoy it.
Walk along the main grandstand and you’ll notice that there are no obstructions. There’s no press box behind the plate and no suites or other stands that could block the view. All of the suites are set in their own mezzanine level, and the press box is way up at the top of the upper deck, a situation that many a media wonk have groused about over the years. Despite their complaints, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the best layout in the majors. It’s the simplest, the cleanest, and most importantly, the shortest of the new ballparks. There are two club seating levels, but only one true club concourse. The tallest row is only 88 feet above the field.
PNC Park is also the only “two-deck” ballpark of the last 25 years, though the term is somewhat deceiving. The front part of the upper deck is the exclusive Pittsburgh Baseball Club seating area, taking up the first 10 rows. The back 20+ rows are the true upper level and have a separate, regular concourse. The advantage of this layout is the aforementioned vertical space conservation. However, because of the limited cantilever (13-14 rows or 40 feet), the upper deck is somewhat swept back instead of on top of the action. The park was built before the advent of the split deck-single concourse layout, so there are no views of the action from the upper concourse. PBC has views from patio areas carved out where seating sections would normally be. The roof is simple and more ornamental than practical.
Sure, the press got the short shrift when PNC Park was built. Most press levels are only around 50 above the field and 130-140 feet behind home plate, making for an enviable, cozy view of everything. Recently teams such as the Angels have started to move the writing media to not-so-optimal locations. As more teams look for additional premium spaces to sell within their parks, expect this trend to continue. It’s a reflection of a much larger trend in the NFL, where the media is often relegated to a corner while the space usually reserved at midfield is offered up as a handful of ultra-premium suites. The 2011 renderings of Cisco Field indicated that the PNC or Nationals Park examples would be followed, with the press level(s) up top.
Because of its 2001 opening date and its scenic waterfront locale, PNC often gets compared to AT&T Park, which stands to reason. Both are highly rated HOK products. Both have the water along the right field wall. Both have 68-69 luxury suites and about 6,000 club seats. That’s where the similarities end.
In Pittsburgh, a decision was made to have the facade run right up to the sidewalk at home plate, with the home plate rotunda immediately inside. A small plaza at the corner has a Honus Wagner statue. That’s a very different approach from San Francisco, where the expansive Willie Mays Plaza greets fans before funneling them through the gates and onto ramps or escalators. Personally, I like the PNC Park approach more because it feels more complete. The vertical circulation elements at AT&T are little more than an afterthought, serviceable but ugly, a byproduct of the limited footprint. (Yes, I said something at China Basin was ugly.)
The color scheme at PNC is also better. I had misgivings about the dark blue seats fading over time, but that hasn’t happened at all about halfway through their useful life. The green seats at AT&T are copycat and not true to the team’s colors, though the Giants can be forgiven for not using a garish orange for their seats.
That brings me to the biggest advantage of PNC. Essentially, there are zero compromised seats. Notice that didn’t say “bad” seats, as that term often gets tossed around with little regard for what it means. What I mean is that every seat has a great view of the entire playing field. As you’d expect, there are no obstructed view seats – and every seat in the main bowl has a great view of the Pittsburgh skyline. The comparison is more fundamental than that. At PNC the left field corner is turned at a 45-degree angle, which ensures that fans there will be able to see all of the field. Compare that to the LF corner upper deck at AT&T, which has a great view of home plate but is practically blind to most of the outfield. Again, this was probably decision made because of limited space (and the desire to cram in as many seats as possible). In the end it’s an inelegant solution, one that HOK/Populous did not repeat anywhere else since. Thank goodness for that.
AT&T Park originally cost $100 million more than PNC Park to construct despite having only 2,000 more seats. Where did the money go? Two separate club levels, for starters. There’s a lot more finished space at AT&T, more concrete, and the foundation was more expensive due to seismic concerns.
AT&T has its own advantages over PNC. It’s 100 feet closer to the water down the right field line. AT&T’s outfield design is much more iconic and interesting and the beer selections there are slightly better. AT&T also didn’t set the “moat” trend of separating the field club seats from the regular field level seats as PNC Park. (In PNC’s defense, at least the moat is accessible.) That said, AT&T Park is less intimate, not as good looking, is more blatantly commercial, and the main seating bowl arrangement is way too much like Minute Maid Park’s (or most other HOK designs) for me to call it unique or interesting. Neither park has an aggressive cantilever many baseball purists desire.
Both Pirates fans and Giants fans can easily make the case that their ballpark is the best among the new regime. They are. If I’m going to pick one, it’d be PNC for the reasons described above. There’s no shame in using PNC as the model for a new A’s ballpark in Oakland. It’s a standard bearer, even if it’s not perfect.
Rob Neyer recently made the case for five eras of ballparks. Chronologically he ordered them:
- Utilitarian era (1876-1908), early days
- Classic era (1909-1960), first true ballparks as we know them
- Multipurpose era (1964-1988), cookie-cutters and the like
- NeoClassical era (1989-2009), retro ballparks with modern amenities
- Commercial era (now), parks more geared towards revenue generation than watching baseball
Neyer defined the commercial era as a nod towards crass commercialism, with overdone signage and far too many premium spaces/facilities that detract from the game experience, especially for Joe Fan. While I agree with the sentiment, trying to separate ballparks into specific eras is a lot tougher. New Comiskey has the prominent sandwich of suites and club seats, and Jacobs Field opened in 1994 with a massive triple tier of suites down the third base line. Angel Stadium has a quadruple tier of enclosed spaces behind home plate, as does Marlins Park 15 years after the Big A was redone. Signage will forever have varying degrees of obnoxiousness. The least obnoxious park, Wrigley Field, is set to have a lot more blinking lights and electronic signage starting next year. Some people mind that a lot, I don’t.
That’s why for me, the picture below represents the best arrangement conceived in the last 25 years. It’s simple, elegant, inexpensive to build, fan-friendly, and more important than anything, fair.
Now compare that the other two examples I cited today.
A full review of PNC Park is due later. For now, let’s discuss what we want in a ballpark, and how to balance those desires with what a team may want to improve their revenues (to help pay for the ballpark). While we’re at it, refer back to my review of the Cisco Field (Diridon) renderings from 2010.
In a previous installment of this year’s Chicago travelogue, I described what it was like to go to both Wrigley Field and US Cellular Field on the same day thanks to a scheduled Chi-town doubleheader. While I went into some length about my experience on the South side, I wanted to save the bulk of my observations for a proper review, especially because I wanted to compare the current version to what I saw in 1996, five years after the park opened as New Comiskey Park.
Until the extensive, multiyear renovations package (done by HKS) was completed in 2012, the Cell had earned a somewhat unearned reputation as outdated. This wasn’t entirely HOK’s (Populous) or Jerry Reinsdorf’s fault. Reinsdorf wanted a modern edifice and used Royals (Kauffman) Stadium as his inspiration. The result was nothing like old Comiskey, cramped and dank. The new Comiskey was spacious, exclusive, and packed full of what was then the newest technology outside of a retractable roof. When Oriole Park at Camden Yards debuted the following year, starting the retro ballpark craze, all of the features that made New Comiskey modern made it look fan unfriendly and lacking in intimacy. If that meant outdated, so be it. They lacked the foresight to go retro? Fine. The O’s earned great acclaim for their small urban ballpark, while the White Sox and the City of Chicago spent much of the next two decades playing catchup to the Camden Yards and just about every other new park.
A look at the bones of the Cell should tell you the era it comes from. There’s a lot of bulky prestressed, pretensioned concrete in the supports and columns. The only structural steel you’ll see is in the upper deck, holding up the roof. The massive pole-to-pole structure backing the outfield concourse holds the scoreboards and numerous ads. If the park were built a few years later, Reinsdorf might have considered turning the ballpark north to take advantage of a great view of the Chicago skyline. Architect Philip Bess offered up his own alternative to New Comiskey in 80′s and in his book City Baseball Magic. Bess’s plan, called Armour Field, was more like Old Comiskey and even more retro than Camden Yards, with extremely shallow dimensions in the corners and a grandstand shape that evoked the Polo Grounds in New York. The park would’ve had a northern orientation, providing fabulous views of the Loop from inside the park. Instead, Reinsdorf chose the parking lot across the street from the old one and oriented the new one southeast towards Bronzeville. Call it a missed opportunity.
New Comiskey was criticized immediately for having a very steep upper deck that was also far removed from the action since it is placed atop two suite levels and a club level (sandwiched between the suites). In hindsight, this critique was perhaps a bit too heavy-handed as many Populous-conceived parks have used variations of this placement. Some may use a large club mezzanine backed by suites (Camden Yards, Petco Park). Another variant had a large club mezzanine, then a glassed-in concourse, then the suites, then the upper deck (AT&T Park, Safeco Field, Coors Field). Others utilized a triple deck of suites on one side and a club section on the other (Progressive Field). Now that we’ve seen 20 years of ballpark development, it’s easier to be kind to the Cell. In actuality, the biggest problem with New Comiskey was that there were too many rows in the upper deck, a chief complaint of the park’s inspiration, Royals Stadium. The latter day renovations chopped the top eight rows off the upper deck and enclosed the upper concourse in translucent glass. A much more substantial roof replaced the previous version and was heavy enough that it had to be supported by the aforementioned steel columns. Curiously, these columns also introduced something that Reinsdorf had worked hard to eliminate: obstructed views. The obstructions only occur in the furthest reaches of the upper deck, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who says the new structure properly evokes Old Comiskey. Still, it adds definition to a part of the stadium that sorely lacked definition.
Obvious nods to Old Comiskey come in the form of arched windows and openings in the facade, and the big scoreboard in center, complete with the multi-colored pinwheels and fireworks that go off after every White Sox home run. The board is flanked by screens in left and right, which are perfectly functional but not complete despite the number and size of the screens. Out-of-town scores are pretty much an afterthought. The arches, while a tasteful treatment, are nothing compared to the hulking network of ramps that nearly encompasses the Cell. The only thing that makes these ramps an improvement over previous cookie-cutter ramp structures is that they’re somewhat removed from the stadium. The problem with that implementation is that since fans enter at gates attached to these ramps, there’s no way for anyone to easily move between the different decks. To this day the White Sox maintain a policy that a fan’s ticket restricts him/her to a specific level. Fortunately, I was taking in three games of the A’s four-game set in Chicago, so I had a chance to roam around all of the non-premium areas. The White Sox have said that they plan to open up the park more in the future to allow for the kind of in-game circulation experienced at other parks. Even if they do that, moving among the decks will still be a pain because of the ramp system. At least at Gate 5, there’s a bar to accept fans pre and post-game.
At least the various food options have improved. The lower concourse has long had a good variety of concessions, including the staple Chicago dog and popular nachos stands. With the upper deck revamp came a number of new selections, including wings from Hooters and several open grills. I had a piled high Chicago dog, just as I did at Wrigley, and I liked the South side version more. A Jimmy John’s ad on the outfield fence teases about sandwich availability at the Cell, unfortunately the only Jimmy John’s is two blocks away along 35th Street, near the El and Metra stops. Outside food is allowed.
The outfield concourse, which has always been reminiscent of the old bleachers at the pre-Mt. Davis Coliseum, is as spacious and friendly as ever. The bullpens have moved from the former slots to Fenway-like spaces along the outfield fence. A patio area sits next to the visiting bullpen in right. The bleachers, which used to occupy both left-center and right-center, are solely in the former. A multi-level outfield platform was erected in the LF corner. Atop this deck is the Comcast-sponsored FUNdamentals children’s play area. Like everywhere else in the park, it has an usher or two to grant access, and when I approached to take look I was naturally looked upon suspiciously as no child was accompanying me.
Which brings me to the biggest issue I have with the Cell. The place has staff everywhere. Every aisle has an usher, every open stand (most) has a big crew. Normally that’s a good thing when you need help. At the Cell, it feels more like Jerry Reinsdorf doesn’t trust his fans and chose to have eyes everywhere. Most of the staff were friendly enough, but not to the level of either Miller Park or Wrigley Field. During the game, the upper deck ushers will watch the seats to make sure that fans don’t roam around, say, to the top of the stands. This results in a situation where sneaking down is very difficult. Your best bet for a good ticket below face value may be to find seats on Stubhub or via a scalper. US Cellular Field is the most overstaffed ballpark in the majors by far, and needlessly so.
The neighborhood is still not great. The Sox have gone so far as to point out neighborhood restaurants and bars in the vicinity, though none of them are right at the park other than the aforementioned attached Bacardi Bar. After the Saturday game we walked to Mitchell’s Tap, which has a pretty good beer selection including multiple selections from Founders (which is not available on the West Coast). Even so we eventually traveled back to the North side, ending up at the wonderful Hopleaf in Andersonville. The transitioning (or gentrification) process around the Cell is very much a work in progress.
A decade after opening in 1991, New Comiskey/US Cellular Field has undergone major, near constant changes. It started out with 42,000 seats, moved up to 47,000 seats, then dropped down to the current 40,000+. Royal blue seats were switched to green, while the white outfield framework was painted black. The upper concourse looks nothing like it used to. Ultra premium seats and a club were added behind the plate. The outfield was changed, foul territory was reduced, and the ballpark was made to resemble its predecessor more than the original vision would have suggested. That’s not enough to place it among the top 10 ballparks on my list. It’s enough to make the Cell a very respectable, functional ballpark that should last another 20 years without major changes. After that? It’ll be up to Reinsdorf’s sons.
P.S. – Many thanks to all of the readers and good people I met out there including Shane/Zonis, Nick, Joe, Derek, Mike, Tom, and everyone else I failed to mention here. All of you made the weekend even better than I expected. I’ll definitely put together a full meetup the next time I’m in town.
P.P.S. – As I’m planning a trip for New York over Labor Day weekend, after that’s completed I’ll do a feature that focuses on the ballparks for the premier teams in the two-team markets, and then another feature on the second banana ballparks (like the Coliseum and the Cell).
Previous posts about Howard Terminal:
Later today the Port of Oakland’s Board of Port Commissioners will hold a meeting, during which an important settlement with SSA Marine will be discussed. This settlement is important as it should resolve the biggest legal obstacle hanging over Howard Terminal. The settlement discussion is a closed session item, so the terms weren’t made publicly available. Still, there’s no reason to think that the terms won’t be approved as the parties apparently have been in discussion for some time, and would probably prefer to avoid further litigation (which could run through next year).
During the Don Knauss interview, he mentioned that environmental concerns were overblown. To wit:
We’ve done the diligence there as well and been assured by experts that a ballpark can be built on that site without a substantial cost associated with cleanup. Basically we can build a ballpark on top of that site without having to scrape the site clean like AT&T was built on (China Basin).
Wait a minute. China Basin was built without having to scrape it clean? Actually, it was scraped clean. Site remediation was done by the Giants, not the City or Port, and reimbursed to some degree by the federal government via the Federal Brownfields Tax Initiative. Piles were driven deep into bay mud (fill) to provide a proper foundation. Knauss is suggesting that a Howard Terminal ballpark can be built without replacing the fill currently at the site or even piercing the asphalt cap designed to contain the site’s contamination. I’ve heard this claim before but not the plan behind it. Naturally I have to be skeptical of this claim. China Basin and Howard Terminal are similar enough that it’s hard to conceive of how this would work.
AT&T Park’s foundation was built the many expected: land was cleared, cleaned up, and piles were driven to support the stands and ancillary buildings. This was required because China Basin sits in an extreme liquefaction zone. Howard Terminal also sits in an extreme liquefaction zone, which would presumably mean similar measures to China Basin would have to be undertaken. The difference with Howard Terminal is that the State of California put the asphalt cap over the contamination over a decade ago instead of cleaning it up completely, a process which would’ve cost $100 million ($131 million in 2012). That cost has long been the biggest source of the site costs associated with Howard Terminal.
Then again, maybe Knauss and the Oakland backers have a clever, innovative plan that would not require piercing the asphalt cap, or at least minimizing the number of intrusions. That would probably require building a smaller number of larger sized footings at the site, then constructing an above grade podium on which the ballpark would be placed. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Bryan Grunwald proposed a similar approach at his 980 Park site. There’s no concrete estimate of the cost of such a podium, but I’d expect it to be at least $100 million given the the size and load it would have to carry. That could conceivably be cheaper than cleaning up Howard Terminal. Would it be that much cheaper? We’re talking about building a ballpark in a liquefaction zone. There’s no room to cut corners.
Another issue is the amount of planned infrastructure. Again, Knauss claims that costs are being overblown. But he also acknowledged that parking would need to be provided on site, which makes sense given the lack of parking in the immediate area (only 1,200 spaces within 1/3 mile). And if more parking is to be provided on the 50-acre Howard Terminal site, more infrastructure has to be built to bring cars into the site. I had previously suggested two overpasses, one for vehicle traffic and one for pedestrians. Add those to the podium, other site improvements, and additional improvements to the area north of HT, and we’re talking about an estimate north of $150 million. Maybe it’s less, maybe they’ve come up with something really innovative. The problem is that quality engineering is expensive and requires expensive materials. Heck, even bad engineering can be really expensive.
Finally, there’s the lingering question of Who will pay for it? The Giants paid for their site cleanup, got a tax credit from the Feds, and received a minimal amount of TIF funds for the surrounding area. If Knauss is suggesting the same kind of deal to Lew Wolff, it’s a nonstarter. That’s around $650 million worth of risk, 95% of it to be borne by the A’s, with little promise of the kinds of returns the Giants got at China Basin. (Note: Walter Shorenstein thought China Basin was so risky that he divested his share of the Giants, and many within The Lodge looked askance at the plan.)
Maybe, just maybe, Knauss and his people have this figured out. Maybe there’s a creative way to make this all work for everyone. Again, I’m skeptical. Many of the same claims were made about Victory Court, and that site was swept under the rug with barely a peep.
P.S. – We haven’t even touched the transportation gap at Howard Terminal (BART or the mythical streetcar). Or whether the City, Port, and County would create yet another joint powers authority. Or lease terms. Or the lack of redevelopment funds for surrounding area improvements.
Last time I visited Miller Park in 2010, I had scheduled a stadium tour followed by a night game at Wrigley. On the way back on I-94, I was pulled over for speeding. The patrolman asked why I going 78 in a 65 mph zone. I replied that I was in a hurry to make a game at Wrigley. We then spent a minute talking about the differences between Miller Park and Wrigley Field. Other friends from Chicago have commented at times about enjoying games at Miller Park, whether or not those games involved the Cubs. Curiosity piqued, I vowed to return to understand why people from all over the Midwest liked Miller Park so much. After spending a day there, it’s easy to see why. It fills a niche that no other park fills for a thousand miles.
Lest we forget, the two Chicago ballparks are outdoors. Even if you aren’t stuck under an overhang at Wrigley with the wind whipping around, April and May games can be brutally cold at times. Milwaukee has it slightly worse being 90 miles north of Chicago. And now that the Twins have moved outdoors, Miller Park is the only stadium in the Midwest that provides a comfortable domed environment for those occasional inclement weather games.
Not that the dome was needed during my visit. The temperature on Sunday was 70 with clear skies. The game would’ve been perfect at old County Stadium. Over 30,000 came to watch a tanking Brewers club take on an aging Phillies squad. It was a perfect matchup in 2010. Now it’s a matchup of also-rans. Fans came out to get a Carlos Gomez bobblehead, and unlike many other ballparks I’ve been to, there was a huge supply available at any gate even at first pitch.
Before I entered the stadium, I drove to the general parking lot on the east bank of the Menomenee River. A pair pedestrian bridges connect the stadium to the general lots, with preferred lots located closer. It’s easy to be distracted by the various types of tailgating arrangements on display in the general lots. Orderly clusters lined each row with precision, while larger staging areas were set up next to the river. A live cover band played 90′s hits. Klement’s, the sausage company that makes the meat tubes for the Brewers and sponsors the famed sausage race, has its own outpost on the east bank. The pedestrian bridges, while short, created that processional feel that we A’s fans know from walking on the BART bridge. The Miller Park scenery is far less foreboding than industrial East Oakland, and Wisconsin even landscaped Hank Aaron State Trail along the river. The sausage racers were assembled on the bridges, posing for pictures with fans. The whole thing was friendly, friendly, friendly.
Enter the park at either the left or right field corners and you’re greeted by a wide concourse that feels equal parts arcade, state fair, and ballpark. The concourses are so wide that each corner has its own mini food court. Attractions for kids are everywhere along the outfield. The scene becomes less interesting around the infield, where suites and restrooms line the lower concourse, pushing fans out to the glass skin enveloping the ballpark. Behind home plate the fair resumes and views of the field are available.
Numerous escalators fill the space, and they’re necessary since there are four full levels of seats. The field (lower) deck has at most 26 rows. The loge (second) deck has less than 20. Each has its own full concourse. The loge deck has minimal cantilever over the field deck, extending well back over the lower concourse. A short club/suite level is sandwiched between the loge deck and the 20-row terrace (upper) deck. As if often the case in domes, the limited footprint required to conserve space forces more vertical construction. The upper deck is chock full of Uecker seats. I went up to Section 404 in the RF corner and took pictures from the top. It didn’t seem quite as high or cavernous as Chase Field, but it was close. At least from the bird’s eye view I got a real appreciation for how the roof was put together. A unique, five-panel fan shape, the roof has a pivot point behind the plate and travels on guides atop the outfield wall. Mitsubishi was forced to replace the bogies that move the roof panels in 2006 for over $13 million. The roof was open during the game, which allowed light to flood in from the top and through the large clerestory arches down both baselines. The windows in the outfield were also open. Although the roof’s mammoth presence tends to dominate the landscape from outside Miller Park, it manages to be somewhat minimized inside. It also helps that outfield signage is mostly limited to the center field scoreboard. After the game the roof was promptly closed.
Just beyond the outfield fence are a series of party spaces. In left are the T.G.I.Friday’s bar and the Harley-Davidson Deck, plus Bernie Brewer’s slide, which the mascot uses whenever the home team hits a home run. In right is the Mountain Dew “Dew Deck” and field level seats behind the bullpen. There’s also a patio immediately behind the outfield fence with a full bar.
No Brewers game would be complete without a Klement’s bratwurst, which I scarfed down after throwing some secret stadium sauce on it. At $4.25 it’s a good deal, if a bit small. I also got a swirl frozen custard for $4.75. Given the poor craft beer choices and the fact that I had to immediately drive back to Chicago, I decided against getting a beer. One thing I noticed is that Miller Park’s concessions, run by Delaware North, are part of that growing trend of using volunteers with nonprofits as labor. I’m sure it’s a good way to raise money, and the staff were plenty competent, but I always come away from the experience feeling that teams only follow this practice to make some extra bucks.
If there’s a big negative, it’s that sneaking down is pretty difficult. The public service announcement for fans entering the ballpark urges them to stay in their assigned seat only. Ushers at every aisle checked tickets rigorously and repeatedly, even through the 7th inning. Maybe it’s easier with a smaller crowd, but while I was there enforcement was strong enough to be a serious deterrent.
When I visited Miller Park three years ago, I came away feeling it was too big, too gimmicky, and not intimate enough. While those points stand, they’ve been softened a little upon further review. Miller Park may be the friendliest ballpark in the majors, whether we’re talking about fans or staff. Sometimes people make all the difference. That’s definitely the case in Milwaukee.