As the glorious time of spring training approaches, it’s an excellent time to start thinking about checking out ballgames in cities other than your own, to hit the road and do a little exploring. Every major league ballpark has something to offer, so let’s talk 2016 Ballpark Road Trips! Last week we visited the parks of the AL East (HERE) and now we move on to explore the great parks of the NL Central!
Chicago’s Wrigley Field
This is the National League’s counterpart to Boston’s Fenway Park as a baseball cathedral. It was built in 1914 as Weeghman Park for the Chicago Whales of the Federal League, entities you are unlikely to hear much of in modern everyday conversation. The Chicago Cubs became tenants in 1916 after the Federal League folded, and the place has been their home ever since. It’s never been home to a World Series champion and hasn’t even hosted a World Series game since 1945, but winning clubs aren’t what have long kept fans coming out to the North Side’s “Friendly Confines.”
Wrigley Field sits in the midst of a thriving urban area and people can easily get there on foot or via mass transit. There’s no shortage of pre- and post-game bars in the area to help keep up the congenial atmosphere, led by the Cubby Bear right across the street. This is baseball the way it was back before iPhones, television and even radio, when ballparks were in neighborhoods and all the neighbors came out in the afternoons to relax and watch a game.
Wrigley is the last remaining ballpark to maintain a tradition of hosting afternoon games, and was the final ballpark to install lighting for night games (in 1988, when they were told they had to because postseason games were on nighttime television and the games had to be played then). Many newer ballparks are built to try to recreate the feeling of old-time venues, but Wrigley Field is the real deal. Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Ron Santo, and Sammy Sosa all starred here. It’s where Hack Wilson amassed many of his record 190 RBIs in 1930, where Kerry Wood pitched one of the most dominant games ever in 1998 with 20 strikeouts, one hit and zero walks, and where Babe Ruth might or might not have called his famous home run in the 1932 World Series. Also, Elwood Blues lived here (as far as the police knew) and Ferris Bueller took in an entire game in like ninety seconds.
Massive ongoing renovations that began in 2014 have added a huge Jumbotron while expanding the ballpark’s footprint and upgrading seats and facilities. It’s hard to know how much of the park’s beloved character will change (altering that is in no one’s interest), but it will remain a ballpark that should be on everyone’s Must-Visit List.
Check Out: Everything. All of it. Revel in the ivy-covered outfield walls (the only ballpark with this feature), the manual scoreboard (though electronic ones were also added in the renovations), the famous red marquee outside the park. Eat a Chicago Red Hot (but please don’t add ketchup under any circumstances whatsoever), down a bratwurst and grab a beer. You’re enjoying old-time baseball in 2016!
Fun Fact: The visitors clubhouse has long had a tarp-covered catwalk leading to it that rises above the lower concourse, and players would sit on it with squirt guns which they aimed at unsuspecting fans who were seeking out hot dogs and popcorn.
Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark
Opened in 2003 to replace the incredibly generic “cookie-cutter” of a park in Riverfront Stadium, this park arguably has the major league’s best corporate-sponsorship name. It has some nice local touches while also paying fine tribute to the Cincinnati Reds’ very long and rich history.
Two smokestacks behind right-center field call back to the steamships that used to operate up and down the Ohio River and were a key part of Cincinnati’s history. Views of downtown Cincinnati, Mt. Adams and the Ohio River are all plentiful. If you look behind the scoreboard in left field, you’ll see a mural showing Pete Rose’s record-breaking 4,192nd placed bet, I mean hit. There are also statues of Reds greats Joe Nuxhall, Ted Kluszewski, Ernie Lombardi and Frank Robinson depicted playing an imaginary game. A later era of Reds success, the Big Red Machine teams of the 1970s, is honored with a mosaic just inside the main entrance. Another mosaic depicts the 1869 Red Stockings, often considered to be the first professional baseball team. All of these star players or eras came by before 2003 and so didn’t happen in this ballpark, but these Reds have a long history and aren’t afraid to tell you all about it.
Check Out: The Reds Hall of Fame and Museum on the premises, which is worth your time and has much more than the already extensive historical call-outs that are already part of the ballpark’s landscape. Also sample some Skyline Chili, a unique local variation of chili that has some chocolate and cinnamon in it. You can also get it on a coney, which if you are from some parts of the Midwest is called a “hot dog.”
Fun Fact: There are seven bats on each of the two aforementioned smokestacks. Add them up to get 14, the number worn by Reds great Pete Rose, which can’t be retired due to his permanent ban from the game.
Milwaukee’s Miller Park
Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, opened in 2001. It has a retractable roof that is unlike those in other parks in that it’s fan-shaped and allows for better climate control in Wisconsin’s sometimes harsh weather. It also has natural grass, which in these non-Seventies times is regarded as a good thing. The Brewers haven’t had a ton of success in their history – their lone pennant came in 1982 when they were in the American League – but this park is a terrific gathering place for locals and baseball fans, and gives people the unmistakable experience of going to a baseball game in Milwaukee.
Miller Park honors some past greats, with statues of Brewers Hall of Famer Robin Yount and Milwaukee (mostly) Braves great Hank Aaron. A Brewers Walk of Fame honors eighteen people associated with Milwaukee baseball (including the Braves), mostly players like Eddie Mathews and Gorman Thomas but also legendary broadcaster Bob Uecker, former General Managers Harry Dalton and John Quinn, and longtime owner-turned-baseball-commissioner Bud Selig. There’s also a Wall of Honor and for some reason the stadium now also offers “The Bud Selig Experience,” in case fans want to relive the life of The Nutty Professor crossed with a Milwaukee car salesman who went on to lead a coup against the baseball commissioner and become commissioner himself for more than two decades. There’s something for everyone at Miller Park.
In addition to paying tribute to Brewers’ and Braves’ history, the park offers many local touches. For starters, this is the home of the Racing Sausages, a neat inclusion for a beer-and-brats town like Milwaukee. The Bratwurst, Polish and Italian Sausages, Chorizo and Hot Dog race each other in a Five Meat Run between halves of the sixth inning. You will not find this in any other ballpark. You also won’t find anyone elsewhere singing “Roll Out the Barrel,” a popular polka song, in the seventh inning after “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” This is baseball in Milwaukee and is all fun to see.
Check Out: Take a walk during the game just to hear announcer Bob Uecker calling the game on speakers throughout the park. Once of the most famous broadcasters ever, he’s still at it and just hearing his announcing makes you appreciate the Milwaukee Baseball Experience that much more. And come early with some folding chairs and a grill for the parking lot. Miller Park’s parking lots have some of baseball’s best tailgating. Brats and beer before the game and then more brats and beer during the game. What’s not to like?
Fun Fact: Miller Park hosted the 2007 United States Bowling Congress Masters Finals, whatever those are. But there were bowling lanes set up on the playing field surface, and that’s pretty cool.
Pittsburgh’s PNC Park
Another absolute must-see ballpark, this home of the Pittsburgh Pirates opened in 2001 and gets everything right. It is renowned for its views – it’s one of very few ballparks to have its home dugout on the third base side so the players can have the [relatively] superior view. For fans, there is no bad seat in the house. With steel trusswork and arches, it’s reminiscent of bygone parks from baseball’s earlier age. It has callbacks to the Pirates’ long history of star players, with statues of Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner, Willie Stargell, and Bill Mazeroski situated near park entry points. You want local food? Enjoy a Primanti Bros. sandwich and some crab fries from Chickie’s and Pete’s. You want to take a nice walk along the Allegheny River before or after the game? You can do that too, since the River Walk is adjacent to the ballpark. The Pirates long had a tribute to the Negro Leagues, which had an extensive history in the area, but in the past couple of years they have mysteriously, and sadly, relocated it to parts unknown.
The Pirates were in a two-decade Death Spiral on the field that concluded in 2013 when they finally made the playoffs after years of futility, and now they boast a young, contending team with a number of stars. As a result, the ballpark atmosphere is much more optimistic at nearby local bars before the games, where for years the fans would come out and talk Steelers football instead of Pirates baseball since that was a much more fun topic of conversation. No more, and happily so.
Check out: some of the bars that line the street adjacent to the ballpark. The fans are knowledgeable and optimistic about their chances on most nights, which helps create a top-flight pre-game fan experience to go with the great experience inside the ballpark. For years, the Pirates had everything except winning teams. Now that they have that too, this is a powerhouse baseball experience. Come early, stay late, and come back often.
Fun Fact: The outfield fence in right field reaches twenty-one feet high, a neat tribute to Pirates Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, who wore that number.
St. Louis’s Busch Stadium
Opened in 2006, this park replaced and was built right next to the St. Louis Cardinals’ former home of Busch Stadium, which also replaced an earlier Busch Stadium. Got that? Another ballpark designed to evoke memories of earlier classic ballparks, this Busch Stadium features a terrific view of the downtown skyline and (of course) the iconic Arch. The St. Louis Cardinals are baseball’s most successful franchise not named the Yankees, and this ballpark reflects that long successful history. Statues of past greats assemble in front of the Team Store, including Bob Gibson, Dizzy Dean, Ozzie Smith, and many others who helped make the club’s history an illustrious one. Others like St. Louis Browns star George Sisler and Negro Leagues star and local native Cool Papa Bell are represented as well.
Ballpark Village is a relatively new complex built right next to the ballpark, a commercial area and pre-game gathering place that also includes the Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum, a must-see stop for any baseball fan. It’s also a prime example of successful redevelopment that can come with the construction of a new ballpark.
Check Out: Ballpark Village and the surrounding ballpark area come playoff time. The Cardinals are in the postseason more often than Wesley Snipes pays taxes, and come October the area fountains have red water in support of their boys.
Fun Fact: Old Busch Memorial Stadium was named for longtime owner Gussie Busch, but this current stadium is actually a corporate naming rights deal that expires in 2020, when St. Louis could conceivably have a baseball stadium not named “Busch Stadium.”
This concludes our extensively travelled but by no means limited through the ballparks of the NL Central! Happy Trails!
Up next: the ballparks of the AL West!