Friday, April 24, 2009

DP AL Central Rankings, Part 2 - The Ballparks

In today's installment of random Donny Puck AL Central Rankings, we will examine the five ballparks. The AL Central is home to parks ranging in opening dates from 1973 (Kansas City) to 2000 (Detroit). The division used to be home to two of the most iconic parks in baseball history (Tiger Stadium in Detroit and Comiskey Park in Chicago), as well as perhaps the most hated park of all time (Cleveland Municipal Stadium). The current set of stadia will be joined by Target Field in Minneapolis in 2010, making the AL Central home to five of the newest and most fan-friendly parks in the league.

I have had the pleasure of visiting each stadium in the division and can provide first-hand analysis of each venue. We'll focus on each park individually. As always, readers' comments are greatly appreciated in these rankings, as the criteria used to rate the parks are mine and mine alone. I've also provided, when available, a link to a site which shows photos from various sports stadiums taken by photographer Bob Busser. Check out the site and browse.

U.S. Cellular Field - Chicago, IL:

I'll always think of this place as Comiskey Park, II. Comiskey Park, I was a fabulous place. It served the South Siders well from 1910 through the 1990 seasons. The place was probably best known for former owner Bill Veeck's quirky promotions (see the exploding scoreboard, "martians" kidnapping Luis Aparicio, "Disco Demolition Night, etc.). However, behind all those promotions lied a baseball palace full of history (first All Star Game, boxing matches, home of the Chicago Cardinals football team, etc.). What differentiates White Sox fans from Cub fans is that Wrigley Field for the Cubs is known as kind of a mystical place where you go to be seen and if the Cubs win or lose, it's no big deal. That is not to say that Cub fans are not die-hards. It's just that baseball always seems secondary at Wrigley and to Cub fans - consider those Cub "fans" who live in Minneapolis. On the South Side, and at Comiskey Park, baseball is serious business, and the action on the field always takes center stage.

The old park was, by far, the best baseball stadium I ever visited. I saw a game there in August of 1989, and I remember it vividly as a perfect day for baseball. We walked-up and bought tickets for the day game, scored great seats in the first deck above the first base dugout, ate tons of that great food, and had a great time. The park was allowed to go to hell - which is too bad because I'd have loved to see it at its best - but the experience was fabulous. Oh well, I digress...

The new park opened in 1991 and was the last of the parks to open before the new "retro" era commenced with Baltimore's Camden Yards in 1992. At the outset, I always thought the new park received a bum rap. Yes, its upper deck pitch was far too steep. Yes, the park had somewhat of an antiseptic feel. Yes, the park played less like the pitchers' park which was its predecessor. However, it was a fine place to see a baseball game. I saw games there in 1991, 1992, 2 in 1994, and then in 2002 - all before the massive renovations the latter part of this decade - and each was a very enjoyable experience.

The food is not nearly as good as the old park, but I haven't found anything to rival it as of yet. Our seats here have been all over - mostly in the upper deck - but the vantage points were great each time, and, though you are still high up thee, you are very close to the field. Nancy Faust plays at the new park as she did across the street (Closed circuit to White Sox management - cut the recorded music and have more features of Nancy) and she is simply the best and most clever organist in the game. A friend of mine once quipped when we were waiting for the start of the game on a beautiful August evening, "I'd gladly pay $12 to sit in the shade and listen to the organ." The renovations completed by 2006 have been an effort to make the park more intimate. The last few rows of the upper deck were removed, a roof was added, the seats were changed from blue to green, bullpens were relocated, etc., and the park definitely looks better for it. However, the baseball is still the show, and it's now a better stage for the show.

Overall ranking: 3 of 5
Bob Busser's Photos

Progressive Field - Cleveland, OH

Opened as Jacobs Field in 1994, this place couldn't have been more different than its awful predecessor, Cleveland Stadium. The Jake is warm, open, inviting, and a great place to watch a game, from the light standards atop the stadium resembling smokestacks to the family area in center field.

Jacobs Field was among the first in the new wave of retro ballparks which opened up after Camden Yards. The Indians' success on the field soon followed, as the team won division titles in 6 of the park's first 7 full seasons - 1994 was strike-shortened, after all.

My visit to the Jake was in 2005. After visiting the nearby Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, my buddy Butch and I walked over to the stadium in a driving rain and saw the game delayed. The long delay allowed us to sample the place's fare, which was excellent. The bratwurst was as good as Milwaukee's, made better with a slather of the Cleveland Stadium Mustard. After the skies cleared, the day turned into a sweltering afternoon, but we settled into our great seats in the LF corner, near the guy who bangs the tom-tom, and enjoyed the action. Both of us, used to games at the Metrodome, remarked about how great it was to have seats which actually faced the field. Jacobs Field was a good place to see the game, and is definitely worthy of a return visit.

Overall Ranking: 3.5 of 5
Bob Busser's Photos

Comerica Park - Detroit, MI

Replacing a legend is never easy, and the Tigers tried to do a complete 180 from old Tiger Stadium. The corner of Michigan and Trumbull was home to Tigers' baseball from 1912 through 1999, and the memories of games at that old place still resonate with me. The Twins clinched their second American League pennant there in 1987, and I can still see Kirk Gibson's dugout tantrums after making outs in that series.

Tiger Stadium was a classic old ball yard and was left to rot after the Tigers moved downtown for the 2000 season. Driving to the new park for a day-night doubleheader in 2005, we passed the decaying Tiger Stadium. We inquired about the old park's fate to some locals and were told that the city didn't have any money to demolish it, so they just left it where it was. Tiger Stadium's demolition has now begun, and it's sad that the Tigers and the city could not find a way to preserve this historical landmark.

Comerica Park opened as a place to completely celebrate the Tigers. You see tiger figurines everywhere, from a merry-go-round outside the park, to various statues throughout. The place is very similar to the new parks going up everywhere, with a few distinguishing features. The outfield is expansive and the place was designed to maximize triples. It had a reputation early on for being a pitchers' park - so much so that the fences were moved in - but the Tigers' recent teams have been built on power.

Our visit there was very good. We sat in the upper deck for the first game and in the lower bowl behind the plate for the nightcap. Of course, the lower seats were far superior, but the upper deck seats were close to the field. I remember being jacked for a Little Caesar's pizza in an homage to my youth (Little Caesar's founder Mike Illitch owns the Tigers), but the pizza was dreadful. Thankfully, the standard ballpark fare (hot dogs, pretzels, and nachos at the nightcap) were far better. The people were nice and were very knowledgeable baseball fans. Detroit's a baseball town again, thanks to Comerica Park.

Overall Ranking: 3 of 5
Bob Busser's Photos

Kauffman Stadium - Kansas City, MO

Royals Stadium was the site of my first-ever baseball game not in the state of Minnesota. We went on a family trip in the summer of 1985 and my mom was talked into working in a baseball game on our way out to Denver. For Royals' fans that year was the highlight of their fandom with KC winning the World Series and marking the last time the Royals have been to the post-season. I remember the place being completely cutting-edge - the huge scoreboard beyond the center field fence (one you could actually read), the fountains, the clear play-by-play system, not being able to work in a football field anywhere (Arrowhead Stadium was in the same parking lot for that). It would be another 12 years before I went back, but those impressions held.

My return visit in 1997 saw the park now covered with grass on the field but still having those same great features. I've been back several more times since and have seen more subtle changes - blue seats instead of red and orange, the "Little K" kids' park, $1 hot dogs - but it still remained the family showplace it was when I first saw it.

We hear the same thing ad nauseum whenever we see the Twins play down there, hearing Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven talk about how many Twins' fans make the trip down and that it's a beautiful ballpark. As much as that banter has annoyed me, Kauffman Stadium was a beautiful ballpark - simple, understated, and family-friendly.

The food is generally awful, but eat elsewhere in Kansas City - not at the ballpark. KC's best known for barbeque, so why would you waste your calories eating hot dogs. Of course, I've done the latter several times. The seating area is nice and intimate. The lower bowl seats are close to the field. The people are friendly, and the atmosphere is great.

I have not visited the place since the massive renovations - complete by opening day of this year. I don't like them from what I've seen. There was no reason to put seats in the fountains at all. I would have favored widening the concourses and the like but keeping the open outfield the way it was. Of course, I'll have to see the renovations first-hand to have an accurate judgment.

Overall Rating (Pre-Renovation): 3.5 of 5

Metrodome - Minneapolis, MN

This will be short. The Dome, opened in 1982, sucks. The food is either ok or I've just gotten used to it over 28 seasons. The Twins have won World Series here twice (1987, 1991) and have won division titles in 2002-2004 and 2006, so there's history here. However, the Twins are moving to Target Field in 2010 and will leave the old football stadium and its retractable seats behind.

Overall Rating: 1 of 5 (points for history)
Bob Busser's Photos

So, my AL Central Ballpark Ratings (first-to-worst):
  • Cleveland and Kansas City (tie)
  • Chicago and Detroit (tie)
  • Minnesota

Your comments are appreciated.

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