The joys of summer: 5 games, 5 ballparks

Daniel J. Foley

July 13, 1993|By Daniel J. Foley

FIVE games in five days in five ballparks.

Not a bad way for a baseball fan to spend a vacation -- continuing a years-long odyssey to visit every major-league park.

This road trip, to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati, added two new green cathedrals to my list of 17 active and six former big-league ball- yards.

In Baltimore, my sojourn to Oriole Park at Camden Yards recouped for me a city I lost a year ago when the Orioles moved out of Memorial Stadium, a park I had visited previously. And my first visit to cavernous Cleveland Stadium was just in time, because it will be abandoned at the end of the season.

In a remark oft-quoted in baseball literature, the distinguished historian, French-born Jacques Barzun, once wrote, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball. . . ." What, then, does one learn of the mood of Americans on a baseball pilgrimage about a month before the All-Star break? Some fleeting impressions:

EXCITED IN BALTIMORE: The fans are still enamored of the new park -- and re-enamored of the Orioles, a team that played April and May under water (though it was still selling out the new ballpark) and June on fire. It's a team with few standouts, and when I was there things seemed rather hopeless. Cal Ripken was barely hitting his weight, and a caller to a radio show suggested benching him. Cal Ripken, for gosh sakes! If he stays in the lineup every day through the summer of 1995, the Oriole shortstop will break Lou Gehrig's once-seemingly insurmountable record of 2,130 consecutive games.

The ballpark, however, is nearly flawless, living up to its reputation of combining new-park convenience with traditional park ambience. With the B&O warehouse, reputedly the longest building on the East Coast, as a right field backdrop and a doubledecker bullpen, this is no "cookie-cutter" stadium -- unlike those I revisited in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

GROUCHY IN PHILADELPHIA. The surprising Phillies, latest example of worst-to-first, have the best record in baseball, so I thought the mood would be upbeat at Veterans Stadium -- and it was . . . whenever the Phillies were rallying. But this is a tough crowd, ready to boo at the drop of a ground ball. The guy next to me couldn't tell me often enough how much he hated one of the Phillies' infielders.

By the time the home team hit three home runs, the crowd got over its grouchiness -- until a whole section of interlopers along the right field foul line began chanting, "Let's go, Mets!" Then the hometowners got snarly again.

DISINTERESTED IN PITTSBURGH. Will baseball survive here? You'd think, after winning three consecutive National League East championships, the Pirates would have lots of enthusiastic support. Not so. Fewer than 15,000 showed up for a game with the expansion Florida Marlins.

This is the city where you can order World Series tickets by phone in late September. I got them two years in a row. Unfortunately, the Pirates didn't make it to the World Series either year.

Too bad about the lack of interest. Those who stayed away from Three Rivers Stadium missed a great game. Pirates pitcher Steve Cooke, one of eight rookies on the roster, pitched a four-hit shutout and knocked in the game's only two runs.

RESIGNED IN CLEVELAND. The Indians haven't played post-season baseball since they lost four straight to the New York Giants in the 1954 World Series. Fans are so accustomed to mediocrity that they are resigned to it. That, at least, was the theory put forth by one radio talk-show host. He got no arguments from callers.

Cleveland Stadium is so huge it looks half-empty even when there is a big crowd, which isn't often. Seating capacity is listed as 74,483, but more than 86,000 have packed the park on occasion -- in better times. The night I was there, fewer than 15,000 heard the echoes.

But they were treated to a tell-your-grandkids play when Texas outfielder Jose Canseco (since then injured, operated on and perhaps out of baseball), known more for his batting power than his fielding prowess, staggered under a fly ball that bounced off his noggin and over the fence for a home run. (Headline in the Plain Dealer the following day: "Conk! Tribe wins by a head.")

Next year, the Indians will move into a new ballpark with a seating capacity of approximately 42,000, and a crowd of 15,000 won't seem so lonely.

RESILIENT IN CINCINNATI. Baseball management in Cincinnati is, to put it mildly, a bit shaky. Reds general partner Marge Schott was suspended before the season for racist slurs. Just before I arrived for a game at Riverfront Stadium, the team's unpopular general manager, Jim Bowden, fired the popular manager, Tony Perez, only 44 games into Perez' first season. Some chance he got!

But none of that seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of Cincinnati baseball fans. Despite club turmoil and a losing record, more than 28,000 turned out for a midweek night game.

They got their money's worth -- top ticket price $11.50, one of the best bargains in baseball. The Reds and Atlanta Braves traded leads until the home team won with two out in the ninth. Rookie Jacob Brumfield, celebrating his 28th birthday, drove in the winning run, and the crowd buzzed all the way to the parking lot. Don't you love this game!

Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Eleven parks to go. I still haven't seen four of the five in California. And the two in Texas. Or the two in Canada. . . .

But wait 'til next year.

Daniel J. Foley, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has resigned himself to the fact that he will never play center field for the New York Yankees.

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