All major-league ballparks qualify as diamonds, but some are truly gems

April 03, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

Baseball fans can be a strange bunch. For many, it's not enough that they have a local team to root for and that they spend as many waking hours as possible at the ballpark doing just that.

Nope, real fans want to while away the hours at other ballparks, too. They want to experience the majesty and grandeur of stadiums older than their grandparents, or the technical wizardry and space-age architecture of parks that look like something out of "Star Trek."

And it doesn't matter how far they have to go. Every year, you read tales of a couple guys from Hoboken, N.J., who decide to spend the summer like some sandlot Jack Kerouac, hitting the road and vowing not to come back until they've hit every ballpark in the major leagues -- and maybe a few in the minors as well.

If you're one of these people and live in or near Baltimore, you need to understand one thing: Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- its all-stretched-out-of-shape name notwithstanding -- IS THE BEST BALLPARK IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES. Period.

Anyone who doubted that had only to live through last year's All-Star hoopla to be set straight. The players loved Camden Yards. The TV commentators loved Camden Yards. The print media loved Camden Yards -- columnist Mark Kreidler even suggested leaving the All-Star game here for eternity.

So if your idea is to visit other ballparks and see how they stack up against Oriole Park, realize they're going to come up short. Realize that you will be the envy of fans everywhere when they hear you go to games in Baltimore. Realize that Camden Yards is the Michael Jordan of baseball stadiums -- everyone else aspires to be like us (especially Cleveland and Texas, whose new stadiums are designed to be nothing so much as carbon copies).

But if you insist on sampling where the common folk watch their baseball -- and you should, because each park offers a unique experience -- here are some tips on what to expect.

Just remember: it's unfair to expect perfection. Unless you're heading down to the Yard.

* Yankee Stadium, New York. No ballpark can match the history and lore that pervades the House That Ruth Built. But the park has several strikes against it: 1) The Yankees play there; 2) it was renovated extensively in 1976, and even some Yankee fans say it was a better ballpark before the face-lift; and 3) George Steinbrenner owns the team -- and keeps threatening to move the Bronx Bombers to New Jersey.

If you go, arrive well before the game starts, so there's time to visit the monuments behind center field to Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and other Yankee greats (Monument Park opens 90 minutes before each game and is only open for 45 minutes). Avoid driving -- the subway drops passengers off within spitting distance of the park. Tickets: (718) 293-6000.

* Shea Stadium, New York. Pluses: Subway access, parking is much easier than at Yankee Stadium; watching the Mets play will help you understand why David Letterman is always ragging on them andwhy Eddie Murray has moved on to Cleveland.

Minuses: The noise from nearby La Guardia Airport makes it sound as if you're sitting inside a vacuum cleaner. Tickets: (718) 507-8499.

* Fenway Park, Boston. OK, there's no two ways about it, Fenway Park is a great place to watch a ballgame. It's certainly the quirkiest park in all of baseball: the Green Monster in left, the short fence in right, the nooks and crannies that make every fly ball to the outfield an adventure. There are a few drawbacks, however. Parking is practically non-existent and expensive, and tickets can be difficult to get, just like at Camden Yards. And there's the sad plight of the Red Sox themselves, who haven't won a World Series since 1918.

But every baseball fan should make at least one trip to Fenway -- not only for the park, but for the surrounding neighborhood. Game days are a total baseball experience, and Boston fans may be the most unmerciful in all of baseball, especially when it comes to their own team. Tickets: (617) 267-1700.

* Cleveland Stadium (old). A ballpark no longer, not since the Indians packed their bags and vacated the premises at the end of last year. Too bad. With a capacity of more than 70,000, but an attendance that sometimes struggled to fill 10 percent of the seats, Cleveland Stadium was the closest most fans would ever come to watching major-league baseball alone.

* Cleveland Stadium (new). No one's ever seen a game there yet. The stadium doesn't open until this week. But it was put together by the same people responsible for Oriole Park, so it can't be all bad. Tickets: (216) 241-8888.

* Tiger Stadium, Detroit. Catch this dinosaur before it becomes extinct. Baseball has been played on the site of Tiger Stadium since 1900, making it the oldest major-league ballpark, but there's not much to recommend the stadium, save tradition. No wonder they want to get rid of it. Tickets: (313) 258-4437.

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