It’s baseball’s ultimate pilgrimage: 30 major-league ballparks, one season. It isn’t easy, but it is possible. We’ll help you get started.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY MARC BURCKHARDT.
Baseball fields may not, strictly speaking, be places of religious worship. But for some determined Americans, the journey to see all 30 major-league ballparks holds as much meaning -- spiritually and culturally -- as the April pilgrimage undertaken in The Canterbury Tales does to Geoffrey Chaucer’s colorful mob of characters. The Great American Baseball Tour, as it’s known, is not for those easily fatigued (or employed full-time, for that matter), but it is a grand adventure nonetheless.
Ask Edward J. Merkle, who, with wife Dolores, hit all 30 stadiums in 71 days in 2006, racking up 15,036 miles on the odometer. Or Josh Pahigian, coauthor of The Ultimate Baseball Road-Trip, who made the epic journey in 2002 and 2003, breaking the trip into four legs -- East Coast, Midwest, Southwest, and West Coast -- on a budget of less than $10,000. Or 33-year-old Atlanta-area resident Graham Knight, webmaster at BaseballPilgrimages.com, who has been “hunting ballparks” for a decade.
“The reason to be a pilgrim is simple: Baseball is as much about the memories as it is about the actual game,” Knight says. “Ballparks are where those memories are made.”
Boston Red Sox fanatic Stephen Agan visits at least four different parks each summer with his family and believes each trip is, in some sense, an act of patriotism. “Baseball is only the backdrop for this journey,” he says. “The real journey is to see America -- all of it. Baseball is one of the things that brings us all together as Americans. No matter where you go in this country, there is baseball.”
The key to plotting your own successful pilgrimage, according to Merkle, is “planning, planning, planning.” The February before his sojourn, Merkle reviewed every team’s upcoming schedule and made up three possible routes, using New York as his home base. He found that heading south was best because it offered the shortest path -- “requiring fewer hotels,” he says, “and an almost direct route from ballpark to ballpark.”
In a little more than two months, Merkle and his wife traveled across the United States and into Canada in the name of baseball. They went from the New York Yankees to the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Baltimore Orioles to the Washington Nationals to the Florida Marlins to the Tampa Bay Rays to the Atlanta Braves. Then, they headed to the Houston Astros, the Texas Rangers, the Kansas City Royals, the Colorado Rockies, and the Arizona Diamondbacks. After that, they made their way to the San Diego Padres, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Oakland Athletics, the San Francisco Giants, and the Seattle Mariners. From Seattle, they went on to see the Minnesota Twins, the Milwaukee Brewers, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, the Cincinnati Reds, the Detroit Tigers, the Cleveland Indians, and the Toronto Blue Jays. Concluding the journey were visits to the Boston Red Sox, the Philadelphia Phillies, and then, finally, the New York Mets. And they “only got seriously lost once,” Merkle says.
Zack Hample, a baseball writer and collector from New York City, has been to 44 major-league stadiums -- “all 30 of the current ballparks and 14 that either no longer exist or simply aren’t in use,” he says -- and has caught more than 3,000 home-run, foul, and batting-practice balls in his lifetime. Hample says that blocking out your travel by region makes the most sense, but he encourages baseball fans and nonfans alike to simply make the pilgrimage.
“With baseball, there’s something for everyone. There’s suspense and strategy. There’s power and speed. Baseball is funny; then, it’s serious,” Hample says. “Every stadium has its own vibe and weaves itself into the fabric of the sport in a different way. That’s why making a baseball pilgrimage is so important and so great.”
For those attempting to make the historic trek this season, we’ve rounded up Major League Baseball’s heavy hitters: the ballparks you have to see (and when) in order to call yourself a true fan. We’ll give you the lowdown on everything from the most storied parks to the newest major-league marvels, from the hardest tickets to score to the heftiest price tags, and from the best meals to the most spectacular views in the game. All that’s left to do is play ball.
Wrigley FieldAn old-fashioned joy and a veritable time machine, this neighborhood ballpark -- a fan favorite since 1914 -- is a classic through and through. Wrigley, home of the Chicago Cubs, is also a great place to bring your glove, as it’s well known for being a home-run hitters’ paradise; before the 1932 World Series, Babe Ruth said, “I’d pay half my salary if I could bat in this dump all the time.” (Ruth also hit his alleged “called shot” here during that same series.) From July 2 to 5, watch the Cubbies in a showdown against their tough division opponents the Brewers.
TIP: Get to the game early and stand on Waveland Avenue to catch balls hit out of the park during batting practice.
Rogers CentreIn 1989, the Toronto Blue Jays’ park’s $500 million price tag was considered as high as the skyscraping CN Tower next door is tall. A staggering grouping of architecture and masterful design work, the Rogers Centre complex is a blissful place to catch a game. Former Jays starting pitcher A.J. Burnett, who was dealt to the Yankees this off-season, will make his first return to the park for games May 12 to 14, making for a worthwhile series between these division rivals.
TIP: “Stay in the Renaissance Toronto Hotel Downtown at Rogers Centre and book a field-view room for just one night,” Agan says. “It’s a unique experience that should not be missed. You can see everything on the field.” Plus, he adds, “the best meal I ever had at a ballpark was hotel room service at the Renaissance, overlooking the game below.”
Coors FieldWith an old-time ballpark vibe and an elaborate rock-and-fountain display in the outfield, this Denver home to the Colorado Rockies, situated a mile high, is a modern beauty that was built for $215 million in 1995. Typically, a record number of home runs are hit here each season, as the wonky mountain climate wreaks havoc on the baseballs. So bring a glove -- or a hard hat -- to the Rockies’ home opener on April 10, when they face the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies and slugger Ryan Howard, the league’s home-run leader in 2008.
Tip: Make arrangements ahead of time with the Rockies’ management to make a small charity donation so that you can call an inning of the game in a mock announcer’s booth situated right next to the real press box. Your altruism will be rewarded with an audio recording and videotape that showcases your broadcasting bravado.
Yankee StadiumWhat, exactly, can $1.3 billion buy? We’ll soon find out when the richest team in baseball unveils its brand-new stadium April 3 for the first of two exhibition games against the Chicago Cubs. Three years in the making, with seating for some 52,000 fans, the new Yankee Stadium is sure to be an architectural and historical marvel and will, hopefully, inspire the Bronx Bombers to greatness not seen in recent years. The new Monument Park, transferred from the old digs last November, will be located behind center field and offer a treasure trove of Yankees memorabilia, including retired numbers, plaques, and freestanding monuments.
Tip: Delay your visit to check out the new stadium until later in the season. “It’s going to be a madhouse for a while,” Hample says. “Give it a while for the crowds to chill out and security to mellow.” If you just can’t wait, the Yanks face the crosstown Mets June 12 to 14 in an interleague subway series.
Miller ParkEven if you’re not a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers, who have called this $400 million field home since 2001, you can’t help but cheer for the contestants in the world-famous sausage race, which is held before the bottom of the sixth inning at every game. No matter what else happens on the field at Miller, the sight of grown men sprinting around a grass field in seven-foot-three-inch-tall sausage costumes is just plain good entertainment. From September 24 to 27, the Brewers face the Philadelphia Phillies, the team that knocked the Brewers out of the playoffs on their way to a World Series championship last fall.
Tip: “Miller Park has the best pregame tailgating, bar none,” Knight says. “You cannot believe how amazing the parking lot smells.” So come early and bring your own bratwursts for a little grilling before the first pitch.
Busch StadiumFans across the country will flock to Busch Stadium for this year’s All- Star Game on July 14, and you should too. It’s actually the third Busch Stadium to grace St. Louis: In 1920, the Cardinals began playing at the first incarnation, the name of which was changed from Sportsman’s Park in 1953 to honor team owner Gussie Busch. The team’s subsequent two stadiums proudly adopted the same moniker.
TIP: Hample encourages pilgrims to get a bird’s-eye view of the park from the top of the nearby Gateway Arch. “[The Arch is] 630 feet high and provides an incredible view of the ballpark and everything after,” he says.
Citi FieldNew York’s other new field -- a relative bargain at an estimated $850 million -- opens in Queens April 13 for a showdown between the Mets and the San Diego Padres. PNC Park was said to be the inspiration for Citi Field, which will offer spectacular amenities and sight lines. Though every game this inaugural season will be packed, it would be worth it to snag tickets to see the Mets fend off division foe Atlanta Braves May 11 to 13.
TIP: Don’t skimp on refreshments for fear of having to climb out of your row: the wider seats and increased leg room make getting in and out a cinch.
Oriole Park at Camden YardsIncorporating the intimacy of old ballparks with modern luxury, the Baltimore Orioles’ home field -- which opened in 1992 and was built for a cool $110 million -- is a real gem. “This is the modern ballpark that started the retro trend, and it’s still one of the most enjoyable places to catch a game,” Hample says. Agan agrees: “Trying to think of superlatives for this place is hard. How about ‘perfect’?” Watch the Orioles play the Tampa Bay Rays May 12 and 13. Following the game, hit the town to partake in the festivities leading up to the Preakness horse race, which takes place in Baltimore May 16.
Tip: “You must buy a sandwich from Boog’s BBQ during a game here,” insists Knight.
PNC ParkThe home to the Pittsburgh Pirates was recently voted the best major-league ballpark by ESPN. In fact, Agan remarks, PNC is “as perfect as the Pirates are bad.” Small and intimate, with only 38,496 seats, PNC offers pretty views of the nearby Allegheny River, the downtown skyline, and the stunning Roberto Clemente Bridge. Sure, the Pirates dropped 95 games last season and have lost more than 850 games in the past decade, but their beautiful ballpark makes watching the team a lot less painful.
Tip: Visit PNC when the Pirates have their best chance for a win: From July 31 to August 3, they take on the Washington Nationals, the team with the most losses in 2008 and one of the few teams to lose more than the Pirates did last season.
Tropicana FieldWhy would you visit St. Petersburg’s blight of a baseball stadium, referred to by Hample as “a sealed coffin with fake grass” and “the worst and ugliest stadium ever”? One reason: After years of near-invisibility on the major-league radar, the Tampa Bay Rays finally came into their own last season, spoiling the American League East pennant race. Don’t miss the Red Sox’s shot at revenge against the Rays -- who knocked them out of the playoffs last season -- April 30 to May 3 and September 1 to 3.
TIP: Visit the 10,000-gallon saltwater tank in right field, where you can touch and feed more than 30 cownose rays that call the park home.
Rangers Ballpark in ArlingtonThe home of the Texas Rangers is unexceptional in most ways, but it does have one of the greatest small sports museums in North America: the Legends of the Game Baseball Museum and Learning Center in right field, which features more than 1,000 baseball artifacts from the nineteenth century to present day.
Tip: Watch as the Rangers take on their cross-state rivals, the Houston Astros, in what’s known ’round these parts as the Lone Star Series, June 16 to 18.
AT&T ParkFamous for McCovey Cove, which Barry Bonds launched endless assaults on in years past, the San Francisco Giants stadium is the only park in America where you can watch the game, the waves, and the kayakers in the bay paddling each other senseless for water-bound home-run balls. It all adds up to a good time, no matter how you look at it. The San Francisco temperatures stay chilly throughout the summer, so visit AT&T Park in September, when the weather’s most moderate. The Giants host the Padres, Dodgers, Rockies, Cubs, and Diamondbacks that month.
Tip: Think you can break 90 miles per hour on the radar gun? Try out the park’s humbling speed pitch cage and see how you really stack up.
Fenway ParkHome of the Boston Red Sox for nearly a century -- most of which was blighted by the alleged Curse of the Bambino -- Fenway Park was built for $650,000 in 1912. Its unveiling was upstaged in international news by the sinking of a little ship named the Titanic in the North Atlantic. Left field’s Green Monster -- at 37 feet, it’s the highest outfield wall in the majors -- is legendary, as is Fenway’s defiantly old-fashioned scoreboard, which is updated by hand, inning after inning. “As far as prestige goes, this is number one,” Agan says. “It’s also the hardest ticket in baseball, but so worth it.” The Sox’s longtime nemeses, the New York Yankees, are in town April 24 to 26, June 9 to 11, and August 21 to 23. You won’t want to miss the bloodbath this rivalry will inspire on the field -- and in the stands.
Tip: While you’re at Fenway Park, check out the one red seat in section 42, row 37, seat 21 of the right-field bleachers, which commemorates the longest home run ever hit inside the park, a 502-foot blast by Ted Williams on June 9, 1946.
Dodger StadiumNow in its 47th season, this field is one of the oldest still in use. But the no-frills classic ballpark is frequently singled out by Major League Baseball players for its beauty and playability. Check out the hometown Dodgers -- who have been long on the brink of a return to their 1970s greatness -- against their perennial threat the Arizona Diamondbacks June 1 to 3.
TIP: Dodger Stadium is often peppered with celebrities, so don’t put down those binoculars between innings.
Kauffman StadiumSimple but beautiful, and inspiring without being particularly elegant, the home of the Kansas City Royals boasts 322 feet of fountains and waterfalls cascading just beyond the outfield fence. “This could be the most underrated ballpark in baseball,” Hample says. “It almost feels like a minor-league park, although the quality of play might have something to do with that.” True, the Royals played an anemic .463 last season, but their park is always a winner. Reigning home-run-derby champ Justin Morneau and the Minnesota Twins visit the Royals June 29 to July 1, August 21 to 23, and September 25 to 27.
Tip: Kids will be tickled by the Little K, a miniature version of the ballpark, relocated this season to the left-field area, where whiffleball games are held. And if the Royals’ record doesn’t improve this season, the kiddies’ games might be more exciting than the ones on the big field.
J. RENTILLY is a Los Angeles–based journalist who can be found approximately 81 times a year at Chavez Ravine, and always in blue.
Mark Your Calendar
We pick them. You pilgrim.
10: Rockies vs. Phillies
Coors Field; Denver, Colorado
1: Rays vs. Red Sox
Tropicana Field; St. Petersburg, Florida
11: Mets vs. Braves
Citi Field; Queens, New York
12: Orioles vs. Rays
Oriole Park at Camden Yards; Baltimore, Maryland
14: Blue Jays vs. Yankees
Rogers Centre; Toronto, Ontario, Canada
1: Dodgers vs. Diamondbacks
Dodger Stadium; Los Angeles, California
12: Yankees vs. Mets
Yankee Stadium; the Bronx, New York
16: Rangers vs. Astros
Rangers Ballpark in Arlington; Arlington, Texas
2: Cubs vs. Brewers
Wrigley Field; Chicago, Illinois
14: Eightieth All-Star Game
Busch Stadium; St. Louis, Missouri
31: Pirates vs. Nationals
PNC Park; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
21: Red Sox vs. Yankees
Fenway Park; Boston, Massachusetts
23: Royals vs. Twins
Kauffman Stadium; Kansas City, Missouri
7: Giants vs. Padres
AT&T Park; San Francisco, California
24: Brewers vs. Phillies
Miller Park; Milwaukee, Wisconsin