April 11, 2003
2003: THE MOST UNUSUAL BALLPARK YEAR IN MAJOR LEAGUE HISTORY?
by Joe Connor
2003 will arguably be the most unusual ballpark year in Major League Baseball history. From the City of Brotherly Love to the Queen City, the Enchanted Isle, the Island City and America's Finest City, there is no shortage of interesting story lines. And thats without even mentioning Norm from Cheers heading up to his bar stool seat atop the Green Monster at Fenway; Alan Trammell scratching his head as to why the Tigers had to move in left-center to 370 feet in his inaugural managerial season at Comerica Park; and much more.
Consider that San Juan, off the mainland U.S. on the Enchanted Isle of Puerto Rico, "co-hosts" a team for just one season in an ugly, dilapidated ballpark 40 years old basically so Major League Baseball (which owns the Expos) can make a lot of quick cash. Meanwhile, one new permanent ballpark has been christened in the Queen City. And if that wasn't enough ballpark fanatics, three Major League Baseball teams will bid goodbye to their multi-purpose edifices that we all know never should have been built in the first place!
Not to worry, Qualcomm Stadium in America's Finest City (formerly Jack Murphy Stadium) and Veterans Stadium in the City of Brotherly Love (arguably, the WORST OF THE WORST ever built) will eventually be recognized as historical monuments: parking lots. 2003 will also (cross your fingers, this is Major League Baseball after all) FINALLY be the last year for the Expos at Stade Olympique in the Island City, an edifice so incredibly hideous and shameful that its Canadian Football League team chooses to play at McGill University instead.
Ive been lucky enough to visit all these places, and heres the scoop:
I visited the Great American Ballpark March 28 and 29 for the exhibition games against the Indians, and while it is a big improvement to that concrete jungle-turned parking lot known as Cinergy Field, it wont be making my top 10 list of new, urban ballparks. Not only are the field dimensions and fence heights bland and uninspiring, the place may just as well be called Coors Field East. Get a ball up in the air here, and its bound to be a home run. Better bring a blanket youre going to be here a while. This was evident during the ballparks first week when homers were going out faster than a blinking light bulb.
Make no mistake about it: sight lines at Great American Ballpark are excellent, particularly down the lines and in the outfield bleachers beyond the fences, but even taking a curious stroll around this ballpark can be an adventure. Concourses on the first base side are narrow, concession lines are always long, and a throwback feel to Crosley Field, as had been advertised, doesnt deliver. For example, the Longines Clock, famous at Crosley, was supposed to be but isnt well replicated atop the scoreboard here at all.
In fairness to the Reds, the first base concourse and additional concessions are said to be forthcoming in 2004, "Phase II" of the new ballpark. Thats because crews have to clean up the mess left by the Cinergy explosion. Once thats done, the first base side is supposed to be wider and more fan-friendly, and a Reds Hall of Fame will debut. Unfortunately, it still wont be enough to put this ballpark up there with the Jake and Camden Yards, among others.
This past winter I was back in Puerto Rico and perhaps there is no bigger baseball dump that Hiram Bithorn Stadium. You would think an island that receives plenty of rain would naturally have a grass field. Guess again. And not only is their a tarp, but foul territory is HUGE and getting in and out of the complex (across the street from a mall) will test your patience. Having said all that, the fans will make this place rock. As they do in the Dominican Republic, Latinos here like to dance to the beat of musical instruments in the crowd, and some of the Winter League teams have dancers atop the dugout, too. The fan atmosphere could be pretty spectacular.
Cant say the fan atmosphere will be all that spectacular in Montreal where I do believe this REALLY IS the last year for the Expos in the Island City. Expect plenty, and larger, discounts on merchandise and my bet is the club playing in RFK Stadium in Washington come next April.
Yes, Orioles owner Peter Angelos will whine and bicker but he has no precedent. Thats because if the Yankees and Mets; Cubs and White Sox; and As and Giants can peacefully co-exist, so can the Orioles-Expos (um, Senators) in Baltimore-Washington.
The only question is which D.C.-area group presents Major League Baseball with a better offer to build a new stadium at taxpayer expense. My guess is the Northern Virginia group, which is further along with its funding and nearly lured the Astros out of Houston some years ago. A new ballpark would likely be build across the Potomac, not far from the Pentagon in Alexandria.
While the Expos future at Olympic Stadium is a question mark, both the Phillies and Padres are definitely in their final years at their respective multi-purpose stadiums. Although no love will be lost when both stadiums eventually become parking lots, one of the great aspects of this season is that both clubs are making a tremendous effort to bring back legendary players and characters from years past. Players from every playoff team in the Phillies era since 1971, for example, will be honored at the usually staid Vet, while the Padres are commemorating each decade by the month (May promotions, for example, will celebrate the 1970s and those hideous brown caps will be everywhere).
The Phillies new digs are taking shape next to the Vet, so if youre making a summer ballpark to Philly, youll be able to see the new pad in progress. As for the Padres, theyve already taken the money and run with it: PETCO, a pet supplier, forked over mucho dinero for naming rights. PETCO Park is being built in downtown San Diego, not far from the Gaslamp District, which is a nice place to stay if youre planning a 2003 ballpark run to Americas Finest City my home.
With so much happening on the ballpark front in 2003, about all thats left is now for some owner we havent heard from yet to issue an ultimatum that a new ballpark must be built in his community to survive. Now that news would be a shocker.
Joe Connor is a freelance writer who's been lucky enough to visit every Major League ballpark including Great American Ballpark and Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico. His favorite is Fenway. For more information on Joe, visit his Web site at www.modernerabaseball.com