Ballparks are a passion among baseball fans second only to the game.
True arrival at a big-league ballpark begins with the first glimpse of green grass, and not a moment before. The sighting of a light tower in the distance, peering down perhaps over the heads of houses, does not count.
Maybe the butterflies begin then. Tiny smiles begin cropping up spontaneously. THe Oh-I'm-not-really-excited walk carries you through the parking lot as the delightful suppression of pleasure builds.
Even the tucking away of the rain check in the wallet, the vendor's cries and the double-time hike up the stadium ramp are just an overture.
At old Griffith Stadium the first slash of grass appeared as you passed the louvered grandstand behind first base.
It lasted just a flash, before the crowd, pushing along, swept you past. But in that moment, captured like a freeze frame, you could see the white bag, the coach's box and that scimitar of dirt called the right side of the diamond.
Those next several seconds - between first glimpse and full view - were a bona fide arrival as the sense of anticipation, carefully kept under control, suddenly welled up and exploded like a home run cheer.
Doubtless, there are better places to spend summer days, summer nights, than in ballparks. Doubtless.
Nevertheless, decades after a person has stopped collecting bubble-gum cards, he can still discover himself collecting ballparks. And not just the stadiums, but their surrounding neighborhoods, their smells, their special seasons and moods.
Boston's Fenway park is best on the worst days, in raw misty spring and foggy fall. The streets around the Fens are crowded, narrow and damp. Taxis blow their horns at the herds of jay-walking Soxers on Lansdowne.
Inside, the emerald field, the royal-blue and blood-red stands, the green bleachers and WALL stand silent under tarp and drizzle just as they did generations ago when Babe Ruth waited for a Northeaster to shift so he could pitch for the home town team.
Yankee Stadium smells best in October when the armada of hot pretzel sellers rings the wall, plucking at the sleeves of the three-piece suit crowd that shows for the World Series.
The scalpers and freaks crowd near the ticket windows, one selling tickets, the other trying to steal them. The Stadium is more than faintly criminal. Poverty and violence live just a block away.
But Yankee Stadium digests that squalor like a gouty ward healer, belches and bellows, "Play Ball."
No park approaches Yankee for bad manners and arrogance. "Be glad you're here," say the white outfield facades. "Get movin,' buddy," say the surliest cops on earth.
If Yankee Stadium only knows how to be itself in the midst of turbulence, Baltimore's Memorial Stadium is most comfortable itself with a lonely midweek crowd of a few straggling thousands.
The brick-and-wood dowager of 33rd Street likes her solitude. No fireworks, no traffic jams, no loud noises, no tasteless getting and spending.
The team that has won more games than any other in the last 21 years gives nightly seminars in "Baseball, Played Properly." Prof. Earl Weaver proponent of pitching and percentages, sits in his dugout during infield practice and watches the crowd arrive, ones and twos at a time.
"Nice turnout," he says tonelessly, years beyond sarcasm.
The sedate white clapboard houses on 36th Street stare unblinkingly in from beyond the center field fence. The sun goes down purple and gold, the stars come out, the best rock 'n roll in the big leagues drifts and echoes around the park.
This is indeed baseball played properly, with only those who truly care in the quet stands, a grove of pine trees beyond the outfield fence, and Weaver's tomato plants growing in the bullpen.
A continent away, in Chavez Ravine, baseball is played profitably. The most beautiful ballpark in the world and the tackiest hard sell go hand in hand, one accenting and exposing the other.
Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles would be heaven, that is, if St. Peter weren't at the golden gate trying to sell cheap wrist watches.
Chavez is fragrant with L. A. sundown, palm and begonia. The red clay mixed with the infield dirt, the blue of the walls, and the perpetually filled stands create a rich triple threat of aroma, color and noise.
It is difficult to introduce 50,000 fans individually during a nine-inning game, but the Dodgers never stop trying. If it isn't sufficient to see Frank Sinatra and Don Rickies in the clubhouse, or Walter Matthau and Harvey Korman sandaled and cutesy in the hot dog line, the scoreboard has to keep three hours of non stop listing of every person in the crowd with a birthday, anniversary or a bad cold.
"A Dodger Welcome to Heinrich Hilmer of La Jolla."
Some ballparks are made for daylight; others should onlycome out at night.
The greatest charm of Chicago's Wrigley Field is what it lacks: lights. If the truth be told, Wrigley is not a terribly attractive ballpark. Quaint, sure. Beautiful, not really.
The catwalks, the vivied brick outfield walls, the ancient hand-operated scoreboard, the pennants above the center field fence to show the league standings and whether the Cubs won or lost - all those things sound better than they look.
The bleacher bums are sufficiently demented. Day baseball is what God intended; and the whole shebang is photogenic. And it's nice to be able to see home runs bounce off people's front doors and watch them come out to see what the mailman wants.
But let's blow the whistle a bit. Wrigley Field ain't all it's cracked up to be.
From ground level the field looks ratty, the dugouts are embarrassingly cruddy and the locker rooms are almost shabby.
However, when the sun is bright, the air crisp, and your seat seems closer to the diamond than the on-deck hitter, all is forgiven. So what if the neighborhood is deteriorating, the parking is impossible, the scoreboard is unreadable, an it is impossible anywhere in the park to find out what the actual score of the game is?
The fences in the power alleys are so close you're certain the next man will hit a homer; you're so close to the umpire you can hear him cough; and suddenly, the crowd decides it will sing a song.
Wrigley Field si great.
But it's not as great as the hideously named Royals Stadium in the Harry Truman Sports Complex in Kansas City. For $70 million the Royals should have come up with a better name, something like Waterfall park. But no price could have built a better modern-style stadium.
However, please go at night.
By day the two-stadium Truman Complex looks like a gaudy, colossal toy that some giant child left in the middle of nowhere.
When the sun goes down and the multicolored outfield water fountains start spouting and the clear midwestern moon starts shimmering on the steel and Tartan turf, even that gauche 12-story high Royals-crest scoreboard with the crown on top starts looking classy.
If you're going to shoot 50,000 gallons of water in the air and dazzle it with colored lights, the time to do it is after dark.
Royals Stadium is that rare park that looks stunning from inside, outside and above. The most distressing tendency of other newly built stadiums is that they look like the Mother Ship from Close Encounters on the outside, then bore you to tears once you get inside.
Riverfront and Three Rivers stadiums are by far the two most conspicuous and jubiliant buildings in the towns of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Both are built on the water and from a distance look like blazing riverboats. Both were built with architecture, rather than baseball, in mind. They'll put you to sleep by the fifth inning if the game isn't close.
The Red's infield is mottled with wear, the second-deck outfield pavilions are monotonous and all the stands are set inexcusably far from the field.
Baseball always suffers when it is played in a cookie-cutter football stadium, like the ones in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Kansas City had the right central ideas: limit seating to 40,000, but bring the fans close to the action; leave a center field vista open and enhance it if possible, thereby creating an amphitheatre, rather than a claustrophobic cylinder.
Several rules of stadium building should be carved on every ower's forehead. Old, if properly refurbished it always better than new. Smaller is better than bigger. Open is better than closed. Near beats far. Silent visual effects are better than loud ones. Eye polution hurts attendance. Inside should look as good as outside. Domed stadiums are criminal.
For every old park, like Cleveland's decaying Municipal Stadium, which is a punishment to all the sense, there is a regal Yankee Stadium, a glistening Fenway Park, or a dignified Memorial Stadium.
For every new atrocity, like Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, with its juvenile scoreboard, its rock-hard phony turf and its baby-doll Bicentennial figures perched in center field, there is a new standard of classicism like Royals Stadium.
The baseball fans' desire to hustle up the ballpark ramp and catch that first glimpse of green promise does not fade.
Even today the circle of traffic around RFK Stadium can be dangerous in the summer.
Sometimes street-level gates are left open, just enough so that drivers can spy a sliver of what was once outfield.
Cars stray precariously across the dotted white lines as eyes are drawn to that displaced but hardly forgotten summer home.
Or, at least one car does.