The crack of the bat, the smell of popcorn in the air, an organ playing outdoors on a bright and sunny day – this is America in the summertime at the great ballparks of the USA.
Classic American ballparks are destinations all to themselves; but when combined with classic American cities, they make for ideal summer travel destinations. Combining a ballgame with seeing the sights of a city provides a rewarding experience for everyone from families to couples to fun-seeking singles.
Nearly every major city has a major league stadium, but some are better destinations than others. This article focuses on five places – two of the most historic venues in the sport, and three others where there’s a lively combination of baseball and social activities.
WRIGLEY FIELD (CHICAGO CUBS)
Going to Wrigley Field is more than going to see a game. It’s an experience.
That’s because Wrigley Field is America’s second-oldest ballpark, one of the few originals remaining from when stadiums were built around existing neighborhoods, rather than tearing down everything around it, as is the modern American approach to sports venue construction. This means it has history and tradition that simply can’t be matched by its modern counterparts.
As a result, Wrigley Field is a part of the community, like the friendly old lady down the street who always gives out the best candy to the kids at Halloween. Here, you don’t just show up, walk through the gate and go to your seats. You have to do the Wrigley “routine.”
First, you take the “L” train to the ballpark. Then you go to Murphy’s Bleachers, one of the many bars in the surrounding neighborhood of Wrigleyville. It is here that you meet and mingle with true Cubs fans. Tell them this is your first time to Wrigley Field and they will quickly engage you in conversation and tell stories about their experiences at the ballpark.
Then you go into the stadium, which is like stepping back in time. This is what baseball must have been like in the 1920s. If you’re down low, the players are so close, you can practically reach out and touch them. An oompha band walks through the aisles playing music. Vendors cruise around selling Chicago’s own Old Style beer.
The outfield wall is covered in ivy and it’s not uncommon for a ball to get stuck in it; it’s rather comical to see the outfielder trying to pry the ball out of the green leaves. If the wind is blowing out, then you’re in for a real treat – lots of home runs will be hit and a final score of 24-22 is not unprecedented at Wrigley. If the other team hits a home run and it lands in the bleachers, the fans will throw the ball back into the outfield in a top Wrigley Field tradition.
After the game, the experience continues at more bars around Wrigleyville. The Cubby Bear is the traditional post-game watering hole.
There’s one modern thing to keep in mind before going to Wrigley Field: plan ahead.
The Cubs are actually good this year so tickets are difficult to find, especially on game days. (If you decide to go on a whim, start your ticket search at Murphy’s Bleachers.) The fans are also a bit more serious about the outcome of the games than throughout much of the team’s history. It seems ironic, but Wrigley Field is actually more fun when the team is the lovable Cubbies rather than a World Series contender. You can’t really blame them, though; the Cubs haven’t been to the Fall Classic since 1945 and haven’t won one since 1908.
Wrigley Field and the whole experience is at its best for sunny Saturday day games.
FENWAY PARK (BOSTON RED SOX)
Fenway Park is even older than Wrigley Field; in fact, it’s the oldest ballpark in America. It opened in 1912, just four years after Jack Norworth wrote “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” To put that in perspective, when Fenway was built, there were only eight teams in the American League. Today, there are 15.
The old red brick building is highlighted by a huge 37-foot tall wall in left field known as the “Green Monster.” Along the rightfield line is “Pesky’s Pole,” named for former player, manager and Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky. Metal beams that block the views from some seats and support the upper deck make you realize you’re in the same place where the greatest Red Sox legends played: Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Jim Lonborg, Fred Lynn, Yaz, David Ortiz… even Bill “Spaceman” Lee.
Like Wrigley Field, you just don’t show up to Fenway Park in time to catch the first pitch. Here, the scene is outside the stadium on Yawkey Way. There’s an old-time band, a guy on stilts playing catch with kids and dozens of vendors grilling up sausages, dogs, cheesesteaks and even Cuban sandwiches, a Fenway tradition served up by former pinwheeling pitcher Luis Taint, who is from Cuba. I recommend, however, the Italian sausages.
The only catch is that a few years ago, the Red Sox made Yawkey Way an actual part of Fenway Park, so you need a ticket to get to it, and there’s no in-and-out privileges, which is kind of a bummer.
Inside Fenway, it’s all about soaking up the scene and the history. Walk around the old concourses, check out different vantage points and perhaps even have some “chow-da.”
You’ll also be surrounded by Red Sox fans, which is an experience all unto itself. Things have changed a bit since the team has won the World Series a couple of times lately; but the fans – while being quite knowledgeable about the game, their players and even the other team’s players – have an inherited sense of impending doom about them, so listening to their clever criticisms is one of the highlights of going to Fenway. Part of this is perhaps understandable – Fenway was opened the same week the Titanic crashed into the iceberg.
You can easily get to Fenway Park from downtown by using the Green Line of the “T”, the Metro subway. Trains B, C and D go to Fenway; just follow the crowds to get to the stadium. Doing this with other Red Sox fans will really help get you in the mood for the entire Fenway experience.
It is interesting to note, by the way, that a 16-ounce beer at Fenway and Wrigley will set you back about 8 bucks, which is the most expensive ballpark beer in baseball. There’s a price – in beer, anyway – to pay for all that history.
AT&T PARK (SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS)
San Francisco’s AT&T Park does not have the tradition of Wrigley or Fenway, but the city does have an interesting history with its baseball stadiums. At the old Candlestick Park – which was located on a very breezy part of the bay – a pitcher was once literally blown off the mound in gusty winds during an All-Star game.
The current ballpark is also located on the water, but in a much calmer location. It’s also more convenient, just a streetcar ride from the Ferry Building.
And it’s brick, giving it the appearance of an old-fashioned ballpark. You can do something here that traces back to the early days of baseball, something that’s not even available at Wrigley or Fenway, and that is to watch part of the game without having a ticket. In a nod back to when boys would peek through a hole in the outfield fence, you can stand behind the rightfield wall and look through a gate. (Just don’t linger.) While you’re quite a distance from home plate, and also at ground level, you can’t really see much of the action, but you are close enough to the opposing rightfielder to tease him in the good ol’ baseball tradition of heckling.
Another interesting activity that’s certainly unique to San Francisco is to rent a kayak and join the dozen or so others who sit in the bay just outside the stadium in hopes that a home run ball will drop in the water around them. When that does happen, it’s a mad scramble of people paddling to get to the ball. This area is known as McCovey Cove, named after the big-swinging first baseman of the 1970s, Willie McCovey.
You should also be familiar with Willie Mays, the franchise’s greatest player. He finished his career with a whopping 660 home runs, a lofty accomplishment to say the least, considering he played most of his games in windy Candlestick Park. There is a statue of him in front of the stadium, and the stadium’s address is Mays’ name and number: 24 Willie Mays Plaza.
To get the full San Francisco Giants game-day experience, you need first to go to MoMo’s, the upscale-ish restaurant and bar across the street. Most people hang out and socialize on the patio, and some of those people are actually going to the game. (San Franciscans, at least the single ones, like to go to bars around events where they can mingle.)
Inside AT&T Park, it’s like being in a new and clean, old-fashioned ballpark. Its signature symbols are a giant coke bottle that lights up when the Giants hit a home run and a huge old-fashioned baseball glove in left-center field.
San Francisco used to have a dancing crab as a mascot (yes, a dancing crab!) that was so hated fans pelted it with peanuts and whatever else they could get their hands on when it came out between innings. Now, they use their hands to clap a lot because their beloved Giants have won the World Series three times since 2010, most recently in 2014.
PETCO PARK (SAN DIEGO PADRES)
In San Diego, the team is so bad fans don’t have to bother themselves with the pesky problem of worrying about winning games, so they just go to Petco Park and enjoy a good time.
They’ve got the place to do it before games, too, in the sensational Gaslamp Quarter.
All you really have to do is walk around and stop in a place that looks inviting, but here’s a few suggestions. Barleymash is the most popular casual bar in the Gaslamp; but careful here: you may get so comfortable you’ll forget about the game! The Tin Fish has people relaxing out on a good-sized patio having pre-game food and beers; this is a very shorts-casual spot. The Tilted Kilt features eye-popping bartenders and waitresses. Bubs At The Ballpark is your beer-drinking bar by the stadium.
If you want to watch the game from the ultimate luxury box – for free admission – then go to the Altitude Sky Lounge on the rooftop of the Marriott. Actually, you’re so high up and far away it’s more like peeking inside the stadium and you can’t really see what’s happening, but it’s a pretty cool perspective from this lounge-style bar.
The stadium itself is a beauty and is as relaxed as the people in San Diego. There’s a grassy area beyond the outfield where you can sit down and have a picnic while occasionally peeking in at whatever might be happening on the field.
Heck, forget the game; here, it’s fun just to walk around inside the stadium. There are outside bars and food places where you can look down on San Diego Bay. There’s a huge model of an aircraft carrier, the USS Midway; the real thing sits just beyond Petco Park and is open for tours. Another hallway provides a history of baseball in San Diego. For those who arrive early enough, you can take in batting practice at a place called “The Beach.”
And then win or lose, it’s back to the Gaslamp where the real game begins for the single people.
BUSCH STADIUM (ST. LOUIS CARDINALS)
This is the place to go to be around people who are passionate about baseball. Cardinals fans appreciate the history of the game, the slow beauty of it and have great respect for its traditions.
You can immediately earn acceptance of the fans – and quite possibly a beer – by saying you’ve always been a big fan of Stan Musial. It was Musial who was the greatest, most popular player in Cardinals history. A few other names to know are Ozzie Smith (perhaps the game’s greatest defensive shortstop), Bob Gibson and Albert Pujols, but only when he was with the Cardinals, of course. (He’s now with the Anaheim Angels.)
The Cardinals play in Busch Stadium, one of the best venues in baseball. Because of this, you’ll want to spend much of your time in it, rather than seeking out a lengthy pre-game scene, as is the case with the other stadiums featured in this article. Try and get a ticket behind home plate – from here you get a spectacular view of the St. Louis skyline and the famous Gateway Arch.
However, you must carve out pre-game time at Ballpark Village, which has several restaurants and bars, among them Cardinal Nation, which houses the Cardinals Hall of Fame (a must) and rooftop seating with views inside the stadium.
After the game, head to the Soulard section of St. Louis. This is home of the St. Louis blues, and you can hear live bands in several small bars. The Great Grizzly Bear is where locals like to take visitors. Venice Café is a funky hang-out joint with a big outdoor patio and music inside; this is best for the younger and singles set. If you want go-to places within walking distance of Busch Stadium, there are several bars along the river at Laclede’s Landing.
While in St. Louis, be sure and have its signature food dish, toasted ravioli. This is ravioli that – according to legend – was dropped into oil instead of water at a place called Mama’s On The Hill back in the 40s. The restaurant still exists and The Hill is the place to get the best Italian food in St. Louis.