Friday, December 12, 2003

I’m in the process of rereading one of my favorite books of all time, Bob Wood’s “Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks”. “Dodger Dogs” is a travel log of Wood’s 1985 trip to visit all 26 Major League ballparks in one summer. Wood was 28 at the time and a junior high school history teacher who had summers off. Starting from his home in Seattle, he makes his way across the country, visiting each ballpark in turn. He also has a report card for each park, grading each on qualities such as layout and upkeep, quality of the ball field, seating, scoreboard, food, ballpark employees, facilities and atmosphere.

The great thing about the book was that it was among the first of it’s kind to evaluate ballparks as a fan would. Sportswriters or broadcasters talking about ballparks necessarily have a completely different point of view than the average fan would. They get in free. They get free food. They don’t have to worry about finding and paying for parking, or how clean the public bathrooms are. They sit in a press box or broadcast booth, so they don’t have to worry about legroom in the seats, or whether a pole is going to be blocking their view. Wood’s outlook is the same as yours or mine. He worries about the things you and I would worry about on a trip like that.

Wood also writes about the trip in a very personal style that makes you almost feel like you were riding around the country in the passenger seat with him. He goes in to great detail about his life growing up in Kalamazoo, MI; childhood trips to Tiger Stadium; how he converted to being a Red Sox fan in his teens; the challenges of teaching a room of hormonally charged 13-year-olds; encounters with especially helpful ballpark employees and many others. Your heart sinks when his car gets broken into on his first night on the road. You are elated for him when the police recover the bulk of his stuff, including his beloved Frank Sinatra tapes.

This trip took place during the 1985 season, which may have possibly been the absolute nadir of ballpark architecture since steel and concrete started to replace wood ballparks in the first two decades of the 20th century. The trip occurs long after most of the classic early ballparks (Forbes Field, Crosley Field, The Polo Grounds, etc) have been abandoned , but before the rise of the Camden Yards-style “neo-retro” ballparks that started in the early ‘90’s. lnstead ugly multipurpose, astro-turfed stadiums rule the day.

In 1985, 17 out of the 26 Major League parks could serve both baseball and football. By contrast, only six (Pro Player Stadium, Network Associates Coliseum, Shea Stadium, Metrodome, Skydome and Olympic Stadium) of the 30 major league homes as of Opening Day 2004 will be capable of hosting both sports. Big, round monstrosities like Veterans Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium and Riverfront Stadium ruled the day. Since these stadiums were not built for baseball, sightlines were terrible. Huge amounts of foul ground rested between the playing field and the seats, destroying the sense of intimacy that fans enjoyed in places like Fenway and Wrigley. Accommodating football, these stadiums had upwards of 60,000 seats. Those in the third deck were a long way from home plate. Worse, because of the wear and tear on the field from using the stadium for football and other events, the builders laid down artificial turf in many of these stadiums. Plastic grass changes the game in too many ways to mention.

Fortunately, baseball and city planners grew out of this trend and turned to the Baltimore model upon the wild success of Camden Yards. Ballparks moved back into city centers, where they were surrounded by taverns, restaurants and shops instead of acres of parking. Every new ballpark built since Camden Yards has been baseball only and has combined the great sightlines and nostalgic look of the old ballparks with the most modern amenities.

Wood’s book started a lifelong obsession with me to eventually take the same trip. Since I picked the wrong profession and chose accounting instead of teaching, I don’t get summers off. A two month road trip is going to have to wait about 20 years until I retire. More on my dream trip and my own ballpark travels in the next entry.


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