The case for the baseball park

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Those who don't follow baseball often get caught up in field dimensions -- in the fact that a home run at Yankee Stadium might not be a home run at Dodger Stadium, that a foul into the stands at Wrigley Field might stay in play at Coliseum, that outfield depths increase gradually toward center in some parks and sharply in others.

"You mean not every field is the same size?" they say. "How can that be?"

Every major American sport but baseball has fixed playing-surface sizes. In basketball/hockey/football the court/ice/field measures exactly the same from venue to venue.

And that makes sense. It's just how anyone would draw up a sport: orderly and sensible.

And yet ...

It's mostly the wackiest stadiums that draw the most adulation.

No one ever complimented Progressive Field on its symmetrical dimensions or U.S. Cellular Field on its tidy outfield billboards. The best baseball parks have charm, character, charisma.

Ballpark personality goes beyond dimensions, of course. It extends to design style, neighborhood, landscape, atmosphere and more.

After 100 years, Wrigley Field remains notable for its ivy, its rooftop seating, its old-fashioned scoreboard and its laid-back populace.

It's perhaps naïve and simplistic to suggest stadiums "define" cities and their populations, but there's some sociological value in observing a park's architecture and atmosphere.

San Francisco's AT&T Park is new and beautiful and packed with zealous Giants fans. Oakland's Coliseum across the bay is old and decrepit and half-full of more intensely enthusiastic A's partisans.

And though distinct crowd personalities are not unique to baseball, distinct venue personalities essentially are.

Unlike in most other sports, baseball parks offer not only an indication of a city's character but also a metric of a team's worth.

When the Pittsburgh Pirates floundered in perennial irrelevance, the riverside PNC Park - with the majestic Roberto Clemente Bridge in right-center field leading the eye toward the downtown Pittsburgh skyline - was offered as part-silver lining, part-sad representation of what could be.

Either, "Well, at least they have that wonderful park."

Or, "It's too bad they can't fill that wonderful park."

Either way, the stadium stood as part of the calculation, as a substantial frame of reference for the state of the franchise.

Rarely are teams in other sports discussed in terms of their home venues that way.

Relationships between the Knicks and Madison Square Garden, the Lakers and the Staples Center and the Packers and Lambeau Field draw frequent analysis, but even then, those conversations center more on the culture of the fan-bases, rather than the buildings themselves.

Symbolically, Lambeau is distinctive, but physically, it's just a big bowl with grass in the middle.

And that's the NFL's most famous stadium.

On the other hand, just about every baseball park has its quirks; Miller Park's yellow slide, Camden Yards' right-field warehouse, Dodger Stadium's mountainous backdrop.

Minute Maid Park has a train that runs above the left-field wall and a 30-degree inclined hill in center. Marlin Park has fish tanks behind home plate and a massive sculpture of dancing dolphins in the outfield.

All that before mentioning baseball's most famous attractions: the Green Monster at Fenway, the ivy at Wrigley Field, the bay at AT&T.

The point isn't to undermine the live experiences at football and basketball games. Those events provide their own unique pleasures. The point is to accentuate the wonder of modern baseball parks.

All but six Major League Baseball stadiums have been built in the last 25 years, a wave that has revolutionized the concept of a ballpark. These days, we demand more than functionality; we need architecture, even artwork.

The result of the ballpark boom has been a virtual anthology of stadium-ranking columns, a wealth of stadium memorabilia and an industry of stadium-tour vacations.

When I was eight years old my parents offered to bring me to every Major League ballpark before I reached college. Every year one of them escorted me on a baseball-themed trip to another part of the country and a fresh set of stadiums.

Entering an unfamiliar ballpark is one of my favorite thrills. It's more than just emerging from the tunnel to see perfectly trimmed grass. It's looking out at the stadium's view. It's observing the field's quirks. It's assessing the personality of the crowd.

Yeah, talking about baseball drives me to romanticism, but how can it not?

Last summer (after my freshman year of college... a year late, but who's counting) I visited the Rogers Centre for a Blue Jays game. Toronto was the final city on my list, completing the odyssey.

Sort of.

Several stadiums have been replaced since I've been there, meaning I'll have to double back to three cities (for now) before rightfully claiming attendance at every MLB stadium.

One of those I need to hit is baseball's newest stadium, Marlins Park in Miami. Marlins Park was dreamed up by art-collecting owner Jeffrey Loria and, in turn, boasts odd color schemes and the aforementioned dolphin mechanism. It also features an odd rut in left-center field, appearing almost as if the architect's hand slipped as he put the stadium design to paper.

There's no purpose. It makes no sense.

I can't wait.

Alex Putterman is a junior Journalism major at Northwestern University and sports editor of the Daily Northwestern student newspaper. He has fairly eclectic interests but loves baseball above all. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexPutt02

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