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Picking a favorite ballpark

By Kurt Smith, author of the Ballpark E-Guide series

"What's your favorite ballpark?"

I get asked this question a lot. Generally when the topic of what I do comes up, people are curious to know what I think is the best ballpark of the ones I have visited.

At least they act that way…they could just be thinking "what a geek", but I imagine people are at least mildly interested in my answer to the question.

But very often I don't really have an answer. I love them all for different reasons, even that big white dome in Tampa Bay and its air-conditioning in the summertime. And I would like to just have an answer that I could come back with without hesitation.

So I decided to sit down and think about what makes a great ballpark. I didn't go through a rigorous, pondering analysis, but I thought about the things I like in a baseball home: visual appeal, historic value, as much intimate seating as possible, a small amount of seats, an attractive scoreboard, value-friendliness, quirky asymmetries necessitated by location, food choices, few obstructed views, and overall baseball atmosphere. Notice that I did not consider "ease of access"—although that could be important to you. If the ballpark's great, I don't care if it was difficult to get to.

Just one quick caveat: I have not yet visited AT&T Park in San Francisco, Safeco Field in Seattle, Coors Field in Denver or Target Field in Minneapolis—four ballparks that I have heard are all the best from one person or another (including webmaster Joe). So this is strictly based on where I have been, and I'll add an update later when I've had a chance to visit the western palaces of baseball.

With all of those considerations, I narrowed my favorites down to four: Camden Yards, Fenway Park, PNC Park, and Wrigley Field. All four are the best at something:

Baseball Atmosphere—Camden Yards: The architects of Camden Yards were smart enough to save the B&O Warehouse…even though it took Eric Moss's model of building around it to show them how it could be done. And to this day, the warehouse makes Camden Yards…the huge building in right field is responsible for Eutaw Street, the asymmetrical dimensions, and the smaller amount of seats, at least for the time when it was built. The warehouse would be enough…but the dark green seats and steel structure, the brick façade tying everything in with the warehouse, and the location right in the heart of downtown Baltimore all make Camden Yards the best baseball atmosphere there is.

Visual Appeal—PNC Park: PNC has the stunning backdrop of the downtown area of the city connected to the ballpark via the Roberto Clemente Bridge, which can be seen from most anywhere in the ballpark. The other ones score high here too, however: Camden Yards has a view of the city and the B&O Warehouse, Fenway of course features that tall green wall in left field, and Wrigley still today has a hand-operated scoreboard in center field and people sitting on rooftops to watch games. But that gold bridge beyond center field in Pittsburgh is so cool.

Ballpark Neighborhood—Wrigley Field: One thing that makes a home for baseball great is outside vendor or street performer proliferation—the opportunity to get peanuts for $1 rather than pay $4 for a bag half of the size inside, or to get a T-shirt that the team management might think is too over-the-top to sell, or a tavern with great burgers where fans can celebrate a win. Three of these four ballparks have a vibrant neighborhood scene, and while Fenway Park and Camden Yards both score highly, Wrigley is the undisputed champ—it takes decades for a ballpark to build up this kind of ambience. PNC does have decent outside vendors across the bridge, but not as much close to the ballpark.

Historic Appeal—Fenway Park: It's impossible to sit in Fenway Park and not feel as though this is exactly how baseball has always been and always will be, no matter how much the rest of the world changes. The grandstand seats are still there, painted blue and with tiny armrests. The place is crammed into one city block. It still looks like a warehouse from outside. Even the foul poles are historic in their own way. The other three have the historic thing going too, though—Wrigley obviously, being where the Babe "called his shot", Camden Yards for the B&O Warehouse that is over a century old, and PNC for the dark blue seats and other nods to the great Forbes Field.

So all four of my favorite ballparks are special in their own way, and all four do the other things almost as well as the winner in each category.

But when you get down to it, what is more important than baseball atmosphere?

Baseball is thousands of suburbanites pouring into the heart of a city, holding their wide-eyed kids' hands. It's church volunteers shouting "peanuts one dollar, four dollars inside!" It's sitting in a darkly colored seat of a ballpark with an historic monument and a city skyline in full view. It's spending time in a walkway built within or near the ballpark, with picnic areas and street performers. And these days, it's a place to sample local cuisine—and while the Chicago Dog, the Legal Seafoods clam chowder and Primanti Bros. sandwich are all definitely worthwhile, it's awfully hard to beat a crab cake sandwich and a Natty Boh.

So while all four of my favorites are great on atmosphere, visual and historic appeal and neighborhood, Camden Yards does them all very, very well. With all due respect to Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and PNC Park—all bucket list ballparks for the baseball fan—Camden Yards is the unforgettable baseball experience, from top to bottom.

So there you have it. If I have to come up with an answer, my favorite ballpark is Oriole Park at Camden Yards ... with the only regret being that only one can be my favorite. Feel free to add a comment below with your opinion!