I saw 47 games in 40 ballparks over the course of the 2009 baseball season. The 10 most memorable places, trips, moments or events from my various travels are listed below in descending order. I hope you enjoy what I enjoyed, and as you're about to read, 2009 will be a hard year to beat!
# 10 - CLOSING THE SEASON IN STYLE
Seeing a game at the New York Mets' sparkling new home, Citi Field, on the last day of the regular season. The Mess won 4-0 over the equally inept Astros on October 4 with Nelson Figueroa going the distance at the 41st Major League ballpark I've seen a game at in my 34-year lifetime.
# 9 - BASEBALL AND 25 CENT HOT DOGS IN WYOMING
One of my goals is to see a baseball game in all 50 states and on July 20 I reached the half way point by seeing a game in Casper, Wyoming at quaint Mike Lansing Field, a 2,500-seater that is the smallest ballpark in which I've yet to witness a pro game. That's appropriate given that Wyoming is the least populated state in the United States. In one of my favorite memories in a season full of them, it was 25 cent hot dog night in Casper and a pitcher from the visiting team, the Helena Brewers, was in front of me in line at the concession stand - in full uniform - loading up. The Brewers then feasted on the Casper Ghosts 7-0 before 1,290 well-fed fans.
# 8 - HOLY TOLEDO!
The best minor league ballpark to date that I've seen a game in is Toledo's Fifth Third Field, where I watched the world famous (thanks to M*A*S*H) Mud Hens get shut out by the Bats of Louisville 5-0 on August 24. At the close of 2009, I've seen games in 67 minor league stadiums, past and present, and Fifth Third Field is where I came away the most impressed with the ballpark, which in Toledo holds 8,943 and helped to revitalize the downtown Warehouse District into a place of vibrancy. Its predecessor was typical of a now bygone era of ballpark building and placement. Ned Skeldon Stadium (est. 1965) still stands, mostly unused, on the county fairgrounds in the southern suburb of Maumee, where I stopped to wonder through the old stadium on the way to seeing a game in the newer one. The contrast between the two is striking, but for a true ballpark fan also quite enjoyable. And for this ballpark fan, Fifth Third Field (est. 2002) has been the most enjoyable of all I've seen in what's getting harder and harder to call the "bush leagues," given the venues modern minor league teams inhabit.
# 7 - VIEWING THE RICKWOOD CLASSIC FROM A LOFTY (AND UNIQUE) PERCH
It's not every day you get to watch a game in a 99-year old ballpark. In fact, there's only one day a year that you can watch a professional game at what is billed as "America's Oldest Ballpark." That game is called the Rickwood Classic, and it features the Birmingham Barons against a Southern League opponent in an annual match-up held at Rickwood Field, where the Barons played all of their home games from 1910 to 1987. Since 1996, they have played one home game a year in their old home, and the 14th Rickwood Classic was played on May 27, a sweltering Wednesday afternoon in the Deep South. Lots can be said about this game (won by the Mississippi Braves, 3-2) and ballpark, but the highlight of the 2009 Classic for me was spending a couple innings in the manual scoreboard above left field. The two guys operating it gladly let people ascend the 30' or so ladder to stand on the narrow platform behind the scoreboard, not that many take advantage of the unique opportunity. But it's one of the many cool things fans are allowed to do at Rickwood, which turns 100-years old on August 18, 2010.
# 6 - LET'S GO BUCS!
The Pirates refer to it as "The Best Ballpark in America" and PNC Park is definitely light years better than Three Rivers Stadium, where I saw many games growing up near Pittsburgh. In a year in which the Steelers and Penguins were champions of their respective sports, the Pirates made news in 2009 for stinking for the 17th straight year, breaking the all-time record for consecutive losing seasons set by the Philadelphia Phillies from 1933-48. But eleven days before they were assured of infamy, the Pirates rallied to beat the Phillies of a different ilk, 3-2, thanks to a two-run homer by Garrett Jones in Pittsburgh's last at bat before an enthusiastic crowd of 24,470. It's always great to be at PNC and even better when the Bucs rally to win. Pittsburgh can be a great baseball town again when that happens consistently, a glimpse of which I witnessed firsthand in the sixth game I've ever seen in one of the few ballparks I get giddy going to.
# 5 - A TRIO OF FIRSTS
Prior to this year I had never seen the inaugural game at a ballpark. Then I saw three such games in consecutive months. The streak started in spring training at Goodyear Ballpark on February 25, as the Giants were a field goal better (10-7) than the Cleveland Indians, who returned to Arizona after 16 seasons training in Winter Haven. Four days later I was present for the debut of Glendale's Camelback Ranch. The first game there was played on the first day of March and was a thriller (for a spring training contest), with the White Sox besting the Dodgers 3-2 after scoring thrice in the top of the ninth. Come April 17 Lawrenceville, GA was the destination and Gwinnett Stadium the venue. The Braves' new Triple-A team dropped their home opener to the Norfolk Tides 7-4 at the ballpark that's about 35 miles from my house, but took an hour and a half to get to due to Atlanta's notorious traffic. I also made it to one other first in 2009, as I was 1/7,116th of an overflow crowd at Charlotte Sports Park for the inaugural game in the history of the Charlotte Stone Crabs, which was won by the Fort Myers Miracle 9-4 on April 9, forty-four days after the Tampa Bay Rays christened the rebuilt ballpark that also serves as their spring training home.
# 4 - LIGHTS OUT IN TULSA
By all accounts, Drillers Stadium was well past its prime. "Modern day fan amenities and player facilities were simply absent," was how the team's general manager, Mike Melega, described it to me. And he was right. Located out of the way in the Tulsa County Fairgrounds, the stadium was home to the Tulsa Drillers of the Texas League from the day it opened in 1981 until September 7, when the Drillers ended their 28-year tenure at the aptly titled stadium by drilling the Northwest Arkansas Naturals 18-4. A crowd of 6,153 turned out on a Monday night to bid the stadium adieu, and I was there for my first finale. A great post-game ceremony concluded at 9:17 p.m. when, following a countdown from 28 emceed from home plate, the stadium's lights were ceremonially turned off for the final time 15 minutes after the final pitch. Then, in a scene I'll always remember, a Drillers bat boy scooped dirt from the playing field into styrofoam cups that were handed to him by fans in the grandstand near the Drillers' dugout. They wanted something to remember the stadium by. I got my fond memory of it by watching those fans get theirs. As for the Drillers, in 2010 they are moving into the new $39.2 million ONEOK Field in downtown Tulsa, where fans and players alike can be assured of the best amenities that such a hefty price tag can buy.
# 3 - A HOMECOMING IN WASHINGTON
I've seen a lot of games in a lot of places over the past decade but it wasn't until the latter half of their eighth season that I finally saw the Washington Wild Things take the field in my former hometown of Washington, PA. That happened on August 22, exactly 22 years and 9 months after our family moved from the North to the South and the state (Georgia) where I still reside. While I was away, a ballpark sprung up two miles from where I lived for six years. Built for $5.8 million and opened in 2002 as Falconi Field, it was quite a thrill for me to watch the independent Frontier League's Wild Things play the Windy City ThunderBolts in the same zip code (15301) where I grew up. Playing on a Saturday night before a packed house at what's now called CONSOL Energy Park, the hometown team - which would've been my hometown team in a different era - lost 7-3 before 3,636 fans and one proud former resident.
# 2 - 26-FOR-26: THE ULTIMATE SPRING TRAINING PILGRIMAGE
It's one thing to go to spring training. It's quite another to see a game in every spring training ballpark over the course of spring training, which is exactly what I did in 2009. Starting on February 25 in Goodyear and finishing on April 4 in Fort Myers, I saw a game in each and every ballpark in the Cactus and Grapefruit League. That's 26 ballparks total -- 15 in Florida and 11 in Arizona. Highlights included seeing the first ever games played in Goodyear and Glendale, and the final ones played by the Orioles in Fort Lauderdale and the Reds in Sarasota. I saw all 30 teams play at least once, and the schedule worked out as such that I saw the Pirates (5) more than anybody, followed by the Angels (4). The Arizona portion was a breeze, but the Florida part saw me redo my itinerary due to a car problem and was only completed after a visit to the clinic for a bug bite that swelled the back of my head, which I followed up by scratching my esophagus while eating broccoli in one of the few meals I didn't eat at a ballpark. And for those wondering, the Peoria Sports Complex has the best grub in the Cactus League, while I thought Lakeland's Joker Marchant Stadium had the top concession fare in the Grapefruit League.
Yes, it was a once in a lifetime trip, but 2009 was such a great year of baseball traveling for me that being a "Spring Training Ironman" only ranked second on this list, even though it's likely a feat that has rarely, if ever, been accomplished by anyone else.
# 1 - ZACHARY'S FIRST GAME
It is often said (and written) that baseball is a sport passed down from generation to generation, with the game becoming more ingrained with each visit to the ballpark. Although I was too young to fully remember my ballpark baptism (which I'm fairly certain occurred in 1979 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with my Dad and his Dad), what I can be completely sure of is that for my son, McCormick Field in Asheville, NC and July 5 were the destination and date that he made his ballpark debut. At 244 days young, Zachary was carried through the gates of 85-year old McCormick Field at 7:36 on a rainy mid-summer Sunday night to "watch" the hometown Tourists play the Charleston RiverDogs, which he did a good job of doing primarily from his mother's lap until 9:47, when Asheville completed a rare game-ending 5-8 double play to secure a 7-6 victory before 2,692 ticket buying fans. Technically, our little tyke was not counted in the announced attendance as the Tourists admit children under two years of age for free. But this game counted big time for me, as Asheville's little hillside minor league park is where this father and son first bonded over baseball, even though one will never have a recollection of what the other will never forget.
2009 saw me attend inaugural games in three ballparks, the finale in two, and one in all 26 used during spring training. But the highlight of the year was seeing my first game at Asheville's McCormick Field, where my 8-month old son made his ballpark debut on July 5, when our family of three watched the Tourists beat the RiverDogs under the cover of the ballpark's cantilevered roof on a rainy night in North Carolina. A scene from that game is shown here.