See Also: Top Ballparks By League
Baseball America surveyed more than 100 minor league general managers, radio announcers, league observers and others involved in the game about the best ballparks in the sport to help create a top 25 ranking as well as the top venues in each league. Similar to our prospect lists, ballpark preference varies depending on the observer. More than 60 ballparks were nominated to be included among the top five. All quotations listed below are from those surveyed, most of whom requested anonymity. The three new ballparks this season—Nashville (Pacific Coast), Biloxi (Southern) and West Virginia (New York-Penn)—were not included.
Belle of The Ballparks
Building the best ballpark in the minor leagues came with a challenge that likely isn’t obvious to fans strolling the concourse or admiring the stunning skyline view at Charlotte’s BB&T Ballpark.
The International League’s newest stadium, which debuted last season, had to be shoehorned into a tight, two-block footprint in downtown Charlotte and face Northeast in order for the city’s skyscrapers to seemingly rise from the outfield fence. As a result, less room was available for the third-base side of the ballpark.
|1. BB&T Ballpark
Opened: 2014. Cost: $54 million.
Affiliation: Chicago White Sox.
“There’s an old saying that constraint is an architect’s best friend,” said Mike Wollen, managing principal at the Charlotte-based architecture firm O’Dell Associates. “When you have constraints, it drives a unique solution to respond to those constraints.”
And in Charlotte’s case, that meant finding a way to make everything fit. The architectural team removed about 20 feet of width on the third-base concourse and compensated by creating a festival-style atmosphere with food carts instead of traditional concession booths. The layout also left less room on the playing field for right field, where the fence is just 315 feet from home plate but features a higher wall to compensate.
The extra space on the first-base side of the concourse has been put to use with a plethora of dining options (like Dale Earnhardt Jr.-owned Whiskey River, Queen City Que and Dave & Frans Taste of the South), extra restrooms and team clubhouses.
“It was a bit of a challenge, but it created the opportunity to do something unique,” Wollen said.
Making the ballpark fit was the final step of a long project to bring the Knights downtown. Wollen has been working with Knights owner Don Beaver and executive vice president Dan Rajkowski on ballpark designs for the better of a decade while enduring several stops and starts to replace the team’s former home in Fort Mill, S.C. That relationship led to a give and take on how the ballpark should look. Wollen pushed for an open-air environment to take advantage of the downtown views, which meant creating an opening down the right-field line that allows fans to watch the action from the street.
Rajkowski pushed for dugout suites behind home plate and a unique brick exterior. “We wanted this ballpark to be brand new but look like it’s been here forever.”
It has caught the eye of minor league peers, who lauded the stadium in email responses.
“It’s a fantastic ballpark with all of the fan amenities of current new parks, but the proximity of city buildings makes the setting special and unique,” a minor league official wrote.
“There can’t be a better view of a downtown skyline anywhere . . . It looks almost fake,” a minor league radio announcer wrote.
Added another radio announcer: “It is the best minor league facility I have ever visited, and it’s not particularly close.”
“A spectacular downtown view with all the design features and touches that shout first class,” a minor league general manager wrote.
Named the top ballpark in the minors in BA’s last ranking six years ago, AutoZone Park still holds up against the competition despite the Redbirds’ recent financial woes and sagging attendance figures that led to the parent-club Cardinals purchasing the franchise in March 2014. St. Louis contributed $2 million to a $6.5 million improvement project last offseason that includes new videoboards; the removal of eight of the ballpark’s 49 luxury suites to create an open-air club behind home plate and an all-inclusive club down the right-field line; a BBQ pit and bar area; and new berm seating in the outfield corners. Combine that with the downtown location, top-notch sightlines and player amenities, and a gorgeous entryway of player statues and a red brick facade, and Memphis remains a ballpark to be envied.
What They Say: “The only park in our league that feels like a big league stadium.”
The Southern League’s newest ballpark is also its best. Birmingham incorporated local flavor—from architectural designs patterned after famous former home Rickwood Field and the steel mill industrial warehouse look along the concourse, to dining options like Dreamlands BBQ. Views of downtown and the landmark Vulcan Statue extend beyond the outfield, picnic areas and berm seating are plentiful, and kids play areas, a Wiffle ball field and a batting cage help keep drawing families back.
What They Say: “To me this is a perfect ballpark . . . The stadium is very modern, but still has an old-school feel about it. I just don’t think that you can get much better.”
The task of demolishing city hall and building a new ballpark in its place led to Southwest University Park opening three weeks late in 2014. But the venue located just a few miles north of the Mexican border has lived up to its billing ever since. Squeezed into a downtown location, architects designed seating areas up instead of out, creating intimate views of the field throughout. The four-tiered ballpark offers a variety of group-seating options—like the Wooftop Deck and Sun Kings Saloon beyond the outfield fence—and unusual fare, including nachos served in a dog bowl.
What They Say: “El Paso’s downtown received a much-needed shot in the arm with the addition of the stadium in the center of the city. Businesses are popping up and flourishing as a result of the games, fans and increased foot traffic in the city center. The ballpark itself provides a panoramic view of the city.”
A variety of seating options sets Parkview Field apart. Fans can pick from the “Treetops Rooftop Party Area” on top of the convention center in right field, a tiered picnic area in right field, the home run porch atop the left-field wall and the “410 Club” built in the batter’s eye beyond center field. The menu is almost as diverse, with in-house concession offerings ranging from the outrageous (including a variety of apple-themed desserts) to the practical (gluten-free options are available).
What They Say: “It feels major league. The field is the best in the Midwest League, the setting is glorious in downtown Fort Wayne, and the entire facility just sparkles. They do a terrific job, from clubhouse to stands to press box. ”
Few teams have succeeded in keeping an older ballpark as up to date as the Indians have with Victory Field. A commitment to maintenance and cleanliness is No. 1 for Indianapolis brass, which combined with a community outreach program and a view of downtown has made the team one of the top draws in the minors over the past several seasons. Three party decks, 28 luxury suites, a beach and picnic area also give the ballpark, in its 20th year, a modern feel.
What They Say: “I think this facility is in better condition today than the day it opened. The commitment to maintaining and constantly ‘freshening’ this ballpark has been amazing. So clean you could eat off of the concourse floor.”
A $22 million upgrade before the start of the 2014 season helped bring one of minor league baseball’s classic ballparks up to modern standards. The snorting bull atop the Blue Monster left-field wall remains, but recent improvements include an oversized videoboard, a widened wraparound concourse that eases congestion on busy nights, a giant club area behind home plate (which pushed radio announcers down the first-base line—a move they begrudge), and an expanded menu of in-house concessions and local beer options.
What They Say: “This is how a renovation should be done! The DBAP was completely and seamlessly revamped, refurbished and reenergized. The best upgrade I have seen . . . Their new food court down the right-field line is inventive, true to the area and fun.”
Ambiance and entertainment is the calling card for the Cyclones. MCU Park doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but it has an historic amusement park beyond the outfield fence, a view of the Atlantic Ocean and is run by one of the best promotions staffs in minor league baseball. Situated on Coney Island, the park overlooks the famous Parachute Jump, Wonder Wheel and Cylone roller coaster. The team’s Seinfeld Night promotion last season drew national acclaim and earned the team top honors at Minor League Baseball’s Promo Seminar.
What They Say: “The backdrop of the amusement park rides and ocean is incredible, and with their new turf infield, they have a very aesthetically pleasing facility.”
Isotopes Park manages to embrace both its Southwestern culture and its unusual team identity in what is often described as one of the most pleasant ballpark experiences in the minors. The park’s glass exterior and neutral tones give it an Albuquerque flavor, as does the open-air environment, which includes a terraced hillside beyond the right-field wall that provides the biggest berm seating area in the minors. The ballpark has its share of oddities as well, including a concave center-field fence that sits atop a grass incline. And for those who like home runs, this is one of the best places to be (see Most Extreme Ballparks on Page 22).
What They Say: “I am a huge fan of mountain vistas and the Sandia Mountains, 10 miles in the distance, along with great desert vistas and the University of New Mexico campus surroundings make this park an absolute joy to broadcast in—and for fans, the experience has to be great.
Don’t be fooled by this stadium’s age or price tag—it’s hardly a relic. Reading has invested in its 64-year-old home, which may lack the luxury suites of more modern venues but has plenty of bells and whistles—including a bar and heated pool in the right-field area, several group-seating areas and modern clubhouses for players. A seemingly endless amount off ballpark oddities and creative promotions heighten fan experience, from the “Crazy Hot Dog Vendor” mascot who flings hot dogs at fans while pretending to ride an ostrich, to the actual pair of ostriches that live beyond the outfield wall.
What They Say: “They’ve done the most with the least, for sure. Older park, but best atmosphere on most nights in the league. When it’s sold out, it’s a crazy place to be.”
Atmosphere is cited as often as the amenities at Dell Diamond, which has plenty of both. Fans can check out a game from rocking chairs below the left-field home run porch, a pool and spa party area in right field or team owner Nolan Ryan’s Beef Fireball Grill—which serves burgers made from cattle raised by the Hall of Famer.
What They Say: “The place has been open since 2000, but it feels like it’s brand new. Their management does a great job at keeping it updated and clean.”
The downtown ballpark has been one of the minors’ best draws over the past six seasons, due in part to the variety of seating options available to fans. A converted warehouse beyond the left-field fence features Wrigley-style rooftop bleachers and a bar area with six open patios overlooking the field. The home run porch sits just beyond the right-field fence, and table-top seating resides behind home plate.
What They Say: “This park requires several visits to experience all the (seating) options.”
No ballpark provides a downtown atmosphere quite like Fifth Third Field, which was built around and incorporates three 100-year-old warehouses—from seating options like the right-field “Roost” to unusual outfield dimensions (412 feet to dead center; 315 to right).
What They Say: “The brick buildings in (right field) that are a part of the stadium are a genius feature of the ballpark and help give it the quirkiest dimensions of any field in the league.”
A trendsetter since it opened, Coca-Cola Park was the first minor league ballpark to offer dugout suites, the group-seating areas that place fans closer to home plate than the pitcher. Lehigh Valley has upgraded its home each offseason. A seating area in front of the left-field bullpen called the “Pig Pen” debuted this season. And, of course, the team wears bacon hats.
What They Say: “Truly built for the fan experience, and they continually add to that experience.”
Aces Ballpark was the first piece and still is the centerpiece of the city’s Freight District, which includes a variety of restaurants and bars housed in a building down the left-field line. The intimate Triple-A ballpark reveals the city’s skyline behind home plate and the Truckee River flowing just beyond the picnic area in right field.
What They Say: “The Reno ballpark has created an entertainment center in the middle of downtown. The choice of restaurants, music and social hotspots makes it a hub of activity in an otherwise dormant part of town. With great sight lines, the stadium is a comfortable place to enjoy a game.”
The newest ballpark in the Texas League—all but one have been built since 2000—offers something for most fans. The skyline of downtown Tulsa is picturesque, seating options vary from picnic areas to 23 luxury suites, and the menu has been praised for its barbeque and vegetarian fare (PETA named it the most veggie friendly in the minors in 2013).
What They Say: “Tulsa has it all. Great city view, great entertainment areas, great food, wide concourses, great team amenities.”
A unique setting offers fans a scenic view from any seat. The Ohio River and three bridges that cross it can be seen beyond the outfield fence and downtown Louisville rises over the third-base line. A brewery attached to the ballpark is just around the corner from the renovated train shed that serves as the stadium entrance.
What They Say: “Very welcoming and extremely clean. Louisville Slugger Field shows the history of baseball in Louisville with great pride, and the uncut sheets of Topps baseball cards framed in the clubhouse level give it extra points.”
Veteran operator Chuck Greenberg bought the club late in 2014 and jumped into a city-funded $6 million renovation of Dr Pepper Ballpark. New additions like a state fair-themed bar and food truck area in left field, a season-ticket lounge in right, and videoboards join the ballpark’s nine interconnecting pavilions.
What They Say: “It is not a traditional baseball stadium, but its uniqueness makes it worth visiting.”
A postcard-like setting, Bayfront Stadium earns its name with an unobstructed view of Pensacola Bay. A trio of party decks line the outfield wall, the concessions menu is loaded with seafood dishes and microbrew options are plentiful.
What They Say: “There are not a lot of bells and whistles here, but location and the beautiful views of Pensacola Bay cannot be beat.”
For those who prefer a mountain view, Smith’s Ballpark is the place to be. The often snow-capped Wasatch Mountains rise beyond the outfield fence in stunning fashion. Salt Lake doesn’t have many frills beyond the view, but the double-deck stadium from first to third base is unusual in the minors.
What They Say: “Simply the best backdrop in baseball. Pittsburgh has the gorgeous skyline, San Fran has the bay, Salt Lake has the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains.”
The biggest ballpark in Double-A doesn’t feel like it. A brick facade, old-school design and intimate seating bowl gives the Baseball Grounds a throwback feel, but the 12 luxury suites, four party decks and huge videoboard keep it on pace with other modern venues.
What They Say: “A big ballpark that feels small and intimate. Great green areas and classy current architecture.”
Follow the 360-degree concourse and there’s plenty to see (and, in particular, eat) in Lakewood. First stop should be the Surf Taco stand, which some observers rate the best food in the league. A tiki bar is next in center field, followed by a specialty hot dog stand. There are plenty of good vantage points, including lifeguard chairs in the outfield.
What They Say: “Everything about it is well-designed. Nice suite areas, lots of lower-bowl seating . . . and you always have a view of the game—even from the concourse.”
Ownership issues and financing woes delayed the ballpark’s opening by a year and shot the price tag up to $48 million. But the ballpark has delivered, topping the Carolina League in attendance the past four seasons while offering a skyline view, large videoboard and entertaining promotions.
What They Say: “This park has the ability to be a Double-A or Triple-A park with how sparkling the whole yard is.”
The Dragons have sold out every game since 2000, and the franchise sold for a record amount in 2014, reportedly $40 million. So they’re doing something right, and part of that is the ballpark. It’s cut into a city block, offers 30 luxury suites, three party decks and top-notch customer service.
What They Say: “I thought it was neat to see a Dragons player sign autographs in the team store after each game, win or loss.”
The best ballpark in the Florida State League is also a happening place. The tiki bar beyond left field is always packed and has become a gathering place even on non-game days. It’s quaint but cozy, with a 360-degree concourse and outfield berm seating.
What They Say: “They used the suite level design really well and were one of the first parks to create neighborhoods throughout the facility.”