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Rushin: Behold The Ballpark

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When Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004, the Phillies’ new home instantly smelled like every other park in baseball. How? On Day 1, it was redolent of concrete, Lysol, spilled beer and refrigerated meat. Is there an aerosol spray—like New Car Smell, but the opposite—to make a stadium reek of a thousand baseball games? Is it possible to bottle it, and slap on Old Ballpark the way your dad slapped on Old Spice? Asking for a friend.

I’m a ballpark figure, in thrall to baseball stadiums since birth, first encountering them as individual parts on TV: the Green Monster at Fenway, the pavilion roof at Dodger Stadium, the frieze at old Yankee Stadium, the planes sharking in over Shea, and those things that looked like Starlight mints on the scoreboard at Comiskey. These parks were ancient wonders in distant lands, only accessible (for all I knew) by perilous sea voyage.

But then, as a kid, on a family trip to visit old neighbors in Chicago, we went to Wrigley, walked up the gray concrete and painted steel ramp, turned right and saw green grass and ivy. It reminded me of the moment the world changed from black-and-white to Technicolor in the annual airings of “The Wizard of Oz.”

On another summer vacation, to California, we went to Anaheim Stadium and Disneyland on consecutive days, three miles apart on Katella Avenue, but I know which park I preferred, which Mickey (Scott) and which Donald (Baylor) I liked best. The Big A stood in center field then—holding the scoreboard and wreathed by a halo—and looked to me like a letter grade, 230 feet tall, confirming the whole glorious experience.

My first job, at 13, was in a commissary at Metropolitan Stadium in my hometown of Bloomington, Minn., where we prepared the food that the vendors sold to Twins fans. We also pulled the tarp across the infield when it rained, and I managed to combine these two elements—the grass and the hot dogs, nature and anti-nature—in a job covering baseball as a grownup for Sports Illustrated, which meant a different ballpark every week. It was like stepping through the bottle-green glass of my childhood TV.

In Detroit, I gaped at the right field overhang in Tiger Stadium. If it’s possible for a ballpark to have a sexy overbite, this was it. At Dodger Stadium, the orange ball of the Union 76 logo hung like a second sun above the scoreboard. The multi-purpose parks—Riverfront, Three Rivers, Busch, Veterans—were derided as “cookie-cutters,” but who doesn’t love cookies?

Over the years, I began to miss these old ballparks the way I miss departed friends, eulogized as saints, their faults forgotten. I’ve been to games in at least 20 stadiums that no longer exist: Metropolitan Stadium and the Metrodome, Atlanta-Fulton County and Turner Field, the Astrodome, Yankee and Shea stadiums, old Comiskey, The Vet, Three Rivers, Riverfront, Arlington Stadium, Milwaukee County, Candlestick, Jack Murphy, the Kingdome, the last Busch Stadium, Tiger Stadium, Cleveland Municipal. Olympic Stadium, the Expos’ former home, still stands but, alas, is no longer a big league ballpark.

But then you needn’t have been to a ballpark to miss it. I’ve walked several times to Sullivan Street and McKeever Place in Brooklyn, the site of the rotunda at Ebbets Field, and tried to picture the Brylcreemed crowd passing through on some late September Saturday afternoon.

Jack Norworth had never attended a big league game in his life when he rode the Ninth Avenue elevated train past the Polo Grounds in 1908 and saw a marquee for that day’s Giants game. The Tin Pan alley songwriter removed a scrap of paper from his pocket and wrote, in less than an hour, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” for only a ballpark can inspire a person who has never been in one to write: “I don’t care if I never get back.” Those words are inscribed on Norworth’s headstone. He’s buried a mile from the Big A in Anaheim, in perpetual reach of the peanuts and Cracker Jack.

The rest of us can go back any time we please, and leave whenever we like. Ballgames end in an instant, but ballparks, like humans, drift off to dreamland in stages: there’s the end of beer sales in the bottom of the seventh, the scoreboard reminders to drive safely, the early leavers—the disbelievers—beating traffic. With the final out comes the end-of-game recessional, like leaving church, replete with organ music. A sleeping child is carried to the car. A gloved 10-year-old goes home empty-handed. And on the train platform, the beer-buzzed and be-jerseyed, strangers to one another, plot their return. 

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