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4 brothers, 8 games, 8 days

Do you consider Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park spiritual places?

Does the theme from The Natural send a shiver up your spine?

Do you agree with every word of Crash Davis' "I believe in" speech from Bull Durham?

Then you may not want to read this. I will not wax rhapsodic on the homespun virtues and historic echoes of our national pastime.

No, this is the story of eight days I spent last summer watching baseball with my brothers at seven ballparks from Cincinnati to Toronto. It is the story of long car trips spent listening to my younger brother sing along with bubble-gum songstress Jessica Simpson, of fast-food binges that threatened immediate arteriosclerosis, of fights over who would pick up the Oreo dropped on a motel room floor.

This is a story -- as our T-shirts said -- of "Four Whitmires, Six Cities, Seven Ballgames, Eight Days, 96 Extra-Value Meals, 1,445 Miles, One Minivan." (But more later on how it actually ended up being seven cities and eight games.) James and I are 28 and 30, respectively; Matt and Mike, 14 and 16. For two years, we had competed in the same fantasy baseball league. In the summer of 1999, James took Mike and Matt to a game at Camden Yards in Baltimore. A summertime tour of ballparks seemed the logical next step.

After eight months of planning, the four of us gathered at Detroit Metro airport on the evening of Saturday, July 15, picked up a minivan and checked into a nearby motel. Our journey -- part pilgrimage, part Bataan Death March -- would begin in the morning.

Detroit

We began with the National League's Cincinnati Reds against the American League's Detroit Tigers at the Tigers' new downtown stadium, Comerica Park.

Comerica is part of the trend toward retro-style downtown ballparks that combine modern amenities such as wide aisles and good sight lines with old-fashioned touches such as brickwork and wrought metal accents. The vogue, in which the ballpark is part of the entertainment experience, began in 1992 with Baltimore's Camden Yards, which departed radically from the cookie-cutter multipurpose stadiums of the 1960s and 1970s.

Comerica is retro to the extreme; entertainment threatens to overwhelm the action on the field.

On the spacious turf at Comerica, the Reds' Ken Griffey Jr. and Detroit's Bobby Higginson competed for fans' attention with two enclosed souvenir shops, the world's largest scoreboard, a sextet of statues of famous Tigers, all manner of food and drink -- even a merry-go-round on the concourse behind home plate.

After home runs and a Tigers win, fountains behind the outfield wall spurted a celebratory aquatic ballet.

Toronto

We spent Sunday night at a suburban Toronto motel and on Monday headed to the SkyDome, home of the Toronto Blue Jays.

One of the last stadiums to open before the retro revolution, SkyDome (1989) is the pinnacle of modernist ballpark-itecture. Although many of the new ballparks nestle into their downtowns (the field at Comerica is actually below street level), SkyDome and the neighboring CN Tower dominate Toronto's skyline.

Like an earthbound space station, SkyDome includes a hotel, shops and restaurants. We had decided to go for the full experience by staying in the hotel.

The highlight of the SkyDome experience came after the first inning, when fog began to roll in off Lake Ontario and the stadium's operators closed the dome. Watching the massive mechanism slide slowly and noiselessly shut, I again felt future shock: The majestic, silent glide of the roof evoked the balletic movement of the spaceships in the film 2001.

The low point arrived as soon as the roof was shut. Although space stations may look cool in the movies, they're no place to watch a ballgame. With the roof closed, the air was dead, the light strangely murky and the lack of outside noise served only to emphasize that a small, quiet crowd was watching baseball in a very large room.

Cleveland

After a long drive along the Great Lakes, we arrived at Cleveland's Jacobs Field about 45 minutes before the next night's game between the Indians and the Houston Astros.

Our luck was working. Because the Indians had sold out their entire home season before we planned the trip, we showed up ticketless. But within minutes of looking for scalped tickets, a man walked up and handed me four box seats he said he wouldn't be able to use.

I tried to pay him but he wouldn't hear of it, and minutes later we were settling in just to the left of home plate, 10 rows back from the action.

The game was great and Jacobs itself, opened two years after Camden Yards, was a jewel. Jacobs' designers borrowed some of the retro revolution's best ideas, while avoiding the "brick is beautiful" excess that has become a ballpark cliché.

An asymmetrical field, with a crooked outfield wall can make for an adventure on balls hit to the outfield.

Low outfield bleachers offer a view of the city skyline, rather than the acres of plastic seats visible in most multipurpose, concrete bowl-style stadiums.

With its distinctive vertical light towers, a series of glassed-in luxury boxes protruding cubically along the left-field foul line and a color scheme of sharp greens and whites, Jacobs is more a postmodern pastiche than a trip down memory lane.

With an off-day looming, we briefly considered finding a hotel room in Cleveland and trying our luck with tickets again the next day. Instead, we pushed on toward Chicago, where we were scheduled for games at Wrigley Field on Thursday and Friday. But first, there was . . .

Milwaukee

Arriving in Chicago the next day with 24 hours to kill, we realized the Brewers were home that night, just 90 minutes north.

Built for $5 million in 1953 to lure the Braves from Boston, County Stadium may once have been state of the art. By the time we arrived, it was simply in a state of decay.

Dark, narrow concourses led to a steeply canted upper deck with cramped aisles and old plastic seats. The stadium's exterior was little more than sheet metal. I've been to nicer minor-league parks. Heck, I've been to nicer rest-stop bathrooms.

From the upper deck, we could see Miller Park, the Brewers' new home this season, rising beyond center field. With a unique, fan-shaped-retractable roof and a natural grass field, it looked to be as intriguing and vibrant as County Stadium was dull and colorless. Opening night there was April 6.

Fortunately, the two features that give Brewers games some distinction found a home at Miller. The Bernie Brewer mascot continues to twist down a slide after home runs, and there are still the legendary sausage races.

Chicago

Even on my second visit to Wrigley, I found myself moved simply to see in three dimensions a place that is so deeply imbedded in my baseball consciousness through pictures and video images.

It's all there -- the bricks-and-ivy outfield wall, the bleachers and hand-operated scoreboard, the fans watching from rooftops across the street.

Although I can think of few finer ways to spend a summer afternoon than sitting in the bleachers, drinking Old Style beer and waving at Sammy Sosa, I left with one complaint.

The fans.

I know, I know they're supposedly the most loyal supporters in the world, turning out by the millions summer after losing-Cubs summer.

The awful truth is that many of Wrigley's denizens simply aren't fans: They treat a ballgame as the equivalent of an office cookout. They hold conversations in the aisles, get up to make beer runs during rallies and hold mid-batter reunions with their friends -- all the while blocking the view of people trying to watch the game.

We watched Thursday's game from the bleachers, Friday's from the grandstand. James preferred both the view and the fans in the grandstand. Given a choice, I'd still opt for the bleachers -- just minus the folks who think they're at the neighborhood pub.

Cincinnati

The low point of the tour was a steamy Saturday afternoon watching the Cincinnati Reds play the Arizona Diamondbacks at the ballpark once known as Riverfront Stadium (1970), now corporately renamed Cinergy Field.

With nary a cooling breeze entering the enclosed concrete bowl, we sweated in our seats.

Unlike many of its contemporaries, which were built off suburban highway exits, Cinergy is centrally located, next to downtown Cincinnati on the banks of the Ohio River. But it squanders that advantage by sitting high above river level, surrounded by a moat of concrete plazas. Both the skyline and the river are invisible from inside the stadium.

There is hope for the future. In the off-season, the Reds put natural grass in Cinergy and tore down 14,000 seats. That makes room for construction of a truly "riverfront" stadium, scheduled to open in 2003. In the meantime, with Cinergy's bowl opened up by the seat removal, those fans still stuck there get views of the city and of the in-progress ballpark.

Pittsburgh

There was no good reason for me to like our last stop, Three Rivers Stadium (1970), any better than Cinergy. The stadiums share the same enclosed concrete "toilet bowl" architecture, the same ocean of hard plastic seats, the same artificial turf.

For whatever reason, I enjoyed Three Rivers.

Maybe it was the larger-than-life statue of Roberto Clemente, the Pirates great who died in a 1972 plane crash while delivering earthquake relief supplies to Nicaragua. Maybe it was the Pirates' minilocker giveaway at the gate. Maybe it was that the weather was 10 degrees cooler.

Maybe it was simply that it was the last day of the trip -- "getaway day," as the ballplayers say.

As we crossed the Fort Duquesne Bridge, on our way to returning our trash-strewn and foul-smelling minivan at the Pittsburgh airport, we caught sight of the Pirates' new stadium, PNC Park, which opened April 9.

The park sits on the same bank of the Allegheny River as Three Rivers, but has an open outfield with a view of the river, the Roberto Clemente Bridge and the downtown skyline.

Most striking was the latticed black steel used for the double-decked park's support structures and light towers. The metalwork pays tribute to Pittsburgh's Steel City past and promises to make PNC one of the most attractive and distinctive of the new ballparks.

I already had visions of a future trip -- perhaps Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium in New York, then Boston's Fenway Park, with a stopover at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Now I just had to find a way to fit in a return trip to Pittsburgh.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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