All major-league ballparks qualify as diamonds, but some are truly gems

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baseball fans can be a strange bunch. For many, it's not enough that they have a local team to root for and that they spend as many waking hours as possible at the ballpark doing just that.

Nope, real fans want to while away the hours at other ballparks, too. They want to experience the majesty and grandeur of stadiums older than their grandparents, or the technical wizardry and space-age architecture of parks that look like something out of "Star Trek."

And it doesn't matter how far they have to go. Every year, you read tales of a couple guys from Hoboken, N.J., who decide to spend the summer like some sandlot Jack Kerouac, hitting the road and vowing not to come back until they've hit every ballpark in the major leagues -- and maybe a few in the minors as well.

If you're one of these people and live in or near Baltimore, you need to understand one thing: Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- its all-stretched-out-of-shape name notwithstanding -- IS THE BEST BALLPARK IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES. Period.

Anyone who doubted that had only to live through last year's All-Star hoopla to be set straight. The players loved Camden Yards. The TV commentators loved Camden Yards. The print media loved Camden Yards -- columnist Mark Kreidler even suggested leaving the All-Star game here for eternity.

So if your idea is to visit other ballparks and see how they stack up against Oriole Park, realize they're going to come up short. Realize that you will be the envy of fans everywhere when they hear you go to games in Baltimore. Realize that Camden Yards is the Michael Jordan of baseball stadiums -- everyone else aspires to be like us (especially Cleveland and Texas, whose new stadiums are designed to be nothing so much as carbon copies).

But if you insist on sampling where the common folk watch their baseball -- and you should, because each park offers a unique experience -- here are some tips on what to expect.

Just remember: it's unfair to expect perfection. Unless you're heading down to the Yard.

* Yankee Stadium, New York. No ballpark can match the history and lore that pervades the House That Ruth Built. But the park has several strikes against it: 1) The Yankees play there; 2) it was renovated extensively in 1976, and even some Yankee fans say it was a better ballpark before the face-lift; and 3) George Steinbrenner owns the team -- and keeps threatening to move the Bronx Bombers to New Jersey.

If you go, arrive well before the game starts, so there's time to visit the monuments behind center field to Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and other Yankee greats (Monument Park opens 90 minutes before each game and is only open for 45 minutes). Avoid driving -- the subway drops passengers off within spitting distance of the park. Tickets: (718) 293-6000.

* Shea Stadium, New York. Pluses: Subway access, parking is much easier than at Yankee Stadium; watching the Mets play will help you understand why David Letterman is always ragging on them andwhy Eddie Murray has moved on to Cleveland.

Minuses: The noise from nearby La Guardia Airport makes it sound as if you're sitting inside a vacuum cleaner. Tickets: (718) 507-8499.

* Fenway Park, Boston. OK, there's no two ways about it, Fenway Park is a great place to watch a ballgame. It's certainly the quirkiest park in all of baseball: the Green Monster in left, the short fence in right, the nooks and crannies that make every fly ball to the outfield an adventure. There are a few drawbacks, however. Parking is practically non-existent and expensive, and tickets can be difficult to get, just like at Camden Yards. And there's the sad plight of the Red Sox themselves, who haven't won a World Series since 1918.

But every baseball fan should make at least one trip to Fenway -- not only for the park, but for the surrounding neighborhood. Game days are a total baseball experience, and Boston fans may be the most unmerciful in all of baseball, especially when it comes to their own team. Tickets: (617) 267-1700.

* Cleveland Stadium (old). A ballpark no longer, not since the Indians packed their bags and vacated the premises at the end of last year. Too bad. With a capacity of more than 70,000, but an attendance that sometimes struggled to fill 10 percent of the seats, Cleveland Stadium was the closest most fans would ever come to watching major-league baseball alone.

* Cleveland Stadium (new). No one's ever seen a game there yet. The stadium doesn't open until this week. But it was put together by the same people responsible for Oriole Park, so it can't be all bad. Tickets: (216) 241-8888.

* Tiger Stadium, Detroit. Catch this dinosaur before it becomes extinct. Baseball has been played on the site of Tiger Stadium since 1900, making it the oldest major-league ballpark, but there's not much to recommend the stadium, save tradition. No wonder they want to get rid of it. Tickets: (313) 258-4437.

* Wrigley Field, Chicago. They should never have installed lights at Wrigley before the 1988 season. Sure, it's still a great place to watch agame (especially if you're one of the fortunate few whose rooftops offer a better view into the park than many bleacher seats), but the lack of lights is what gave Wrigley an edge -- baseball under the sun, as it was designed to be played. Still, the Cubs are prohibited from playing more than 18 home games at night, so all is not lost.

If you decide to check out Wrigley, remember, home runs hit by the opposing team must be thrown back on the field. And nobody sings a worse rendition of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" than Cubs announcer Harry Caray. Tickets: (800) 347-2827.

* Comiskey Park, Chicago. The South Side White Sox have never been embraced by their city the way the Cubs have. Opening a new Comiskey Park in 1991, right next to the old one, didn't change that sad fact of life. The new park's OK, although watching demolition teams hack away at the old Comiskey made attending White Sox games a sad experience (the old park's gone now).

Fortunately, the legendary food selection and exploding scoreboardthat were Comiskey's main claims to fame both made the move. Tickets: (312) 831-1769.

* County Stadium, Milwaukee. Robin Yount has retired and Paul Molitor plays for the Blue Jays, so two of the main reasons to watch the Brewers are gone. But County Stadium, as befits the city it serves, serves up awesome German sausages, so at least you can eat well. Tickets: (414) 933-9000.

* The Skydome, Toronto. Cito Gaston is the manager and it's got a roof that doesn't know whether it's coming or going. How good can it be? If you go, keep your eyes on the hotel rooms beyond the outfield. If the occupants get amorous during the game, the action there may be hotter than what's on the field. Tickets: (416) 341-1234.

* Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles. Reputedly one of the greatest ballpark locations in all of baseball. Maybe, if your idea of perfect is a big bowl in the middle of smog-encrusted Los Angeles.

Warning: unless you're a season-ticket holder, you have to park somewhere near Nevada.

Be sure to eat a Dodger Dog while you're at the park. A few years ago, concessionaires had the audacity to start boiling Dodger Dogs instead of grilling them. Fortunately, good sense won out, the grills were brought back and Los Angeles heaved a collective sigh of relief. Tickets: (213) 224-1448.

* Anaheim Stadium, Anaheim. The Big A has replaced Candlestick Park in San Francisco as the major-league stadium most recently damaged by an earthquake, so that should count for something. It's also the park nearest to Disneyland, another mark of distinction. Tickets: (714) 663-9000.

* Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego. The Padres tried to become the joke of baseball last year, as management unloaded every player making over $3 an hour and fielded a team that had its hands full beating local high school squads.

All the subsequent fan discontent could play in your favor, however. Choice seats may be a lot easier to get this year. And San Diego is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. Tickets: (619) 297-2373.

5/8

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