One of my favorite hobbies is visiting all the major league stadiums and then reviewing the newest ballparks for the Hardball Times. This year I was delighted to get up to date by seeing games at Minnesota’s Target Field (which just opened) and Washington’s Nationals Park (which opened in 2008). The two stadiums are wonderful civic accomplishments, and they’re easily the best ballparks in the histories of the respective cities.
Target Field is an absolute delight that is perhaps the most beautiful baseball stadium to open since 2001, when Pittsburgh’s PNC Park was completed. Target is a moderately sized (42,000) ballpark that manages to achieve a friendly and welcoming feel without having to resort to any gimmicks other than some extremely well-done exhibits and photos. The ballpark has three levels of seating behind home plate, sports a mini-green-monster wall in right field, and has enough kinks in the outfield walls to keep doubles interesting.
The sight lines are very good, the colors are “Wrigley” green and blue, the building has beautiful stone touches, and there’s a nice view of downtown over the right field wall that positively glows when the sun sets. To top things off, the employees are cheerful and the food is very good, though I have to admit that I didn’t try the “Batter Dipped Walleye” or the “Pork Chop on a Stick.”
Target is environmentally friendly in a variety of ways. It’s a LEEDS Silver-certified building, and it houses a metro station, right at the ballpark, for the Hiawatha light rail line that runs directly to the airport and the Mall of America. Just as importantly, the stadium is in downtown Minneapolis, allowing people to walk to games from work or from their hotels, much as you can at Coors Field.
Perhaps the key to the success of Target Field, besides its location, is its welcoming and yet innovative architecture. For example, there are no light standards on top of the stands; instead, the lights are built into the roof, creating a continuous glow from foul pole to foul pole. There’s a stack of glass-enclosed seating and restaurants out by the left-field foul pole that’s a bit like a modern version of the Western Metal Supply Co. at Petco, and there’s a beautiful multi-storied, glass-walled season ticket-holder club that comes to a sharp point out by the right-field foul pole.
This glass point is aimed at perhaps the most unusual bleachers I’ve ever seen. The bleachers are extremely steep, almost surely steeper than the upper decks at US Cellular or the old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. In addition, the bleachers are uneven in height, with about twice as many rows of seats in center field as there are in right center, giving the entire bleacher section a decided tilt to the right (perhaps to offset the state’s political orientation).
Despite all this praise, Target Field isn’t perfect. The scoreboard is a bit disappointing, in particular because the HD video screen seems small by today’s standards and also because useful information is spread around on different scoreboards rather than being collected in one easy-to-find location. Another problem is that the home bullpen is right behind the visiting bullpen and there’s not much of an elevation difference between the bullpens. As a result, it’s almost impossible to figure out who is warming up for the Twins unless you’re familiar with the throwing motion of the pitcher.
I haven’t seen any statistics yet, but my guess is that the stadium is a bit too pitcher-friendly for balanced play, given that it has a deep left field and that aforementioned high wall in right. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, Target Field is not a domed stadium, and we’re talking about Minnesota here! I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the park for a night game at the end of October, when the average daytime high temperature is 40 degrees!
These are very minor points, however. The rest of Target Field is so superb that I’m confident that Twins fans will love their new stadium for decades to come. Well done!
Nationals Park has already earned a very favorable reputation as a great place to watch a ballgame, and the stadium has an aura of success about it that Nationals fans hope soon will be matched by similar success on the field. To start with, Nationals Park shares a number of Target Field’s strengths. The two stadiums are about the same size, are very near public transportation, and are LEEDS-certified Silver.
However, Nationals Park has a number of superb attributes that set it apart. In particular, the sight lines are simply wonderful throughout the stadium, and the seats are quite close to the field. As nearly as I could tell, there’s not a bad seat in the house! In addition, the scoreboard is the best I’ve ever seen. The HD screen is huge (the second-largest in baseball), and the use of photos, replays, and statistics is exceptional. The Nationals certainly deserve accolades for their superb scoreboard. Also worthy of praise is the center field entryway, which brings fans from the Metro station and parking into the ballpark through a welcoming funnel of restaurants, statues, ticket booths, mascots, and a huge “W” hat.
The stadium itself is a three-tiered park that uses a couple of interesting clumps of seats in the outfield to avoid being symmetrical. The structure is a sight for sore eyes, with a color scheme that includes a lot of “Fenway” green and a bit of beautiful stonework behind home plate. The bullpens are split, one in right and one in left, and run parallel to the outfield wall. Perhaps the most interesting facet of the stadium is a tall “stacked” restaurant in center field that provides an excellent view of the game while also being close to the Metro and parking.
Speaking of restaurants, the food was very good, particularly at two extremely popular chili outlets and at two impressive “private” clubs. One of these clubs sports a fantastic photographic history of U.S. presidents throwing out the first ball and even includes the seat that Jack Kennedy sat in after he did so. I also was impressed with the employees. We arrived at the stadium from the center-field side, but our tickets were at “will call” on the home-plate side. The employee we asked for directions, a gentleman named Mike Miller, actually walked us through the stadium and out the other side to save us time and make sure that we got to the right place!
While Nationals Park has a few weaknesses, many of these are fixable. For example, as good as the scoreboard is, it can’t be seen from some of the seats, but this could be fixed by building a good auxiliary scoreboard. The press box is the highest in the majors, and I’ve heard announcers complaining on air about this height. However, the Nationals mention the height of the press box positively on their website, so they’ve already acted to offset the problem as best they can.
Perhaps the most important “fixable” problem is that the surrounding area (the Navy Yard district) isn’t great, and the outside of the stadium behind home plate has a very bleak feel to it. Both of these problems could be fixed by a joint district/team effort to improve the neighborhood, particularly as the economy picks back up.
And then there’s the missed opportunity. Just behind the left-field foul pole is one of the most powerful sights in our country, the dome of the Capitol Building. The dome is lovely during the day, but at night it’s literally breath-taking. It’s very sad to realize that the creators of Nationals Park had the opportunity to have the Capitol Dome viewable from a majority of the stadium’s seats and didn’t move heaven and earth to get that view.
What would it have taken? Well, I’m not an architect, but it probably would have involved rotating the stadium counterclockwise perhaps 20 degrees (causing some sun problems), reducing the height of the stands in left field, and buying up some buildings between the stadium and the dome (perhaps to convert to parking lots) to protect the view. I admit that this would have cost millions of dollars and might have caused a few fly balls to get lost in the sun now and then, but the resulting stadium would have been spectacular. Here was a chance to create an iconic stadium view, on par with the one in San Francisco, and the opportunity was lost.
This lost opportunity aside, the rest of the problems I mention are fixable, so with proper management, Nationals Park is going to get better and better as time goes along. Since the stadium already is a pretty terrific place to watch a ballgame, it’s clear that the District and the Nationals have a real winner on their hands that will provide an enjoyable fan experience for decades to come.
How do these two ballparks compare to the 28 others? Both easily are in the top half of MLB stadiums, and Target Field sneaks into my top 10, helped in part by my decision to drop my beloved Dodger Stadium out of the top 10 until the McCourts follow through with their promised improvements. I should point out, however, that a stadium doesn’t need to be in my top ten to be outstanding. With just three exceptions, every MLB ballpark is new or recently renovated and provides an extremely enjoyable fan experience. With Florida due to open a new stadium in 2012, baseball fans soon will have only two stadiums (Tampa Bay and Oakland) to complain about.
That said, my personal top 10 is:
1. San Francisco (AT+T)
2. Seattle (Safeco)
3. Boston (Fenway)
4. Chicago NL (Wrigley)
5. Pittsburgh (PNC)
6. Baltimore (Camden Yards)
7. Colorado (Coors)
8. Cleveland (Progressive)
9. New York AL (Yankee Stadium)
10. Minnesota (Target)
References & Resources
Ballparks of Baseball features lots of great information about major league ballparks, past and present.