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Baseball is Back in Town!

With the start of baseball season, here’s a selection of ballparks, all within driving distance of the North Bay, that combine baseball and urbanism.

Another baseball season is upon us. Daily updates from the diamond to be monitored and box scores to be perused. Baseball and summer are a glorious combination.

Baseball is one of my passions, along with urbanism. Let’s say that urbanism is my vocational passion and baseball, along with Cal sports, are my avocational passions.

I found the game in the spring of 1961 while puzzling over the baseball cards on the back of a Post cereal box. I saw the card for Bill Mazeroski, knew that he had done something remarkable the previous fall, and decided to learn about the game. I attended my first game on May 12 of that year. The Dodgers beat the Cubs 4-2 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.  I never looked back.

In one way, baseball and urbanism are odd shared passions. The large expanses required for a game of baseball are inconsistent with the tight urban grids that allow cities to work. (It’s unknown what Jane Jacobs thought of baseball.) Basketball, with its courts tucked into spare corners of the city, is a better fit for youth sports.

But baseball and cities blend gloriously at the professional level. With the Major Leagues and high minors having more than seventy home games per season, a neighborhood can grow up and thrive with the street activity created by a good ballpark, a ballpark that accommodates the character and quirks of a neighborhood, not one surrounded by acres of asphalt.

The ballparks that fans still enjoy or remember most fondly fit well within their neighborhoods. Wrigley Field. Connie Mack Stadium. Fenway Park. Ebbets Field. The Polo Grounds. All had personalities that were virtually indistinguishable from their surroundings.

The nostalgia for urban ballparks, presumably related to nostalgia for old city neighborhoods, had a key role in recent ballpark construction. Starting with Camden Yards in Baltimore, many new ballparks in the Major and minor leagues were designed with a retro theme. Some, such as Camden Yards and AT&T Park in San Francisco, were truly squeezed into an urban grid, resulting in idiosyncratic features that resulted from the site compromises. Others, such as CitiField in New York, included idiosyncratic features even though the parks were in the middle of parking fields and had few site constraints.

The latter parks, although still enjoyable places to watch ballgames, seemed silly to many, leading to speculation that the era of retro ballparks was ending. But even as the first post-retro ballparks open in Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and Miami, at least one ballplayer suggests that retro parks are still the better option

For now, there are no retro/non-retro ballparks decisions pending in Northern California. But there are some good city ballparks to be enjoyed.

To celebrate Opening Day and urbanism, I’ll list six city ballparks. I won’t try to rank the parks.  There are too many variables to consider. Instead, my order will be driving distance from the North Bay.

1 - The first ballpark on my list may be a surprise to some. Starting in June, Albert Field in San Rafael, a short distance south of the downtown center, will be the 2012 home of the San Rafael Pacifics. The Pacifics will play in the independent North American Baseball League, which isn’t a part of affiliated baseball. The league rosters are comprised of players who fell just below the radar of affiliated ball or grew too old to be considered prospects any longer. Most independent leagues play the equivalent of between Single-A and Double-A baseball. 

The ballgames in San Rafael may not be as well-played as Major League game, but independent baseball can provide good, exciting ballgames for less money and less travel time. I recommend catching a few Pacifics’ games this summer.

(Admission: I spent four years as one of the owners, and two years as president, of a minor league ballclub in a league that was the grandfather of the North American Baseball League. They were four great years, filled with memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything.)

2 - The Giants are not my ballclub. (Note what I wrote above about my first ballgame.) But their park is a great example of a city ballpark. Even better, the neighborhood around AT&T Park has significantly improved since the ballpark was built. More homes, more retail, more people on the street, better transit. It’s a great example of what a well-conceived urban ballpark can do.

3 - Raley Field in West Sacramento isn’t a perfect fit for this list, but it’s moving in the right direction. When it was built, the neighborhood was aging industrial facilities. But West Sacramento had a vision of urbanist development around the ballpark. The projects have come slowly, hindered by the economy and by financial problems at all levels of government, including the loss of redevelopment. However, progress is being made

One can begin to see the urbanist community that will one day enfold the ballpark.  For now, fans can enjoy vistas of urban buildings. It’s also home of the Triple-A affiliate of the Oakland A’s, so the ballplayers in West Sacramento are only one step away from the Major Leagues.

4 - Banner Island Ballpark is a few blocks from downtown Stockton. It adjoins an older residential neighborhood, the downtown arena, and a waterway of the Port of Stockton. It’s the homepark of the California League affiliate of the Oakland A’s. My first game at the ballpark was a contest between the visiting Modesto Nuts and the hometeam Stockton Ports. The Nuts and the Ports.  I went to a ballgame and after-dinner refreshments broke out.

5 – It’s easy to poke fun at Fresno, but Chukchansi Park, homepark of the Triple-A affiliate of the Giants, is a downtown highlight. It adjoins the old business district and feels nicely shoehorned into the street grid. It’s a fun place to watch a game.

6 - For the last ballpark, we’ll cross into Nevada. Aces Ballpark in Reno was built a few years ago as the home for the Triple-A farmclub of the Diamondbacks. The ballpark is a couple of blocks from Virginia Street, the heart of Reno’s downtown casino district. Even better, the ballpark immediately adjoins the Amtrak train station and Harrah’s Hotel and Casino. From the Bay Area, a fan can ride the train to Reno, walk a short block to find a room for the night, and then cross over to a ballgame. Great walkability.

The dimension to leftfield is less that might be expected at Reno’s elevation because railroad tracks interfere. A 20-foot high fence partially compensates. I find it marvelous that homeruns can end up on the tracks that were part of the 1869 transcontinental railroad. Of course, 1869 was also the year of the first professional baseball team, George Wright’s Cincinnati Reds. Good ballpark karma.

Enjoy opening weekend. Go walk a downtown and then catch a ballgame.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer.  He has worked on energy and land use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He also was the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and four dogs.  The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.  He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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Barry Bussewitz April 29, 2012 at 04:07 PM
Although I am a natural-born American Leaguer (Boston, Fenway!), Bill Mazeroski was a great hero for sling-shotting down the Yankee in 1960. Your 4th paragraph reference calls up a hero from a different domain — Jane Jacobs. Her standup contributions to urbanism and community is a great pairing with Mazeroski: they both brought down Goliaths of Gotham!
Dave Alden April 29, 2012 at 04:15 PM
Barry, thanks for the comment. Jane Jacobs lurks closely behind much of what I write here. Her intellectual curiosity and leaps of insight should be goals for anyone who writes about urbanism. Although I don't think that she can be credited with bringing down Moses. She was a mosquito who raised a couple of small welts, but Moses continued almost without pause. It was only age, abetted by hubris, that finally pushed him to the sidelines. I'll visit Boston in August. The Red Sox will be on the road, but I'm eagerly anticipating a tour touring of the ballpak.
Barry Bussewitz April 29, 2012 at 04:36 PM
Even when the Sox are outa town, the tour of Fenway is really cool, well worth it for a fan! They don't let you touch the (sacred) infield grass but you get to go to lots of the park and down on the field.
Dave Alden April 29, 2012 at 06:40 PM
Barry, I'm awaiting the Fenway tour with eagerness. One of my traveling companions kept lobbying for an itinerary change that would allow us to see a Sox game. When I pointed out that we could add a ballpark tour to our itinerary without seeing a game, he was thrilled. As he said, "I don't care at all about the Sox. I just want to see the park."

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