Tom Lohr has eaten a hot dog at all 30 MLB ballparks and is the author of "Gone to the Dogs: In Search of the Best Ballpark Hot Dog."
Bigger is Not Always Better
Baseball may be the national pastime, but the ever increasing cost of attending a game has made a journey to a major league stadium financially unfeasible for many. No to mention that, unless you live in one of the major metropolitan areas of the United States, going to a game involves a fairly lengthy drive. Fortunately, there is an alternative. Fans can see the future stars of tomorrow by attending a minor league game.
With over 100 minor league teams scattered across the US, chances are one is within a reasonable driving distance from your home. Not only are the teams more accessible, parking, tickets and concessions are significantly more affordable. You can go to a minor league game without having to sell a kidney to get good seats. Most MiLB ballparks have 12,000 seats or less (6 to 8 thousand seat is the norm), guaranteeing that no matter where you sit, you will have an intimate view of the game. Added bonus is the complete lack of player/prima donnas.
Ballparks in the minors run the complete gambit of architecture, style and amenities. New ballparks are constantly being built and there seems to be a contest of which team can build the most outrageous facility. Each has its pros and cons, but if you could only visit ten before you cross the rainbow bridge, these are the ten (in no particular order) that you should set your sights on.
1. Isotopes Park, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Many fans long for the days when the Isotopes were called the Dukes (Albuquerque is the Duke City). But when, of all things, the minor league team on the cartoon/sitcom The Simpsons were supposed to move to Albuquerque, it kind of became a thing. In case you were wondering, Homer Simpson works for the largest employer in the fictional town of Springfield; a nuclear power plant. Get the isotopes reference now? Not to mention, New Mexico is one of the biggest suppliers of uranium in the country.
What makes the ballpark in Albuquerque a top ten must visit is the food. It is a slick ballpark to be sure. Sporting a mid-century modernesque facade, open concourse and splendid weather, the park itself is magnificent. But the Isotopes hands down have the best concessions in the minors. New Mexican fare is popular across the United States (sometimes known as Santa Fe style), now imagine a ballpark rich in New Mexican cuisine. They have the usual dogs and beer, but a spicy menu that changes somewhat each season. If you attend a game in Albuquerque, spend some of the coin you saved by hitting a minor versus major league game and grab some chow (antacids recommended).
2. Dr. Pepper Ballpark, Frisco, Texas
Dr. Pepper is a different tasting cola, which is why you should visit their ballpark: it's different. Most parks feature either reinforced concrete or brick and steel construction. Frisco decided to put gray siding on the exterior of their stadium and two turret towers flanking the main entrance, giving it a sort of Cape Cod feel. The ballpark designers wanted to give the stadium a park within a park feel, where baseball wasn't the only thing you could do during a game. Its signature feature is a 400 foot long “lazy river” that fans can float down while watching the Rough Riders play hardball.
3. Fluor Field, Greenville, South Carolina
You can't go wrong with a ballpark that is next to the “Shoeless Joe” Jackson museum. This ballpark is in many ways a mini Fenway Park. The crazy dimensions are the same as Fenway, with the slight exception of the “green monster” wall in Greenville being 30 feet tall versus 37 in Boston. Just over the mini green monster is a warehouse-looking structure that adds to the old-time feel of the park. It's location in the trendy West End section of the city also helps make Fluor Field a must-see for any baseball fan.
4. The Diamond, Richmond, Virginia
Who wouldn't want to visit a ballpark that hosts a team named the Flying Squirrels? Frankly, The Diamond is an ugly concrete behemoth that has a claustrophobic main concourse. So why is it a must visit? During the early 1970s, major league baseball built a slew of hideous multipurpose stadiums that were aptly nicknamed “concrete ashtrays.” They were round and had little in the way of aesthetics. With the exception of Oakland, all of those ballparks have been torn down, and while they won't be missed, they are a part of baseball history. If you never attended a game in one, The Diamond is about as close as your are going to get without a trip to California. Richmond's ballpark looks like one of the 70s utilitarian stadiums with half of it cut away.
5. FNB Field, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Location is key to being unique, and FNB Field has a location that is perfect for those that love water. The ballpark sits on City Island, a 62-acre park and sports complex. Sitting in the middle of the Susquehanna River. A 2,801 foot pedestrian bridge connects it to downtown Harrisburg making for an interesting walk if you choose to park in the city. If you really like water, and can evade security, you can enjoy the ballpark while it is flooded after the Susquehanna breaches the island's banks. Anything connected to the movie Major League get bonus points, and FNB Field was used for the filming of spring training for the flick Major League II. It is also the only ballpark where you get a free organic snack. During games, thousands of mayflies are attracted to the stadium lights and swarm the ballpark. Whether you want it or not, one of the mayflies will end up in your mouth. It is said that they are nutritious.
6. First Horizon Park, Nashville, Tennessee
The Nashvilles Sounds previous ballpark, Herschel Greer Stadium, was noted for its guitar shaped scoreboard. The scoreboard technology was very 1970s, but it was iconic and cool. When the team moved into a new stadium in 2015, it kept the guitar scoreboard idea. The new one uses state-of-the-art digital screens and is a wonder to behold. The concessions pay homage to southern fare, and the park sports a decent view of the Nashville skyline. You can also root for you favorite country music singer during the Country Music Legends Race (pro tip: pick George Jones).
7. Modern Woodman Park, Davenport, Iowa
There is only one thing that could be better than watching sluggers park home runs in the Mighty Mississippi River, that would be watching a game in a ballpark that has its own ferris wheel. Modern Woodman Park has one, just over the left field wall. What could be cooler than a ferris wheel? How about a South Pacific vacation? That's how it feels when you have a drink at the stadium's tiki bar in its tiki village. The park also has a hot tub deck. If that isn't enough to start planning your road trip, it also has a cornfield in it (it is Iowa). The Centennial Bridge on the first base side also makes an impressive backdrop. With a ferris wheel, tiki village and hot tubs, you can catch a game and go on vacation at the same time.
8. San Jose Municipal Stadium, San Jose, California
Actually, today it is called Excite Ballpark. But from 1942 to 2019 it was San Jose Municipal Stadium. The ballpark itself is not slick or especially picturesque. What makes it a ballpark to visit is its construction history. It was built in 1942 by the Works Progress Administration. That was part of the New Deal that helped drag the United States out of the Great Depression. Prior to its construction, most baseball parks were built out of wood. San Jose Stadium is not only a historic example of a WPA project, it was also one of the first ballparks to use reinforced concrete.
9. ONEOK Field, Tulsa, Oklahoma
You should visit ONEOK Field to see how building a new ballpark is done right. Tulsa picked a somewhat depressed area of the city and built a minor league park hoping it would revitalize the area. Restaurants and bars sprung up around the area thanks to an infusion of baseball. The stadium also sits in the historic Greenwood district that was known at one time as “Black Wall Street.” Many African-American businesses thrived until a large portion of them were burned down during the 1921 race riot. Historical plaques line the street indicating what business used to occupy that spot. ONEOK Field also offers a spectacular view of the Tulsa skyline and there is a rotating U-Haul truck on a pole over the left-center field wall.
10. Harbor Park, Norfolk, Virginia
You might think there is little special about Harbor Park today when compared to many of the newer minor league ballparks. But we owe Harbor Park. While MLB fans were swooning over Camden Yards in Baltimore when it first opened, and thereby sparking a slew new MLB ballpark construction, a year later in 1993 Harbor Park opened. Just like Camden Yards, the new Harbor Park proved that minor league stadiums did not have to be cookie-cutter, cheap lackluster venues. Harbor Park set the standard for many of the ultra-plush MiLB parks built after it. You owe that ballpark a trip just to say “thank you.” How nice is it? It was on the shortlist as the new home for the Montreal Expos when they moved.
Get Your Ticket
You can never go wrong attending a minor league game. It is our sport unadulterated by massive contracts and egos. There are many new, slick stadiums in the MLB farms system, and many of those are nicer than the Oakland A's current home. I recommend all of them. If you are near one or driving by one, stop for a game. But if you really want to visit a mix of unique, historic or tend-setting parks, grab a map and plot a course to catch a game in a ballpark on the list above.