A Lifelong Love Affair With Ballparks

The Fenway Park t-shirt.

The t-shirt said Fenway Park, and it showed the view from home plate: The Green Monster, the triangle in right centerfield, the Jimmy Fund sign with the blue image of a young boy in right field, and an enormous Citgo advertisement towering above the monster in left field. My dad owned this shirt. I’d steal it from the laundry and lay it on the floor. Then I’d grab some paper and start drawing the park myself, using the t-shirt as a reference.

I grew up in Philadelphia and my dad took me to a couple of Phillies games each year. I’d sit in some scorching-hot plastic chair as the field temperature crept into the triple digits. Then I’d break out the scorebook and write in the names listed on Phan-a-vision. I kept score all the time. It was my way of learning the game.

A kid could learn baseball by watching a game at Veterans Stadium because your eyes were trained to stay on the field of play. Opening in 1971 in South Philadelphia as part of a massive complex of sporting venues, the Vet — as it was lovingly named — wasn’t much to look at.

It was perfectly oblong and symmetrical like a Roman coliseum, though it lacked the character of a place that had been around for centuries. The Phillies attempted to inject some color into the place, including an original seating plan of reds, browns, oranges, and yellows in an attempt at recreating the look of a fall day. The color scheme did little to invoke fall and more served as a way to tell where you were sitting: the orange seats were the 600 level, and included a special seat with a star that marked the longest home run ever hit there (Willie Stargell); the yellow seats were the 700 level, empty on most summer nights but rowdy and dangerous on winter evenings.

There were a few quirks. A replica of the Liberty Bell was built for the park and positioned down near the outfield fences, though when I started going to games it was way up at the tippy top of the park in center field, as far from home plate as you could get. Two massive video boards flanked the Liberty Bell, one serving as an in-game television and the other showing statistics and lineups. The main outfield fence was a moderately deep green with yellow piping, and behind that was a larger curtain of black that served as a secondary fence, though any ball that hit it was a home run. Hung on that curtain were lots of circles: The logos of each National League team, separated by division, the numbers or names of retired Phillies, and the very few times the team was good enough to play postseason baseball: 1915, 1950, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1983. Soon they’d add 1993. That’s it.

The Vet smelled of urine-and-Miller-soaked peanuts. The Astroturf was so hot that steam lines would form above it. By mid-summer most men who attended Phillies games stripped off their shirts, and some women would wear bikini tops. Since the Phillies weren’t good most of the time, fans didn’t exactly fill the place often. Tickets were always cheap, and so cheap that you could get a free ticket by buying a package of cheap hot dogs at the Acme. Thus, I went to a lot of games. I learned baseball. Soon, I realized I wanted to see more ballparks. They couldn’t all be this bad.

And they weren’t. My dad’s Fenway Park t-shirt proved that to me, and RBI Baseball ’94, which included a mode where you could just scan empty ballparks, further tempted me. I needed to see these ballparks outside of SportsCenter highlights and Fleer Ultra cards.

Dad took us to Yankee Stadium in 1993. A few years later we saw our first game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, something of a watershed moment as I realized baseball could look pretty. Then, in 1999, my brother and I drove to Boston. We stayed at the apartment of my brother’s work colleague while going into the city. I shrieked the first time I saw Fenway up close, and I nearly melted down when I came through that tunnel and saw the very image from my dad’s shirt. There was the monster, the triangle, and there was the Citgo sign illuminating the field below in its orangey hue. Three years later I started college at Boston University, buying my textbooks at the bookstore across the way from Fenway. And what lived on the rooftop of the BU bookstore? The Citgo sign.

I had a weird childhood of expectations, identity crises, and the kinds of issues that you hide for decades until you throw a remote control against a wall and decide that it’s time to see a therapist. But the one thing that held me together was baseball. I escaped to baseball cards and video games, watched highlights of whatever games I could, read as much about the sport in any newspaper I could find, and drew every ballpark over and over and over and over. I think I was telling myself, through every one of those drawing sessions, that this was where I needed to be. I fought with who I was forever, and here in these moments I was just me.

So, I got to see nearly all the ballparks. I got to visit nearly all the cities. I got to talk to baseball fans and experience the game over and over and over and over. What results is Baseball Road Trips, a labor of love and, as corny as it may sound, of life. This is my love letter. It’s who I am. I’m so happy it’s real.