SAFECO’S NEW LEASE GOT ME THINKING: MY FIVE FAVORITE PARKS

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — With all of the on-field news swirling recently around the Mariners, it’s not surprising that their 25-year lease extension at Safeco Field, announced earlier this week, turned into a something of a footnote.

   That is a testament to stadium and those who designed it.

   “We want this ballpark to be our home for the next 100 years,” said John Stanton, the club’s chairman and managing partner. “Safeco Field should be to Seattle and the Mariners what Wrigley Field is to Chicago and the Cubs, and Fenway Park is to Boston and the Red Sox.”

   Actually, I think it’s better than either one of those places.

   Wrigley and Fenway possess an undeniable (and unsurpassed) nostalgic charm, and both should be on any fan’s bucket list. But they’re both lacking in modern creature comforts that nearly all fans today not only expect but take for granted.

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   And before you say you don’t care about creature comforts, think about squeezing through a tight concourse to stand in a long line for a beer and a hot dog with no view of the field during your time away from your seat.

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   Safeco generally places high in any ranking of big-league ballparks because it is loaded with creature comforts. It’s a foodie’s paradise.

   “A modern park with an old-school feel,” Baseball America declared just last month, “the Mariners’ home has aged well, complete with its retractable roof that is essential for Pacific Northwest weather.”

   The only thing lacking for most of its 20 years has been a competitive ballclub.

   It’s a further tribute to Safeco’s design and upkeep that it’s easy to view it as a still-new ballpark.

   But while 20 years is nothing compared to Fenway (built in 1912) and Wrigley (1916), realize that half of the stadiums currently in use — 15 of 30 — are newer than Safeco.

   That doesn’t count Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, which underwent a massive renovation between 2007-09. Further, Texas is scheduled to move into a new park in 2020, and a few other clubs are pushing hard for new stadiums.

   Safeco Field, in contrast, is in many ways better now than when it opened.

   The new lease includes a pair of three-year options that could keep the Mariners at the corner of Edgar and Dave through 2049 and also contains provisions designed to maintain the stadium’s place among the game’s top venues.

   Specifically, the new lease commits the Mariners to contribute $650 million to the Public Facilities District while requiring the club to maintain Safeco in a manner consistent with the top one-third of comparable MLB parks.

   In short, what happened at the Oakland Coliseum, now in its 50th year, shouldn’t happen here.

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   The kicker here is the stadium won’t be known as Safeco Field after this season. That naming-rights deal was also for 20 years, and it’s coming to an end. Stanton said a new naming-rights sponsor should be in place within a few months.

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   The new Safeco lease got me thinking: What are the best ballparks? That’s a question I still get on a regular basis, and I tend to answer two ways.

   There’s my bucket list for hardcore fans, which includes Dodger Stadium in addition to Fenway and Wrigley. None of those three are among my personal favorites, but they’re must-see parks for any true seamhead.

   Safeco Field has been my favorite ballpark since it opened in 1999, but I’ll eliminate it because of personal bias. Same goes for Kauffman Stadium, which I recommend, but I’m hardly impartial after spending 32 years in Kansas City.

   I’m also looking at this as a fan. I’ve always liked domes because you knew the game was going to start on time. Also ease of access to the field and clubhouse or press box amenities, while important to reporters, are irrelevant to fans.

   My Top Five:

   1. PNC Park (Pittsburgh): The visuals are unmatched. This is a retro park where everything works. An added plus: several hotels are just steps away.

   2. AT&T Park (San Francisco): This place tops a lot of lists, and it’s easy to see why. It has a great location on the water, which it uses to maximum effect. An easy park to get around in.

   3. Yankee Stadium (New York): The place costs $2.3 billion to build, which seems high even for New York, but this is a worthy successor to the House that Ruth Built. In fact, foul line to foul line, it looks like the old Yankee Stadium in HD. The subway also drops you off right at the stadium. Also, this park is all about baseball. No gimmicks.

   4. Angel Stadium (Anaheim): Everybody’s list tends to have one place that makes others scratch their head. This is mine. Great sight lines and nearly every seat seems to be close to the field. The staff here sets the standard for being friendly.

   5. Petco Park (San Diego): Another great downtown park built to its surroundings. Near perfect weather makes it hard not to have a good time here.

   I don’t expect anyone to agree completely with my picks because every ballpark is special in its own way, particularly to fans who live there and often associate them with indelible memories.

   There are Athletics fans who love the Coliseum, and I understand.

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   “They’ll watch the game, and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters,” Terence Mann told Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams. “The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces.”

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   We all have those memories.

   The long-time ballwriter in me looks back now at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia and recognizes that it was a dump…and it still doesn’t matter. It was magical to me as a kid.

   I remember my mother taking an 8-year-old me to a game in 1963 to see the Phillies (who would, a year later, harden me into a cynic) play the Cardinals. It was a Sunday afternoon in September, and she bought seats in left field.

   For a reason. Mom told me to watch one of the Cardinals — “the man in left field” — because he was special, and this was the last time that he would play in Philadelphia because he was retiring. That man was The Man, Stan Musial.

   I didn’t understand then. All I knew was Musial got a couple of hits, and helped the Cardinals beat the Phillies. I wasn’t happy on the way home. But mom was right, and I got to see Stan Musial play live.

   It was also the only time I went to a big-league game with my mother.

   I also recall being in the bowels of Connie Mack a few years later, when an usher stopped me and my father as the New York Mets came off their team bus and walked toward their clubhouse. 

   Leading the way was Yogi Berra, then a coach with the Mets. Maybe it was because I was gawping, but he came over and spent a moment talking to me and my father.

   Memories so thick…

   I can’t imagine that, 50 years ago, any Top Five list would have included Connie Mack Stadium but, to me, it was No. 1. (There was no arguing me out of it. Not then.) It was a big-league ballpark. It was where you saw big leaguers.

   Fast forward to 2016. I was in Fenway’s (let’s call it) cramped visiting clubhouse. (This is, by the way, how I see everything about Fenway and, to me, Wrigley is much the same.)

   Exasperated as I tried to squeeze past one player after another who were in various states of being undressed, I grumbled, “This is a big-league clubhouse…?”

   Seth Smith heard me, turned, smiled and said: “There are big leaguers in it.”

   I couldn’t help but nod and smile back as I recalled Connie Mack.

   What happened earlier this week pretty much ensured baseball will not only continue in Seattle for at least another 25 years but will continue at one of the game’s best venues. Memories await. And, yes, postseason would help.