Rob Neyer's Favorite Ballpark Quirks

Ballparks? I've seen a few. It's maybe the best thing about my job (aside from getting paid actual money to sit around my house and watch MLB Extra Innings). And before they were gone, I saw most of the 1960s-'70s multi-purpose stadiums, unaffectionately known by some as "ashtray architecture." Those buildings served their purpose, but today they're widely reviled for their general lack of character; their lack of quirks, which were in grand supply in the previous generation of ballparks.

With the exception of Shea Stadium, those multi-purpose stadiums are gone now, and their replacements are, whatever else we might think about them, certainly distinctive; there's no mistaking the new yard in Arlington, Texas, with the one in Houston. These new ballparks -- and of course the few remaining old ones -- all have quirks, and some of my favorites are listed below. What you won't find here is Yankee Stadium's Monument Park (which was quirky when the monuments were actually in the field of play, but now is just another shrine), or Anaheim Stadium's (so-called) California Spectacular (artifice at its worst) or the Metrodome's right-field "baggie" (which is just sort of pathetic). So here they are (with "quirk" defined at my whimsy)....

Houston's Hill
Roundly denounced by just about every visiting broadcaster and center fielder, that 30-degree embankment in deepest center field is ridiculous, in its way. After all, the embankments seen in old ballparks were usually there to provide good views for overflow crowds that were occasionally allowed to stand on the field. And these days that's not likely to happen in Houston or anywhere else. Nevertheless, I've grown to like Tal's Hill (named after longtime Astros executive Tal Smith), perhaps because on those rare occasions when a fly ball does travel that far, it's terribly entertaining -- and a bit terrifying -- when you realize that a center fielder is about to try something he's not been trained to do, and it's good plain fun until somebody gets hurt (which, after seven-plus seasons, still hasn't happened). And as an added bonus, Tal's Hill also is home to the ballpark's flagpole, reminiscent of old Tiger Stadium.

Fenway's Monster
The Green Monster -- or as the natives prefer, simply "The Wall" -- is perhaps the single most famous feature in the history of stadium architecture, and it's so close to the infield that Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez once said, "Pitching in Fenway is like playing baseball in this room. You can't throw sidearm without bruising you knuckles." Non-Hall of Fame pitcher Bill Lee asked about the Monster, "Do they leave it there during games?" They do, because they don't have a choice. That wall, 37 feet high, is hard up against Lansdowne Street and it's not going anywhere. The recently installed Monster Seats atop the wall do lessen the dramatic impact of home runs soaring over the wall ... but all the revenue generated by those seats help ensure that Fenway, that "lyric little bandbox of a ball park," will be around for at least a few more years.

Wrigley's Ivy
Wrigley Field certainly is the quirkiest ballpark you'll find, and this was probably true even before most of the "classic" yards were turned into apartment buildings and parking lots. There's the vintage scoreboard, and the "W" or "L" banner that is flown after each Cubs game (allowing afternoon travelers on the Red Line to know what happened that day), and that strange wire "basket" that turns so many would-be outs into home runs. But the defining characteristic of Wrigley Field must be the ivy, first planted in 1937 by future Hall of Famer Bill Veeck (whose father had been team president a few years earlier). Especially in these days of outfield fences plastered with garish advertising, Wrigley's verdant walls remind one of a time when commerce occasionally took a back seat to beauty.

Kauffman's royal scoreboard
Royals Stadium -- since renamed after Ewing Kauffman, the franchise's longtime owner -- was the one I grew up with (and I didn't see a game in another ballpark until I was 23). So I've got sentimental feelings for this one. Most people who visit Kauffman probably remember the fountains beyond the fence, or the I-70 traffic whizzing past, beyond the stadium itself. But what will always remain clear in my mind's eye is the king-sized (and -shaped) scoreboard beyond the fence in straightaway center field. Designed before teams figured out that scoreboards were supposed to sell products rather than actually keep score, the giant board was a model of simplicity. In huge lights, there are the lineups, the line score, the balls and the strikes, and the outs. Your one-stop shopping for in-game information, with nary an advertisement in sight. It shouldn't be quirky... but in today's game it is.

Safeco Field's choo-choos
If you're excited by marvels of engineering, it's hard to be unimpressed by Safeco Field's rolling roof with its giant wheels and rails and struts and girders. I wouldn't consider the roof a quirk, though. For a quirk, you have only to listen. Beyond center field, the BNSF Railway crosses Royal Brougham Way at grade, and roughly five times per game a freight (or occasionally Amtrak) train rolls through, blowing two long warning whistles, one short, and one more long. That, more than anything else, is what gives Safeco Field it's sense of place; if you're in a ballpark and you hear those four deafening toots, you know you're in Seattle.

Shea's Big Red Apple
Shea Stadium itself might only be loved by aging Mets devotees nostalgic for past glories, aficionados of the 1964 World's Fair, and fans of the first Men in Black. Intended by Robert Moses to resemble a Roman coliseum, at this point Shea is simply the last extant example of a design ethos that quickly -- at least by the standards of public architecture -- seemed obsolete. Forty years ago Shea was modern, but today it feels oddly plastic and vaguely ridiculous. Nevertheless, Shea does have its pleasures. If you're a fan of civil aviation, there are the airliners flying in and out of nearby LaGuardia Airport. And if you're a fan of Reagan-era kitsch, there's the big red apple that pops out of the Mets Magic Top Hat behind the center-field fence whenever a Met hits a home run. Installed in 1981, originally the hat flashed "Mets Magic," but since 1984 it's simply said, HOME RUN.

San Francisco's McCovey Cove
As soon as they did it, everybody wondered, "Why hasn't anybody done this before?" As soon as the San Francisco Giants built a ballpark on the water, everybody wanted one just like it. But of course everybody can't have the Bay Bridge beyond left field, and the freighter-filled bay isn't available to many teams, either (for one example, though, take in a Staten Island Yankees game someday, and there you've got the added benefit of the Statue of Liberty). All that's well and good, but this piece isn't about pretty scenery. It's about quirks... and there are few things quirkier than a home run that lands not in the stands, but in salt water. But entering the 2006 season, 53 home runs had landed in the water on the fly (that is, without first hitting the " Arcade" or the "Portwalk"). Barry Bonds had 32 of these "Splash Hits"; nobody else, Giant or non-Giant, had more than two.

Coors Field's mile-high seats
The quirkiest thing about Coors Field these days just might be the baseball-storage humidor, which is just about the only way to explain how the Rockies have allowed the fewest runs in the National League in home games (and scored the sixth-fewest). But it's hard to enjoy the humidor when you're sitting in the stands on a lazy August evening. Instead, take a moment and notice the 20th row of seats in the upper deck. They're the only purple seats in the stadium, and when you're up there you're exactly one mile high. In a ballpark full of small but lovely touches, this one probably is the loveliest.

Oriole Park's warehouse
Say all the nasty things you want about Orioles owner Peter Angelos, but at least he hasn't yet figured out a way to sell the name of Oriole Park at Camden Yards (and yes that's a clunky name but it's better than GoogleFart Field, or whatever). There are a lot of things to like about OPaCY, but my favorite is the huge brick building just beyond right field. Constructed in 1899, the B&O Warehouse has been described as "the longest building on the East Coast of the United States." True, there are probably a dozen other buildings about which the same is said... but how many of them serve as the dramatic background in a major league ballpark? Not many, I'll wager. Even better, the Warehouse is an integral part of the operation, containing the franchise's business offices and a large team store.

Portland's MAX
PGE Park in Portland -- my current home, coincidentally -- is the one of the oldest ballparks in the minor leagues, dating to the 1920s. Wedged into a hillside just west of downtown, PGE features old wooden bleachers, an ivy-covered wall just beyond the left-field fence, and a huge hand-operated scoreboard beyond center. But the most dramatic sight in PGE, happening a few times every season, is when a home run sails over the left-field fence, over the ivy, off (and sometimes over) the boardwalk, through the wrought-iron fence, and out onto 18th Avenue, where the ball might strike a passing car or (even better) a MAX light rail train heading downtown.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes for Insider three times most weeks during the season. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com, and his new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders," is available everywhere.