Former major league pitcher Ed Farmer went to fabled Fenway Park for the first time in 1971. "I thought it was a warehouse, I thought 'there must be a real little ballpark in there somewhere,' '' he said. "But even today, when I go through those doors, reality stays outside.''
Fenway Park is magical. There's no ballpark, stadium or arena quite like it. Squeezed into the Fenway section of Boston, it's old, cramped and irritable, but there's no better place, no more intimate setting, for a baseball game. It is packed every night with among the most frantic, most sophisticated fans in the game. It is funky and eccentric, full of odd-wall angles and secret hiding places. Poet Donald Hall called it "a huge pinball machine designed by a mad sculptor.'' It has been home to some of the wildest games in baseball history.
"Going in there is like going back in time,'' says Rich Donnelly, a coach for the Dodgers. "Babe Ruth pitched there. Ted Williams played there. It is the coolest place I've ever been.''
I have covered a game in 48 ballparks, and Fenway remains No. 1 mostly because of its closeness, and the stories it can tell.
"It just appears, it's so eerie,'' says Orioles general manager Mike Flanagan, who pitched at Fenway many times. "When I made it to the big leagues, I didn't feel like I'd really made it until I played a game at Fenway. It is the most emotional place a player can play, even more than Yankee Stadium, because of the history and the tradition. Players get up for games at Fenway more than any park because of the fans. At Yankee Stadium, you feel you can breathe because of all the foul territory behind home plate. At Fenway, it feels like the fans are standing right next to you.''
There is a seat painted red deep in the right-field stands where one of Ted Williams' longest home runs landed. The Pesky Pole is in right field. There is the CITGO sign beyond the left center field fence; every time Red Sox killer Joe Carter would see that sign, he would think to himself, C-It-Go. Years ago, a man locked his keys in his car down the street from Fenway. Mark McGwire hit a home run off Zane Smith that went way out of the ballpark, down the street and smashed a hole in the windshield of the man's car, allowing him to retrieve his keys. He brought the ball to McGwire, who dutifully signed it.
Fenway's 37-foot high Green Monster is the most recognizable feature of any sports facility in America. It's made of sheet metal and steel, painted field green, and lurks 309 feet from home plate. A ladder is attached to it in fair territory: Jim Lemon hit a fly ball that hit the ladder and ricocheted to center field, allowing him to circle the bases. A door leads inside the Monster; many of the greatest players have autographed that inside wall. Manny Ramirez went through that door once during a pitching change, and nearly didn't come out in time for the next pitch.
The Wall is home to the anachronistic scoreboard; the two men who run it place 12-by-16-inch panels, weighing two pounds each, into the allotted spots for each inning. The initials of former Red Sox owners Tom and Jean Yawkey can be seen in Morse code on the scoreboard. One of the most famous home runs in history, Bucky Dent's blast that beat the Red Sox in the 1978 playoff game, cleared The Wall.
Now, fans can sit in seats atop the Monster, and well above those seats are giant Coke bottles, but it's still the Green Monster, and it has haunted pitchers and delighted hitters for years.
"I look at the expressions of those who see it for the first time,'' says Flanagan. "There are some amazed faces.''
One belonged to a colleague, the brilliant and hilarious Gerry Fraley, who covered the Atlanta Braves in the 1980s, and had never been to Fenway until the 1986 World Series. During batting practice before Game 3 in Boston, he looked at the Green Monster and said, "Do they take that thing down when the game starts?''
He loved the place. And we will always love it.
The rest of the top five ballparks
Oriole Park at Camden Yards: It opened in 1992, and remains the best of the retro ballparks, which is really saying something.
With the restored warehouse beyond the right-field fence and downtown Baltimore resplendent beyond the opening in left center, Camden Yards has maintained its beauty and charm after all these years. Plus, the food is great, from the signature crab cakes to Boog's Barbeque beyond the right-field fence.
PNC Park: Finally, much of the nation got to see this magnificent place during the 2006 All-Star Game.
There is no better walk in baseball than from downtown Pittsburgh, across the Roberto Clemente Bridge and into the ballpark, which sits on the Allegheny River. Crushed home runs can wind up in the Allegheny's water.
"I grew up here, and I never really noticed those bridges,'' former Pirate John Wehner once said as he sat in the dugout before a game, gazing beyond the center-field fence. "From here, they are beautiful.''
Wrigley Field: Traditionalists have to love a park that was built in 1914, and didn't have lights until 1988.
The ivy on the outfield walls, the scoreboard (the one that was built in 1937) and the potential for a home run to leave the ballpark and land on the roof of a building across the street make Wrigley one of the great treasures of the game. It makes us all want do what Ferris Bueller did: take off from school or work and go to a day game at Wrigley.
AT&T Park: It is a nearly perfect ballpark, located in San Francisco at 24 Willie Mays Plaza, and featuring McCovey Cove beyond the right-field fence.
From the lower bowl, fans get a fabulous view of the field. From the upper deck, specifically in the right center field stands, fans get a spectacular view of water, the city of Oakland and bridges -- it's like being in Hawaii.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.