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FAMILY VACATIONS: U.S.

Ballpark Fun and Games

Discovering America's essence through major and minor league stadiums

May 18, 1997|MARGARET ENGEL

Some families visit museums, battlefields and beaches on their vacations. Our family heads for America's ballparks.

We can't help it. My husband, Bruce Adams, and I were raised on baseball. I spent much of my childhood summers in Cleveland's cavernous Municipal Stadium watching the Indians play. My twin sister and I would get 32 pairs of tickets each summer from the late Cleveland Press, which showered kids with tickets if they made the honor roll. Thousands of us spent summer afternoons in the bleachers, rooting for Rocky Colavito and eating Frosty Malts.

Bruce's father spent his boyhood in Washington's Griffiths Stadium watching games with his friend, Eddie Johnson, whose Hall of Famer father, Walter, was the greatest right-handed pitcher in baseball.

Our first date was at Fenway Park. On our honeymoon in Paris, Bruce tried to get into the U.S. Embassy on a Sunday to get the details of the Baltimore Orioles' progress in the World Series.

So it makes perfect sense that in the past two years, our family, which now includes children ages 7 and 10, has traveled 25,000 miles across America, attending games at 85 of the best major and minor league baseball parks. Our stated purpose was to research and write a baseball-park guidebook for families ("Ballpark Vacations," Fodor's). But our real purpose turned out to be discovering the single best way to learn about a city and have fun in the process. Exploring a city through its ballclub and stadium is a delightful learning experience. A park's customs and regional foods, its music, announcers, mascots and even the attitude of the fans reflect the culture of each locale.

We're not alone in our love of baseball in large and small venues. America's minor league ballparks are enjoying their best attendance since the pre-television years, with 33 million fans pushing through the turnstiles last year. We witnessed sellout after sellout as families discovered the inexpensive magic of a night in a ballpark, with activities that appeal to all ages. Grandma probably won't ride the Flying Screamer at an amusement park, but she may teach her grandkids how to fill out a scorecard on a summer's night at a ball field.

And you don't have to endure a marathon car trip to see some wonderful parks. The western United States has an especially good crop of beautifully sited minor league parks as well as exciting major league stadiums. We visited 15 West Coast and mountain states ballparks on our trip and have some of our best memories from these stops.

At first, we thought our ballpark travels would meld into confusion, as "was that great beef sandwich in Buffalo or Cedar Rapids?" But we have surprisingly distinct memories from our travels.

When we think of Stockton, Calif., for example, we remember exploring the World Wildlife Museum with its ferocious stuffed animals and the sweet, 1950's-era Pixie Woods Park, where our children played before watching traveling mascot BirdZerk hip-hopping with an umpire at the Stockton Ports game. The Fenway Park-style wall and its 90-foot-tall clock tower spring instantly to mind when we think of the Lake Elsinore Diamond.

Families living in the Los Angeles area are particularly blessed, with three of the country's newest and most original minor league parks within 60 miles--Rancho Cucamonga's Epicenter; Lake Elsinore's Diamond, nestled in the foothills of the Ortega Mountains; and The Ranch in San Bernadino. These parks have beautiful architecture, exceptional landscaping and whimsical building details that give fans a true visual treat. We wondered about the players who spend their minor league years in these fabulous new parks and then graduate to lesser facilities in the bigger leagues.

We loved that the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes have a sense of humor, with their park named the Epicenter and their mascots, Tremor and Aftershock. This is making lemonade out of lemon in earthquake country. In an endearing thank-you to the performer who put its town on the map, the park has a life-size statue of Jack Benny, with violin, in its concourse. On his radio show, Benny used to call out a train conductor's singsong of California towns, ending with RAN-cho Cuc-a-MON-ga!

No trip to California would be complete without seeing Dodger Stadium because of its history and fan enthusiasm. The state's other major league stadium that shouldn't be missed is 3COM/Candlestick Park, if only for nostalgia's stake. Grab long pants and a sweatshirt and head to the windy park before the team leaves for its new, downtown San Francisco location in China Basin in 2000.

Also in the Bay Area is San Jose's Municipal Stadium, home of the San Jose Giants. This park not only has unusual food (grilled abalone steak and turkey legs in the patio along the third-base line), but it's got colorful reproductions of Norman Rockwell baseball prints on the concourse walls.

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