The Opening Day of baseball season was last week, so I’m seven days late with my annual paean to baseball. And in particular to how baseball works in a city.
Baseball and urbanism can be odd partners. The large expanses required for a ballpark are inconsistent with the tight and densely used urban grids that allow cities to work.
But baseball and cities can work well together if the blend is structured well. With the Major Leagues and high minors having more than seventy home games every year, neighborhoods can thrive with the street activity created by a ballpark. But it must be a ballpark that accommodates the character and quirks of a neighborhood, not one that is surrounded by acres of asphalt. It also helps if the ballpark is near the edge of the urban area, so there are few destinations beyond it.
Luckily, we have a number of ballparks in or near the North Bay that meet at least some of those criteria.
To celebrate Opening Day and urbanism, I’ll list highlight nine city ballparks. (Nine, of course, is also the number of players on a team.) I won’t try to rank the parks. There are too many variables to consider. Instead, my order will be driving distance from the North Bay.
1 - Albert Field in San Rafael: The ballpark, immediately south of downtown, is the homefield of the San Rafael Pacifics. The Pacifics play in an independent league, outside of affiliated baseball. The roster is comprised of players who fell below the radar of affiliated ball or grew too old to be considered prospects. Most independent leagues play the equivalent of between Single-A and Double-A baseball. The ballgames in San Rafael may not be as well-played as a Major League game, but provide exciting ballgames in a comfortable setting.
2 – Vallejo Admirals Park: In the same league with the Pacifics are the Vallejo Admirals. For their inaugural season, they’ll play on a ballfield next to the Curtola Parkway in downtown Vallejo.
3 – Evans Field on the University of California campus: I spent many spring afternoons as a student doing physics homework in the stands behind first base. It remains a fine place to watch a ballgame and is only a couple of blocks from a BART station.
4 – The College of Alameda ballfield: There is a growing collegiate summer league in Northern California. The league provides a good level of amateur play in an informal setting. The Far West League includes a couple of Bay Area teams. The Neptune Beach Pearl play their games at a junior college diamond in Alameda, easily accessible to much of the Bay Area.
Although they play in a less urban setting, I’ll also mention the Walnut Creek Crawdads. They play on the campus of St. Mary’s College in Moraga. More importantly to me, the general manager is the son of long-time friends.
5 – AT&T Park: The Giants’ homefield is a fine example of a city ballpark. Even better, the neighborhood around AT&T Park has significantly improved since the ballpark was built. More homes, more retail, more people on the street, better transit. It’s a great example of what a well-conceived urban ballpark can do. And, with its rightfield wall within feet of San Francisco Bay, AT&T Park is truly at the edge of the urban grid.
6 – Oakland Coliseum: I didn’t include the Coliseum on this list a year ago. The home of the Oakland A’s is a prototypical ballpark of the 1970s, designed for easy access by suburban drivers, not for use by the nearby city dwellers. But the ballpark is easily accessible by transit and there is a nearby proposed transit-oriented development that would allow walking access to the park. So the Coliseum slips onto the list this year.
7 - Raley Field: The homefield of the Sacramento River Cats is growing into this list quite nicely. When the ballpark was built, the neighborhood was aging industrial facilities. But an urbanist community is gradually being built between the ballpark and the river. For now, the area remains a work in progress. But someday soon, Raley Field will be a pre-eminent urban ballpark.
8 - Banner Island Ballpark: The homepark of the Stockton Ports is a few blocks from downtown Stockton. It adjoins an older residential neighborhood, the downtown arena, and a waterway of the Port of Stockton. It was also a key element of the overly-ambitious redevelopment plan that helped drive Stockton into bankruptcy. Baseball in the city can be a good thing, but must be done in moderation.
9 –Chukchansi Park: The homepark of the Triple-A affiliate of the Giants is a highlight of downtown Fresno. It adjoins the old business district and feels nicely shoehorned into the street grid. It’s a fun place to watch a game.
Enjoy baseball this spring. Go walk a downtown and then catch a ballgame.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)