By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Maybe you've noticed this, maybe you haven't, but men discuss baseball parks the same way they discuss women and sex:

Miller Park
AP
Miller Park's retractable roof protects fans from the elements and allows more beer drinking and sausage eating.

"Have you done Camden yet?"

"Freaking unbelievable! Been there twice."

"Isn't it awesome? I just did Enron Field and it was fantastic -- I went three times!"

"You know what's great? Pac Bell in San Fran? I hit that one for an entire Memorial Day Weekend! FANNNNN-tastic! Spent $300 and it was worth every penny."

"I need to go there ... I've hit almost every park. I'm up to 13 and that's just in the last six years."

"Get out of here! Thirteen in six years? That's a pretty big number!"

You get the drift. So when ESPN.com offered me the chance to attend this week's All-Star Game, I couldn't turn down the chance to add Miller Park to the "Ballparks I've Been With" list ... with the added bonus that I could gain 15 pounds from spending 72 hours in Milwaukee. I'd like to order the bratwurst, the Polish sausage and the heart attack, please? And can I get a large order of cheese fries with that?

Anyway, you rarely hear anyone raving about Miller Park, yet another 21st century baseball park that popped up after Camden Yards revolutionized the baseball experience. My buddy Chipper, a lifetime Milwaukee resident, summed it up best: "It's extremely functional."

But that's what they needed here. For one thing, the old park (Milwaukee County Stadium) was an absolute dump. I attended a Brewers game there in '93, probably the least impressive notch on my "Ballparks I've Been With" belt. At the time, I was looking for a one-nighter so I could pad my total ... within 90 minutes, I was looking for my underwear and car keys and trying to sneak out of there without anyone else noticing. It was like seeing a Triple-A game, just a round slab of metal and concrete, with no defining characteristics other than Bernie Brewer's Home Run Chalet. I spent most of my time cracking on the blandness of the place and making fun of Chipper for supporting a team with a ballpark like that. They should have hung a sign outside that read, "Milwaukee County Stadium ... we know it's not much, but, um, at least we have baseball!"

Hey, nobody in Milwaukee cared; baseball has always played second fiddle to football here. Brewers games were merely an excuse for the locals to tailgate, drink heavy beer and eat sausage products, which they probably would have been doing, regardless (more on this later). If you wanted good Brewers tickets, you could usually find them. If you wanted crummy tickets and the chance to tailgate outside, drink heavy beer and eat bad food, you could always do that, too. The Brewers cruised along accordingly, making the World Series in 1982, drawing a decent amount of fans and riding two future Hall of Famers (Robin Yount and Paul Molitor) into the '90s.

  The locals claim that a downtown ballpark wasn't financially feasible; I think they just wanted to ensure plenty of tailgating space for everyone. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Get that grill fired up! Who wants a brat? 
  

Then baseball's salary structure went haywire. Suddenly a small market team, the Brewers needed a new ballpark to remain competitive -- they weren't getting luxury box money, they weren't drawing a steady stream of fans, and they were getting hammered during two crucial months of the baseball season (April and September) because of Wisconsin's unforgiving weather. They needed a modern stadium with either A) a dome, or B) a retractable roof, as well as enough space for everyone to tailgate (so they could continue to drink heavy beer and eat bad food).

Mission accomplished. They built Miller Park two miles from downtown Milwaukee, right off the highway (accessible, easy to enter/exit), with a spacious parking lot that offers more than enough room for everyone's cars. The locals claim that a downtown ballpark wasn't financially feasible; I think they just wanted to ensure plenty of tailgating space for everyone. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Get that grill fired up! Who wants a brat?

(I'm telling you, there isn't another place quite like Milwaukee. While driving around Monday, I passed a local pharmacy that had a sign in the window: "EVERY DAY: FREE CHOLESTEROL AND BLOOD SCREENING." Swear to God. There's a reason that MTV never launched a "Real World: Milwaukee" show -- there would have been episodes geared around plots like "Vanessa's bummed out because she gained 45 pounds in three months" and "Steve's 22nd birthday party is marred when he suffers a mild heart attack.")

So that was one major benefit of the new ballpark. They also wanted to solve the weather dilemma and make the place palatable for April and September games ... hence, the Miller Park roof retracts and untracts (detracts? tracts? post-tracts?) in less than five minutes, turning it into a contemporary dome stadium. Unfortunately, the actual setup of the roof, when it's open, makes it look like a giant space vulva. I won't describe it in detail ... you'll just have to trust me. It looks like something Sigourney Weaver killed in "Alien 3." The general reaction of people upon seeing Miller Park is, "Good God, is that a ... is that ... is that what I think it is?" I can't even imagine coming here after a few tokes on a bong; you'd probably end up having a seizure like that Mets pitcher did.

The place looks much better from the inside ... and if you want to insert your own joke there, well, I can't blame you. It's a quirky design in general -- cushy box seats closest to the field (the 100s), followed by walkways and luxury boxes nestled under the 200 sections, then more walkways and luxury boxes between the 200s and 300s. There really isn't a bad seat in the place -- the seating goes up instead of out (like Pac Bell), so the sections rest right on top of one another (even if you're in the 400s, you have a nice view of the top of the field). During Sunday's "Future All-Stars" game, every foul ball seemed to find its way into somebody's hands, and every outfield seat (three tiers of stands in left field and right field) could yield a potential home run ball.

One thing I didn't like too much: It's a little too new-looking, if that makes sense -- it feels a little contrived. For instance, I loved Pac Bell because it's a stadium built solely for the purpose of enjoying a baseball game, and to a lesser extent, enjoying the experience of being in San Francisco (everything that happens in that place revolves around those two themes). With Miller Park, I didn't get that feeling -- it feels like a giant house that hasn't been lived in enough.

Miller Park
AP
Despite some design quirks, there isn't a bad seat in Miller Park.

And that's mainly the roof's fault; the roof dominates everything. First of all, it makes the stadium seem about nine miles high. Maybe this would work better for football, but baseball has always been more intimate -- even a huge place like Yankee Stadium (one of my favorite pure baseball stadiums, even if it's the house of evil) always gives you the feeling that there couldn't possibly be a better place to appreciate a nine-inning baseball game. And the Miller roof blocks a decent portion of the sun, leaving shadows on the field (almost a gothic effect). If anything, it looks much better at night, with the lights and the dark sky ... you feel like you're in 2049.

My only other complaint is the center field area, only because a ton of space is being wasted. Why wouldn't they stick more seats there? Why allow that ghastly green megawall in center field to stand on its own? I know Major League Baseball frowns on center field seating because it impairs the hitting background for batters ... but come on. No seats in center? Not a one? Just seems dumb.

So those are the negatives. Some of the positives:

  • Any doubts about the benefits of a retractable roof were erased Monday night, during the Home Run Derby, when the roof suddenly closed during Round 2, beating a driving rain storm to the punch by about five minutes. In just about any other ballpark, that rainstorm would have been a bigger disaster than "The Mike Lupica Show." Not here. And just for the record, I liked this place much more with the roof closed -- the entire "ultra-modern, 21st century, dome of the future" effect worked much better for me. It's amazing how far we've come since the days of the Astrodome.

  • They updated Bernie Brewer's Home Run Chalet for the 21st century, situating it in left-center field and spawning a whole new generation of "Bernie seems pooped from sliding down his chute" jokes. Good job. Growing up in the '70s, that was one of my favorite quirky baseball gags, right up there with the bullpen car, the Green Monster, the water fountain in Kansas City and any of Andy Etchebarren's baseball cards. When you're a little kid, does it get any better than a mascot celebrating a home run by sliding into a mug full of beer? Of course not.

    Miller Park
    AP
    Miller Park's no Fenway ... thankfully, for the folks of Milwaukee.

  • All the positive wrinkles of a modern stadium are here: Comfy seats with cupholders ... a great scoreboard in center field, topped off by a gorgeous Jumbotron (for dual action) ... a great sound system ... no lines for rest rooms or drinks ... and everything's very, very, very clean. Some employees actually hang around the condiment areas, just to help people find things and make sure nobody makes a mess (they're like condiment sommeliers). There's always a danger with this stuff -- sometimes you can cross the line from "modern" to "sterile," and Miller Park comes pretty damned close. But it doesn't quite cross the line, unlike some of the other modern stadiums (like Detroit's Comerica Park, which looks like it was rolled off an assembly line).

  • Since they weren't limited by building the park in downtown Milwaukee, they took advantage of an exceptional amount of space. For instance, there's a regulation-sized Little League ballpark sitting near the front entrance (it can also be used for other events -- the Counting Crows played there Sunday night). Inside the park, the concession areas have to be the biggest in the majors -- they stretch back 30 or 40 yards, and you can't walk 10 steps without stumbling into another bratwurst & beer stand. The best adjective you could use for this place, other than "functional," is "sprawling."

  • Everything is so accessible (concessions, rest rooms, etc.) that there's no reason for you to be out of your seat for more than four or five minutes, unless you're walking around. And much like Pac Bell, you can walk just about anywhere in the concession areas and still see the field (the luxury boxes block views behind third base and first base, but that's about it). There are places all over to stand or sit; you can even stand in the outfield and hope for a stray home run ball. There's even a "Friday's" bar and grill in left field, with seats and everything.

    (Sure, every new ballpark seems to have this stuff, but remember, I'm from Boston -- our ballpark is 90 years old, 75 percent of the seats stink, most of the concession stands are underneath the stadium, and we actually have an old-fashioned moat in right field. Also, the seats were built for people who were 5-foot-3. And yet people are fighting to keep it around for another 90 years. You couldn't make this stuff up.)

  • In one of the all-time WATFO's (the acronym for "What Are The &$%#%*@ Odds?"), there are a plethora, a potpourri, a bevy, a cornucopia of food-beer selections at Miller Park (I counted at least 15 different beer alternatives spread around the stadium). They even feature a "special sauce" selection in the condiment bars ... like most relevantly sane human beings, I'm scared of anything that involves the phrase "special sauce," but this was pretty good (like a tangy barbecue taste). Maybe the overall food selection wasn't as good as Pac Bell or Camden Yards, but the four basic Milwaukee food groups are more than taken care of here ("hot dog," "Polish," "Italian" and "brat"). You couldn't have it any other way.

    So that's Miller Park ... not the best I've ever had, but a good time all around, as well as another notch on my "Ballparks I've Been With" belt. And sure, the question remains, would you rather have a ballpark like this -- a functional, sprawling, modern, inventive, slightly sterile place that serves its purpose to a tee -- or would you rather have a decrepit, dysfunctional, virtual museum that survives solely on history and affection, something like, oh, I don't know, say ... Fenway Park? We'll have to save that one for another day.

    Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN Magazine.



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