Ballpark Digest, a publication that since 2002 has informed the baseball industry, annually ranks all 30 major-league ballparks. So do Popular Mechanics, Yelp, newspapers, magazines, sportswriters, ordinary fans.
While it’s a popular pastime, it’s also a wildly subjective one. How, after all, can you fairly compare facilities whose ages range from 1 to 112, whose settings vary from bayside to warehouse district, whose fan bases differ from apathetic to apoplectic? Is history a more important criterion than accessibility? Does a good ballpark burger negate a lousy location?
That’s why it’s surprising that when it comes to Citizens Bank Park, there is a virtual unanimity of opinion: The Phillies’ ballpark, which marks its 15th anniversary this season, has sightlines, concessions, and unique features like Ashburn Alley and the Wall of Fame that rate with the best in baseball.
But its location, in an asphalt desert on the edge of the city, warrants a hearty round of boos.
“Traditionally, we’ve viewed Citizens Bank Park as an upper-level ballpark. Its design is very functional,” said Kevin Reichard, the publisher of Ballpark Digest, which ranks CBP 14th. “But the location is definitely a minus.”
In also placing the Phillies ballpark at No. 14, USA Today noted that while “Citizens Bank Park is a nice stadium, its location in a sports complex off the highway doesn’t make for a fun pregame atmosphere.”
An informal review of more than a dozen recent ballpark evaluations revealed that Citizens Bank Park sits squarely in the middle — as high as No. 12 on the Washington Post’s list and as low as 21 in Popular Mechanics’ scoring.
The rankings’ consensus top five betray a preference for spectacular settings and historic charm. They are San Francisco’s Oracle (formerly AT&T) Park, Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, and baseball’s three chestnuts — Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Dodger Stadium.
The most common bottom-of-the-barrel picks were St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Dome, 53-year-old Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and the White Sox’s soulless Guaranteed Rate Field.
In many ways, the Phillies’ 43,035-seat stadium in South Philadelphia reflects the trend toward amenity-laden retro ballparks that began with the 1992 opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Like most of the other 20 stadiums constructed since then, it’s got a brick shell, an old-time baseball feel, plenty of good food and a distinct personality.
But in opting for a remote parking lot over proposed locales in Chinatown and elsewhere in Center City, the Phillies also insured that CBP would be an outlier.
It’s one of only five of the post-Camden Yards 20 not set in or near the heart of a city. And six of the eight facilities built since its 2004 debut — including San Diego’s Petco Park, which also opened that year — are downtown.
“We know it’s convenient to be part of Philly’s sports complex,” said Reichard, “but all that foot traffic is wasted there.”
Despite its one significant drawback, the architects of CBP, said Reichard, did a better job of compensating for a poor location than did those who designed Miller Park in Milwaukee or New York’s Citi Field.
“There’s a real sense of place there,” Reichard said in a recent telephone interview from his publication’s Wisconsin offices. “Yes, it’s in a sea of parking lots, but you have to be really high up to be looking out on that. If you’re sitting in the grandstands, you have a view of downtown. You feel you’re still in the city and not at a suburban sports development. I think, overall, it gives it a very urban feel that belies its location.”
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That view, the boardwalk-like Ashburn Alley and a design that allows Citizen Bank Park’s fans to stroll the concourse while still keeping an eye on the game were what the assessors liked best.
“Many parks have imitated the concourse setup … but none have nailed it as well,” noted the Post. “It’s a comfortable, beautiful place to catch a game.”
This offseason, an $80 million refurbishment added even more amenities — a Shake Shack, a sports bar, an outdoor beer garden.
“I think some of that stuff will really pick things up,” said Reichard. “The last time I was there, it was starting to feel a little run down.”
If Citizens Bank Park is going to climb in Ballpark Digest’s annual rankings, Reichard said, the next change ought to involve a focus on millennials.
“The addition of what I call `social spaces’ is a trend we’ve been seeing for a number of years,” he said. “Two years ago at Yankee Stadium, they overhauled the area in dead center field, tore out the bleacher seating and made it a standing-room-only social space. It has its own bar and concessions, USB plugs, drink rails. It’s all designed for millennials to hang out and watch the game on their own terms. Philly doesn’t have that yet.”
In any event, if Phillies fans are disappointed that CBP doesn’t rate higher nationally, they can at least be thankful that much-maligned Veterans Stadium has disappeared.
“I was at the Vet once,” said Reichard, “and I saw the biggest rat I’ve ever seen in my life. It was the size of a cat.”