Take Me Out to the Ball Game!
For many years, baseball has been my constant companion. Our friendship dates back to when I was six and—stop me if you’ve heard this before—my father took me to see a game at Yankee Stadium. After what seemed like an endless journey up stairs and ramps and back down some more stairs, we found our seats. Beer in hand, Dad reverently pointed down to centerfield. And there stood his idol, the great Mickey Mantle…
That was 1957. During the Fifties in the New York area, baseball was still king. And there was no better place for fans to discuss it than at their corner taverns. These were no-frills establishments, whose decor was limited to simple breweriana (which would fetch a small fortune today); a black-and-white TV with a rabbit-ears antenna; and maybe a shuffleboard table or two.
Sometimes Dad would take me to his neighborhood local (who could afford babysitters back then?) where he held court. Then, one day, I was officially admitted to the charmed circle. During a heated discussion of the upcoming World Series, a friend of Dad’s turned to me and uttered the magic words, “Well Paulie, what do you think?”
Still, my real rite of passage into manhood—actually getting to drink beer—was still some years off. At least I didn’t have to wait as long as many Americans. In those days, the legal drinking age in New York was 18. I went through another important change then. By the time I became legal, I’d shifted my baseball loyalty to the Mets. (You see, I’d been raised by a strict National League mother.)
As often as I could, I hopped a bus, then a train, and then the famous No. 7 subway to Shea Stadium. A highlight of the game was pulling out two singles and flagging down the beer man, who came over and poured me a Schaefer. Or was it a Rheingold? Both of those beers (along with Ballantine and Piels) sponsored local sports teams at one time or another.
JOINING THE ROAD TEAM
That’s how my beer traveling began, with quick trips “into the city.” But by that time, the urge to travel had long been in my blood. When I was small, Dad moonlighted at an Esso station and sometimes brought home road maps. My favorite map outlined a vast fantasy realm called “Central and Western States,” a world I hoped to explore for myself one day.
That day had to wait a while—until after finishing college. Then I was finally making enough money to feed and care for a car and pay my travel expenses, which included gas, motel-room lodging and game tickets. And then there were my eating expenses, based upon the single guy’s four basic food groups: truck stop coffee, hamburgers, salty snacks and (of course) beer. Summer trips between my new home in Michigan and my old one in New Jersey turned into convenient excuses to see the ballparks located in the vicinity of these two states. Just as medieval astrologers consulted celestial charts, I pored over my road atlas and baseball schedule when mapping my routes.
My first ballpark road trips took place in the Seventies, which were strange times for both beer and baseball. The economics of the brewing industry—which essentially required breweries to advertise and distribute on a national scale—proved a death sentence for local breweries whose names fans still associate with baseball. One by one, they closed their doors. Strange things were happening inside the parks, too. Basically, not everyone knew when to say when. At Tiger Stadium, my semi-official summer hangout, Friday was unofficially Fight Night. Things got so bad that the Tigers closed down the bleachers after beer-soaked fans interfered with the action on the field.
Ballpark travel allowed me to try local brews before they vanished. To be honest, they tasted much the same as those beers I knew well, but they were still exotic because I’d never tried them before. In Philadelphia, college friends introduced me to Schmidt’s, “the Beer for the Bicentennial.” (This should not be confused with Schmidt beer, which I drank outside Metropolitan Stadium before a Twins game. Schmidt cans featured native wildlife.) In Baltimore, the local brew was “Natty Bo”—National Bohemian. Some years later, I encountered another local beer inside Memorial Stadium. It was called Bird Beer. Strangely, I’ve yet to find a single Baltimore Oriole fan who remembers it.
A QUEST IS BORN
It was during a trip from Michigan to the East Coast that my ballpark travels truly became an Arthurian quest. The magic moment came on a muggy evening in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium: a foul ball almost literally bounced into my cup of beer, symbolically linking my twin passions. I took the ball’s appearance as a sign, much like that message Kevin Costner sees on the Fenway Park scoreboard in Field of Dreams. The “soggy ball incident” inspired me to try to see a game in every major league ballpark. (By the way, that special ball still occupies a place of honor on my desk, next to a bottle of Flying Dog Ale autographed by artist Ralph Steadman.)
As my ballpark travels took me even farther afield, my beer horizons widened as well. On a trip to San Diego, I stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall deli that not only made tailgate-quality sandwiches for Jack Murphy Stadium’s parking lot, but also held a treasure trove of imported beer. Stocked with hundreds of brands, it was better than any toy store I’d roamed through as a kid. All that weekend, I stocked up on beers, icing them down in my motel room. After the game, I enjoyed a self-guided tutorial tasting of Czech lagers, English bitters, Japanese dry beers, as well as the really weird stuff—including something called EKU 28, which I pronounced “undrinkable.” My palate was in serious need of further education. In due time, that would come.
Toronto was one step in that right direction. At the time, the Blue Jays were an awful team and they played in Exhibition Stadium, one of the ugliest parks in the majors. But the city itself more than made up for the “Ex”’s deficiencies. Its pubs introduced me to Molson Stock Ale, Brador and John Labatt’s Extra Stock. After coming home from Canada, I started making regular beer runs—or should I say ale runs?—across the border.
In San Francisco that same year, I discovered brewpubs, an institution that wouldn’t become legal in my home state for some years to come. What fascinated me was watching the customers who showed up with growlers. The last time I’d seen someone carry home freshly-poured beer was on a long-ago Sunday in New Jersey, when local blue laws limited off-sales to cardboard containers called “leakers,” which were given that nickname for good reason.
Another West Coast trip (this time to Seattle, to see the Mariners in the Kingdome) turned me into an honest-to-goodness beer traveler. Before I hit the road, friends gave me the skinny on Northwest microbrews. What they didn’t tell me was that F.X. McRory’s Steak, Chop and Oyster House was hosting a mini-beer festival featuring regional micros. I sampled ales from Portland Brewing, Deschutes, and Red Hook, while hop aromas and visions of my next western trip danced in my head.
The folks in charge of major league baseball have come in for plenty of criticism lately, but one thing they’ve gotten right recently is ballpark design. One by one, the ugly concrete donuts (where baseball played second fiddle to the NFL) are being replaced by real parks offering the best of two worlds: the charm and quirkiness of classic parks like Ebbets Field coupled with the latest in creature comforts. And in these swanky new parks, brawling fans are almost as rare as .400 hitters.
Baseball made another smart move by locating the parks downtown. The famous phrase from Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come,” also applies to watering holes near the ballpark—that is, if the watering holes aren’t already located there. Every serious fan already knows about Murphy’s Bleachers, the Cubby Bear, Goose Island Wrigleyville, and dozens of other bars surrounding Chicago’s Wrigley Field. And no baseball trip—or any other trip—to Denver is complete without making a sweep through the bars and brewpubs surrounding Coors Field.
There are plenty of beer destinations to explore in other major league cities:
Within walking distance of the Blue Jays’ new home you’ll find two of Ontario’s best beer bars—Smokeless Joe’s and Esplanade Biermarkt—as well as the Steam Whistle Brewing Company, which offers tours of its “Laverne & Shirley”-era facility.
The neighborhood around Fenway Park welcomes fans with plenty of beery haunts. My favorite is the Boston Beer Works, a brewpub across the street from the ballpark’s entrance. It was there that a long-suffering fan once told me over a glass of Hercules Strong Ale, “The only reason the Sox don’t lose today is that it will hurt more if they lose tomorrow.”
Houston’s Minute Maid Park is within walking distance of the Flying Saucer Beer Emporium and the bars and clubs of a downtown district that’s coming back to life.
Across the Ohio River from Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark is the Hofbrauhaus, a scaled-down and ever-so-slightly-Americanized version of the world’s most famous beer hall, but featuring the same beers as those poured in Munich. Walking there on the blue bridge spanning the river is part of the charm of the experience.
Across the street from Safeco Field, Seattle’s new state-of-the-art ballpark, you’ll find the Pyramid Brewery. From there, it’s just a short jaunt to F.X. McRory’s, Pioneer Square, and beyond that, the alehouses of downtown and Belltown.
MICROS MAKE THE BIG LEAGUES
Over the years, much has changed inside the ballparks, as well. In fact, we’re coming full circle to the days when fans drank locally brewed beer at the game. The trend started in (where else?) the West, where concessionaires discovered that regional food and drink added pizazz to a ballpark menu that had gone stale. Today, in addition to the standard fare usually offered, you’ll find concession stands selling barbecued pork and beef, turkey legs, clam chowder, bratwurst, and—don’t knock ’em if you haven’t tried ’em—fish tacos.
And microbrewed beer. It too has broken into the lineup, thanks to changing consumer tastes—and a nudge from the federal government, which challenged Anheuser-Busch’s dominance of the tap handles. In recent years, I’ve found Great Lakes Brewing Company beers in Cleveland’s Jacobs Field; Penn Brewing Company’s offerings at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park (along with cult favorites Iron City and Rolling Rock); a stand selling Maryland-brewed beer at Oriole Park in Camden Yards; and, of course, the brewed-on-premises Sandlot beers at Coors Field. And this year, I’m looking forward to some fresh Hell—that is, Atwater Block’s Hell, which is served at Detroit’s Comerica Park.
Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, which opened two seasons ago, might offer a glimpse into the future of ballpark beer. While the park was in the planning stages, the Phillies’ management involved fans in its design. One result of their input was the inclusion of several “Brewerytown” stands that pour beers from area micros. Will this trend to spread to other ballparks? I certainly intend to find out.
RUNNING ALL THE BASES
Which brings me to my original quest to see all the major league ballparks. I’ve whittled my must-see list down to four.
Heading it is AT&T Park in San Francisco. (I still haven’t been to the Anchor Brewery or Toronado, it’s time for a return visit to Jupiter and the Triple Rock Ale House, and the breweries of Wine Country await beyond that.) There’s also Petco Park in San Diego. PizzaPort and Stone Brewing aren’t far away, and I’ve circled September 22 on my calendar: there’s a downtown beer festival that evening, and the Padres are home that weekend.
Heading back east, there’s the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the home of the new Schlafly Brewery and the old Anheuser-Busch brewery, both of which I intend to visit. And the route from Motown to the Gateway Arch passes a dozen or so breweries.
Last but not least, there’s RFK Stadium, the temporary home of the Washington Nationals. It’s time to renew acquaintances with the Brickskeller, I’ve been wanting to try Old Dominion’s beers, and if I don’t find enough beer in the nation’s capital, Baltimore isn’t far away.
And on the way back I can visit…Hey, wait a minute! I just got an idea for a road trip. Could you excuse me for a moment? I need to dig out my maps and rummage through my beer library.
See you at the ballpark!
In addition to his love of baseball, writer Paul Ruschmann documents his wanderlust for faraway brew in All About Beer Magazine's "Beer Travelers" column.