Concrete doughnuts. Giant ashtrays. Toilet bowls. There have been few kind descriptions of the instant-eyesore multipurpose stadiums erected in the 1970s. All had the design passion and innovation of a bored kindergartner drawing a circle with the top of a peanut butter jar.
"I can stand at the plate at the Vet in Philadelphia, and I don't honestly know whether I'm in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis or Philly," Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Richie Hebner said at the time.
The dreary cylinders are quickly falling. Over the past three years, new boutique ballparks have opened in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with real grass, great seats, good food, fun games and often stunning city views.
St. Louis will join their ranks next season.
It's possible to visit all three on a single road trip, if you can get the schedules lined up.
CINCINNATI Great American Ball Park
Dave Wilmes loved the teams that played at old Riverfront Stadium, even if he hated the place itself.
"I remember sitting in the upper deck and there's a high fly ball and I'm actually looking down on it," recalled Wilmes, 74, whose love affair with the Reds began at old Crosley Field.
But the championship seasons of 1975, 1976 and 1990 went a long way toward warming fans to Riverfront's four tiers of industrial ugliness. That's the one thing the Reds forgot when they opened up the new Great American Ball Park last year: a winning team.
Fans enter and pass statues of past Reds greats sprinkled around Crosley Terrace, which recalls old Crosley Field, the Reds' home before Riverfront Stadium. Statues of former Reds greats Joe Nuxhall, Ted Kluszewski and Ernie Lombardi are scattered around the area.
Seats from the old field are used as rest benches inside the park. The Longines clock in the outfield is also a re-creation of the clock at Crosley. The light standards are also an echo of Crosley Field, home of baseball's first night game in 1935.
The new stadium's signature design element is two 64-foot-tall riverboat funnels, sitting in distant right center field, which spew steam after a Reds home run or great play.
Critics have groused that the steamboat theme that runs throughout the new Great American Ball Park is a bit gimmicky for a city that is home to baseball's oldest franchise, with roots to 1869. But it's still a major improvement over Riverfront.
The new park has a red and white theme, echoing the team's colors. There's generous use of brick, echoing the mid-19th century Ohio River architecture of the city. Artwork around the stadium recalls the teams' heroes. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the oddly named Machine Room Grille wasn't named The Big Red Machine because the team and former star player Joe Morgan are in a dispute over who owns the trademark for the famous nickname of the Reds' great 1970s teams. The Reds say they always planned to give the grille the name it has.
Much of the food fans can choose from comes from famous local eateries, like Skyline Chili and Montgomery Inn BBQ. Or try the sausage stands serving burned-to-near-black Big Red Smokies hot dogs.
At each game, a group of fans in the cheap seats is picked to sit in the Big Red Couch, a massive overstuffed sofa with great sight lines in left field at field level.
If the game doesn't grab you, there's plenty to do - a wall of balls shows how to grip fastballs, curves and sliders. Bats of various weights used by the likes of Ken Griffey, Pete Rose and Joe Morgan can be measured. There are pitching, hitting and throwing games (note to Angels owner Arte Moreno: Unlike at Angels Stadium, these kiddy amusements are free, not $2 a pop).
When it's sunny out, you can see bits of the river, an old church and a bridge that stretches out to northern Kentucky. But after dark, much of the scenery disappears. Orienting the stadium toward downtown Cincinnati might have been a better idea.
"Mr. Baseball," a baseball-headed Reds mascot, tries to whip up the crowd, but it's been hard to root for a team that's in the second tier of its division.
Wilmes, the longtime fan, said the ballpark is wonderful - but not as important as the team's performance.
"If they would win, I would have been happy to stay at Riverfront," Wilmes said. "Of course, I would prefer they win here. It's much nicer."
If you go
Location: On the north bank of the Ohio River near downtown
Ticket prices: $9 to $200 per seat. Bleacher seats for $5 are sold only on game days. Good field-level seats are $36 each.
Favorite cheap seats: The Sun/Moon Deck in right field. Between innings, you can look out on the Ohio River from the elevated esplanade. $19 each.
Look for: The Rose Garden, on the back side of the park on the right field side. It marks the spot in old Riverfront Stadium where Pete Rose's record-breaking 4,192nd hit landed. Rose is mostly recalled fondly in Cincinnati, despite his lifetime ban from baseball.
Favorite food: Skyline Cheese Coney. A hot dog smothered in Cincinnati's famous chili.
Don't forget: Visit the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, just outside the home plate entrance. Call (513) 765-7923 for hours and information.
Contacts: (513) 765-7000 or www.cincinnatireds.com.
What an amazing park. What an awful team.
The smallest ballpark in the National League, and second smallest in the majors after Boston's storied Fenway Park, is still often half-empty on most nights as the Pirates struggle through another losing season. They haven't had a winning season since 1992, the year they traded home-run-record heir-apparent Barry Bonds to the San Francisco Giants.
The team may be a dud, but the new Pirates field is an unqualified triumph. If a stadium could have a theme song, PNC Park's would be Bob Seger's "Beautiful Loser."
It starts with a walk from downtown to the park. Yes, walk. The new stadium sits on the north side of the Allegheny River, just across the golden-trussed Roberto Clemente Bridge from downtown Pittsburgh. Fans stroll across the span, serenaded by a blues-playing saxophonist and T-shirt hawkers (along with the occasional panhandler).
"This is the all-time best," said Al Weleski, 51, of Natrona Heights. He was visiting the park with his wife, Rose, 47, to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
"Now we come to the park early and have dinner with friends, walk around. There wasn't any reason to do that at Three Rivers."
Rose said the constant losses are depressing, but it won't keep them from coming to the park.
"Sure, it would be more fun if we were on top, but real fans come out no matter where the team is in the standings," she said. "The real fans don't boo a guy who's in a slump. He doesn't need that."
Like the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, the new Pittsburgh park skips a generation in its architectural memory. The template is Forbes Field, the Pirates' onetime home, scene of Bill Mazeroski's famous walk-off home run to beat the heavily favored New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series. The stone front and pilasters, dramatic masonry arches and steel roof all contain echoes of Forbes Field.
Steel is everywhere. The city's most famous industry is well-represented in the towering light standards that look like massive girders fresh out of a forge. Other local products are here, too: a Heinz ketchup sign is affixed to the right field wall.
Even the food has a local bent. There are few national chains here. Fans line up for sandwiches from Primanti Bros., who pile on french fries, coleslaw and tomatoes. There are also Benkovitz Seafood and Vincent's of Greentree pizza. Manny's BBQ is another standard feature in newer parks - a barbecue joint where a former team great, in this case All-Star catcher Manny Sanguillen, makes an appearance.
But David Michaels, 24, of Moon Township said the Pirates have got to get better to draw more fans.
"At its heart, Pittsburgh is a football town," he said. "If the Pirates are out of it in July, all people are talking about is when the Steelers training camp opens up."
If you go
Location: North side of the Allegheny River, across from downtown
Ticket prices: $9 to $210. Good field box seats cost $27 each.
Favorite cheap seats: Upper-deck Grandstand seats, third base side, Sections 321 to 325, with great views of the Pittsburgh skyline. $16 each.
Look for: The huge statue of Willie Stargell, who died just hours before PNC Park opened in 2001. Smaller children like to run between the statue's legs.
Favorite food: Primanti's. This meal in a sandwich even piles in the french fries and cole slaw.
Don't forget: Walk from downtown, crossing the Roberto Clemente Bridge. It's one of the great urban ballpark experiences in America.
Contacts: (412) 323-5000 or www.pittsburghpirates.com.
PHILADELPHIA Citizens Bank Park
"Get yer genuine Phillies game day program right here - New York Times best-seller, Oprah Book of the Month choice, a coffee-table book to impress your friends, great bathroom reading," booms scorecard hawker Tommy "Peppy" Payne, 26.
It's classic Philadelphia - loud, funny, sarcastic and rude. Phillies fans are a tough crowd. Toughened by a century of putting up with some of the worst ballparks in baseball - shabby Connie Mack Stadium, then dank and dark Veterans Stadium with its concrete-like artificial turf.
Now they have a baseball palace, a state-of-the-art ballpark designed to incorporate all the best of its recent predecessors (like Cleveland's massive video screen) and avoid the mistakes (Oriole Field at Camden Yards seats that aren't angled toward home plate).
"You've got to love it," Vic Torino, 38, of Mantua, N.J., said as he watched his son, Victor, 12, and two buddies do play-by-play at the Broadcast Dream recording booth. "You come here and you are a kid again. You remember how much fun it was to come to the ballpark."
If there's a guy who should hold a grudge against the Phillies' new ballpark, it's Greg Luzinski. The 1970s slugger made it to 39 home runs in 1977 at the old Veterans Stadium. With the new park's dimensions, he'd have made it well over 40. But sitting on his stool at Bull's BBQ, which he owns, Luzinski pronounces the new park splendid.
"At the Vet, you really had to get the ball up to get it out," Luzinski said.
"Here the ball carries very well. It's great for the team. But it's especially great for the fans. They deserve it."
The new Citizens Bank Park incorporates the irregular design of Connie Mack Stadium and the below-ground playing field of another old local ballpark, Baker Bowl. The open concourses mean that fans can always see and hear the action while waiting at concession stands.
A stroll along Memory Lane features photos and mementos of the Phillies, as well as of the A's when they played in the city, and Negro League stars.
Local eateries featured include Geno's legendary cheese steaks and Tony Luke's sandwiches.
Fans can also have a brew or two at an indoor upper-deck bar named High and Inside.
The main drawback of the park is its location. After much debate, Citizens Bank Park was constructed in the sports complex far south of downtown where the football, hockey and basketball arenas were already located. Though the upper-deck seats have a view of downtown, it is from very, very far away and split by a large ugly parking lot pole with the Phillies logo.
Despite the new park, Phillies fans aren't likely to change their tune anytime soon. They yell at the team, at the opponents and at each other.
"A lot of people talk, talk about how much they loved Connie Mack Stadium, but you know the team never won a championship in that park," said Howard Dyner, 53, of Philadelphia.
"Now the Vet, the Vet had its day. It wasn't the greatest place to see a game. But some of the best days in Philly history were at the Vet. The fans want a winner here. If that doesn't happen, well, the team is going to hear about it."
If you go
Location: South Philadelphia, off the Broad Street Exit of I-95. Can also be reached from downtown on the SEPTA bus system's Orange line. Get off at the Pattison-Sports Complex stop.
Ticket prices: $15 to $40. Good field boxes cost $40 per game. Sold-out premium seating is resold via the Phillies' Web site, listed below.
Favorite cheap seats: Upper-deck View seats on first base side, Sections 414 to 417, with a good view of the largest video scoreboard in the National League and downtown Philadelphia beyond. $20 each.
Look for: The statue of pitching great Robin Roberts, which was taken from an old photo likeness, is in black and white. Statues of other Phillies greats are in color.
Favorite food: Geno's. If you can't make it to Passyunk and Ninth Avenue, then this ballpark location is good enough for one of the city's signature delights: a Philadelphia cheese steak.
Don't forget: Visit Greg Luzinski, the former Phillies slugger. He's usually sitting on a stool at his Bull's BBQ in Ashburn Alley in center field. Try one of the roasted turkey legs - it's nearly as big as Luzinski's forearm.
Contacts: (215) 463-1000 or www.philadelphiaphillies.com.