Fans take in a game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

Fans take in a game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. (KRT photo)

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.