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Friday Five: Baseball cities
The Yankees open a three-game series in Baltimore on Friday night; I plan on being in Charm City on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
That got me to thinking: What are the best cities in Major League Baseball? The cities that seem to both place baseball on the highest pedestal (not just "Our football team sucks, so let's take a look at our baseball team") and possess a thorough appreciation for the game's nuances and history?
1. ST. LOUIS
The new Busch Stadium in and of itself is nothing special, but the fans make it a memorable place. They are so passionate, so knowledgeable and so supportive. Plus, they all wear red.
There's nothing quite like being a baseball dignitary in this city. I still remember when I happened to be in town for an August 2004 news conference to announce the naming rights for the new ballpark (which opened in 2006). Just for the naming rights - they were keeping it as Busch Stadium, like its predecessor - the Cardinals brought in Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Stan Musial, Ozzie Smith and Whitey Herzog to hang out. Crazy.
When the Yankees held Andy Pettitte's retirement news conference, as a point of comparison, the only Yankee legend to attend was Bernie Williams. And he was like a half-hour late.
2. NEW YORK
In character with our beloved home, let's start with the negatives and get them out of the way: Too many Yankees fans are spoiled brats, upset because they haven't won a World Series in nearly a year and a half now, and too many vindictive Mets fans still blame the franchise's downward turn on the un-clutch-ness of Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and David Wright.
But the positives? Intelligence. Toughness. Humor. And New York has serious numbers, enough fans to fill two ballparks when the two teams merit such enthusiasm.
Baseball became king once more here when the Yankees won it all in 1996 and 1998 through 2000. I think it'll be a long, long time before baseball relinquishes its throne again.
If you walk a lap around Fenway Park around the time of first pitch, you'll see how the many neighborhood sports bars are packed with people who just want to be close to the Sawx, if not necessarily part of the sellout crowd in Fenway.
Even post-2004, the Red Sox define the city's mood more than any other team. That's partly a criticism; it was disappointing that Red Sox Nation didn't collectively put its feet up for a short while and appreciate what that '04 club did. If anything, the tastes of victory in '04 and 2007 seem to have only shortened many fans' patience.
But these fans certainly know their stuff, and they can boo opposing players with the best of them.
Here's where this list becomes more personal, I suppose; I bet most people would include St. Louis, New York and Boston in some order of 1 through 3. So why Baltimore, a city that hasn't seen a winning baseball season since 1997?
Because I remember what it was like back in those halcyon days. I recall how much these folks love baseball when there's a team worth watching. Shoot, when Buck Showalter's Orioles enjoyed a good first week to this season, there were many stories about the city's newfound enthusiasm for baseball. Cal Ripken Jr. is still the city's most popular athlete, I'd say.
When you throw in the presence of the Babe Ruth Museum, and the reality that there's only one other professional team (the Ravens) to compete for the city's hearts and minds, you have yourself a very good baseball town. If the Orioles can ever figure it out - maybe the extra wild-card berth, likely starting next year, will help - then they'll have a fan base ready to embrace them.
5. SAN FRANCISCO
Everything changed here when Peter Magowan privately funded the beautiful, downtown ballpark (originally Pac Bell Park, now AT&T Park). Attendance surged. With the 49ers sinking after the departures of Joe Montana and Steve Young, and first Barry Bonds and then Tim Lincecum capturing the love of the city, baseball took over, reaching an apex with last year's World Series title.
I was there the night that Bonds passed Hank Aaron on the all-time home-run list, and I loved how the fans fully enjoyed the moment, thumbing their collective noses at the rest of the world's wagging fingers. The first two games of last year's World Series, when the Giants upended the Rangers, were about as intense a fan experience as anywhere I've been, any time (all right, probably not as intense as the 2001 World Series in New York).
Throw in the fact that San Fran was a baseball hotbed even before the Giants moved West - Joe DiMaggio is from there, after all - and we've rounded out our Friday Five.
--We're gonna try something different today and moving forward. Rather than slap daily reading, if you will, at the bottom of our main item, we're going to make it a second post, beneath this on the blog. I'll notify you when it's up.
--UPDATE, 8:22 a.m.: The Friday reading is now up.
You've won this round, Uni Watch. Vengeance will be mine.