Have a baseball road trip coming up? Well, in a bid to help you with your upcoming journeys, Big League Stew has solicited the help of the locals. Over the next month or so, we'll be hitting up our usual guest blogger crew to feature 10 tips for enjoying each of the 30 ballparks like the locals do. Have a suggestion in addition to the ones listed here? Make sure to list it in the comments below.
It's a sentiment I really like, especially because I like to judge each of the 30 ballparks on their own merits. I'm the writer who once found 10 reasons to like Tropicana Field as a World Series site and I'm among the most vehement defenders of U.S. Cellular Field, the South Side home of the Chicago White Sox. "The Cell," as it's known by locals, is often derided for not being Wrigley Field or like any members of the avalanche of retro ballparks that followed The Cell's opening in 1991. It's a somewhat understandable reaction. Any honest White Sox fan will admit they'd love to go back in time to convince Jerry Reinsdorf to adopt the retro Armour Square plan that presumably would have beat Camden Yards to market by a season.
At the very least, they'd like to flog him with a wet noodle for not making sure The Cell faced Chicago's magnificent skyline instead of the since-demolished housing projects across the Dan Ryan Expressway.
But crying over those missteps over 20 years later takes energy and time away from touting what has become a very good place to watch a baseball game since some big renovations early last decade. The elimination of several rows of nose-bleed seats, the addition of a roof and presence of some underrated traditions make The Cell a cozy must-visit when you're in Chicago for a midsummer trip.
Once you get past that it's not Wrigley Field — something that should be an easy task for any true baseball fan — you'll find that U.S. Cellular Field brings a unique Chicago baseball experience in its own way. Here are 10 tips for maximizing your trip to the only place in town that has played host to a Windy City World Series winner.
1. Make a day of it: Because so many White Sox games are played at night, you're afforded the luxury of spending the morning and afternoon checking off items on your Windy City to-do list. (Try doing that before a 1:20 start on the North Side.) If you're staying downtown, try and hit the sites that make the South Side unique. The most obvious site in the tour guide is probably a Segway tour among the museum campuses or even a jaunt all the way down to the Museum of Science and Industry. But you also shouldn't miss the opportunity to visit the Prairie-Style Robie House, one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous works or the DuSable Museum, which celebrates African-American history. A visit to Hyde Park also features an opportunity to walk through President Barack Obama's Kenwood neighborhood (check out the plaque at a nearby Baskin-Robbins that marks where he and the First Lady first kissed) or marvel in the beauty that is the University of Chicago campus. Other pregame stops in the neighborhoods south of Madison might include the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame on Taylor Street (there's a statue of Joe DiMaggio out front), the historic Pullman district or lunch/dinner in Chicago's Chinatown. The city has so much to offer past the usual tourist conga line of Navy Pier, Giordano's and Niketown. Get out and experience it!
2. Getting there: The Cell is easily accessible by the El and most years you'd get there by taking the Red Line — the same train that connects both U.S. Cellular and Wrigley Field. The South Side portion of that line, however, is undergoing renovation in 2013, so you'll be taking the Green Line, which is actually located just two blocks east of the Red Line stop at 35th Street. (Hint: If you're leaving a crowded game when the Red Line is open, the Green Line is always the smarter play. It feeds right back into the Loop like the Red Line does and features a tenth of the sweaty masses who are trying to get back home.)
Here's the thing, though: While a lot of parks in this series have stressed taking public transportation, I'd like to recommend driving provided you're able and willing to fight Chicago's awful traffic. Not only is The Cell surrounded by parking lots featuring rates that have been mercifully lowered this season (only $10 for Sunday games!), but driving also gives you and your friends the opportunity to ....
3. Tailgate!: The Cell's parking lots open two hours before game time and you'll want to arrive as early as possible to enjoy what has become a decent tailgating scene. Before each game, the lots are filled with Smokey Joe grills, impromptu cornhole games and plenty of beers cribbed from trunk coolers. If you're not interested in bringing and grilling your own food, check out 35th Street Red Hots, located just west of the park after you head underneath the train tracks. It's a tiny, no-frills Chicago hot dog stand that serves both hot dogs and Polishes wrapped in a greasy bed of fries that are cut right in front of you. It's pretty much the best thing ever. After devouring that meal on one of the stand's picnic benches (or the hood of your car), feel free to stroll a few blocks west to The Grandstand, one of the best independent sportswear stores you'll ever visit. Pretty much everything that has ever featured a Pale Hose logo is available for sale, as well as copious amount of Blackhawks, Bears and Bulls gear. Oh, and don't worry — there's also a small corner of Cubs items if you need to bring something back for your neighbor who was disappointed to learn the North Siders weren't at home during your stay in Chicago.
4. Make sure your seats are in the lower deck: The worst feature about U.S. Cellular Field is that a lower-deck ticket is required to access the lower concourse. This unfortunate policy creates a class system at the ballpark, preventing all 500-level ticketholders from enjoying everything the lower concourse has to offer. The good news is that the team's recent drop in ticket prices means that you can get a lower-level seat for as little as $20 for most games, preventing you from following this guide for talking your way past the ticket checkers that are posted outside the entrances to the lower concourse. While The Cell's steep upper deck deserves its oft-maligned reputation, the park's lower deck is full of great views as each seat points toward home plate.
5. Step back and smell the onions: While many fans wax poetically about seeing the green of the field for the first time, you'll head home talking about your first whiff of Sox Park. No, that's not a bad thing like it was in old Yankee Stadium. The Cell's numerous hot dog stands create an overwhelming aroma of grilled onions that will have you agreeing to at least one dog before the first pitch. The Cell's dogs used to be made by Best's Kosher, but the company went out of business a few years back. Now they're made by Vienna Beef, the famous wiener found on true Chicago hot dogs. Pair a dog with grilled onions and mustard with one of the craft brews found at the Midwest Craft Beers stand found down the right field line and you'll think you've found the recipe for happiness. (U.S. Cellular has some of the best food in the major leagues. Here's a full guide to the selection from Eater.com.)
6. Don't miss the intro: I'm not an expert on introduction videos at other ballparks, but I happen to think the White Sox have a pretty good one. It combines shots of memorabilia and old photos from the team's long history with a lot of cool TV and film clips of big plays in Sox history. (My favorite highlight happens to be the one where Carlton Fisk completes a double play at home plate by tagging both Bobby Meacham and Dale Berra. See if you can spot it.)
7. Check out the bar in the bullpen: The Miller Lite Bullpen Sports Bar in right isn't much to look at (comparisons to a bunker might make it seem too luxurious), but it's actually a pretty fun feature of the park. Only a pane of glass separates opposing bullpen pitchers from bargoers and it can serve as a good destination if it's too hot/too rainy/too big of a blowout. You can also reserve one of the picnic tables above the right field fence for an additional fee per seat once you get there and you'll be able to enjoy a unique view with a server for the entire game. (Buy the cheapest park tickets if you plan on doing this. If you don't want to pay an extra fee, the party deck above the batter's eye in center field makes for a fun hangout spot, though you'll have to go fetch your own concessions.)
8. Enjoy the exploding scoreboard: The ivy across town might earn more tributes, but another of Bill Veeck's many delightful creations still looms large on the South Side. The Cell's exploding scoreboard may seem tame by today's standards, but its original incarnation in the old Comiskey Park was a phenomenon when it was introduced in 1960. (Cleveland's Jimmy Piersall once famously threw a baseball at the scoreboard in anger while the Mickey Mantle-led Yankees mocked it by lighting sparklers after hitting homers off White Sox pitchers.) The current version has been outfitted by a pretty useful television screen, but its allure still lies when its pinwheels light up and smoke belches forth in celebration of the latest White Sox homer.
9. Say hello to Harold: The White Sox have a statue celebrating the 2005 World Series team located outside the front of the park. Several other cool statues are located on the outfield concourse, including Frank Thomas, Carlton Fisk, Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio and Charles Comiskey. My favorite likeness, though, is the statue of Harold Baines that stands behind the seats in right field. The sculptor nailed Baines' patient stride and just looking at it brings me right back to games I attended as a child, when chants of Ha-rold, Ha-rold, Ha-rold would ring around old Comiskey.
10. Make sure you have postgame plans elsewhere: The one thing that The Cell really lacks is a postgame bar scene, so you'll want to make sure you have plans elsewhere before the final out. Luckily for you, Chicago has no shortage of watering holes and fantastic restaurants to make your day complete. Pick one near your hotel or friend's place and toast a great day of Chicago baseball.
What are your favorite tips for visiting U.S. Cellular Field?
Previous parks: Citi Field, Marlins Park, Great American Ball Park, Petco Park,Comerica Park, Progressive Park, AT&T Park, Rogers Centre, Wrigley Field, O.Co Coliseum, Yankee Stadium, Coors Field, Minute Maid Park, Fenway Park, PNC Park