Here's my baseball travel all-stars, the "starting nine" of spots related to the national pastime.
Best modern ballpark: PNC Park, Pittsburgh. Small is beautiful. With seating for a bit fewer than 39,000 in two tiers plus outfield seating, the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates is a modern treasure. The industrial heritage of the city is seen in the steel truss work and limestone bricks. It sits beside the Allegheny River with views of the skyscrapers of the city's Golden Triangle across the way. The team is terrible year in and year out, which for the tourist is a good thing — ticket prices are among the lowest in baseball, and you can usually walk up and get a good seat.
Best classic ballpark: Fenway Park, Boston. There is no view in all of baseball as glorious as walking out of a first base box-seat-level tunnel at Fenway Park and seeing the grass stretch out toward the soaring left field wall known as the Green Monster. There have been changes over the years, but the basic configuration of the park would be familiar to fans who first came through the gates in 1912. Tickets are hard to come by — plan a trip well in advance and hit the order button the morning the single seats go on sale on the Red Sox website. With the low right field wall that features "the Pesky Pole" and the zigzag fence in center field, every ball hit to the outfield is an adventure. It's baseball's oldest park and for many, its best.
Best baseball neighborhood: Wrigleyville, Chicago. Leave early and take the elevated train out from your hotel in the Magnificent Mile or Loop. Wrigley Field, which opened in 1914, is shoehorned into a residential neighborhood filled with fun bars and baseball souvenir shops. The rooftop viewing areas beyond the fence have become more commercialized in recent years, but there is still a sense of neighborhood that's not found in any other park in the country. I like Murphy's Bleachers on North Sheffield Avenue behind center field for a beer and burger before the game, and the Cubby Bear tavern on West Addison Street for after-game fun.
Best trendsetter: Camden Yards, Baltimore. The official name is Oriole Park at Camden Yards, but everybody I know leaves off the first part of the name. When it opened in 1992, it was a revolution — a retro, downtown, baseball-only park that incorporated the old, red brick Baltimore & Ohio warehouse behind the right field wall into the design. (It's now team offices.) The park ended the horrid 25-year reign of doughnut-shaped multipurpose stadiums, and its drawing power in the early years led clubs on a me-too building binge of retro parks from Cincinnati to San Diego. Getting a ticket was once almost impossible — the Orioles drew 3.7 million in 1997 — but with the team in a funk and the Washington Nationals offering D.C. area fans an alternative, scoring good seats on a vacation is now possible.
Best famous baseball shrine: Cooperstown, N.Y. The upstate New York village feels like baseball heaven on an early autumn weekday when the trees are turning gold. The National Baseball Hall of Fame is the official reliquary of the most tradition-bound American sport. It deserves a pilgrimage by any true fan. Why Cooperstown? In 1907 a committee named it as the site where Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839. Doubt was always cast on the claim. Doubleday was the Union officer who ordered the first shots fired during the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, leading Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey to quip, "The only thing Doubleday ever started was the Civil War." Modern historians have thoroughly debunked Doubleday's role — which he personally never claimed but the shrine remains. It's the kind of mythology that fits right in with baseball's long romance with America.
Best lesser-known baseball shrine: Hoboken, N.J. The antithesis of Cooperstown. It was here, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, that historians believe the first organized game of baseball was played June 19, 1846. The game at Elysian Fields was umpired by Alexander Joy Cartwright, using his rules that are still the basis of the game. The New York Base Ball Club, also called The New York Nine, crushed the Knickerbockers, 23-1. Since the Cooperstown legend held sway until the latter half of the 20th century, Hoboken never reaped much benefit from its key role in the history of the game. Elysian Fields is long gone, with only a marker at 11th and Washington streets memorializing the site. The city, best known as the hometown of Frank Sinatra, has undergone a renaissance in recent years. There's a W Hotel in town. And it's just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
Best baseball toolbox: Louisville Slugger, Louisville, Ky. Baseball's favorite lumber yard has been turning trees into bats since 1884. The old plant has been turned into a museum for the wood swung by players such as Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. A gigantic replica bat sits out front. The Louisville Slugger is the "official bat of Major League Baseball," but competition has cut into its onetime near monopoly. Today 60 percent of major league players use the company's ash and maple bats. They keep all the specs on players' preferences (Example: Prince Fielder, first base, Milwaukee Brewers: Bat Model C271, ash, black finish, length, 33.5 inches; weight, 34 ounces). You can buy a model with your own name on it, just like the major leaguers. Only it's not — the finest grain is still set aside for the pros.
Best foreign baseball spot: Koshien Stadium, Osaka, Japan. Forget the sterile Rogers Centre in Toronto, home of the Blue Jays. The best foreign baseball park is across the Pacific in Japan. Koshien Stadium, built in 1924, is the home field of the Hanshin Tigers. How old is that? Its layout was modeled on the Polo Grounds in New York City. Ruth once played an exhibition game there. The stadium is considered hallowed ground by baseball fans in Japan, where the sport truly is the national pastime. Damaged by the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the stadium could have been torn down. Instead it has been given a seismic retrofitting that has stripped a bit of the old-time charm but kept the icon in business. The signature ivy on the exterior had to be pulled down for the repairs. It's being replanted, and in the meantime, ivy is painted on the scaffolding surrounding the stadium.
Best ballpark renovation: Angel Stadium of Anaheim. I thought the Big A was a goner when it was enclosed in 1981 so it could be used for football. What a depressing place. During the last All-Star Game in Anaheim, in 1989, I had the job of interviewing the "fans in the stands" for The Orange County Register. I hiked to the top of the most distant upper-deck center field row to talk to two guys in the worst seats in the house (interrupting their view of the back-to-back first inning home runs by Bo Jackson and Wade Boggs). Those wretched seats are thankfully long gone, part of a 1996 renovation that opened the stadium up and returned it to a baseball-only configuration. I wish the Big A with the halo lights could be restored to its original spot behind the left field wall. But overall, the resurrection of the park from tomb to showcase is one of baseball's true success stories.