“This airport is bigger than I thought it'd be,” I remarked to Sara as we walked through General Mitchell International Airport, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We were in Milwaukee for the weekend to celebrate my birthday, which might seem like an odd choice of weekend destinations for a couple that doesn't drink and lives almost a thousand miles away in South Carolina. The temperature hovered in the mid-40s as we stepped outside into the Wisconsin evening to meet our Lyft driver. Sara was probably wondering why she didn't hold out for a normal husband, instead of one who wanted to spend his 32nd birthday in Milwaukee.
It's been twelve years since I decided that I would try to see every Major League Baseball stadium on the planet. Including the two stadiums I saw before officially embarking on the quest, I've seen twenty Major League Baseball stadiums, seventeen of which are still active. That means I'm more than halfway done, but it also means that the stadiums that are left are either hard to get to or not very appealing. I can't wait to visit Safeco Field in Seattle, WA, but it's a long flight to Seattle and I'd rather take the time to spend more than a weekend there. Conversely, it's a pretty quick flight to Chicago, but I'm not super excited about Guaranteed Rate Field.
Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, is one of the few remaining parks that seemed to strike a good balance between exciting to visit and easy to get to. So I convinced Sara that we should spend my birthday weekend in Milwaukee. Of course, the baseball game would the top priority, I said. But we could spend the rest of the weekend exploring the city. “What else is there to do in Milwaukee?” Sara asked.
Quite a bit, it turns out! It's safe to say we were both pleasantly surprised by how much Milwaukee has to offer. We got a late dinner at the Swingin’ Door Tavern on Friday night. In the morning, we grabbed a light breakfast at Alderaan Coffee (on Star Wars Day, no less), as well as a cold brewed coffee from Pilcrow Coffee, just for good measure. Then we headed towards downtown. We wandered a bit around Fiserv Forum, then found our way into a defunct mall, and before we knew it, we were lost in a neverending series of interconnected buildings. We finally found our way out – how long were we in there? Five minutes? An hour? A day? None of those answers would have surprised me – and headed towards the Historic Third Ward. We started at the Milwaukee Public Market, looked around a bit and sampled some baked goods before walking through the rest of the Third Ward. We rounded out the morning with a cold and windy hike to a lighthouse overlooking Milwaukee Bay. Finally, we headed back to the Milwaukee Public Market for lunch and then back to our apartment for a rest before the game.
About 90 minutes before first pitch, Sara and I hopped in a Lyft for the quick trip to the ballpark. Miller Park is a little over three miles from downtown Milwaukee, just off of I-94. Traffic was pretty light and the trip only took about fifteen minutes. We were dropped off at a spot designated for ridesharers, only a short walk from the entrance.
Miller Park lies on an extremely spacious plot of land which includes a youth baseball field in addition to acres and acres of parking spaces. This might seem like a waste, but in Wisconsin, tailgating before sports games is evidently not negotiable. Thousands of both Brewers and Mets fans were out in the parking lots that evening, taking advantage of a beautiful afternoon.
We walked across a large pedestrian bridge and made our way towards the left field gate. We were about an hour early, so getting into the stadium was almost painless. My first impression, however, was a little underwhelming.
Miller Park is one of several parks built during the new ballpark revolution of the last thirty years to feature a retractable roof. The roof was open as we entered the ballpark, but the sides of the stadium were glassed in, giving the immediate sense that we were indoors. Additionally, the sightline to the field from the left field gate was almost completely obscured. It almost felt like we were walking into Lambeau Field instead of Miller Park.
This issue was consistent throughout much of the lower level. The lower level is the level that people pay the most money to sit on, but its concourse was by far the most claustrophobic and cramped. Miller Park was far from the first of the new ballparks; it's frustrating that the Brewers didn't seem to take any lessons from their predecessors to create a more open feel. Physically widening the concourses would have helped a bit, but the existing concourses would have felt a lot more open and less cramped if I had been able to see the field while we walked. Many of Miller Park's predecessors, including Progressive Field, do this with great effect.
We made our way up to our seats, which were in the first row of the third level. They offered an excellent view of the field.
Sara and I had prepared for a chilly evening. We had both arrived wearing long sleeves and had brought extra layers for the late innings. But it felt pretty good in the sun, and as the Mets finished up batting practice and the grounds crew readied the field, I felt pretty good about making it through the night without freezing.
Suddenly, with no fanfare, without so much as a discernible noise, the roof started closing. Because I expected the process to be noisier, at first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Instead, the two halves of the roof, starting from the foul lines, were unfolding like fans, with home plate as their pivot points and the two edges meeting in center field. The whole process took about five minutes. A couple of birds, evidently just as surprised as we were to suddenly be under a roof, frantically searched for a way out.
I've written before that I believe baseball should be played outdoors, so I was a little disappointed to be under a roof while the sky was clear and blue above us. Nevertheless, I could now be sure we wouldn't be cold for the whole night.
The game got underway, and after an inning, Sara and I got up to find some food. The options were solid, if a little repetitive: it's mostly the same food, with the same branding, on all three levels. We both got brats and returned to our seats to enjoy them. They were pretty good, but I couldn't help thinking how much better they'd be with some Bertman's Original Ballpark Mustard. (I've got to start carrying a jar of that into the ballpark with me.) The Mets took a 1-0 lead in the second, but the Brewers responded with two runs in the bottom of the third to take a 2-1 lead. After the fourth inning, we got up from our seats to walk around again.
For dessert, we both got a bowl of frozen custard, half chocolate and half vanilla. Frozen custard is evidently Wisconsin's specialty, and it was delicious. The flavor was strong and distinct, and the texture was a lot creamier than normal soft serve ice cream. Sara and I both agreed it was worth the trip, and lamented that so many people were waiting for Dippin’ Dots instead.
In the middle of the sixth inning, Miller Park held the Johnsonville Sausage Race. (Reread that sentence. Try not to laugh.) This is one of those promotions, not unlike the Miller Brewing Company buying the naming rights to the ballpark, where the product placement is just perfect. They've been doing the Sausage Race for at least fifteen years, a tradition that other ballparks have since copied, but no one does it quite like Miller Park. The entrants were the Hot Dog, the German Sausage, the Polish Sausage, the Italian Sausage and the Chorizo. On a day when the rest of the world's eyes were on Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, we rooted for the Polish Sausage, which won – cleanly – by a mile. The ballpark, which had been lulled into a bit of a daze from the lack of action on the field, was abuzz again.
In the top of the ninth, Mets first baseman Pete Alonso tied the game at two with a solo home run to right. Then the two teams, apparently deciding one game wasn't enough, had to play another nine innings, basically a second full game, before the Brewers finally came out on top. I'm really thankful to have a wife like Sara, who supports me in whatever crazy dreams I have, even if it means traveling to Milwaukee. But I knew I'd be pushing my luck if we stayed all eighteen innings.
On our way out, there was one other sight I wanted to see. In the middle of one of the parking lots, marked by an inconspicuous placard is the spot where Hank Aaron's 755th home run landed. Undoubtedly the greatest player in Milwaukee baseball history (even though the team was called the Braves at the time), it seems a little weird that his greatest achievement isn't marked more prominently or reverently. For that matter, it's also strange that the Brewers’ Wall of Honor is just a series of placards hanging on the outside of the stadium, exposed to the elements.
The Brewers seemingly built their ballpark without considering the sightlines on the ground level, focusing instead on cramming attractions and vendors into the concourse. They decided to immortalize the franchise's greatest player – and its greatest moment – with a small placard in the middle of a parking lot, rather than sacrificing any tailgating spots. I think these two tradeoffs have a lot in common with their decision to close the roof under a clear blue sky. Miller Park isn't designed to be the ultimate baseball experience; it's designed for the city it lives in, to be the baseball party that never stops.
It's not a bad plan, at least financially. Saturday's sell-out crowd attests to that. But if I had grown up a die-hard Brewers fan, I'd wonder what could have been if the Brewers had gone all in and made Miller Park a first-class baseball facility.
One last note: I barely mentioned the name, but much like Coors Field in Denver, or Wrigley Field in Chicago, Miller Park is nearly a perfect corporation/naming rights marriage. The Miller Brewing Company is a local company that makes a product for which Milwaukee is famous, and the short and sweet brand name doesn't even sound very corporate. I learned over the weekend, however, that after owning the naming rights for twenty years, the Miller Brewing Company is about to lose those rights to American Family Insurance. I don't throw around the word “tragedy” a lot, especially when it comes to sports, but this is a tragedy. Call your Senators; it's time to get Congress involved.
Thanks to Sara Sawczuk for reading a draft of this post. Also, for, you know, going to Milwaukee with me. 🙂😘