The most starstruck moment I’ve had since I became a professional athlete actually occurred during my first spring training game as a rookie.
The first guy I faced was none other than Ken Griffey Jr. I’ve always been a huge Griffey fan, so I had trouble even processing that he was 60 feet away from me. I was standing on the mound, almost daydreaming about how amazing it would be to call home and tell everyone about this. And my mind wandered to what a good story it would be one day, to be able to tell people that I started off my career by striking out Ken Griffey Jr.
With my mind racing, I wound up for that very first pitch and … I beaned him right in the back. I hit Ken Griffey Jr.
I felt like crying. I wished it was somehow possible to crawl under the mound. The sports fan in me had gotten so worked up that I had no idea where the ball was going. Years later, I caught up with Ken and we laughed about it. But at the time, it was a nightmare.
I wish I could say that’s the only time I’ve lost my cool around an athlete I admire but that wouldn’t be true. Usually I try to play it casual but sometimes it’s impossible.
For example, the first time I met Harrison Barnes, I was kind of a mess.
With my mind racing, I wound up for that very first pitch and … I hit Ken Griffey Jr.
I’m a big UNC fan, and I’d been watching him play in games on TV since he was in high school. He’s a phenomenal player. Right before he entered the NBA Draft, I got the chance to meet him at the ESPN studios in New York. I think he thought I was faking it because I was so excited. I’m 12 years older than him, but I had trouble keeping it together. I could tell he was weirded out a bit. In retrospect, it’s hard to blame him.
I make my living as a professional athlete, but my main hobby is still being a sports fan. So I’m sorry to inform you that when you’re yelling at me from the stands, asking if I want another hot dog, you aren’t really getting under my skin. The truth is, after all the stuff I’ve yelled at players from the stands throughout my life, I view it more as karma. If I wasn’t at work, I’d throw it right back at you. That’s just fun.
When I’m not at the ballpark, I like to spend most of my time watching sports in some capacity. One of my favorite perks of this job is the ability to travel to different cities around the country to catch a game. So with this in mind, here’s a list of my favorite venues to watch a sporting event.
Now mind you, this isn’t a definitive list of the best sports venues ever in the history of the universe. I’m sure you can find that list somewhere else. These are just my favorite. You might also notice that no baseball stadiums are included. There’s a simple reason for this: I like to watch games in the moment and not really analyze them. But every time I watch a baseball game, I can’t help but start breaking down how the players should react and what tendencies are being exposed. So no, I’m not throwing shade at the entire sport; I just happen to consume baseball games from the perspective of a professional rather than a fan, which is a different dynamic.
I considered a couple of factors while putting together this list. The first was tradition. You get a special feeling when you walk into a venue with a lot of history. Even if you’ve never been there before, you feel a familiarity with your surroundings. It’s almost like being able to walk inside of a famous painting.
And the second was the fans. It’s remarkable to watch the energy exchange that occurs during a game between a team and fanbase. Momentum is a very real aspect of sports and it’s often dictated by how engaged the people in the stands are with their team. In those especially electric atmospheres, it can feel like the who place is going to collapse because there’s so much noise. I love it.
The Staples Center
I got the opportunity to take my son to a Lakers game a few years ago, and I really appreciated the subtle things they did to enhance the fan experience at Staples Center. The lights were focused entirely on the court, with the rest of the arena somewhat blacked out, so your eyes naturally focus on what’s going on during the game. Half of the fun is also just seeing which celebrities are there. It’s all just kind of cool spectacle. NBA games have a certain vibe that’s distinctive from other sports. It’s very much focused on the players and their personalities, and I think that lends to the overall product. As a venue, the Staples Center stands out because the entire feel of the place gave me goosebumps.
Playoff Hockey at Madison Square Garden
I had the opportunity to watch a Rangers playoff game at Madison Square Garden a couple of years ago, and the adrenaline and energy there were unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed at any other sporting event. I was a couple of rows from the glass and I think my mouth was half open the entire time. It was just an experience.
To be honest with you, I’d never watched a live hockey game before that, and I had no idea that it was five-on-five and the rink was so small. These giant guys were flying around like it was WWE. It was crazy. I can’t imagine anybody watching a playoff hockey game live and not walking away from the experience as a fan of the sport. You’re alright by me, hockey.
Tiger Stadium (AKA Death Valley)
Two years ago, I ventured down to Baton Rouge to watch Johnny Manziel take on the LSU Tigers. I would recommend every sports fan add “attend a game at Tiger Stadium” to their bucket list. From sunrise to the final whistle, it’s one big party. Unreal.
We got there early to tailgate, but it looked like fans had been there all week. You can tell these people live for Saturdays during college football season. As a longtime dedicated Raiders tailgater, I very much respected their hustle. The Cajun food lived up to the hype but interestingly, I probably had some the best BBQ ribs of my life there.
The atmosphere is really something special because all of the fans buy in. They have a reputation for being one of the loudest stadiums in college sports and it seems like every fan there takes a lot of pride in that. That makes for an amazing experience as a spectator and probably a nightmarish ordeal if you’re a player on the opposing team.
I had never been to Green Bay before the first time I saw a game at Lambeau Field. I remember before the game, we were just driving through a neighborhood and there were people outside playing catch with a football and grilling. The entire town is a tailgate. And then all of the sudden, a stadium emerges in the middle of this suburb like some kind of beacon, and you immediately understand why this team means so much to Green Bay.
I went to a Sunday night game against Dallas, and “loud” doesn’t really give the place enough credit. From the kick off to the final whistle, the fans were engaged with the game in a way I’ve never seen before. Nobody sat down and everybody cheered at the right times. Fortunately, I caught the game during baseball season so it wasn’t too cold there yet. Maybe if I’d experienced the frozen tundra, I wouldn’t be so high on Lambeau. But if you go at a time when your extremities won’t freeze, it’s a difficult venue to beat.
Playing in Milwaukee gave me a special insight into how much the Packers mean to the that state of Wisconsin. I got a chance to play with Eric Hinske, who grew up close to Green Bay, and is a second or third-generation Packers season ticket holder. He told me that people pass on their place on the Packers season ticket waitlist in their wills. It’s no joke.
I didn’t list a specific stadium because I’ve been attending Raiders games since they were being played in L.A. This is absolutely a homer pick. I think every fan has particularly fuzzy feelings about the stadium/arena where their favorite team plays.
Growing up, my pops and I used to drive down to Los Angeles on Saturday nights, and when I woke up we’d be at a Raiders tailgate. It was a tradition of ours. As a result, to this day I won’t go to a football game without tailgating. That’s where you can find me if I happen to be attending Giants or Jets games in New York.
It’s really the fans who attend Raiders games that make it an experience. They’re all die-hards who always show up regardless of the state of the team because the game is only one aspect of the full experience. But yes, there’s a lot of pain that comes along with sticking with a team through thick and thin (and thin and thin and thin). Honestly, I’ve tried to like other football teams. Life would be so much easier if I liked other teams. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve loudly declared that I’m done watching the Raiders. But I always come crawling back. I just can’t quit them. Raiders football is a nearly impossible habit to shake.
Photographs by Getty Images