The monolithic American Family Field rises above its industrial surroundings in western Milwaukee as a tribute to Wisconsin’s value-driven attitude.
It’s not an open-air, downtown jewel like Target Field or Comerica Park, found elsewhere in the upper midwest. Nor is it built into existing historic architecture like Houston’s Minute Maid Park, gilded with the fabric of its ward like Seattle’s T-Mobile Park, or even a space-age abomination looming over an ethnic neighborhood like Miami’s LoanDepot Park.
With a fan-folding roof and vast parking lots that house baseball’s best tailgate party, American Family Field’s exterior is nothing if not iconic. The park’s high roof allows in more natural light (the illumination, not the beverage, despite the team’s name) than any other retractable-roof facility. And there, within the brick, steel, and glass frame, the beer and sausage party extends not just at the concession stands, but in the mascots that personify a sporting experience that doesn’t belong anywhere besides Milwaukee.
I learned a lot about Wisconsinites at a winery wedding upstate–the object of my travels to dairyland. The woman sitting beside me at dinner, old enough to be retired, but young enough to revel in the freedom if it, took her cupcake, split the bottom half cleanly off, and plopped it atop the icing to form a sandwich dry on both sides.
I looked on, agape, not in disgust but in astonishment that this was the first time I’d seen this ingenious technique in my almost quarter-century of living.
Sensing my astonishment, the woman turned to me and pontificated with a giggle, “When you get to a certain age, you just don’t care anymore.”
I won’t dare to correct this Wisconsin Yoda, but I do think her wisdom referred not so much to a lack of caring than to a healthy prioritization.
That Milwaukee is the big city of Wisconsin is more a testament to the quaintness of the upstate than it is to Brew City’s cosmopolitan credentials. Cow pastures, soy fields, and cheese shops dot the rural dairyland–the only place in America where the broadside of a barn is a welcome sight rather than a punchline.
It takes a car to traverse all that, which makes Milwaukee, a city whose public transportation is limited to a bus system, automobile-centric.
And just as a person can prioritize the ease of cupcake consumption over its unorthodox optics, so can a city prioritize beer, sausage, cheese, and enjoying it all in the pregame parking lot more than the retro-urban ballpark concept. It makes the home of the Milwaukee Brewers something of a cross between Lambeau Field and Fenway Park, a fusion that only makes sense in person.
The park formerly-known as Miller opened in 2001 and seats over 41,000 fans. American Family Field has, in its 20 year-history, hosted an All-Star Game (famous for Torii Hunter’s home run robbery of Barry Bonds…and infamous for ending in a tie) and the National League Championship Series, but not yet a World Series. A day after I attended the Milwaukee Brewers’ comeback win over the Chicago Cubs, it was the site of the home town team’s playoff-clinching victory, guaranteeing the venue’s use into the mythical month of October.
American Family Field lies just west of downtown Milwaukee, buffered from industrial surroundings by a sea of parking lots that impresses even college football stadiums. But what seems like an obvious turnoff of the Brewers’ home–the lack of urban infrastructure–is capitalized by the city’s passionate fans, which transform the asphalt into baseball’s premier tailgate.
Hours early, fans arrive at one of the stadium’s many lots, pay $20, and fire up their grills for a pregame sausage snack. And it doesn’t matter who you root for because a party is a party, and that seems to be respected in this town.
I was warned beforehand that Chicago’s traveling fanbase (they don’t have to travel far–Wrigley Field is just an hour and a half down the road) infuses their city’s obnoxiousness into Milwaukee. But, perhaps only because the Cubs were already out of the playoff race, the intermingling seemed civil.
The park’s exterior is a brick facade outlining glass windows beneath arching steel trusses that dominate the building’s profile. Around the infield, arched windows and a tall clocktower harken calmly to the industrial-age architecture of downtown Milwaukee and would have fit in well with the city had the park been built nearer downtown.
Around the outfield, glass panes slide open when the weather permits, allowing fans outside a glimpse into the field, similar to LoanDepot Park.
American Family Field’s fan-shaped roof is visible for miles in this relatively-flat city. Panes sweep in from both the first and third base sides to meet in the middle. When the park is closed up, the interior can be heated to 30 degrees Fahrenheit above temperatures outside.
Above the 400-level seats, glass panes extend to where the roof begins, allowing in more natural light than most enclosed parks are able.
The vast majority of the field’s nearly 42,000 seats are divided among four tiers that wrap around the infield to each foul pole.
The field level seats are tiered, price wise, more specifically than most parks, with four different price points in the sections behind each dugout, for instance. While the infield sections do angle progressively down the line, helping to orient the seats more towards the action, the angles lag just a bit, likely forcing fans past first or third base to crane their necks somewhat significantly in order to constantly focus on home plate. Though the last few sections before each foul pole, 106, 130, and 131, appear to be almost completely turned towards the infield.
San Diego’s PETCO Park remains the gold standard in this underrated aspect of ballpark design, funneling each fan’s focus and energy on the infield all the time by nearly eliminating the neck-turn for any field level seat. Such a simple, subtle element can make a $30 ticket feel like a $60 ticket.
Perhaps American Family Field’s best seating feature is that their second-level mezzanine is not a premium club level–it’s just another tier of seats. At many modern parks, this level has a private concourse with upscale culinary options and guards that ensure you belong before you dare enjoy the upscale environment. And it’s a shame because these are often the best views in the whole park–elevated, just behind home plate.
That the Brewers elected to make the third deck their club makes this excellent second-deck vantage point accessible to many more fans. But even still, in looking at tickets online for Milwaukee’s final homestand of the 2021 regular season, club level tickets are priced quite comparably to their second-level counterparts.
On that note, I was pleasantly surprised by the relatively inexpensive tickets available for this weekend series against the Cubs. With the Brewers firmly in the playoff picture, I expected the series to be a hot ticket. It was well-attended, but affordable.
On the 400 level, fans can sit closer to the front in the Terrace Box, or farther up in the traditional nosebleeds, here called the Terrace Reserved. It was from this Terrace Reserved section that a “Let’s Go Cubs” cheer spawned after an early rally by Chicago. The jodie quickly evanesced when nearby Brewers fans countered, more from an annoyed sense of responsibility than from candid fervor.
The outfield backdrop may be the most iconic profile of American Family Field other than its roof. In left field, Bernie Brewer luges down his slide when the Brewers hit a home run. Down a level in left field, the Miller Lite Party Deck carries on the great name that the park once bore. Though situated a level above the field, it’s close to the wall. Outfitted with high-top tables and chairs, it’s a fun way to kick back and still engage with the action.
In the left field corner, the Restaurant To Be Named Later, a terrific reference to the more ridiculous side of baseball business, offers tables for four to six guests with unobstructed views for $60 per person. That includes a $30 food credit per ticket, effectively making these front row seats $30 a-pop.
Around the outfield, there are other club and group party areas both on the field level and above, creating unique game-viewing atmospheres. In right-center field, the Toyota Territory is a great spot to catch a home run. Down on the field level, the Aurora Health Care Bullpen is a group bar that sits right behind a chain link fence–the only barrier between the fans and the right fielder.
Foul Ball Guy himself, Zack Hample, has often called Milwaukee the best stadium for catching foul balls. That’s because a wide cross-aisle runs behind sections 216-221 in front of the press box, allowing ample lateral mobility for anyone eager enough to camp out there and wait for a short pop behind the infield.
Mostly because that aisle was out of view from my seat, I didn’t notice any foul balls landing in that particular spot. But Miller Park was built intimately enough that fouls do easily reach the second and third levels. Of course, seats close to home plate and offset slightly are the most likely landing spots for these–sections 215, 216, 323, and 324 for right-handed batters.
One foul ball did actually reach the fourth deck, Terrace Box section 423 to be exact. And I only know that because I picked up the ball. It was a healthy cut by a left-hander that rode its backspin all the way up our lofty seats. I was sitting toward the middle of the row, my two friends to my left with empty seats beyond–a grave location mistake on my part. I was able to cut around them, but just a bit too late to reach up for the ball, which landed three rows above. It was mishandled by a couple fans, and bobbled down into an empty seat directly behind me. I knew it’d fall down below the seat, so I pre-positioned my hand as though for a basketball rebound, and sure enough the ball plunked down.
As this happened, however, an older man, one of those who mishandled the ball on the fly, lunged forward as it fell in front of him. And he in turn fell over a row of seats.
Up until this point, I was impressed that the seatbacks in our section were not in front of my knees, but rather my toes–a steep tiering, but one that allows for more femur room, which is all-important to a gangly fan like me. But in this specific instance, the lack of coziness failed this man, who was now grasping for balance, almost entirely splayed across the row in front of the one he had just been standing in. A few fans close by helped him up, and I handed him the ball because anyone who sells out like that for a foul certainly deserves it. He tried to give it back, to his credit, but I was mostly impressed by his effort. And I hadn’t caught it on the fly anyway, so I was somewhat disappointed in myself.
True to the team’s name, American Family Field does not fall short on beer. Drafts are available at the traditional concession stands, and grab-and-go kiosks line the main concourses with cans of domestic and craft beverages.
A true gem of beer stands sits in the concourse on the first base side and features a couple dozen local Wisconsin drafts.
On the third base side, kids can enjoy their own answer to the Wisconsin tradition at a Grilled Cheese stand.
Sausages run aplenty, be not afraid, with stands on every level offering Italian, Bratwurst, and Polish sausages alongside, of course, hot dogs.
On the subject of sausages, the Johnsonville Sausage Race occurs in the middle of the sixth inning. A hot dog, bratwurst, Italian, Polish, and Chorizo sausage race around the infield warning track from the third base side to the first base side. The sausage race is the original of the now-ubiquitous mascot races in baseball. The only ones worth your watch, though, are this one, Pittsburgh’s pierogies, and Washington’s racing presidents.
Miller Park’s design may have not even been intentionally contrarian to the downtown ballparks that dominated the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but the independent spirit of Milwaukeeans shines through the structure unabashedly. The striking windows, quirky seating, and passionate fans will give you a hankering for sausage for maybe the first time in your life. And, if you stay in Wisconsin long enough, may help you realize what these dairy farmers, brewers, and overall fine folk are all about.