Since its construction in 1993, Harbor Park in Norfolk (Va.) has been the go-to sports attraction for Hampton Roads area families.
Sure, there's the Norfolk Scope, home to the Norfolk Admirals, the AHL affiliate of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning, but that's for a rowdier set. And it smells much more like the inside of a game-worn hockey skate.
Norfolk, the epicenter of the United States' 36th-largest metropolitan area, has tried a few hare-brained schemes to woo professional franchises over the years. City representatives pitched the "Hampton Roads Rhinos" to the NHL as an expansion team in 1997, courted the Hornets when they left Charlotte in 2002, and offered to expand Harbor Park to accommodate the Montreal Expos in 2004. But for better or worse, the Triple-A Norfolk Tides have remained the biggest game in town since they showed up back in 1969.
For a franchise that's been a Norfolk institution for over 40 years, you would figure the ballpark would be more distinctive.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Harbor Park does garden-variety as well as would be expected from any venue that's more than two sets of bleachers. There are branded snow cones, vegetarian options at the numerous concession stands, and overpriced, undersized barbeque sandwiches presented as a notch above the ol' three-dollar dog. For five bucks you can enjoy a fried Twinkie or Snickers bar, which is downright tame next to the doughnut burgers and 5,000-calorie feasts boasted by some other minor league ballparks.
For an extra $12-$16 ($8-$12 for kids) on top of your ticket price, there are two unique touches that distinguish Harbor Park among its MiLB cousins. A picnic area behind the left field fence can be booked either for a pre-game or in-game party; across the way, in right field, there's a restaurant (Hits at the Park) with a menu ranging from chicken tenders to tilapia provencal and a great view of the game.
Very, very family-oriented. Again, Norfolk's drunken heckler/fighter/degenerate types gravitate to the hockey games further downtown. The on-field action is emphasized less by its quality, the Tides, last-place finishers in the International League, are the farm team for the AL East's last-place Baltimore Orioles, than by the absence of distractions inside the park.
In a way, it's nice to buy a ticket, grab some grub, take a seat, and watch the game. It's simple, if also a bit unremarkable.
As recently as 2003, this rating would've been a perfect 5-of-5. That's when the Boathouse, which hosted performances by music legends from The Ramones to 50 Cent, closed down across the water from the center field fence.
Now, Harbor Park's not quite walking distance from MacArthur Mall, Chrysler Hall, and the sights on Norfolk's downtown waterfront. Granted, few of the families taking in a game would've stuck around for a show in the unabashedly grungy local hotspot, but at least the parents could steal a look and remember the days when they did.
"Noise!" is what the video board in center field wants, but no one seems fussed when the result is a slight, sporadic, and short-lived +1 to the low, bustling volume of this park's crowd.
The main source of entertainment when sitting among Norfolk's laid-back baseball fans is keeping a running count of how many MLB teams are represented by jerseys. Between Naval Station Norfolk on the other side of town and Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Hampton Roads' military population includes fans from all across the country.
It's not uncommon to spot, for instance, a Detroit Tigers shirt (whether the Tides are facing the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate or not).
Pretty straight-forward. Well-marked signs guide you to the park throughout downtown and along I-264 in both directions. On game days, Harbor Park shares parking with the city hall's nearby garages, so there's always plenty.
Catch the downtown tunnel at the wrong time from points west, though, and you'll have an hour to understand why this isn't a perfect score.
According to last year's MiLB average fan cost index (FCI), a Tides game is a pretty poor value. The FCI, which tallies the cost of two adult tickets, two child tickets, four hot dogs, two sodas, two beers, a program, and parking, is meant as a rubric for families, Norfolk's target audience.
But Harbor Park's $76 FCI comes in above the Triple-A average ($67.77) and nearly $20 more than Durham Bulls Athletic Park, home of the International League's first-place team across the North Carolina state line. Worse, that figure doesn't account for the higher cost of a picnic or a table at the restaurant to make your Harbor Park visit unique.
Delivering what's expected at an acceptable standard is worth at least a point's gratuity. After all, acclaimed director Woody Allen once said that "90 percent of life is just showing up," and Harbor Park does a good-enough job meeting the minimum expectations of a minor-league venue.
But the entertainment value of a night at this park has to be measured by the talent on the field, because there's nothing much that's special going on in the stands. Until the next Matt Wieters or David Wright comes through, it's just another place for baseball.
I was at a game here last week and it certainly is a beautiful ballpark from both the outside and inside. The name of the ballpark is a bit deceptive as one would think you have this terrific harbor view, when in actuality the view is of cranes, cargo ships and old buildings. I do agree the whole experience here is rather unremarkable as a Sunday afternoon game featured stands that were mostly empty and a rather bland atmosphere. The neighborhood immediately around Harbor Park is dull, but downtown Norfolk is beautiful and its right around the corner. Had a great time checking out downtown after the game.
I went to a Saturday and Sunday game (6/1/13 & 6/2/13) vs. my favorite team, the Buffalo Bisons. If you're in Norfolk and are looking to catch a ballgame, it's definitely worth a trip out.
Food & Beverage
First and foremost, the food and beverage staff were exceptional. We ate both at the 'Hits at the Park' restaurant and at the concession stands. They were by far the most polite and caring staff I've seen at a ballpark.
That said, the concessions were pretty standard fare at average ballpark prices. Beer prices were pretty outrageous at $9 a pop(, so get drunk before you come). There was a veggie burger option, which I was impressed with, although I did not try it.
If you are a vegetarian or have one in your group, the Hits at the Park restaurant's buffet is not for you. I was very disappointed in their lack of ANYTHING vegetarian. My brother and nephew seemed to enjoy their dinners (more on that in extras). I got stuck eating buns with sauer kraut in them.
The park was clean, bright, and it didn't look like there was a bad seat in the house. There was also a nice breeze coming in off the harbor, and the occasional boat horn to remind you that it was there. The scoreboard and information display were modern and nice, although an instant replay feature would have made it even nicer (there were a few questionable calls). All and all, a nice setting to watch a ballgame.
The neighborhood was fine. I don't know the area that well, so I don't know if you can walk to anything else. The neighborhood was safe and parking was abundant.
I neither liked nor disliked the Norfolk fans...well, I should say I both liked and disliked them. Positives: No drunken hooligans and people actually watched the game (vs. talk on their phones like I've seen at other parks). Negatives: Fans seemed apathetic - not a lot of passion for their team or the outcome of the game, parents let their kids run wild in the stands (maybe my fault for coming to family day)
We took the light rail from VA Beach on Saturday night (still experimental...but it was nice for our purpose). We drove and parked on Sunday ($5 fee). We did both with ease. Both were extremely close. No complaints.
Return on Investment
I would say average return on investment based on other AAA ballparks I've been to. Way high compared to a Major League Park.
The extras were not quite as abundant as I've seen at other parks (Lehigh Valley IronPigs / Buffalo Bisons). There are some in-between inning contests, etc, but nothing inspiring.
We went intending that my brother was going to complete 'Salute to Pork Challenge'. We got scared away because they want to make a big to-do about it with an announcer in the restaurant, etc. If you're into that, sweet. If you're going hoping to eat 5lbs of food in private shame, it's probably not going to work out for you. That said, I made my own Russ's Dirty Dozen challenge, where I made him eat 12 hot dogs. He is now on my own Personal Wall of Fame (which is actually a wall of shame because he ate 12 hot dogs).
300 Monticello Ave
Norfolk, VA 23510
777 Waterside Dr
Norfolk, VA 23510