1 Wrigley Field Bleachers
Watching a day game from the Wrigley bleachers is a definitive American experience, right there with walking the National Mall and driving the Pacific Coast Highway. The light, the wash of verdant grass and ivy, the commingled smell of grilled meats, cold beer and suntan lotion, and the instant camaraderie of strangers are exhilarating. The bonus is becoming part of the lineage: The bleachers have offered this magnificent view of game and country since 1937.
2 Caribbean Series
April 9, 2012
Only 30 hours before the first pitch in 2008, nearly a third of Cibao Stadium—the host venue in Santiago, Dominican Republic—was without seats. Workers frantically bolted bleachers to concrete, but one might have wondered, Why bother? The annual round-robin tournament pitting teams from the D.R., Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela remains one of baseball's best events, where a string of next-generation stars routinely brings the passionate crowds to their feet.
3 College World Series
The College World Series is an ode to the purity of baseball. For a taste of the untainted game, go to Omaha in June, when organ music, like a gentle breeze, fills an intimate 24,000-seat ballpark. The smell of barbecue wafts through the summer air. The thrills of the two-week, double-elimination tournament reach March Madness levels. But it's the generosity of the Omahans and tailgating out-of-towners that makes the fortnight special. You're not just a fan at the Greatest Show on Dirt. You're family.
4 Duke vs. North Carolina
Eight miles and two shades of blue separate rivals who can deliver anything, be it a brawl (Art Heyman and Larry Brown in 1961) or eight points in 17 seconds (Carolina's, to force overtime in a 1974 victory). From Walter Davis and Bobby Jones to Gene Banks and Austin Rivers, the stars shine; but so do bit players like Duke's Fred Lind, who after scoring 12 points all year delivered 16 in an 87--86 triple-OT win in 1968. And to think the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils have never met in NCAA tournament play.
5 Lambeau Field
Regardless of which opponent the Packers are facing, a trip to Lambeau Field is guaranteed to thrill true pro football fans. Not only because Lambeau is where one of the league's epic games took place (the Ice Bowl, of 1967), but also because so many of the game's iconic figures—Lombardi, Hornung, Nitschke, Starr, Favre—called it home. The franchise's 25,000-square-foot Hall of Fame is also located on the grounds. Ticket cost: $10 for adults. Memories for all generations: invaluable.
6 British Open at St. Andrews
There is no greater experience in golf than the Open Championship at St. Andrews, where every five years a sport returns to its birthplace. The game is at its most venerable here, with the Old Course's humpbacked fairways and brownish greens, the cozy Dunvegan Hotel across the street, and Old and Young Tom Morris buried up the road. I have made three trips to St. Andrews, watching Jack and Tiger and all the others, smiling at my good fortune in seeing the soul of the game.
7 Indianapolis 500
There's nothing in all of U.S. motor sports quite like the opening five laps of the Indy 500. Stand on pit road as close as possible to Turn 1, and once the green flag waves, your senses will be overwhelmed by the sleek Indy cars charging toward you at over 200 mph. The thump of the horsepower hitting your chest, the high pitch of the engines, the smell of burning rubber—this is what draws more than 300,000 fans to the Brickyard on the last Sunday of May.
8 Notre Dame Football
If you can attend only one more football game in this lifetime, find your way to South Bend. To set foot on the campus is to venture into a kind of spiritual theme park. Even if you despise the Fighting Irish, it's tough to sustain that while lighting a candle in the Grotto or seeking a moment of solitude in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Alumni and undergrads are also famously welcoming, which can annoy opposing teams and their supporters but has always worked for this visitor.
9 Bruins at Canadiens
The principal language of Montreal is French. The secondary language is English. And when the hits and the goals keep coming, the language at the Bell Centre for a Canadiens-Bruins game is Spanish. The 21,273 faithful transmogrify into a European soccer crowd, serenading the bleu, blanc, rouge with "Olé, olé." If nothing else, this vibrant Original Six rivalry promises to be educational. You are guaranteed to learn a new French word: frisson (goose bumps).
Ask people what they love about Wimbledon, and they invariably tick off a list of endearing features: the charm, tradition, gentility; the manicured lawns, the stately Centre Court. But Wimbledon's appeal also stems from what the All England Club lacks. There are no luxury suites. No cloying mascots. Zero peppy men air-cannoning T-shirts or Bachman-Turner Overdrive blaring during breaks. This is a sports cathedral. And best of all, the athletes recognize it and respond accordingly.
—L. Jon Wertheim
11 NBA Finals Game 7
There have been only three winner-take-all games in the Finals since 1989, and the most recent, in 2010 at Staples Center, was one of the most intense games ever, with the Lakers nervously missing shots and frantically chasing them down while overcoming a 13-point deficit to beat the Celtics. Fans watching on TV might have complained about ugly play, but from the stands it was a game of transcendent spirit and grit. To fully appreciate the next Finals Game 7, you'll have to be there.
12 Penn Relays
No place in America brings together the track and field community like the Penn Relays at Philadelphia's Franklin Field, run every year on the last weekend in April. Some 15,000 athletes compete, beginning early in the week with high school relays and culminating on Saturday afternoon when Olympians such as Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix race in the old stadium for crowds that regularly exceed 50,000. It is part athletic event and part family reunion, where a sport's passion is annually reborn.
ANOTHER 12 NOTABLE FAN EXPERIENCES—FOR THOSE WILLING TO GO OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y., keeps alive the romanticism of baseball. Its annual major league exhibition game has been discontinued, but the setting remains timeless: a diamond on former pastureland, framed by a quaint grandstand, church spires, clapboard homes and a canopy of trees.
Shiny new spring training complexes are opening everywhere, but the intimate 6,602-seat McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla., home of the Pirates since '69, is a throwback, an enduring classic.
Sample the vibrancy of Latin American baseball at Crotona Park in the Bronx at a weekend game of the Caribe Baseball League, where predominantly Dominican and Puerto Rican ex-pros relive their past glory.
In Aiken, S.C., sits a little gem of a public course. The greens are small, the fairways narrow and the bunkers cavernous. There's history, too. Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Patty Berg and Fred Astaire have all taken divots out of Aiken Golf Club.
Gj√∏vik Olympiske Fjelhall—the 5,500-seat home of Norway's Gj√∏vik Hockey—is an underground sensation. The rink, built for the 1994 Winter Games, is carved into a mountain.
Surrounded by cornfields in western Ohio sits Tony Stewart's track of dreams. Stewart bought it in 2004, and with his renovations, Eldora Speedway now features the best dirt-track racing in the U.S.
Created in the image of its founder, Billie Jean King, World TeamTennis is a big-hearted, broad-minded underdog that crushes the sport's elitist image. Check it out July 9--28.
The ironically named Peace and Friendship Stadium in Athens, home of the Greek club Olympiakos, is routinely encircled by police in full riot gear to protect visiting players from the most passionate basketball fans on the planet.
Dropping in on the annual Florida-Georgia football scrap? Look up John Short, the gentleman who drives the van with the Hairy Dawg on the roof, and soak up his history of the rivalry.
Pre's Rock is an outcropping in Eugene, Ore., where runner Steve Prefontaine died in a 1975 car crash. Flowers, flags and running shoes are left here in homage.
Visit the Palestra, Philadelphia's Quaker meeting house, for a Penn game, but don't miss the display cases, which celebrate the city's Big Five basketball tradition.
The annual Gold Jacket dinner in Canton, Ohio, brings together Pro Football Hall of Famers, telling stories that serve as an oral road map through the game's history.