Rochester Red Wings – July 18, 2018

If someone were to ask me where he or she could enjoy the best scenery in Rochester, I’d likely respond by saying to visit Frontier Field.

Then again, I’m a bit of a baseball nerd.

Another answer might be to take a stroll across the bridge that spans the Genessee River and High Falls — which, conveniently, is within walking distance of the ballpark. It was also within walking distance of where I was staying, the Holiday Inn Rochester Downtown, so I set out for a short walk early in the afternoon to check out the falls. This is a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Rochester, and it’s a spot that I’ve visited the last couple of times I’ve been in town.

High Falls itself is 96 feet tall, and the Pont De Rennes bridge, which stretches nearly 900 feet from one side of the Genessee River to the other, serves as a perfect viewing point for locals and visitors alike who are eager to enjoy this natural spectacle. Check out how beautiful this spot is:

I walked all the way across the bridge and stood for a couple of minutes here and there at different points along the railing, thoroughly enjoying the view around me.

After a bit, I began the short walk back to my hotel. As I walked, I got an idea — I could see Frontier Field in the distance, and there was a multilevel parking garage directly on my route. I figured that if I went up to the top of the garage, I’d be able to see and photograph the ballpark from a unique vantage point. I ran up the several flights of stairs and made it to the roof, approaching the railing to check the view. Capturing the following photo involved leaning out over the edge a little, and while I’d have liked to have reached out even farther, doing so was a little scary. Anyway, here’s how Frontier Field looked from an angle at which I’d never seen it before:

After happily backing away from the edge, I descended back to the sidewalk and returned to my hotel, where I hung out for a couple of hours and then headed out to Frontier Field for the third and final time on this road trip.

There hadn’t been any batting practice during either of my first two visits to Frontier Field. Rain on the Monday had canceled it, and the players weren’t going to hit before Tuesday’s 11 a.m. start. I was hopeful that I’d see the cage on the field once I cut through the concourse and went out to the cross-aisle, so this scene was music to my ears:

I couldn’t resist grabbing a seat and watching a few minutes of BP. Exploring the stadium could wait for a bit, as there’s nothing quite like sitting and watching the players take batting practice. I watched maybe 15 minutes or so from a seat with this view …

… and then took a walk down to the tented picnic area to watch a little more:

My decision to watch from the picnic area was strategic — the sun was very bright, and unless I was paying full attention at all times, it’d be difficult to pick up every ball. Being under a covered area gave me protection, as well as the opportunity to enjoy BP from a new angle.

I watched the action for several minutes from that spot, and then followed the cross-aisle back around home plate, walked down the first base side, and cut through the outfield until I was in this area:

This is an exclusive “best seats in the house” area that not only features the upscale chairs that you see, but also has a couch that was behind me when I took this photo. I think that it’s one of the cooler places to a snag a home run ball that I’ve come across in all my travels.

My next stop was a seat on the third base side of home, where I snapped this photo:

See the Minnesota Twins cap I’m wearing? I’d bought it a day earlier in the Frontier Field team shop for just $15. Other than the favorable price, I bought it not only because it tied in with my awesome Rochester visit (the Red Wings are the Triple-A affiliate of the Twins) but also because I had three outstanding days visiting the Twins last fall.

I stayed in that seat until BP wrapped up and the gates opened, and then immediately went to grab something to eat. It was $1 Dog Day, and while hot dogs aren’t normally my first choice as ballpark fare — especially when I’m visiting somewhere with such wonderfully varied food options as Frontier Field — I couldn’t resist the good deal:

Other fans were obviously feeling the same way, because there was a steady stream of people hitting the concession stands immediately upon arriving. After I ate, I decided to wander around a little more, and set out along the first base side to go check out the home bullpen. When I got to the grassy area near the bullpen, I baseball caught my eye. It’d obviously been hit during BP, but obviously missed by the ushers when they’d walked around picking up balls before the gates opened. Since the gates were indeed open and other fans were in the area, the ball was fair game — and I was glad to find my first ball of this visit to Rochester:

As first pitch approached, I decided to grab some more food. This might seem like an insane decision, given that I’d just eaten two large hot dogs but, hey, do it for the story, as I always say. Knowing that this would be my last Frontier Field meal of this visit, I knew I had to make a good choice — and was feeling the pressure of knowing there were tons of good things that I’d yet to eat. I couldn’t resist a visit to the Say Cheese concession stand, which is also home to one of my favorite ballpark meals ever — the buffalo chicken mac and cheese. I’ve had it twice, so I wanted to change things up a little. There are several different mac and cheese configurations, and I went with one that sounded straightforward but delicious:

You’re looking at an order of Three Cheese mac, which had cheddar, ricotta and mozzarella. As expected, it was mighty cheesy, and while I didn’t like it was much as the buffalo chicken variation, it was still a good dish.

I’d taken my mac and cheese down to the grass berm in the right field corner, and this is where I was when the game began. I watched the first inning from this spot, and then went to a spot behind home plate for the second inning:

After that, it was time to meet up against with my buddy Mark Firkins. If you read my post about visiting Batavia’s Dwyer Stadium, you might remember his name. If not, he’s a Rochester-area baseball fan I met randomly back in 2015 when we were both selected to watch a Cleveland Indians game from the #TribeLive suite at Progressive Field. We’ve kept in touch on Twitter ever since, and Mark made plans, along with his son Travis, to visit Dwyer Stadium at the same time as me. We had such a good time together that the idea of hanging out for another game was appealing, so we decided to meet up at Frontier Field on this night, too. Here’s a picture of Mark and me:

I spent the rest of the game following the pattern of enjoying an inning or so with Mark and Travis, and then heading off to wander around to explore Frontier Field a little more. As the game went on, I enjoyed half an inning in the picnic area that I’d previously visited during BP:

And, in the seventh and eighth innings, went back up to sit with Mark and Travis, where we had this view:

I parted ways with them after the eighth, and spent the ninth doing what I enjoy best — walking around, taking in the atmosphere and enjoying several different vantage points.

It’s always sad to leave a ballpark at the end of a road trip, but my three days spent in Rochester during this visit were so jam packed with good times that this was a visit that I won’t soon forget.

I’m already looking forward to my next visit, whenever that might be.

A big thank you to the good people at Visit Rochester for their assistance with my visit to Rochester. If you’re planning to see Frontier Field for a baseball road trip, be sure to check out Visit Rochester’s website for all the planning information you need.

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Rochester Red Wings – July 17, 2018

Day games after night games have a reputation for not being too popular among players, and I imagine that’s especially true when the day game starts before noon, rather than after it.

For me, this type of scheduling scenario is a treat. While I’ll admit that having fewer than 12 hours elapse between leaving the ballpark after a night game and returning before the next day’s game is a little exhausting, it’s always a situation I enjoy on my road trips.

After a full — and filling — first day at Rochester’s Frontier Field, I crashed in my hotel less than a half mile away, but was up bright and early on the morning of July 17 for some day baseball. The Red Wings were playing at 11 a.m. to accommodate a bunch of summer camps that would be in attendance, so I was expecting a boisterous atmosphere.

I got to Frontier Field a little before 9 a.m. and took a walk around its exterior before going inside. I’ve often expressed how much I love being inside this ballpark, but I find that the outside is pretty appealing, too. In particular, the design is impressive. For a ’90s-era facility, I find that the exterior has a lot of character. Take a look at this panorama that I shot from across Morrie Silver way, which runs roughly parallel to the third base line:

After snapping that photo, I continued along the street until I got to Plymouth Avenue, which runs beyond the outfield fence. I crossed the street and stood at the edge of a parking lot to snap this shot:

That’s the back of the video board on the left, a group picnic area under the white tent and a cool historic building on the far right, which is immediately adjacent to the park’s Gate 5. Want a closer look at the historic building? I thought so:

If the building looks like a historic firehouse, you’re absolutely right. Home to “Hose Co. No. 3,” this building opened in 1934. I think it’s outstanding that it was not only kept during the construction of Frontier Field six decades later, but also included in the design.

It’s not possible to complete a full lap of Frontier Field from the exterior, so I soon retraced my steps and went back to the main gates to enter park. Unlike a day earlier, when rain had kept me hiding in the concourse for the first part of my visit, I went straight out to the cross aisle and snapped this photo:

Then, it was time to explore the outfield area a bit. Because batting practice wasn’t taking place, I didn’t have to worry about any long home run balls smacking me in the head, and that suited me just fine. I headed to a spot just to the center field side of the visitors bullpen and took this panorama …

… and then cut across the grass berm behind the fence and looked back toward the batter’s eye:

I spent the next maybe 15 or so minutes just wandering around the cross-aisle, taking a lap through the concourse and stopping by the team shop. When the gates opened, I decided that since probably more than 1,000 summer campers would soon be descending on Frontier Field, I’d better grab something to eat before the lineups potentially got long. I had my mind set on a prime rib sandwich from the Red Osier concession stand. It’s something I’ve had before, and it’s easily one of my favorite ballpark foods ever, so I grabbed one and hustled over to the seats on the first base side to eat it:

While there are certainly flashier concession items both at Frontier Field and ballparks across the minor leagues, I love this sandwich because it’s exactly what you want it to be — a fresh kimmelweck roll topped with caraway seeds and kosher salt, a heaping pile of thinly sliced prime rib and plenty of au jus. In fact, you can see the latter floating in the tinfoil below the sandwich. I always add some horseradish to my sandwich, which adds another flavor dimension that I like. As always, the sandwich was outstanding. It’s a must-have item for anyone visiting Frontier Field. I always wish I could buy 10 of them and jam them in my suitcase to take home with me.

The park was filling up quickly, and as first pitch approached, I decided to go down to the railing above the grass berm on the first base side. It’s not far from the small bridge that I’d visited a day earlier, and provides a similar view:

For the record, the park looks fairly empty in the image above. What you’re not seeing, however, is that the stands just out of sight to the left were absolutely packed. Because of the overhang providing shade, most of the camp groups bought tickets in those sections, so the upper deck on the first base side was definitely a lively place to be all game.

As you might’ve been able to tell in the image above, it was a perfect day for baseball. Very few clouds in the sky and the sun directly overhead meant that I didn’t need to worry about rain, but it was getting pretty hot. Normally, I’d have gone to find a place to sit in the shade, but since the shady seats were packed, I decided on the next best thing — a cool drink. As you’ve probably seen in my various blog posts over the years, I’m a sucker for frozen lemonade, so I grabbed one from a concession stand behind home plate and took a seat in the sun on the third base side:

The next place I chose to sit was just to the visitors side of home plate. It’s a spot that provides a really nice backdrop beyond the outfield, as well as a perfect view of the game:

I sat there for a couple of innings, and then really needed to find some shade. I’d picked up a pretty solid sunburn two days earlier in Batavia, and didn’t want to be feeling even more burnt by the end of this game. I saw that the group that had been occupying the picnic area beyond left field had started to filter out, which meant that the gameday staff weren’t restricting other fans from entering this area. Given that it’s a covered space, I hustled over there and sat at a picnic table where I had a good view of the field, but also of the Louisville bullpen. I remained in that spot until some of the camp groups in the shaded seats on the first base side began to leave, too, and then went over there to grab a seat in the full shade with this view:

I ended up spending the remainder of the game in that spot. I didn’t have any desire to be in the sun any longer, and with another visit to Frontier Field coming up in a little more than 24 hours, it was time to just kick back and enjoy the ballgame.

Unlike a day earlier, I wasn’t in a rush to get out of the ballpark, and that meant that by the time I got to my car, there were a handful of cars in front of me. Happy to blast the A/C and wait my turn, I had a classic “only in the minors moment.” While I sat in the line, I saw a Red Wings pitcher Gabriel Moya walk through the parking lot and get into his vehicle — a white Range Rover Velar, if you’re wondering. I normally have trouble identifying minor leaguers when they’re not in uniform, but I’d watched him throw in the bullpen a day earlier and found that he was easy to recognize. The left-hander, who has since been called up to Minnesota, sat in his car like any other Frontier Field visitor, eager to get moving. As I inched closer, I was eager for the opportunity to wave him forward, but the driver immediately ahead of me must’ve had the same idea. He motioned for the Range Rover to proceed, and Moya slid into place and disappeared into the traffic a couple of minutes later.

For me, meanwhile, it was another short jaunt back to my hotel room for some much-needed air conditioning, then a quick jaunt out for a steak for dinner, and then back to my hotel to watch the MLB All-Star Game on TV.

Rochester Red Wings – July 16, 2018

Every baseball road tripper has a list of ballparks that he or she visits once and can’t wait to visit again. Even though the overall goal might be to get to as many different parks as possible, there’s always an appeal to get back to a park on your shortlist.

For me, Rochester’s Frontier Field is definitely on that list.

There are several things that make this International League facility in Western New York enticing to me. It’s the first ballpark I visited in 2010 when I decided to start The Ballpark Guide, so the park holds a strong nostalgic connection for me. There’s also the fact that the food selection and quality, the ballpark’s design and atmosphere, the view from home plate and the consistent friendliness of the Red Wings staff are top of the line.

All of these traits mean that you don’t have to twist my arm to get me to travel to Rochester, so when I had a chance to visit for three days last month, I jumped at it. It’s hard to believe that, prior to this visit, I hadn’t been at Frontier Field since 2014. Given that lengthy stretch, a 2018 visit was a must.

Rochester is only about 4.5 hours from home, but I left early on July 16 with the plan to get to the city by around noon. Even though my focus on this trip was baseball, as always, I wanted to do a bit of sightseeing when I was able. Getting to town early gave me a couple of hours to visit Towers Field, home of the University of Rochester baseball team, the site of the old Silver Stadium, where the Red Wings played before Frontier Field was built and, finally, Mount Hope Cemetery, an enormous cemetery that is the final resting spot for a number of historic figures, including Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. If you’re looking for other things to do during your next visit to Rochester, whether it’s museums, historic attractions or more, make sure that you browse Visit Rochester’s website for a comprehensive list of suggestions that will fill your itinerary.

After I saw the sights that I wanted to see, I checked into my hotel, the Holiday Inn Rochester Downtown. It’s not a place at which I’d previously stayed during any of my visits to Rochester, but its amenities and location — less than half a mile from Frontier Field — made it a perfect choice and one that I’d happily choose again.

After a bit of time exploring my hotel, I headed over to Frontier Field about three hours before first pitch. My plan was to enjoy the park for an hour on my own, and then meet up with three members of the Red Wings food & beverage staff for a very exciting food-focused tour. The weather was perfect when I left my hotel, started to drizzle while I was in the administrative office to pick up my media credential and was a complete downpour by the time I got to the concourse.

Argh.

Frontier Field’s concourse is enclosed beneath the seating bowl, which was the standard for minor league parks in 1996 when it opened. I’m not normally keen on this type of design, but was appreciating it during this visit. It rained so hard for the next 45 minutes that I didn’t dare venture out to the cross-aisle, so the concourse kept me mostly dry. When I’d get brave enough, I’d go to the end of the concourse along the third base side, where I’d peek out and see that the weather was still miserable:

The sky wasn’t completely dark, though. You might’ve noticed a small patch of brightness beyond the buildings in straightaway center, so I had hope that the weather picture would change as the afternoon turned to evening. The weather quickly became an afterthought for me as I met up with director of catering and events Courtney Trawitz, GM of food & beverage Jeff Dodge and concessions manager Jeff DeSantis for a culinary adventure that I won’t soon forget.

I’ve often raved about the food at Frontier Field, and these three people are instrumental in making it happen. They’re behind not only my go-to concession fare during each visit, but also the noteworthy new items that often turn heads on social media — and we were going to dive into the latter right away.

Courtney and the two Jeffs led me to a concession stand on the third base side, and Jeff DeSantis asked a food services employee to build me a trash can and a garbage plate. If you’re from Western New York, you’ll certainly know the term “garbage plate,” but if you’re reading this from elsewhere in the country, you might be raising an eyebrow. The garbage plate is Rochester’s specialty dish, and many restaurants around the city serve it. The dish originates from a Rochester restaurant called Nick Tahou Hots, and the traditional garbage plate consists of home fries, baked beans and macaroni salad, along with your choice of hamburger patties or hot dogs, and topped with onions and hot sauce. The noteworthy feature that gives this dish its name is that all of this food is piled in a heap on a plate. Anyway, the Red Wings have been selling garbage plates for years, and recently introduced the “trash can” — essentially, a garbage plate in an easy-to-carry format.

A few minutes after Jeff DeSantis placed the order, I was handed a trash can and a garbage plate with two cheeseburgers, and we moved over to a bar area in the concourse so that I could begin eating. First, though, I had to document this culinary decadence with some photos. Here’s the trash can in its ultra-cool collectible can which, as you might notice, even has dents:

The food itself cleverly sits in a beer cup that slides inside the can, so when you’re done eating, you can chuck the beer cup and your can will be clean to take home. Here’s what the food looks like with the outer can removed:

As you might be able to tell, the trash can’s ingredients are layered. From the bottom up, you’re looking at home fries, macaroni salad, more home fries, hot sauce, chili and onions. Courtney snapped my photo, in which I’m clearly sporting the sunburn that I picked up a day earlier in Batavia

… and then I dug in, wondering how I’d fare against what was easily a couple pounds of food in front of me. (By the way — like my shirt? You can buy one here.)

I have to say that the trash can was really tasty. I had no idea what to expect, but these ingredients worked well together. The crispy outer layer of the home fries was a nice contrast to the soft texture of the macaroni salad, and the chili had a combination of spices that made it a winner. The hot sauce thankfully didn’t blow smoke out my ears and the raw onions weren’t too harsh, so they both complemented the dish (can?) well. I was happy to tell my new friends that I was loving the trash can, and actually found it a little difficult to put down — despite knowing that I had a lot more eating to do.

About two-thirds of the way through it, I tapped out — only for Jeff DeSantis to slide the garbage plate in front of me with a smile. It consisted of all of the ingredients that went into the trash can, plus a pair of one-third pound hamburgers (with cheese, of course):

I think I might’ve liked the plate even more than the can, thanks to the addition of the two cheeseburgers. I find that ballpark burgers can be hit or miss, but those at Frontier Field, not surprisingly, were excellent. While I ate, Courtney, the two Jeffs and I chatted about not only the food at Frontier Field, but ballpark food in general, and I even got a chance to tell them a bit about some of the noteworthy things I’ve eaten on my adventures.

About halfway into the garbage plate, I once again called it quits, and my group led me along the concourse not for the marathon session on an elliptical machine that I needed, but to — you guessed it — eat some more. We stopped at the Nacho Everyday Nacho concession stand so that I could try an order of loaded nachos. For the record, I’m not normally a fan of ballpark nachos. I love homemade and restaurant nachos, but I find that topping some chips with that horrendous orange goo cheese and calling the dish ballpark nachos is a colossal letdown. As soon as the food services team began to build my nachos, however, I could tell that these would be no ordinary ballpark nachos. The chips were topped with beef and chicken, rice, black beans, shredded lettuce, salsa, shredded cheddar cheese, jalapenos, salsa verde and sour cream, and looked like this:

As you might suspect from the image above, it was delicious. A complete departure from conventional ballpark nachos, and even a source of some veggies at the ballpark — something that, um, doesn’t always happen for me.

My ability to move was limited after eating about half of the nachos, but I somehow followed Jeff Dodge and Courtney for a behind-the-scenes look at the Frontier Field kitchen. Jeff DeSantis understandably had to get back to his pregame duties after spending more than an hour with me — thanks, Jeff! I didn’t take much in the way of photos in the kitchen, partly because it was extremely crowded and I didn’t want to interfere with the staff members doing their job. I was hugely impressed with the organization and execution that went on wherever I turned, as well as the sheer volume of some things. As I watched a cook stir an enormous vat of chili, Jeff told me that the vat holds about 35 gallons!

I can’t say how much I appreciate the food experience that the Red Wings provided me, and really want to send my thanks to Courtney, Jeff and Jeff for not only being so generous with their time and expertise, but also so much fun to hang out with. Remember how I said earlier that one of the reasons I love returning to Rochester is the friendliness of the staff? I can definitely add this experience to that list.

The gates had opened by the time my food experience and tour wrapped up, and the rain had also quit. I was eager to get out to the seating bowl for the first time to view the field and begin to explore, so that’s what I did immediately upon saying goodbye to Courtney, Jeff and Jeff. Instead of going straight down to field level, I climbed up to the top row of the section behind home plate and snapped this panorama:

Then, I stood in that spot for a few minutes and enjoyed the view. Frontier Field provides one of my favorite views from home plate in all of baseball, and while it didn’t make my recent top-five list, I had to think long and hard to keep it off. I love the city’s skyline beyond right-center, and the Kodak building that towers beyond the left field corner is majestic. I also love the memories that quickly come back to me as I look at the image above:

  • I can recall standing around the bullpen in right field to watch a number of MLB hall of famers get warmed up during the Pepsi Max Field of Dreams game in 2013
  • I can remember exactly where I was sitting — in one of the covered sections down the right field line — when I took my first ballpark food photo way back in 2010
  • I can picture exactly where I was standing when I talked to MLBer Radhames Liz, took photos of him and even handed him my camera so that he could view the shots in 2014

And so, so many more memories.

Like I said, Frontier Field is a special place for me.

After my trip down memory lane, I took a lap around the concourse and ended up down the first base line, which is the spot in the park that provides the best view of the city’s iconic Kodak building:

I then continued over the small bridge that connects the concourse to the area behind the outfield fence, and settled into a standing-room spot beside the Rochester bullpen. I watched the starting pitcher go through his warmup and ended up spending the first inning in this spot.

This would normally be a time that I’d head off in search of a meal to eat, but in spite of all of the good food options surrounding me, I was absolutely stuffed. I was, however, craving something sweet and, while I don’t normally buy desserts at the ballpark, I decided that I needed something. I didn’t want anything that was insanely heavy, so I grabbed a root beer float. It was made with soft serve ice cream and it really hit the spot:

Once I’d slurped my dessert down, I snapped this panorama from where I sat …

… and then went back to the cross-aisle and walked all the way around to the left field foul pole. Yeah, I’d eaten a lot before the game started, but I was certainly getting my exercise now. There’s a large grass berm in this area, but it was a little wet from the rain earlier on, so it wasn’t as populated as it would’ve normally been. That meant that this area was pretty quiet as I grabbed a spot against the rail and watched an inning with this vantage point:

My next stop was the bridge that I mentioned earlier. It’s always one of my favorite places at Frontier Field to hang out. Not only does it provide a good view of the field, but you can also look into the home bullpen nearby. Here was my view from that spot:

Between innings, I took a walk through the outfield and behind a couple of group seating areas. The concourse doesn’t wrap all the way around the field, so I couldn’t continue — but here’s how the area immediately behind center field appears:

I then returned to the bridge to watch more of the action, and noticed this funny sign painted on the wall below me — helpful for those who might otherwise be confused, I’m guessing?

See the flag on the inside of the gate? It reads “Thursdays are for the Plates,” which pays tribute to the garbage plate. On Thursday home games throughout the seasons, the Red Wings have been donning special Rochester Plates uniforms. See? The garbage plate really is that big in Rochester!

Later in the game, I went outside to the plaza in front of the main gates to snap this panorama:

I love the look of the ticket office at night, don’t you? To me, it looks like a ticket office at a historic movie theater.

Then, I went back inside, took another lap of the concourse — stopping here and there to enjoy the action — and then settled into a seat behind home plate to watch the remainder of the game:

This spot also gave me an opportunity to exit quickly so that I could get out of the parking lot with ease and be back in my hotel room just a handful of minutes after the final out.

As always, it was an awesome day at Frontier Field — and a perfect way to start my three day-visit to Rochester. A day later, the Red Wings were playing a matinee game, so I’d be back at the ballpark in time for breakfast.

Best View in the Minors Competition

Yesterday, I launched my biggest undertaking yet — a competition in which fans can vote to choose the ballpark that provides the best view from home plate. I’m absolutely thrilled with the amazing response that the Best View in the Minors competition has received so far.

Thanks to a lot of social media shares across multiple platforms, I’m thrilled with how many people are checking out the page and casting their votes. Evaluating the views at 160 minor league ballparks isn’t a small task, but I hope that you’ll take some time to visit the page and cast a vote. And if you already have, thank you!

I spent much of yesterday afternoon talking to fellow baseball fans on Twitter and hearing their responses, as well as tracking the votes as they poured in, and it’s been a thrill to see how people are voting. All of this talk makes me want to chime in with my own favorites, which hasn’t been an easy list to compile. I’ve *only* been to 54 minor league ballparks, so in the name of fairness, I’ll only be sharing my favorites from the parks that I’ve visited. I also want to be clear that I’ve selected the following parks based exclusively on how I like the view from behind home plate — I’m not considering any of the other myriad factors that make up a ballpark experience, so this isn’t a list of my overall favorite parks.

Here are my top five ballpark views, with a pair of honorable mentions:

Honorable Mention 1: PNC Field, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

PNC Park in Pittsburgh arguably gives fans the best view from home plate in the major leagues, but don’t sleep on the minor league park with the similar name. PNC Field, which went through an extensive renovation in time for the 2013 International League season, offers one of the best views that I’ve encountered on all my travels. Photos hardly do it justice, but there’s a tall rock wall covered with trees that juts up beyond the outfield fence, grass berm and outfield concourse, almost giving you the feeling that you’re in a canyon devoted to baseball.

Honorable Mention 2: Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, State College Spikes

There are a few MiLB ballparks that you could argue have more impressive mountain views than State College’s Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, but I’ve yet to visit them. So, this New York-Penn League ballpark and its fantastic view of Mount Nittany gets an honorable mention on my list. The 2,000-foot mountain looms in the distance beyond straightaway center, and makes for one of the best backdrops I’ve seen on my travels.

5: Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, New Hampshire Fisher Cats

If I disregard the fact that Northeast Delta Dental Stadium is one of my favorite places to visit for a long list of reasons, it’s still a ballpark with an outstanding view. There’s not a lot happening on the right field side of this Eastern League park, but the left field view is hugely enticing. The key attraction there is the Hilton Garden Inn hotel, which isn’t technically part of the ballpark, but is close enough that it might as well be. There are a handful of minor league parks with field-facing hotels, but I don’t know if any is closer than this one. The hotel has a patio immediately behind the left field fence where people can eat, drink and enjoy the game, and all of this is visible from the ballpark itself.

4: Southwest University Park, El Paso Chihuahuas

Full disclosure: I’ve got a thing for field-facing hotels. If you’ve read my blog for a long time, you likely know this about me. But the Doubletree by Hilton hotel that makes up part of the view at El Paso’s Southwest University Field is just one element that makes this ballpark’s view rank third on my list. The neat-looking building that you see beyond left field is the El Paso Scottish Rite Temple, a theater and museum housed in a building that dates back to 1921. Don’t forget the Franklin Mountains rising in the distance, which are nicely visible during both day and night games.

3: Harbor Park, Norfolk Tides

Harbor Park is the only entry on this list that I’ve visited this season, and I can honestly say that part of the reason I chose to travel to Norfolk was for the view that the park provides. It’s a view that looks enticing in photos, but is even more impressive in person. The Elizabeth River flows just beyond the ballpark’s outfield fence and is visible behind the video board, and a pair of elevated railway bridges span across this body of water. They point skyward by default, but are lowered and raised multiple times per game to allow trains to pass.

2: Peoples Natural Gas Field, Altoona Curve

I’ve only been to Peoples Natural Gas Field once — a short visit back in 2012 — but it didn’t take long to be wowed by this Eastern League ballpark’s view. The prime attraction, of course, is the roller coaster that towers above the right field fence. The roller coaster is part of the Lakemont Park, an amusement park that opened way back in 1894. It’s called the Skyliner, and has been a fixture at the amusement park since 1987. The irony here is that I get violently ill on any ride that moves faster than a teeter-totter, but as long as I can enjoy the view at this ballpark and not have to ride the Skyliner, it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.

1: Whataburger Field, Corpus Christi Hooks

My favorite view that I’ve encountered so far belongs to Whataburger Field, home of the Corpus Christi Hooks. This Texas League ballpark’s view is all about the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge, which is beyond the fence in right field. The bridge, which is nearly 250 feet tall and lights up at night in a number of color schemes, spans over a ship channel that opens into Corpus Christi Bay, which then joins the Gulf of Mexico. Throughout the game, you can see freighters pass under the bridge in both directions as they pick up and drop off loads along various points along the Port of Corpus Christi.

Batavia Muckdogs – July 15, 2018

Despite being only 4.5 hours from my front door, Dwyer Stadium, home of the Batavia Muckdogs, isn’t a place that I’d previously managed to visit since I launched The Ballpark Guide in 2010. And while I’d visited Rochester’s Frontier Field — just 45 minutes from Batavia — five separate times and zipped along I-90 past Batavia more times than I can count, this New York-Penn League team had never made it onto my road trip schedule.

Half of the issue has been scheduling. Often, when I’d plan to be near Batavia or would be driving past it, the Muckdogs weren’t at home. The other half of the issue was the fact that the team has essentially been on life support for the last several years. If you follow the NYPL, you’ll be no stranger to the talk about the Muckdogs leaving town. Many recent seasons have seemed like they’d be the team’s last, but the ‘Dogs continue to survive their standing eight-count and hang on.

Given the team’s relatively close proximity to where I live, as well as knowing that I’d regret not seeing the Muckdogs if they ended up departing, I knew that 2018 had to be the season that I finally visited Dwyer Stadium — and I’m happy that I made it happen.

I don’t normally schedule afternoon games on the first day of road trips, but this was the plan to start the trip that I’m currently on:

  • Wake up at 4 a.m.
  • Leave the house at 5 a.m.
  • Arrive in Batavia at 10 a.m.
  • See the Muckdogs host the Lowell Spinners at 1 p.m.

I completed the first two items on that list with no problem, and after several hours of driving, found myself pulling into the quiet parking lot at Dwyer Stadium just a few minutes after 10 a.m. — hopefully earning a Guinness record for “Earliest Arrival to a New York-Penn League Game.”

Dwyer Stadium opened in 1996, replacing the team’s former ballpark that was built on the same site in 1939. It’s nestled into a residential community, greatly reminiscent of Falcon Park in Auburn. Nearby residents can easily hear the ballpark PA announcer’s words and foul balls can make their way out of the park and onto neighborhood lawns. There’s a Little League facility beyond the left field fence and when there’s a lull in the action at Dwyer Stadium, fans can easily hear the kids’ game taking place just out of sight.

These are things that give Dwyer Stadium an appealing quality, and one that is increasingly rare as ballparks get bigger and fancier. It’s also the type of thing that makes me hope that the Muckdogs are able to stay in Batavia for many more years.

Since the parking lot was almost empty when I arrived, I had my pick of the spots — and chose one far enough away that my vehicle would be safe from foul balls. Before I got out of the car, I watched a coach bus pull up and knew that it carried the Spinners, which made me a combination of amused/proud/embarrassed to know that I’d beaten the visiting team to the ballpark yet again. I watched the Spinners climb out of the bus and walk into the visitors clubhouse, which is situated in the right field corner, and then I, too, left my vehicle to begin walking around the park.

The following image shows how Dwyer Stadium appears from the parking lot:

The pointed structure on the left houses the team’s offices and concession stand, while you can also see the sloped grandstands above the green walls and the covered grandstand behind home plate.

I walked around to the front of the ballpark and snapped this panorama:

To take it, I had to stand in the middle of the road — not something that you can do around most parks, but the quiet neighborhood around Dwyer Stadium made it easy.

The residential location of Dwyer Stadium isn’t the only thing that makes it reminiscent of Auburn’s Falcon Park. Although the latter opened a season earlier, the two ballparks are virtually identical, and it was fun to see so many familiar sights as I walked around.

I made my way down the sidewalk outside of the stadium and turned to walk behind the outfield fence. From there, I could see the batting cages and although I couldn’t hear anyone hitting, a Muckdogs cap and baseball bat were a sure sign that a member of the home team was about to start:

The space beyond the outfield fence has a unique combination of things to see. The impressiveness of the neatly manicured Little League park provides a contrast to rundown and vandalized structures such as this one:

This is how the backside of the outfield fence looks from where I stood behind the mound of a small children’s baseball diamond:

After making a complete lap around the facility, I figured that I’d pick up my media pass and go inside, but then I heard the Muckdogs taking batting practice. Doing so before a 1 p.m. game is rare, so I quickly ran back behind the outfield fence in the hopes of snagging a home run ball. Luck wasn’t in my favor — the fence is taller than most, and given that players at this level are still developing (and often using wooden bats for the first time) it’s definitely not a home run league. After a few minutes of not seeing a single ball leave the yard, I decided to head inside.

Here’s a look at the space immediately inside the main gates, which includes a beer concession stand, a bunch of picnic tables and some open space:

And this is the view that fans get upon entering and turning to the left:

The main concession stand is just out of the frame to the left, and the structure that you see is the backside of the team’s offices. The grandstand, of course, is on the right, and the gray wall in the middle of it is the back of the press box.

When I visit ballparks like Dwyer Stadium, I often think about what the experience might be for players. The Muckdogs are affiliated with the Marlins, and I can’t help but suspect that the gap between Batavia and Miami feels bigger than the 1,450 miles it actually is. The big leagues have to feel like a long shot when you’re in Batavia, but your motivation is never too far away. Behind the grandstand, there’s a huge wall display that recognizes the big leaguers who began their pro careers in Batavia. It’s an impressive list, too, with names such as Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Marlon Byrd, JA Happ, Carlos Carrasco, Lance Lynn, Matt Carpenter and many more.

After reading the alumni display and browsing some historical plaques mounted in the same area, I walked from the main plaza area down the third base concourse, which looks like this:

Down the third base line, there’s a large tent for groups, and I enjoyed a couple minutes of reprieve from the sun while watching BP:

One interesting thing that I noticed in this spot is that the Muckdogs were using a pitching machine for batting practice. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that in all of the ballparks I’ve visited.

My next stop was the cross-aisle behind home plate, which looks like this:

This area is essentially the heart of Dwyer Stadium, perhaps thanks in part to the shelter from the sun that fans can enjoy here. After enjoying a few minutes of shade, I then stood directly behind home plate and watched some BP with this view:

Next, I continued my self-guided tour of Dwyer Stadium by walking along the cross-aisle down the first base line to a party deck at the end of the seating bowl:

The party deck has a small number of seats and a bar, and I later noticed that it was packed from first pitch through the ninth inning.

The next place I visited was the front row on the third base side, where I checked out the seating situation in detail. I love the cozy vibe that small ballparks like Dwyer Stadium provide fans. If you take a look at the following photo …

… you’ll notice that there are only five rows of seats below the cross-aisle. I especially love how the front row allows you to look right into the dugout, which is one of the ways that fans can get outstanding access to players at this level. You may have also noticed that Dwyer Stadium doesn’t yet have its dugout netting up, which I was happy to see.

As the gates opened and fans began to trickle into the park, I took a walk down the first base side toward the visitors clubhouse. Just before you reach the clubhouse, there’s an open area that I figured would be a good spot to stand in the hopes of snagging a foul ball:

And speaking of balls, you can’t really see it in the above photo, but there was a BP ball stuck between the rolled-up tarp and the fence. I noticed it as I got closer and grabbed it:

As I walked back toward the seating bowl, I saw a man leaning over the fence in front of the visitors dugout. I figured he was a reporter waiting for a player, but then saw that he appeared to be conversing with whoever was in the dugout. Curious, I walked over to the far side of the park so that I could see who he was talking to, and saw that it was a large contingent of Spinners. I quickly realized that he was a minister who was holding a church service for the players, given that it was a Sunday:

A while later, both teams came out to get warmed up, and in a true “you know you’re at a minor league game” moment, I watched two members of the home side playing catch with a pair of fans who were standing on the grass next to the picnic area down the third base line. It wasn’t just a couple of tosses, either — they were consistently playing catch for several minutes.

As I watched, I saw my buddy Mark Firkins waving at me from halfway across the ballpark. He’s someone I met when I was in the Cleveland Indians #TribeLive suite three season ago, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. He lives close to Batavia, so he and his son Travis made plans to be at this game. It was great to get caught up with him. He’s an Indians fan who attends a lot of games in Cleveland each season, which is a heck of a feat, given that it’s about a four-hour drive each way.

Mark and Travis joined me up in the shade to the left side of home plate, where we had this view as the game began:

Although the shade in this area was a welcome relief, we soon decided that we wanted to get closer to the action. Mark suggested going down to the front row behind the visitors dugout, and that was a perfect idea for me — the rare absence of netting meant that I was excited to snap some action photos over the next few innings. Before we settled into our new seats, Travis snapped this shot of Mark and me:

We also decided to grab some food. I’d spent some time perusing the Dwyer Stadium concessions before the gates opened, and there wasn’t anything overly noteworthy on the menu. Don’t get me wrong — this ballpark has all of the standard fare that you might want, but nothing out of the ordinary. I figured that when all else fails, you can’t go wrong with a hot dog, and I was surprised at the size of the one I was given:

Mark quickly explained that this is a Zweigle’s hot dog, which is thicker and shorter than a standard hot dog. Zweigle’s is based in Rochester and dates back to 1880. (The company is known for its white hots, which I ate in Rochester several years ago.)

As soon as I finished eating, I began to shoot some action shots. Here’s Spinners outfielder Dylan Hardy fouling a ball off:

And here’s Spinners first baseman Devlin Granberg striding to touch the bag after fielding a ground ball:

After a couple of innings, I took a wander around the park to see more of the sights. Check out how empty the field-level seats were at this point:

As I noted earlier, it was very hot and sunny, so the bulk of the fans were seated in the shade behind home plate or up on the bleachers with umbrellas.

Next, I went back to the grassy area adjacent to the visitors clubhouse. Shortly after I was there last, the grounds crew had wheeled the batting cage into this spot:

At most of the parks I’ve been to, even those in the lower levels of the minors, the batting cage is kept in a spot away from the fans. I couldn’t resist thoroughly checking it out and, of course, standing in it for a few minutes.

My next stop was the top row of the bleachers on the first base side, which gave me this awesome view of the field:

In a sense, it’s too bad that I’d decided to attend an afternoon game instead of an evening one. Mark told me that the sunset views from this spot in the stadium are outstanding, and that would’ve been nice to see.

I spent about an inning wandering, and then rejoined Mark and Travis and continued to snap some action shots. Here’s Granberg after his next at-bat — I wish I could say that I’d captured a post-home run bat flip, but alas this was only a post-walk bat flip:

One of the many things that I enjoy the most about watching games in the lower levels of the minors is the things that you pick up that you might not notice at larger ballparks. From where we sat, we could easily hear home plate umpire Dylan Bradley and one of the Spinners coaches going back and forth about, of all things, some batting gloves that a player had in his back pocket. Bradley ended the exchange by yelling, “Enough, enough!” at the Lowell dugout, but we had the feeling that things weren’t over yet. True enough, an inning or two later, first base umpire Thomas Fornarola ejected Spinners hitting coach Nate Spears, and we could hear the entire exchange. Spears, who apparently thought that the ejection was iffy, challenged Fornarola: “I’d like to see how you write this one up.” The umpire had a quick response — “Easy!” I didn’t get a photo of the ejection itself, but here’s a shot of a displeased Spears gesturing at the umpire on his way off the field:

In the seventh inning, Batavia reliever C.J. Carter came on to pitch, and we noticed something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before — the right-handed pitcher threw sidearm to lefties and had a traditional windup and delivery when he faced righties. Here’s his funky sidearm delivery:

Mark, Travis and I said our goodbyes as soon as the game wrapped up. My initial thought was to go check out some Little League action for a while, but the sunburn on my arms, knees and face told me that getting into some air conditioning would be a better idea. I hopped in my car, drove less than five minutes to my hotel, and soon was enjoying the shade and the cool — and thinking about taking a short drive to Rochester in the morning.

Ottawa Champions – June 8, 2018

The Can-Am League’s Ottawa Champions have been a fixture in my blog dating back to 2015. While I don’t make independent baseball my primary focus, I can’t resist checking out this team and have done so one or more times every season since then.

This blog post is about my visit on June 8, but I’d actually been to Ottawa’s Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park once earlier in the season. That visit took place back on May 22, and between a delayed start due to a rain and my early departure because I had a busy schedule the next day, there wasn’t a ton of blog-worthy content.

There was, however, one exciting thing that transpired and that would factor into my June visit to Ottawa. During that May game, Ottawa first baseman Vincent Guglietti blasted his first home run of the season over the right field fence, and I managed to track the ball down later on. Guglietti is in his first year with the Champions, so I knew that the home run was a bit of a milestone for him. The next day, I caught up with him on Twitter and asked if he wanted the ball back. He told me that he’d appreciate giving it to his parents, who collect his baseball memorabilia, and I made plans to hand it over the next time I was in Ottawa.

Fast forward to June 8, and I was once again on my way to Canada’s capital city with his home run ball safely tucked in my backpack. The ball, which I’d photographed earlier …

… would be the second home run that I’d be returning to the player who hit it. (If you’ve followed my blog for a long time, you’ll know that my first foray into the ball-returning game turned out well.)

I pulled into RCGT Park’s parking lot as the Champions were taking batting practice, as I’d planned to meet up with Guglietti at the end of BP. When I walked into the stadium, I was pleased to see bright skies overhead and the home team hitting — two things that weren’t a part of my visit a few weeks earlier. Here’s my first view of the field:

I hung out in the stands and watched Ottawa hit and then, just as we’d planned, met up with Guglietti as soon as BP wrapped up. He was super friendly and seemed happy to get the ball back, and I was certainly happy to give it to him. We chatted a bit about how he was liking Ottawa and how the season was going so far, but I completely missed an opportunity to get a photo with him. I intended to, but was enjoying our brief conversation and sort of felt weird about blurting out a photo request. Boo to me.

Soon enough, he said goodbye and headed into the Ottawa clubhouse, and decided to wander around for a bit. I’ve been to RCGT Park enough times that there isn’t much exploring to do, but I always enjoy moving around the stadium and taking in the sights. By now, the sights included the visiting Salina Stockade, who were just starting to take BP. The Kansas-based Stockade is a traveling team in 2018 that played in the American Association last season and the Pecos League in 2016. (The franchise has also been called the “worst pro baseball team of 2017” in an entertaining article in The Ringer.)

Bad team or not, I was interested to see the Stockade for the first time as I watched the first few minutes of its BP session from the grass berm/picnic area down the third base line:

After the Stockade finished hitting, I decided to grab a few minutes of shade by climbing to the upper row of the seats behind home plate, which are shaded by the press box and suites. As I looked above me, I saw the familiar face of Mike Nellis, the Champions’ lead broadcaster and director of communications, in the press box. He’s a guy I’ve gotten to know over the past few seasons, and I always enjoy talking baseball with him. We caught up for a few minutes, and then he got back to preparing for the game and I got back to, well, enjoying the shade.

Pretty soon, the Champions made their way out onto the field, and I headed down to the third base side to watch them warm up. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t aware of the presence of their all-star catcher, Danny Grauer, who is at home rehabbing off-season surgery. He’s a player I met early last season and became friendly with, often talking with him for a few minutes before each game. We kept in touch through the off-season, and I even caught a Norfolk Tides game with him back in May. So, yeah, it was weird not seeing Danny there and talking to him, and I was definitely missing seeing him.

I was snapped back into reality when I noticed a player waving at me from the field — it was Guglietti, and it was cool to see him again. I snapped this shot of him after he began stretching:

As more and more players filtered out onto the field, I began to see a bunch of familiar faces and lots of new ones. There’s a significant amount of turnover in independent baseball, as you might guess, so I needed to figure out who was who. Here’s infield Steve Nyisztor, a former Arizona Diamondbacks farmhand who is in his second season with Ottawa:

And here’s a new addition to Ottawa’s roster in 2018 — outfielder Coco Johnson, who played in the Miami Marlins system in 2013 and 2014:

He comes to Ottawa from the Windy City ThunderBolts of the independent Frontier League, where he swiped 57 bases in 96 games last year and 48 in 93 a season earlier.

I watched Ottawa for a few minutes, and then went over to the first base side to watch Salina. Here’s one player warming up …

… unfortunately, I have no idea who he is. He wore #5 and there’s currently no #5 on the team’s roster, according to its website. There are four #24s, though! And, for what it’s worth, Salina’s manager was also wearing #5.

Uniform numbers aside, there were a couple of interesting things that I noticed about the team’s jerseys. As you can see here, some players were wearing mesh-style jerseys, while others were made of solid fabric:

And here’s something that I found amusing — one player safety pinning sleeves on his teammate’s jersey, which appeared to be one of those sleeveless types:

I took a spot behind the visitors dugout on the first base side for the start of the game and watched the action from there. The view was definitely different — alongside other parks around baseball, RCGT Park installed protective netting over the dugouts prior to the season starting. I get what the netting is there for, but I’m not the biggest fan of looking through it. So, after the inning wrapped up, I was on the move again. Before I found another place to sit, I decided to grab some dinner. Ottawa’s selection of food over the last few seasons has really impressed me. If you’ve seen some of my posts about visiting RCGT Park, which you can check out here, here and here, you’ll see some images of tasty fare that you might not expect in independent baseball. Although I was tempted to go for one of my tried-and-tested meals (General Tao poutine, I’m looking at you) I wanted to try something different. This quest sent me over to a concession stand in the left field picnic area, which I’d walked past a million times over the years but had never bought anything from. I grabbed an order of chicken wings and took them up to a seat on the third base side to eat. Here’s how they looked:

Not a sight that has your mouth watering, is it? This surprised me, because lots of people were buying wings in line ahead of me. It sure looked as those these had been sitting around for some time. Fortunately, they tasted much better than they looked. They weren’t very meaty, but the chicken didn’t taste as dry as I’d feared and the hot sauce they came with was a good addition. In fact, it was blazing hot, so as soon as I finished eating dinner, I set off to find something for dessert to cool down my mouth. Dessert came in the form of a bowl of root beer ice cream, which I bought at a concession stand just a few paces away from where I’d bought the wings:

This is the second time I’ve had root beer ice cream in my life, and both times have been at a ballpark. (My first root beer ice cream experience was last season at a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders game.)

Happily full, it was time to snap some action photos. I didn’t want to contend with the netting, so I went to a perfect spot that I first encountered last season — the umpires’ door right behind home plate. Here’s one of the first shots that I took, which shows Ottawa’s Johnson a split-second after laying down a bunt:

And here’s Ottawa outfielder Steve Brown waiting for a pitch:

I ended up spending several innings in this spot. It’s such a thrilling place to watch the game, and Ottawa’s official photographer Marc Lemieux soon arrived, so I had fun talking baseball and photography with him.

I spent the last three innings rotating between seats on the first and third base sides, and enjoyed the rest of the game. Salina, for all of its uniform issues, looked solid, beating Ottawa 8-6. The Champions got revenge a day later, though, trouncing the road team 13-0. It was an entertaining visit to RCGT Park, as always. I don’t know when my next visit will be, but I’ll definitely be back there again this season.

Norfolk Tides – May 29, 2018

I woke up in Norfolk, VA, on the morning of Tuesday, May 29 to the sound of heavy rain.

It wasn’t really a surprise.

Since I’d arrived in Norfolk the previous afternoon, it had rained without reprieve, and I’d be lying if I said I was concerned that I might not get to see a single Norfolk Tides game on this trip. The plan for this trip was to get to Norfolk on Monday, attend the Tides games on Tuesday and Wednesday, and cram in whatever sightseeing I could manage when I wasn’t at the ballpark.

Of course, Mother Nature seemed to have different plans, dropping more than three inches of rain on the city on Monday night. It actually rained so hard at times that I couldn’t get any TV reception in my hotel room, which was definitely a first for me.

By 10 a.m. on Tuesday, though, the rain had stopped and the forecast seemed to improve — making me cautiously optimistic that I’d actually get a chance to see some baseball on this trip.

After some really good sightseeing around the city, I got to Harbor Park around 3:30 p.m., roughly three hours before first pitch. By now, the conditions were dry and the forecast looked fine, and I was very relieved.

Harbor Park is the 67th professional/affiliated ballpark that I’ve visited since 2010 and the 53rd different Minor League Baseball park that I’ve been to. It’s also, for those keeping score, the 10th different International League park at which I’ve seen at least one game. It’s always exciting to visit a ballpark for the first time, and this visit was no exception. I was immediately impressed with the look of Harbor Park from the outside — and I think the following photo does a good job of showing the eye-catching design from just outside the front gates:

As you might’ve noticed in the above photo, there wasn’t much going on outside due to my early arrival time. That was just fine with me — I was just thankful that the rain hadn’t interfered with this ballpark visit. I decided to walk through the parking lot to the right of the main gates, and soon made it to a large plaza area outside the first base entrance:

Did you catch the propeller statue? It’s just one of many nautical-themed sights in and around Harbor Park. The Elizabeth River is immediately beyond the outfield fence at this ballpark, and Norfolk is just a short drive from Virginia Beach. So, yeah, lots of nautical stuff to see.

While still in this area, I snapped the following photo of the gates and the ramp that led up to the concourse level:

My favorite thing in that image? The small ticket office nestled below the ramp. As is the norm, there was a large ticket office beside the main gates, but I thought the inclusion of this other office was a cool touch.

The river was just over my right shoulder as I took the above photo, and I wanted to get a little closer to check it out. Norfolk and the entire Hampton Roads area is dominated by shipbuilding/repairing/naval industry, and that was evident within sight of where I stood outside Harbor Park. This next photo shows an enormous dry dock that belongs to Colonna’s Shipyard. There’s a huge boat from New York City being repaired in it:

Unfortunately, that was as close as I could get to the water. The space behind Harbor Park was completely fenced off, so I gave up on further explorations in that area and took the long walk around the front of the stadium toward the third base entrance and left field corner. Before I got there, I came across another cool sight — a light rail system with a stop adjacent to the Harbor Park parking lot. The train, known as “The Tide,” travels to several areas through Norfolk, but I think it’s awesome that it stops next to the ballpark. It wasn’t long ago that I was in Minneapolis, marveling at the light rail system that carries fans to Target Field, but I think this might be the first time I’ve encountered the opportunity to travel to a minor league ballpark by train:

I continued on my walk across the parking lot until the elevated railway bridges that I believe give Harbor Park one of the most iconic views in the minor leagues came into view. If you’ve seen any picture of Harbor Park over the years, you’ve almost certainly noticed the pair of bridges that point skyward beyond the outfield fence. From where I stood at the far edge of the parking lot, I could see them clearly:

Curious to see how close I could get to them, I headed to my left to a small railway platform that serves Amtrak’s Norfolk Station (which is separate from the light rail station I showed you earlier). I walked the length of the platform toward the bridges before being thwarted by a sign, but I still had a nice view of this iconic Norfolk sight:

Speaking of other Norfolk sights, it was time to get inside Harbor Park to officially be able to cross ballpark #67 off my list. I entered via the main gates, which open into a lobby that houses the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame. I took a couple minutes to browse the many plaques recognizing people from all different sports, and then eagerly climbed a set of stairs to the concourse, hurried across it and snapped this shot:

How’s that for a view? Sure, the clouds weren’t looking all that friendly, but I was thrilled to be inside the stadium and excited to start checking out all of the sights.

I started by going up to the press level, which offered a similarly impressive view. I then descended back to the concourse and began to walk around — starting with a walk down the third base side. I was relieved to quickly identify the Hot Dog Nation concession stand, which I’d read about in advance of my trip and wanted to visit once the gates opened up. After perusing the menu for a moment, I continued all the way down the concourse to the group party deck known as The Virginian-Pilot Picnic Area. It’s new for this season, and I noticed the mild smell of new paint in the air — a definite sign of just how fresh this area is. This is how the picnic area, which can accommodate up to 500 people, looks from the edge of the cross-aisle:

And here’s the view from the edge of this section:

As is always the case with group areas at minor league ballparks, you can’t buy tickets in this section unless you’re buying as a group. But, I later learned, when there’s no group that has booked the section for any given game, it’s open to all fans — and that’s definitely a fan-friendly feature.

I spent a few minutes wandering around the picnic area, in part because it offered a nice view of the field, and in part because it provided me with some much-needed shade. Even though the sky was overcast, the humidity this close to the ocean was tangible, and cooling off under the roof of the picnic zone soon had me feeling refreshed and ready to continue exploring. Instead of retracing my steps along the concourse, I took the opportunity to get closer to the field by walking along the cross-aisle. I think the following photo gives you a good idea of the seating setup at Harbor Park — essentially, two different levels of seating on the lower section, a suite level above, and an upper deck down the lines.

I followed the cross-aisle all the way around the park until I ended up in the party deck immediately behind the right field foul pole. This one contained a bar and a bunch of bar-style seating, and provided this view of the field:

From there, I could also see the railway bridges and the river, as well as the remnants of a dock that once held a popular Norfolk concert venue that was demolished in 2011 after being severely damaged during Hurricane Isabel:

I realize that this area might not look that hot, but I liked it because it was neat to think about a who’s who of popular music playing just behind the ballpark over the years. I also appreciated the rugged appearance of the area, although I can imagine that the Tides management would love an opportunity to develop this area into usable space at some point in the future.

Speaking of management, my next stop was back in the press box where I met up with Ian Locke, the team’s longtime director of media relations. He offered me a tour of the ballpark, and you know I wasn’t about to turn it down. Even though I’d been to several spots around the park over the last hour or so, hearing Ian’s inside information and insight on these areas really augmented the visit for me — thanks again, Ian!

We began our tour immediately outside of the press area, which provided this view of downtown Norfolk. As you can see, the ballpark is conveniently located to the major arteries running through the city, and the view of the city’s skyline — including the Ferris wheel in the distance — was perfect from this spot:

Next, we headed somewhere that I’d hadn’t previously been — one of the team’s suites. This one is the swankiest in the ballpark, and even featured a vaulted ceiling:

As you might expect, it provided an excellent view of the field, including the railway bridges — one of which was currently descending as we stood in the suite:

Before my visit, I’d strangely always assumed that the bridges remained up. I had some idea in my head that they were historic bridges that were no longer used and were set to the upper position to create a cool backdrop behind Norfolk Park, but Ian assured me that they were fully functional. (And I definitely saw them go up and down multiple times over my two visits the ballpark.) I’m not really sure how I came to my erroneous conclusion, other than the fact that the bridges were always pointing skyward in any photo I’d ever seen of Norfolk Park.

We next visited another suite on the opposite side of the park, taking a few minutes to step out into the seats on the balcony in front of it:

This is the setup that many MiLB suites offer, and it’s a cool design. You can enjoy some food and A/C indoors, while also watching the game’s broadcast on TV. And, when desired, you can grab a seat outside to really get the traditional ballpark experience. Talk about the best of both worlds.

Ian took me through the left field picnic area I’d visited earlier and then all the way over to Hits at the Park, a buffet-style restaurant in an enclosed area in the right field corner. It seats 225 people, has a nice-looking bar with multiple TVs and gives fans a pretty extensive buffet — all for less than $20 for adults. Most notably, this is where fans can take the Salute to Pork Challenge, one of the most notable eating challenges in the minor leagues. What does this eating challenge feature, you might ask?

  • Four pulled pork BBQ sliders
  • Four four-ounce Cajun-smoked sausages
  • A dozen pork wings
  • Bacon and chili cheese tots

The whole thing weighs about five pounds, and if you can successfully conquer it in an hour, you win tickets to a future Tides game and get your photo on a wall of fame inside the restaurant. Should you fail, your photo goes on the wall of shame. There were far, far more photos on the latter, thus convincing me that I didn’t need to partake in any pork-fueled eating challenges on this visit.

The last stop on our tour was probably my favorite. Ian took me out to the roof to the left field side of the press box, which provided an awesome view of the field and everything beyond it (including the slightly foreboding skies — yikes):

I’ve been fortunate to be able to get up to the roofs of several ballparks over the years, and it’s always a thrill. And Ian told me to feel free to visit the roof as much as I wanted throughout the game, so that’s definitely something I made a mental note to do.

After Ian and I said our goodbyes, I went back down to the concourse level to grab dinner. As I mentioned earlier, the Hot Dog Nation concession stand was on my radar, and one of the noteworthy dogs in particular had my eye. I ordered the Oriole Dog, which pays homage to the Tides’ MLB parent club and one of the popular food choices in Baltimore. It consisted of a hot dog topped with macaroni and cheese and crab meat. I’ve had mac and cheese on hot dogs on a few occasions, but never with crab, too. This was definitely one that I was excited check out:

I definitely give the Tides food services team credit for a cool idea, but it felt a little flat for me. The hot dog itself had a squishy texture instead of the snap that I look for. The mac and cheese was tasty, but the crab was cold — and I got a big piece of shell in my first bite. I think that a few minor tweaks, like heating the crab and maybe seasoning it with Old Bay, would make this hot dog a definite winner.

I’d taken the hot dog to the upper deck, and as soon as finished eating, I went back down to the concourse and made a beeline over to the Tides bullpen in the right field corner. The party deck is directly above the ‘pen, so it provides a perfect spot for watching the Tides pitchers warming up. I spent several minutes watching starter Tim Melville:

And then, once the game began, I spent the first inning in the picnic area in left field in the hopes of snagging a home run ball — something that didn’t happen. There weren’t any fans in the area, so I could’ve theoretically hung out there for a long time in the hopes of getting a baseball, but you know me — I’ve always gotta be on the move. I decided that I’d take Ian up on his offer to visit the roof, so I took the stairs back up to the press level and walked out on the roof on the third base side. Here’s how it looked as I got there …

… and here’s the view of the field from the edge:

Simply outstanding!

I snapped off a handful of photos, and then was content to just hang out in the unique spot and enjoy the game. I ended up staying on the roof for an entire inning, and then went back down to the concourse to visit the team shop — and enjoy a bit of the air conditioning to cool off from all the walking I’d been doing.

After another lap of the concourse, stopping here and there to watch the game from different angles, I went back up to the press level and went to check out the roof on the first base side. From here, I was enjoying looking into the visitors dugout, and there are a couple of things worth pointing out:

For starters, check out the length of the dugout. Harbor Park’s dugouts are longer than average, and Ian told me why. When the park was being built, the team discussed where fans like to sit at games. The consensus was that many fans enjoy sitting behind the dugout, so why not make them longer than they’d otherwise be? It’s a win-win for the fans and for the players. The other noteworthy thing is that there isn’t any netting over the dugouts here. (Woo hoo!) I asked Ian about it, since netting has become the norm in baseball, and he said the nets will be up before much longer. I think it’s cool that I got to experience Harbor Park before that.

After watching a bit more of the game, I snapped this picture …

… and soon afterward, noticed a baseball that had obviously been fouled back onto the roof, and was happy to grab it:

I love the black smudge where it smacked the roof.

A moment after stuffing the ball into my backpack, I headed to the door that led off the roof, turned the knob, and … nothing. It was locked.

I assessed the situation. There wasn’t another way off the roof that I was aware of, at least without acting like Spider-Man. Hmmm. I knocked on the door — normally at first and then loudly, but I knew it was largely futile. On the other side of the door, there was a long hallway with a bend in it, and that meant that no one would likely be within earshot. Plus, anyone who might’ve heard the knocking would’ve been working — the radio/TV rooms and stadium operation rooms were not too far away, but their doors were shut and their staffs were busy. I walked back out the roof to think about my choices. All things considered, at least I was trapped in a good spot to watch the game. But, I legitimately needed to figure out a way off the roof. Thankfully, I thought to send an email to Ian. The Wi-Fi was spotty in this part of the park, so it probably took me 10 minutes to get a connection and actually send the email — but I eventually did … and a short while later, my knight in shining armor Ian showed up and rescued me.

The rooftop misadventure had worked up an appetite, so I headed along the concourse in search of something else to eat. I don’t always eat two meals at ballparks, but given that I was concerned about a rainout the following day, I wanted to sample another concession stand. There’s a barbecue stand down the third base side that I’d checked out earlier, and it looked promising. I arrived in maybe the fifth inning, and was told that the stand was just about to close. Fortunately, I was able to order a brisket platter, which I took over to one of the picnic tables on the concourse:

The platter consisted of a good helping of brisket, along with two sides and coleslaw. The only sides still available when I placed my order were baked beans and green beans, so I narrowly missed the opportunity to have my second serving of mac and cheese of the day. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very impressed with this meal. The baked beans were fine, the green beans were very soggy — which I can chalk up to the stand about to close, I guess — and the brisket contained far too much fat for my liking.

Underwhelming barbecue did little to dampen my enjoyment of the evening, though, and I soon found myself back on the roof — the third base side, with the unlocked door, for those keeping score — where I took this photo during the game’s late innings:

After a bit of time up top, I watched the last bit of the game from the seats behind home plate, where I had this view:

Just minutes after the final out, I hopped into my rental car and headed back to my hotel. On the drive, I figured that if the next day’s game ended up being a rainout (spoiler alert — it wasn’t) I’d crammed an awful lot into my first Harbor Park visit, and I was thrilled with the overall experience.