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.


Syracuse Chiefs – April 18, 2018

A little more than 12 hours after I’d thawed out following a frigid but fun visit to NBT Bank Stadium in Syracuse, I was back at the International League ballpark for a doubleheader that was set to begin at 10:30 a.m. The previous day’s wintry weather had canceled the second game of a scheduled doubleheader, so the teams tacked that game onto the end of the matinee game on this day, and I was thrilled to be able to take in both contests before driving home.

As is often the case with April matinee games, it was Education Day at the ballpark — and that meant that a lot of students would be in attendance. I planned to get to the park well in advance of the gates opening up and the students arriving so that I could enjoy the quiet scene for a bit. As soon as I got in, I went straight to the upper deck in the left field corner. A couple Chiefs pitchers were throwing bullpen sessions, and while I always enjoy watching such moments, I didn’t want to awkwardly stand right at field level. From my spot in the front row of the upper deck, I could not only enjoy watching the action in the Syracuse bullpen below me, but also take in the great view of the park that the upper deck provides:

I watched the scene from this area for a while, and then made my way over to the visitors side of the field to watch the Indianapolis Indians after they’d taken the field. A day earlier, it’d been funny to watch the players warming up in the cold and snow flurries. Today, the flurries were gone but the cold remained — as you can probably tell by the hat choice of Indians pitcher Clay Holmes:

And, while his teammates might not have been quite as cold as they were the last time I watched them, many of them were still wearing assorted pieces of extra clothing to keep the chills at bay:

My next stop was back over to the Syracuse side. By now, starting pitcher Austin Voth had taken the bullpen mound to begin to warm up, so I grabbed a spot in the front row and snapped a bunch of pictures of him, including this one:

I knew there’d be a chance that once the students in attendance decided it was time to eat, there could be some lineups at the concession stands, so I headed to the concourse to get my first meal of the day shortly before first pitch. A handful of concession stands had been closed a day earlier because of the weather, but I’m happy to report that everything was open on this day — and that meant that I could get an item I’d been reading about in advance of this visit. The Chiefs introduced three new hot dogs for the 2018 season, and the one that caught my eye was the salt potato hot dog. Salt potatoes are a big thing in Syracuse and other spots in New York (I ate them years ago at a Tri-City ValleyCats game, actually). The hot dog in question was pretty simple — a regular hot dog loaded with salt potatoes:

The Hofmann hot dogs served at NBT Bank Stadium are probably my favorite dogs of any ballpark, so the idea of adding potatoes with butter, salt and pepper was a winner. I will say, though, that I think this hot dog could’ve used a little something else in the flavor department. Of course, I could’ve added a flavorful condiment such as mustard, but it felt as though it was a little more bland than I’d have liked. Still, it was a good hot dog overall, and the unique topping of the salt potatoes made it fun to eat.

During my visit to NBT Bank Stadium a day earlier, I hadn’t spent any time sitting behind home plate, so doing so was definitely a priority for the doubleheader. I spent the first couple innings on the Jim Beam Party Deck in right field, but then went and grabbed a spot in the front row. It’s always a fun challenge to shoot action photos from this spot, and the action doesn’t necessarily have to be a hitter making contact with the ball — here’s a shot I snapped of Indianapolis infielder Kevin Kramer at the point of being hit by a pitch thrown by David Goforth:

Later in that inning, I got this shot of Indians outfielder Jordan Luplow taking a hack:

As you might know, I’m always on the lookout for unusual sights at the ballpark, including those related to players’ uniforms. I’ve had my pictures included in ESPN’s Uni Watch blog a number of times, so finding subtle and bizarre uniform-related minutiae is always something I enjoy. Case in point, here’s a picture of Chiefs catcher Tuffy Gosewisch walking toward the home dugout:

Notice anything unique about him?

You might have seen that he’s wearing Seattle Mariners pants, as evidenced by the colors of the MLB logo on the belt tunnel. I’ve noticed that a lot of guys who’ve bounced between Triple-A and the big leagues wear their big league pants with their Triple-A jerseys, but I think this is the first time that I’ve seen a mismatch in organizations — the Chiefs are affiliated with the Washington Nationals, not the Mariners. Gosewisch, though, played 11 games for Seattle last season, which explains the pants.

In the fifth inning of the game, I noticed that Syracuse had a no-hitter going. It may seem funny, but I tend not to notice such accomplishments as quickly as you might think. I’m normally so focused on exploring the ballpark, taking photos — and, yes, sometimes eating — that I’m not usually watching the scoreboard. As soon as I saw the goose eggs, though, I was fixated on the action. I decided that if the Chiefs were able to toss a no-no, I’d want to get some pictures from above. I headed to the upper deck and, after Austin Adams got Erich Weiss to strike out to end the game, I snapped this shot of the initial celebration:

I should note, of course, that there are a couple unique points about this no-hitter. Four Chiefs pitchers shared it, and it only went seven innings, given that MiLB doubleheader games are this length. Still, an impressive accomplishment, especially given the chilly conditions. This is actually the second no-hitter I’ve seen in two seasons. Last summer, at an independent game in Ottawa, Canada, I watched former MLBer Phillippe Aumont toss a no-no against the Dominican Republic National Team.)

Here’s the video board showing the score after the final out:

I got some reprieve from the cold conditions by hanging out in the Hank Sauer Room between games of the doubleheader. As had been the case a day earlier, the Chiefs had opened up this room for fans looking for a little warmth, and it was nice to be able to warm up a little as I waited for the second game of the twin bill to begin.

Like I’d done earlier in the day, I grabbed some food right before first pitch. For my second meal of the day, I opted for an order of spicy fried cheese curds, which came with some ranch dipping sauce:

I actually had fried cheese curds at Target Field last fall, and while they were good, I’d give the nod to those I ate in Syracuse. The NBT Bank Stadium curds were more gooey, which was a big plus, and the spiciness was a nice addition, too.

As you might’ve noticed, I ate the curds in the upper deck above the first base side, which was a spot in which I’d snagged a pair of foul balls a day earlier. Not long after I finished my meal, another ball came soaring my way. This one was off the bat of Indians pitcher Casey Sadler, and it marked the fourth and final foul ball I’d gotten on this trip. And, for the record, the first foul ball in my collection hit by a pitcher, as far as I can recall:

From a similar vantage point in the upper deck, I noticed for the first time that my hotel for this visit, Embassy Suites by Hilton Syracuse Destiny USA, had an ad on the outfield fence:


That’s because this hotel is the official hotel of the Chiefs, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for baseball fans visiting the city. In my last blog post, I mentioned its awesome proximity to both the ballpark and Destiny USA, the sixth-largest mall in the U.S., but it’s worth noting a few other features if you’re thinking about staying in this hotel during your next visit to Syracuse. One of the things I love about the Embassy Suites brand is the complimentary made-to-order breakfasts. A lot of hotels have free breakfasts, but they’re generally pretty basic. At this hotel, I got to enjoy made-to-order omelets each morning, as well as a number of other items that had me feeling full and ready for the cold weather. Another cool food-related note is that there’s a reception for guests each evening with complimentary drinks and appetizers, served around this stylish space:

I can’t say enough good things about the guest rooms, either. Mine was spacious and extremely clean, with a big bathroom and a small kitchen area that definitely came in handy. Here’s the desk that I used for much of the visit:

From here, I could not only work on my blog while watching a wall-mounted TV across the room, but also keep an eye out the window to see what the weather was doing.

This hotel will definitely be my choice when I get back to Syracuse to see the Chiefs in action — and, hopefully, it won’t be that long before that happens.

Syracuse Chiefs – April 17, 2018

It’s impossible for me to understate how much I dislike talking about the weather, hearing about the weather and thinking about the weather.

That said, weather did play a major factor in this week’s trip to Syracuse, so it’s going to come up a time or two in this blog post.

Weather is, of course, the biggest obstacle to face during April baseball road trips. I’ve been rained out, snowed out and shivered for hours in ballparks during games in the first month of the season. It’s probably smartest to wait until May to take a baseball trip, but when you’re eager to get your road tripping season underway, games in April are ever so tempting.

I scheduled three days in Syracuse a few weeks back because the Chiefs schedule was favorable — there were games Monday and Tuesday night, plus a bonus matinee game on Wednesday that I could attend before the three-hour drive home. As the trip approached, though, and winter returned to not only where I live in Canada, but also to New York and several other states, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t concerned about seeing any baseball on this trip.

We got hit with an ice storm on the weekend before I left, which meant that I had plenty of scraping to do before I could even see out my car windows enough to get on the road. The ice had turned to rain by the time I pulled out of my driveway at 9 a.m. on Monday, and I made it all the way to Syracuse without ever turning the windshield wipers off. I checked into my hotel about 2 p.m., and figured that there’d be no way the Chiefs would host the Indianapolis Indians at 6:35 p.m., so I vigilantly checked Twitter for updates on the game’s status. Big kudos to the Chiefs for canceling the game in a timely manner. Even though I love going to any ballpark, the idea of standing around in the rain for an hour or two, only to then hear that the game has been postponed, isn’t that appealing — and this is especially true when it’s 35 degrees!

The postponement meant that the Chiefs and Indians would square off the following afternoon, April 17, and even though snow was in the forecast for that day, I was hopeful I’d get to see at least some baseball.

With game one of the twin bill scheduled for 4 p.m., I pulled into the NBT Bank Stadium parking lot two hours early and parked, and then took a quick and chilly walk around to enjoy the stadium from the exterior. Here’s the first picture I took:

If you think that the conditions look cold in this image, you’re definitely right. The temperatures remained in the 30s and the constant wind made it feel much colder than that. I approached the gates and snapped this shot, which I think looks cool:

I then entered the stadium, went up to the concourse level and was excited to see the field for the first time. I figured that batting practice wouldn’t be taking place, and I was correct. The tarp was on the field and there were flurries in the air, but I was happy to be in the ballpark:

I’ve been to NBT Bank Stadium enough that I didn’t feel a huge need to run around and start taking in all the sights. That said, there were some new additions since I last visited in 2015, so I wanted to check them out. One big and noticeable difference is that five of the seating sections in the upper deck are now tarped off. I’m sure management is never thrilled about having to do this, but I commend the Chiefs on using five different tarp images, including three of the team’s logos. The use of these tarps, rather than just plain ones, add to the look of the park. Here’s a panorama from the corner in left field. You can see three tarps in the foreground and two across the field:

The biggest addition since my last visit — and one I’m sure that management is excited about — is the Jim Beam Party Deck beyond right field. I’ve always felt that the one knock on NBT Bank Stadium has been its lack of outfield seating, which is fairly common among parks of its age. I always love a ballpark that has a concourse that wraps around the entire field, and while that’s not the case in Syracuse, the addition of an expansive party deck that allows you to hang out in the outfield is a big upgrade. Here’s how the deck looks from above:

And here’s how the view from this area looked just a few minutes after the Indians took the field and began to play catch:

The party deck is an appealing hangout. There are picnic tables and bistro tables, as well as a wide railing along the entire front edge of the deck to comfortably hold your food and drink. The deck can accommodate up to 300 people and booking it for your group includes an all-you-can-eat menu. Here’s one more view of the deck:

I watched a few minutes of Indianapolis’ warmup from this area, and then headed back toward home plate when it became evident that the infield tarp was about to be removed — something that is always a welcome sight for baseball fans. After it was gone, I was excited to see the field for the first time:

There were just a few snow flurries in the air before and after the tarp removed, but nothing of concern. The temperature and the wind, however, were bitter. The open concourse at NBT Bank Stadium is perfect because you can always see the field as you’re walking around or waiting in line at the concession stands, but it wasn’t providing much refuge from the wind. Once the gates opened, I hurried into the team shop not just to browse the items, but also to enjoy the warmth — it was definitely the warmest spot in the park. I spent about five minutes in the shop, and then went back outside to brave the elements. In a few minutes, the players would be heading back out to the field, and I wanted to see them come out. As the Indians came out, the flurries started to pick up. The scene felt pretty bizarre, and I could tell that as cold as the players were, they were also a little amused by the weather conditions. Here’s Indians infielder Kevin Newman (who was one of two players who talked to me about my shirt last year in Binghamton) surrounded by flurries as he played catch:

An here’s outfielder Jordan Luplow (who I saw hit a walk-off home run on the last day of the Jamestown Jammers franchise back in 2014) who was wearing ninja-style gear to keep the wind and cold at bay:

By the time starting pitcher Nick Kingham toed the bullpen rubber — after I overhead him joking that his water bottle might freeze — the flurries had intensified:

The increasingly poor weather initially had me concerned about the game getting underway, but as quickly as the snow would worsen, it would then lighten. As first pitch approached, no sort of delay seemed to be imminent. Here’s how the scene looked just four minutes before the game began:

Did you notice the emptiness of the stands? So did I — in fact, I’d never been to a game that was this sparsely attended. Then again, this was the coldest game I’d ever been to, and the only one with snow. I hardly blame Syracuse residents for staying at home on this afternoon. I should note, in fairness, that most of the fans who were at the game were up on the concourse to get shelter from the flurries. That said, I estimate fewer than 100 people were at the game.

As the game began, I headed out to the party deck to enjoy the view of the field from this new vantage point:

Playing right field for the Chiefs was Alejandro De Aza, who’s suited up for more than 800 MLB games in his career. It was clear throughout the contest that he was having a hard time with the snow while he tracked down fly balls. A couple times after making catches, I saw him shaking his head, wiping at his eyes and muttering something in Spanish.

While I was super hopeful of a home run being hit to right field, I also knew that the cold air made that less likely to happen. Being the only fan on the party deck, I would’ve easily been able to track down any balls hit over the fence, but if you know me, you know that I don’t stay put in any given spot for too long. After the top of the first inning, I decided to head back down the concourse and go to the upper deck, where there wasn’t a single other fan. During my 2013 visit, I snagged a pair of foul balls in the upper deck, and I knew I’d have another one without having to wait too long. The second batter for the Chiefs, Adrian Sanchez, hit a foul ball that landed a section away from me, and I was able to easily retrieve it:

You might notice the lack of flurries in the photo above. That’s how the game’s early innings went. There’d be thick flurries, followed by clear conditions — the one constant was the bitter cold.

In the second inning, I took advantage of a brief lull in the flurries to grab dinner. A few of the concession stands at NBT Bank Stadium were closed, likely due to the weather and the small crowds, but that was fine with me. As part of the team’s Taco Tuesday promotion, there was a kiosk in the concourse selling three beef or chicken tacos for $8. I opted for the former, and the staff member told me that I was the first one to buy them on this day — and, by extension, on the season, given that this was the team’s first Taco Tuesday promotion of 2018. The tacos were tasty, and about on par with the soft tacos from Taco Bell. They were definitely something that I’d enjoy ordering again:

While I was eating, another foul flew up toward me. This one was off the bat of outfielder Rafael Bautista, and because I was still the only fan in the upper deck, I was able to walk over and pick up the baseball with tacos in hand:

Shortly after I finished my dinner, the flurries once again picked up. I made my way over to the upper deck on the third base side, where I shot some snowy action pictures, including this one of infielder Kevin Kramer:

During another short lull in the flurries, I headed to the Dunkin’ Donuts concession stand on the third base side — another new addition since my last visit — and bought a hot chocolate, which I enjoyed in the upper deck:

The flurries intensified to the point that there was a 20-minute delay in the game after three innings. The grounds crew covered up home plate and the mound, but didn’t use the big tarp to cover the entire infield — a positive sign, to be sure, that the delay would be short. I spent the delay trying to thaw out in the Hank Sauer Room, a private party room in the right field corner that I’d never previously entered. The Chiefs were gracious enough to open the room for fans looking for some relief from the cold, and there were a handful of fans hanging out in there for some warmth. After the delay, I went back out to the concourse and any warmth that I’d enjoyed in the party room was quickly gone. The temperature was still in the 30s, but the fact that I’d been outside for several hours had finally caught up to me. Although I was wearing warm gloves whenever I could, my hands were bare when I was updating Twitter and taking photos. In fact, my hands got cold enough that typing quickly and accurately were a challenge.

The hot chocolate may have warmed me a little, but I was still freezing when I went out to the party deck at the top of the sixth inning. Luplow, the second batter, blasted a pitch that sailed just a few yards to my left. Off the bat, it looked very much as though it would be a home run, but it ended up hitting the fence a foot or two from the top and caroming back past De Aza. Luplow had himself a triple, De Aza had flurries in his eyes and I just missed out on getting a home run ball. Here’s a shot that I took just before Luplow’s hit; you’ll notice the flurries in the air:

I figured that was as close as I’d come to a home run ball, so I went back down the concourse and watched a half-inning from behind home plate, pressing my body up against one of the pillars in an attempt to keep out of a wind a bit. For the seventh inning, I once again retreated to the shelter of the Hank Sauer Room, where this was the view:

When the first game of the doubleheader wrapped up, I was anticipating waiting 30 or so minutes for the second game to begin — and I planned to stay in the warm spot that I currently occupied for the entirety of the break. Just a few minutes later, however, a staff member arrived to tell me that management had opted to postpone the second game, as the weather was getting colder and the flurries were once again picking up. There was already a 10:30 a.m. game scheduled for the following day, so the postponed game would be tacked onto the end of that game to make another doubleheader. That suited me just fine, but instead of heading straight for the gates, I had one mission to fulfill.

Earlier in the game, I’d seen Indians outfielder Austin Meadows, the top-ranked prospect in Pittsburgh’s system, hit a foul ball into the seats in front of one of the suites on the third base side. I hadn’t seen anyone retrieve it, but I also didn’t want to go into this area if there were people in the suite. As the fans filed out of the stadium, I went up to the upper deck and quickly found the ball:

Afterward, I just stood for a few minutes to enjoy the snowy scene in front of me. I knew that it’ll likely be a long time before I’m at another snow game, so I couldn’t resist just marveling at the unique nature of this day. Here’s how the field looked after the game:

The flurries were still coming down hard when I left NBT Bank Stadium, prompting me to take this shot …

… and I couldn’t resist grabbing this one, too:

Next, I hopped into my car, put the defroster/heater on high, and shivered for a few minutes while the windows defogged. Then, I pulled out of the parking lot and headed toward my hotel. A quick glimpse of the stadium over my shoulder prompted me to pull over and get out to shoot the following photo from afar. Funny enough, the flurries weren’t coming down quite as hard at this moment, and the scene looked peaceful. When I travel to Syracuse for baseball, I always get a thrill turning left off NBT Bank Parkway onto Tex Simone Drive and seeing NBT Bank Stadium through my windshield, and seeing it now with snow on the ground was definitely a scene that I’ll remember for a long time:

As soon as I snapped that photo, I got back into my car and was back to my hotel less than five minutes later. For this trip, I was staying at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Syracuse Destiny USA:

It’s one of the city’s newest hotels and gets its name from being across the street from Destiny USA, the sixth-largest mall in the U.S. A day earlier, when the Chiefs game was rained out, I walked around this expansive mall for about and hour and grabbed some dinner that I took back to the hotel. I did the same on this night, after thawing out for a bit, and ended up visiting the mall four or five separate times during my stay. If you’re headed to Syracuse for a Chiefs game, I can’t recommend this hotel enough. If you’re a big shopper, there’s no better hotel in the city. Or, perhaps you’re a baseball fan and your spouse isn’t — you can head to the game and she could head to the mall.

Another cool point for baseball fans — this hotel is the official hotel of the Chiefs, which means that the visiting team stays there. I picked up on this fact pretty quickly upon my arrival when I saw staff members in Indians gear and players walking around the hotel lobby with Pirates apparel on. Here’s a look at the lobby:

I always get a thrill out of staying at the same hotel as ballplayers, even if I don’t have any interactions with them, and I’m forever scouting out people and trying to assess whether they’re players or not.

My snowy day at the ballpark was certainly memorable, even if I was uncomfortably cold for most of it. The cold didn’t deter me from heading back bright and early the following morning for a doubleheader, albeit one without fluffy white flakes.

Toronto Blue Jays – March 27, 2018

I was excited to wake up on the second day of my Montreal trip, knowing that I’d have a full day to see sights around the city before heading back to the bizarre Olympic Stadium for more Blue Jays baseball. My day began with a short subway ride and a long walk up Mont Royal, a tall hill from which the city takes its name. There are plenty of reasons to climb up Mont Royal, but the most popular is to get a breathtaking view of the city from a large observation area.

Admittedly, the walk was a little arduous — I’d logged more than 22,000 steps a day earlier, and the fact that I was ascending for maybe 20 or more minutes straight on terrain that was mostly either snowy or icy was a real calf burner. The view, however, made the walk worth it. For several minutes, I stood on the deck and enjoyed this sight:

The walk back down was quicker than the climb up, but I managed to slip on the ice and end up with a wet backside that I embarrassing had to hope people weren’t noticing while it dried. The next stop I made was the site of the old Montreal Forum, the longtime home of the NHL’s Canadiens. I was a huge Canadiens fan growing up, and was lucky to visit this arena twice for games with my dad when I was a kid. The Habs moved out in 1996, but the building still stands and now holds a gym, a movie theater and a bunch of other things of that nature. The center ice spot is marked a similar way to how it was when the venue hosted hockey, though, and that’s what I was there to see:

There were a number of hockey-related displays throughout the building, as well as plenty of old arena seats — including some that people were occupying to eat lunch, which I thought was cool.

Following a short visit to the Bell Centre, where the team now plays, I grabbed lunch — a huge take-out container of smoked meat poutine that was delicious — and headed back to my hotel for a couple hours. Soon enough, I took the short walk to the nearest subway station and rode the train for less than 10 minutes to Olympic Stadium. I was curious to see if the security checkpoints were different for the second game of this series. If you read my previous post, you’ll remember that while there were metal detectors for fans coming into the stadium from the street and from the parking garage, there was no security between the subway station and main gates, which was very weird. Sure enough, things were the exact same as they’d been a day earlier.

This is what I saw as I emerged up the ramp from the subway station:

See the metal detectors in the distance on the left? Those provided access from the parking garage. But, as you can see, there was nothing directly between where I stood and the gates.

I decided to skip going outside and walking around the stadium as I’d done a day earlier. I’d arrived early enough that I was only about six people back from the head of the line, and I didn’t want to give up that position — plus, there wasn’t going to be anything different about the exterior on this day. I waited in line for a little more than an hour, and when the gates opened and I went in, I quickly passed the fans ahead of me and was the first fan into the seating area and the first who went down to field level. I took a spot directly above the dugout, where I enjoyed this yellowy view:

(For what it’s worth, I wanted to leave the colors in the pictures of Olympic Stadium exactly how they look in real life. I’ll often lighten or otherwise adjust images to improve their appearance before posting them, but this stadium’s yellow-green glow is somewhat iconic — and I feel as though it’d be disingenuous to Photoshop it out.)

There wasn’t much going on at this point. The St. Louis Cardinals were between BP sessions, so I snapped this quick shot …

… and then realized that I’d made a blunder. I’d planned to get a close-up view of some of the Jays when they emerged from the dugout, so I’d automatically gone to the third base side because that’s where the Jays dugout is at Rogers Centre. At Olympic Stadium, however, the Jays use the dugout on the first base side, and as soon as I realized the error I’d made, I hustled back up to the cross-aisle and over to the other dugout. Fortunately, there were only a handful of fans hanging out in that area, so I was able to easily get a spot in the front row just a few feet from the home plate end. I was in a perfect position and eagerly anticipating the emergence of the first Blue Jays onto the field … and then the lights went out:

At 5:34 p.m., the stadium lights went completely dark, which definitely had my chuckling a little to myself. Olympic Stadium has so many issues that make the chance of MLB returning to the stadium very small in my mind, and it was somehow sort of fitting that the stadium would be plunged into darkness as a sign of it not nearly being ready to host a big league club on a permanent basis.

The stadium remained as dark as you see in the image above for nine minutes, and then some of the lights came back on so that the scene appeared this way:

It took about 15 more minutes until the stadium returned to full illumination. Unfortunately, the darkness meant that the remainder of the Cardinals batting practice was scrapped, and the field went completely dead. I stood in this spot for nearly an hour and other than Jays reliever Joe Biagini and coaches DeMarlo Hale and Pete Walker, no one in a Toronto uniform came out of the dugout. Not wanting to waste more time essentially just standing there and doing nothing, I headed off in search of places that I hadn’t been a day earlier.

The idea of finding new nooks and crannies in a stadium I’d walked around for more than four hours might seem improbable, but anything is possible with Olympic Stadium. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I somehow discovered several sections that I’d missed a day earlier. The first spot I visited would definitely fall into the “obstructed view” category:

I spent a few minutes in a couple sections similar to the one from the photo above, before continuing to wander around and take in the sights. I know I’ve been poking fun at the Big O, but there were a number of cool structural things to see, too. Check out how the ceiling looked as I walked along one of the concourses:

The overall architecture, while thoroughly ugly, was also pretty impressive and enjoyable to look at. I actually walked a fair bit with my eyes trained up just to take in the scenes above me.

The letdown of my meal a day earlier meant that I wasn’t too eager to eat at Olympic Stadium again, so I decided to occupy some time by seeing how far I could get away from home plate. While it might have been tempting to sneak behind some barriers and get into some off-limits parts of the stadium, I didn’t want to break any rules. Rather, I wanted to walk, walk and walk some more until I found myself in an interesting area. I set off to walk to the very end of one of the concourses that I hadn’t fully traveled down a day earlier, and eventually reached this spot:

I was pretty sure I’d just about arrived at a dead end, but I thought I’d snoop around a little more and see what I could discover. To my amazement, there was actually another full seating section around the corner. I stuck my head past the wall that divided the concourse and the seating section and, to my surprise, there was a security guard standing there — and yet the section was completely empty. I’m talking not a single fan there. I said hello to the guard and, pretty much expecting to be told to go away, asked if I could take a picture from the front row. He said yes, and I frankly think he was happy to see another human being. The section itself was only four rows deep, but the rows were long and I estimated that a couple hundred fans could sit here. Before I took a photo, I asked the guard if the section was technically open, and he said it was — but that none of the ticketholders (if there were any) had been there all game. When you see the view from this section, you might understand why it was so vacant:

This might be my favorite photo that I took at either of the games on this trip. I find it downright hilarious just how far this section is situated from home plate. And yet, the view from this area wasn’t that bad. The outfield seats blocked my view of deep left and deep center, but I was high enough that I could otherwise see the whole field just fine. I was in line with the video board, so I essentially couldn’t see it, but I had a cool vantage point of the bullpens. (At one point, one of the Cardinals relievers followed the green turf path into the maintenance area at the bottom left of the image above and took a leak, because he came back doing up his pants — and probably thought that no one had noticed him.)

After standing in the front row to marvel at the view for a few minutes, I asked the guard if he’d be OK with me hanging out in his section. He said that was fine, so I sat down in a dusty seat in the second row, as it had more legroom than the seats in the first row. This was the view immediately to my right:

Believe it or not, I ended up spending the game’s first three innings here. I was half in awe at just how far away from home plate I was, but I also enjoyed the solitude of this spot. It was sort of a surreal experience — as though I was in a private booth to watch the game. For three innings, not a single other fan even poked his or her head into the section, so other than the security guard, I truly had it to myself. At the end of the third, I figured I’d go do some more exploring, and when I walked out and said goodbye to the guard, he told me to drop by again if I wanted — I definitely think he was bored.

Next, I followed another concourse until I found a spot that overlooked a storage area. Below me, I could see some soccer-related things that I assume are used by the Montreal Impact of the MLS. The team mainly plays at Saputo Stadium, which is immediately outside of Olympic Stadium (I’d walked past it a day earlier) but plays select games at the Big O. In the following photo, you can see a big soccer ball prop, one of those fabric accordion-style tunnels that protects opposing players from fans, and a bunch of road cases, as well as some sponsorship boards:

Afterward, I watched a few batters from this spot in right field …

… and then went down to the cross-aisle to walk its length. At one point, I stopped to take a photo of these two random stadium seats in the cross-aisle. Talk about a weird location, right?

If you’re wondering if I ever returned to my distant/personal section, I definitely did. That’s where I headed next, and I remained there for the rest of the game — a game that culminated with this. You might have heard about.

Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.’s walk-off home run was a pretty special way to wrap up my two days in Montreal. So, was Olympic Stadium better than a year earlier? No — there really were no noticeable differences in the stadium itself. But I’m happy to report that I had a good time, and I’m not quite as determined to never return as I was after last year’s experience. As far as baseball returning to Montreal, I wouldn’t hold your breath. I’m no financial whiz, but if Olympic Stadium were to ever host a team, I’m confident the price tag with getting it ready would be in the hundreds of millions. At this point, given the money pit that the Big O has already been for its entire life, that hardly seems plausible.

Toronto Blue Jays – March 26, 2018

My visit to Montreal’s Olympic Stadium in 2017 to see the Blue Jays host the Pirates in Spring Training action arguably goes down as the worst ballpark experience I’ve ever had. Terrible rules, awful food and a stadium that’s nowhere near ready to host professional baseball all made for an experience that lacked the fun that live baseball is supposed to provide. (If you want to read all the gory details, here’s the link.)

As I traveled home from Montreal a year ago, I vowed that I wouldn’t bother visiting “The Big O” again for Blue Jays exhibition action. About a month ago, however, I began to soften my stance. Traveling to ballparks is my favorite thing to do, and the idea of a miserable experience rubs me the wrong way. I found myself wondering if I’d been unnecessarily harsh in my evaluation of Olympic Stadium, and if it were indeed possible to have a good time at one of these games.

All this meant as this year’s Montreal series approached, I began to think seriously about attending again with the goal of rewriting history as best I could — and on the morning of March 26, I found myself sitting in the Ottawa train station waiting to travel to Montreal for my first baseball trip of 2018:

While I normally drive or fly for my trips, the idea of riding the train was appealing from a financial perspective. In addition to being known as having the worst traffic of any Canadian city, parking in Montreal is also expensive. I was looking at paying $25 per day to park at my hotel, and if I were to drive from the hotel to the stadium, I’d be paying another $20 per game. I was pleased to learn that I could buy a return train ticket for under $80, which made this mode of transportation a no-brainer.

I’d driven to Ottawa bright and early on Monday morning and arrived at the station well in advance of the 11:30 a.m. departure time. The train ride to Montreal took only two hours, so I got to my hotel in plenty of time to check in, relax for a bit and then get ready for the game. Since I was on foot, I elected to travel to and from each game on Montreal’s Metro system, and bought a three-day pass that came in handy not only for the games, but also for some sightseeing that I did on the second and third days of my visit.

My subway pulled into the Pie-IX Station next to Olympic Stadium a little before 4 p.m. (If you’re wondering what’s up with the station name, it recognizes Pope Pius IX. I was calling it “pie one ex” in my head, but Montrealers call it “pee nuff.”) The Pie-IX station leads directly into a large atrium type of structure that serves as Olympic Stadium’s lobby. You still have to go through the ticket checkpoint, but you’re essentially in the stadium without being in it, if that makes sense. (No? It doesn’t make much sense to me, either, but that would be the case for a lot of things about Olympic Stadium.) Fans were already lining up in advance of the gates opening at 5:30 p.m., but I wanted to get outside and see this bizarre-looking structure from street level. A year earlier, I’d been so miffed about the horrible no-camera policy that I’d grumpily neglected to walk around the stadium before going in, so I needed to change that this time.

Getting out to the sidewalk meant that I had to go through a security checkpoint the wrong way (more on security later), and fight my way through the crowds that were attempting to get through the checkpoint to get into the stadium. Soon enough, I’d made it to the sidewalk and … realized that there was no way of photographing the monstrous stadium unless I got much farther away. I walked for a couple minutes, turned and took this photo that shows part of the stadium, but hardly provides context:

Simply put, I needed to get farther away. Fortunately, I sound found a ramp that led to another ramp:

It was the type of place that gave me two concerns, given that there was absolutely no one in this area and I didn’t know if it was off limits or not:

  • Would security spot me and tell me to get lost?
  • Would a hobo stab me with a beer bottle?

I’m happy to report that neither took place, which meant that I could keep climbing until I found an open area that provided this view of the stadium:

(I’ll try to avoid a bunch of alien spaceship jokes, but you can feel free to leave ’em in the comments below.)

If you’re wondering about all the climbing that I did to essentially get to what looks like street level outside the stadium, let me explain. The street to the right of the photo, which is where I’d come from a few minutes earlier, is low enough that it’s out of sight. Yet, the street on the left side of the photo is well above where I stood — it basically runs along the base of the treeline. While there are gates directly ahead of where I stood, they were closed and the “main” gates were essentially a full floor below. Make sense?

This area was a blast to explore. Despite the stadium being situated in a busy part of town, and thousands of fans descending on the area as I wandered around, there was just about no one in this area. It’s my understanding that this open area played a big role in the 1976 Summer Olympics, which is the reason that Montreal built the stadium in the first place. We’ve all likely seen the online photos that show how quickly Olympic venues deteriorate in the years that follow the games, and this open space sort of fell into that category. Case in point — these stadium seats around the edge of the open area looked as though they hadn’t been used in a long time:


There was a lot of dichotomy to the outdoor space. On one hand, there were the flags of all the nations represented in the games still flying proudly, but the area was so messy and in disrepair (I realize that the melting snow doesn’t help how things look):

Still semi-unsure as to whether someone was going to come and yell at me in French for being in this area, I continued to walk around — feeling a bit like someone on a strange planet. My goal was to take a long lap around Olympic Stadium, so I walked for a moment more and then shot this panorama of the scene:

You have to admit that while there’s no disputing this stadium’s genuine ugliness, it also looks sort of cool. It’s maybe like those weird-looking pets that are so ugly that they’re cute.

I got as close as I could to the side of the stadium to snap the following shots of the cables that hold up the roof:

The cables aren’t just for holding up the roof — they were also designed to move the roof. When Olympic Stadium was designed, it was supposed to have a retractable roof, but that didn’t happen — which was just one of a million construction SNAFUs that the stadium has been through. By the way, that tower that holds the cables is 574 feet tall, making it that tallest inclined structure in the world.

I continued on my walk until I reached a platform above what is essentially the rear of Olympic Stadium. It’s an area with loading docks and looks a bit like a construction site, which I guess is fitting because the stadium has essentially be under construction in some manner for its entire existence. Here’s how this area looked:

OK, so the environment around Olympic Stadium wasn’t exactly brimming with fun things to do, but I’ll admit that I was enjoying making the lap around the stadium — in part because of just how weird the whole thing looks. As you might’ve noticed in the previous photo, I was well above “ground level” of the stadium, even though I was walking on a sidewalk. To get down to the main level, I nervously slipped and slid down a snow-covered embankment, which you can see here …

… until I was safely standing on ground that wasn’t covered in snow — and that’s where I snapped this photo:

Next, I walked through a parking lot until I got to the sidewalk, and followed it back to the security gates through which I’d walked earlier. Now, here’s where it starts to get weird.

This photo shows an atrium area that isn’t technically “inside” the stadium yet:

See where it says “Stade” in the distance? (French for “stadium,” by the way.) Under that sign is the doors at which you show your ticket and get scanned into the stadium. To get to this area, though, you first have to go through a standard set of metal detectors like at any other stadium in the big leagues. They’re outside and out of sight to the right of where I stood to take the image above, and allow entry into the building. The only thing is, if you visit Olympic Stadium by taking the Metro, as I had before deciding to go outside to walk around, there are no metal detectors.

Let me say that again:

There are metal detectors if you come in off the street. There are metal detectors if you come directly out of the underground parking. There are no metal detectors if you take the subway from any point in the city and walk straight into the stadium. And if you’re wondering if you go through metal detectors to get into the subway system, the answer is no. So, this has to be a colossal oversight, right? I kept looking around under the assumption that I was missing something, but I wasn’t. And the next day, the setup was the exact same thing.

Talk about dropping the ball.

All of this had me annoyed not because of a security perspective, but because of the stadium’s inane entry policies. A year earlier, I’d been caught off guard to learn as I attempted to enter that I couldn’t go in with my camera or my backpack — two things that are integral to me when I visit ballparks. This year, I made sure to read up on the policies, and learned that backpacks and “professional” cameras were prohibited. I immediately wrote to the Blue Jays and to the event company to explain my position. The Jays provided no assistance, and while I was able to get someone from the event company to discuss the matter with me, it was about as satisfying as getting spiked at second base while trying to turn a double play. I went back and forth with the rep to explain what I do, to ask for an exemption to this silly rule, to explain that in the nearly 70 stadiums I’ve been to, Olympic Stadium is the only time I’ve ever dealt with this asinine policy and, finally, to argue about what a “professional” camera was. I also pointed out that you can take Hollywood-caliber videos on a smartphone, and that the camera size has nothing to do with how good it is. Eventually, I was essentially told to buzz off, which left me wondering whether I’d obey the policy or try to sneak my camera in — because all stupid rules deserve to be broken.

Not wanting to get turned away at the gate and have to ride the subway back to my hotel to drop off my camera, I elected to leave it behind when I left my hotel earlier that afternoon.

All this to say, had I arrived from the subway with my camera and backpack, and not gone outside to walk around and then come through security, I could’ve walked into the stadium with no problems. The security guards at the metal detectors were the ones who were denying people with backpacks, although they were also waving people through who were wearing backpacks. (To add insult to injury, I literally saw a fan in the stadium wearing one of those hiking backpacks that runs from above your shoulders to your backside. I also saw tons of fans shooting with DSLR cameras.) So, I can only surmise that some of the security personnel took the rules seriously, and others didn’t. Could I have gotten in with my camera and backpack? Probably. But the risk of getting turned away would’ve thrown a major wrench into my plans, so I didn’t want to leave it to chance.

I joined the line about 35 people from the front and waited for close to an hour until the gates opened. There was a palpable excitement in the room, which definitely added to the fun of the moment. (For my part, I was doing my best effort to forget about the stupid rules and just enjoy the experience.) As the gates opened, the excitement seemed to turn to a blend of chaos and confusion. As we walked into the stadium, a lady on a platform was screaming something in French into a bullhorn, which made for a very bizarre experience. I can understand French, but the quality of the bullhorn was so poor that it was impossible to tell what she was yelling. I ignored and quickly navigated my way past her, descended from the concourse to the cross aisle, and ran down toward the left field foul pole to secure a spot in the outfield seats for batting practice. When I got there, this was my view:

In the first five minutes that I was there, no one on the Cardinals hit a single home run. So, I snapped this picture of the cool plastic cup that I’d received upon entering:

It’s one of the cups that you can sync to an app so that the base flashes blue each time the Blue Jays hit a home run all season, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy using it at home throughout the season. Of course, the no backpack rule meant that I had to carry it for the next four hours.

I’d been hoping to snag a Spring Training ball, and the fact that the outfield seats were still sparsely populated meant that I probably had a good chance of doing so, but I also wanted to get exploring the inside of this bizarre stadium. I figured my baseball collection would survive if I didn’t add to it during this trip, so I climbed up to the concourse to get busy wandering around.

You might be relieved to know that as weird as Olympic Stadium is from the outside, it’s just as weird inside. Part of the weirdness is that it’s just so freaking huge. The best way to describe the concourse is that there’s an inner and outer concourse — basically, an enormous concourse that has rooms down the middle to divide it into two lanes. Fans tend to stick to the inner concourse, which is directly adjacent to the openings to the seats, so the outer one is deserted much of the time. Here’s how it looked as I set out to explore:

I can assure you, for the record, that I wasn’t scouting out empty areas and photographing them. There was a steady flow of fans on the other side of the brick rooms that you see on the right of the above photo, but few people seemed to venture out to where I was walking.

I walked the entire length of the concourse, passing behind home plate, until I was behind the right field bleachers. The ultra-bizarre seating setup at the Big O means that you don’t walk right from the concourse to the bleachers. Instead, you take this weird walkway across no man’s land, through the tunnel and then into the bleacher seats:

There were only a couple dozen fans in the right field bleachers at this point — probably because it’s about a gazillion steps from the main gates — so I climbed up to the top row on the center field side and snapped this panorama:

After enjoying the good (the view), the bad (the weird one-armed seats) and the ugly (the random placement of the bullpens) from this spot for a few minutes, my stomach told me that it was time to find some dinner. When I visited in 2017, I didn’t buy any food at Olympic Stadium — and that meant that this time, I wanted to walk around to really get a sense of what might be fun to eat. I skipped the usual stadium fare, in part because the prices were once again ridiculous. The $6.25 being charged for a hot dog made it the most of any stadium in baseball, for what it’s worth. I chose to line up at the Levitt’s smoked meat concession stand. I knew that I wanted to try some smoked meat while I was in Montreal, and a long lineup is generally a good indicator of good food. A smoked meat sandwich, pickle and bottled soda came to $17.75, which seemed a little steep, given the unremarkable size of the sandwich. I carried my meal all the way back to the outfield seats and sat midway up to eat it:

The sandwich itself was completely forgettable — disappointing, considering Montreal’s connection to smoked meat. I’d like to report that at least the pickle was good, but it was so vinegary that I was visibly cringing while eating it. All in all, I was thinking that I was on the right track when I didn’t buy any food a year earlier.

Not long after I finished eating, the pregame ceremonies began. Perhaps the most memorable element was when, with the stadium lights down, everyone’s plastic cups began to flash blue. It made for a cool effect as I looked across the field:

You may have noticed in the previous image that the entire upper deck was dark. Unlike a year earlier, when it’d been possible to buy tickets up there, the upper deck was closed for both games. That was disappointing, because I’d been hoping to get up there and explore a bit. (For the record, I did try, but was thwarted a couple times.)

During the pregame ceremonies, and after the house lights were back on, I took a walk over to the third base side to watch several former Expos get announced and walk onto the field to huge applause. Without my “professional” camera, the ceremony was simply too far away to photograph, so I shot other things — like this image that shows the attendance (about 25,000 on this night) was pretty good, but the barren upper deck was an eyesore:

Keen on seeing the game from several spots, I found a standing-room spot back behind home plate as Jays starter Marcus Stroman made his walk in from the bullpen. As you can really see here, the weird overhang of the upper deck not only makes your seat really in the shadows, but also cuts off part of the video board:

The dark and semi-obstructed views were everywhere. Here’s how it looked from a seat in the upper row down the first base side, where I moved a moment later:

To be perfectly fair, the lower you got, the better the view got. With the obstructions and weird shadows out of the way, the view of the field from a spot like this one was absolutely perfect:

As much as I appreciated the view above, I was still curious to continue to explore the stadium — and to find zany spots to share with you. This next panorama definitely falls into that category. If you thought the outfield seats were far away from the action, how about going behind the outfield seats. Hardly seems to make sense, right? And, yet, here’s where I sat next:

In fairness, there weren’t a lot of fans sitting in this section. As you can see, there weren’t any below me, as I doubt those seats would’ve allowed you to see the field at all, and there were only maybe 30 or 40 fans behind me — including a bunch who were smoking marijuana well within scent of a trio of security guards.

I’ve got to admit that this section was so comically bad that I spent about an inning there. On the left side of the field, you couldn’t see a thing that happened behind the back edge of the infield, but I was still enjoying the sheer bizarreness of it.

After leaving this spot because the smell of smoke behind me was starting to get obnoxious, I spent a little time standing in the cross-aisle behind home plate, moving down to the stairs to snap this shot at one point:

For the remainder of the game, I split my seated time in the outfield seats and in the top row of the lower-bowl seats on the first base side — and I did a lot of random walking, too, to check out the bizarre stadium’s sights. (I’ll have a lot more pictures in my upcoming post about my second game at the stadium.) As soon as the game wrapped up, I quickly hustled out the main gates, through the atrium and down to the subway station, where I caught the first train back to my hotel and was chilling out in my room in time to watch the post-game highlights on TV.

Tours of U.S. Bank Stadium, Siebert Field and TCF Bank Stadium – September 18, 2017

After three outstanding days watching the Twins at Target Field, I wasn’t ready to go home just yet. I’d scheduled an off-day for the fourth day of my visit to the Twin Cities, although there was nothing “off” about it — it was jam-packed with sports-themed sightseeing.

When the good folks at Meet Minneapolis were helping me to set up my trip, they asked if there was anything that I’d want to do beyond visit Target Field. I browsed the internet for ideas, and while there were countless things that were appealing, I wanted to stick within the sports realm. I asked if it might be possible to see U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the NFL’s Vikings, as well as the baseball and football stadiums — Siebert Field and TCF Bank Stadium, respectively — at the University of Minnesota. The response was a resounding yes, and that meant that I was up early on the morning of September 18 with stadium tours on the brain.

Unfortunately, it was absolutely pouring on this day, but my spirits weren’t dampened. My hotel, the Embassy Suites by Hilton Minneapolis Downtown, sits about a mile from U.S. Bank Stadium, the first stop of my day. Thanks to the awesome Minneapolis Skyway, I was able to walk the entire distance indoors and stay dry. Here’s a shot of the $1.1 billion stadium, which opened in 2016, from one of the pedestrian bridges over a downtown street a few blocks away:

I arrived at the football stadium well in advance of my scheduled tour, and while the chilly September rain wasn’t exactly pleasant, I wanted to take a bit of a look around outside before going in. The exterior tour proved to be short lived, as the force of the rain made me worried about my camera being exposed. As much as possible, I ran from covered spot to covered spot to snap shots of this magnificent structure in front of me, including this one with a video board that reminded me U.S. Bank Stadium would be hosting Super Bowl LII in just a few months:

Inside the stadium, I met up with Jennifer Hathaway from the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, and we began an hour-long tour that took me through some of the coolest places in the building. Our first stop was the extremely swanky Medtronic Club, which calls itself “the most upscale club at U.S. Bank Stadium.” The 1,100-seat club is situated between the 30-yard lines, has a private entrance and your ticket to this area includes your food and drinks. My photos hardly do this spot justice, but here’s a look at part of this club, which was easily one of the fanciest places I’d ever been — in a stadium or otherwise:

While fans who have access to the Medtronic Club might enjoy conversing, eating and drinking, they’re there to see a football game. And how does the field view look from this area? Here’s how:

Simply outstanding, right?

The next stop on our tour was more exclusive and outstanding than the Medtronic Club, which may come as a surprise. Jennifer led me into the box that Vikings owner Zygi Wilf uses. This is a spot I couldn’t have ever imagined visiting, so it was a major thrill. As you might expect, the owner’s box was spectacular. It’s located right on the 50-yard line and looks like this inside:

And here are the fancy stadium seats directly outside of the box:

I had my fingers crossed that the next stop on our tour would be down on the field, and I wasn’t disappointed. Although I’ve been to a handful of NFL stadiums over the years, I’ve never had a chance to walk on the field, so this was an exciting first for me. At MLB and MiLB ballparks, this is a thrill that never gets old, so I was pretty pumped when we headed toward the field. Of course, I had to snap this photo just seconds after my feet felt the turf:

I also snapped this shot of a couple of first-down markers that were in the area …

… and this one of some of the boxes that are legitimately on the field:

After spending a few minutes walking around the field — unfortunately, there were no quarterbacks milling around who were willing to throw me a go route — we went back into the tunnels on the ground level of the stadium. I always get a major kick about walking in stadium tunnels. Whether it’s a gameday or not, there’s so much interesting stuff to see that takes place well away from fans, and I think it’s fascinating. Case in point, here’s part of a giant viking ship and a drum:

There were also a handful of locker room stalls on caster wheels that stadium staff could roll in and out of the home team’s locker room as required. And speaking of locker rooms, we weren’t able to see the Vikings’ room, but we were able to go into the visitors room:

As is often the case in professional sports, I was told that the visitors locker room was much more spartan in its design than that of the home team.

From being down at field level, we next ascended all the way up to the stadium’s upper concourse, which provided this outstanding panoramic view of the scene:

The prime attraction on this level is the Gjallarhorn, which is sounded by an honorary Viking before the start of each game. It was impressive to see just how large this horn was:

Our tour wrapped up at the other end of the stadium — one that offered another outstanding view. The enormous glass wall panels, which you can see in the background in the following photo, offer an outstanding view of downtown Minneapolis from several spots:

I really have to thank Jennifer for giving me so much of her time; when I was trying to set up a tour of U.S. Bank Stadium, I was envisioning one of the group tours that is open to the public, and never imagined that I’d be fortunate enough to get a 60-minute private tour inside this awesome stadium.

After Jennifer and I parted ways, I spent a few minutes in the stadium’s team shop, and then headed to the nearest metro station and rode a train for a short distance to the University of Minnesota campus. As with the U.S. Bank Stadium tour, I’d asked to check out the Golden Gophers baseball and football facilities, and was blown away by the graciousness of the school’s athletic department in hosting me — and, of course, the dedication of Meet Minneapolis in setting the tours up.

I met Jake Ricker from the U of M in the lobby of the Gibson-Nagurski Complex, an absolutely impressive building that is the home to the Golden Gophers football program. It’s where the team’s locker room is, and the building also houses practice facilities, an enormous weight room, player lounges and more. I arrived a little before my scheduled meeting time with Jake, which gave me a chance to just hang out in this cool environment — one that essentially told the story of the history of the school’s football program:

The shelter was a much-appreciated relief, too, given that I’d walked about 10 minutes from the metro stop to this building in pouring rain without an umbrella. Soon enough, Jake arrived — carrying an umbrella — and we set out for the short walk to Siebert Field, the team’s baseball facility. The heavy rain was unfortunate, and Jake was a major trooper for leaving his dry and warm office to stand on a rainy concourse with a crazy baseball fan from Canada.

Siebert Field originally opened in 1971, but was torn down in 2012 so that a new Siebert Field could be built in its place. The 2012 renovation meant that the Golden Gophers baseball team played its games at the Metrodome and at Target Field during those seasons. “New” Siebert Field opened in April of 2013, and is an absolute state-of-the-art facility. Here’s a panorama from the concourse behind home plate:

The brown building down the first base line houses indoor batting cages, which were actually in use by the team during our visit. (We spent a few minutes getting some shelter there as Jake told pointed out some key features around the ballpark.) Next, we futilely dodged raindrops as we scurried to the dugout, where I snapped this shot:

Jake asked if I wanted to walk out onto the field, and if you know me, you know that I can never turn down such an opportunity — rain and all. While he positioned the umbrella over both of us, I took this panorama:

On the fence in left field, you can see some retired numbers if you look carefully. Two of them were especially noteworthy to me: Dave Winfield suited up for the Golden Gophers from 1971 to 1973, while Paul Molitor played for the school from 1975 to 1977. Of course, the two of them went onto have spectacular MLB careers and are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Together, Winfield and Molitor played in 5,656 big league games and had 6,429 hits. They were both World Series champions (with the Blue Jays, I’m happy to point out) and were collectively named to 19 all-star games. Also noteworthy is the fact that both players are from the Twin Cities. The two future hall of famers are recognized on a display that recognizes former Golden Gophers standouts:

After we’d spent as much time at Siebert Field as was possible, given the rain, Jake led me back to the Gibson-Nagurski Complex, where we hopped in a golf cart to drive over to TCF Bank Stadium. I have to admit that I was in awe of the U of M campus, especially the sports facilities — building after building, all dedicated to athletics. Of course, I was in even more awe as we pulled up in front of the mammoth football stadium, where Jake dropped me off and I browsed through the team shop for a bit before my next tour began. Soon enough, I met my tour guide (whose name I embarrassingly now forget) in the lobby. We began the tour by heading up to the most prestigious suite in the stadium, the Board of Regents and President’s Suite. It provided this outstanding view of the field:

I didn’t know much about TCF Bank Stadium going into my tour, but that was changing by the minute. I learned all the basics — the 50,000-plus-capacity stadium was built at a cost of more than $300 million and opened in the 2009 season. In addition to being the home of the Golden Gophers, it was the temporary home of the Vikings in 2014 and 2015 while U.S. Bank Stadium was being built, and the MLS club Minnesota United FC also calls it home. An outdoor hockey game between the Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks was even played at the venue in 2016.

Next, we went down to the other end of the suite level of the stadium, which has this view:

From this vantage point, you can see the enormous video board, the open plaza area beyond the end zone and the downtown Minneapolis skyline in the distance.

Speaking of that open plaza area, that was our next stop. In panorama form, it looks like this:

We then went deep into the stadium, which was just as thrilling as it had been at U.S. Bank Stadium a few hours earlier. While we weren’t able to actually get into the home locker room, I was able to check it out through a window in the door:

From there, we walked through the tunnel out to the field — the exact walk that the Golden Gophers take on gamedays. And, yes, I was wishing that I was wearing cleats and click-clacking along the entire route:

That was definitely a thrill. The tunnel opened to the field in this spot …

… and a few minutes later, we were at midfield where I got my photo taken:

(Again, there were no QBs waiting to send me on some go routes … maybe I should take it as a sign that my route running just isn’t up to par.)

The last part of the tour was a visit to the university’s sports hall of fame, which had a number of cool artifacts on display in this neat environment:

After the tour wrapped up, and my time at the University of Minnesota drew to a close, I took a bit of time to walk around the campus, as it was no longer raining. Before I caught my train back downtown, I snapped this panorama of TCF Bank Stadium from across the street. I think you’ll agree that it’s a really impressive-looking structure:

While Target Field and the Twins might’ve been my primary focus on my visit to Minneapolis, touring U.S. Bank Stadium and the U of M facilities really made for an awesome off-day, and one that I feel fortunate to have experienced. Thanks to all my guides and to Meet Minneapolis for setting up this memorable day for me.

Minnesota Twins – September 17, 2017

Going into my third visit to Target Field, my mission was twofold — I wanted to make sure to document any sights that I’d perhaps missed on my two previous visits, and to simply chill out for a few innings and enjoy watching some baseball at this gorgeous ballpark.

A pretty good to-do list, right?

This was a Sunday game with an early start time, which meant that I’d have an even earlier arrival time at Target Field. For 7 p.m. games, I find that I have a habit of repeatedly looking at the clock and wanting the day to fly by faster so that I can get to the ballpark. For afternoon games, however, it’s exciting to basically get up, get ready, and head to the ballpark. I left my hotel a little after 9 a.m. and made the short walk over to Target Field. Before going in, I wanted to spend some time enjoying the sights outside the park. The sightseeing began once again in Twins Plaza, where I took in the selection of statues in the area. If you read about my first visit to Target Field, you might recall seeing the Kirby Puckett statue. He’s just one of several former Twins stars honored in this fashion. Another statue depicts the late Harmon Killebrew, a hall of famer and member of the 500 home run club:

Another notable statue that you’ll definitely want to check out upon visiting Target Field is that of HOFer and 18-time all-star Rod Carew, which you’ll find just a short walk from Twins Plaza, over in front of the Majestic Clubhouse Store:

I next took a couple long laps around Target Field, pausing to snap this shot of a Metro Blue Line train on its way to Target Field station:

About 10 a.m., I went inside the park and hung out in the outfield seats, taking in the quiet ballpark in front of me on a breezy, sunny and perfect fall day. It’s moments like this in which I feel a deep sense of appreciation for being able to travel to so many different cities to watch baseball — and also a deep sense of appreciation for everyone who takes time out of their busy days to read about my ongoing adventures.

After the gates opened, I went down to the seats on the third base side. The Twins were warming up along the first base line, and while a lot of fans were scrambling to the front row to get autographs, I was content to hang back and, once again, just enjoy the scene from this sunny spot:

My next stop, the seats in right-center, weren’t sunny at all. This area was fully in the shade, and the autumn breeze made where I stood downright chilly. I snapped this panorama …

… and then headed back to a sunny area where the conditions were a little more pleasant. After watching the Twins warm up for a bit longer, I went over to the third base side to watch the Blue Jays do the same. I was neat seeing the sizable contingent of Jays fans taking in the three games I attended. As I scanned the crowd, it felt as though there was a 50/50 split in people wearing Twins gear versus Jays gear, and the throng of fans was always thick around the visitors dugout before the games. Case in point — here’s relief pitcher Danny Barnes signing some autographs, and just look at all the blue apparel around him:

As first pitch approached, I went back to the outfield seats and watched a parade of families walking along the warning track. Instead of a wide-angle shot of the field, here’s how the scene looked as I turned to my right to watch the parade “highlights” on the video board:

Once the parade wrapped up, I took this shot toward home plate that clearly shows all the different levels of seating in the area:

Something that Target Field does really well is break its seating into smaller sections. This is common at lots of MLB parks, of course, but I really like how this ballpark does it. I don’t need to break down each of the sections, but I particularly like the yellow seats in the middle of the image. I visited this section a handful of times throughout my three games at Target Field, and I appreciated how close they were to the action, but also how much of a bird’s-eye view of the field they gave you. Accomplishing this balance can be tricky — sometimes, you’re too close to appreciate the whole field and, other times, you’re too far away to see the game’s small details — but these seats, which are technically part of the Delta SKY360 Club, are outstanding.

With a bit more time to go before first pitch, I walked over to the plaza inside Gate 34 and watched a bit of the Twins pregame show on the local Fox Sports affiliate:

And then, just in time for first pitch, I grabbed a seat above the third base line, which gave me not only a perfect view of the field …

… but also a nice view of the city’s skyline beyond right-center. I have to also admit that I chose this area partly because I expected that it might be a good spot to snag a foul ball — and, while a few fouls did indeed come up to this level, they were all a couple sections away from me.

About an inning into the game, I was on the move again. This time, I took a spot in the upper deck in the left field corner, where I watched an inning of action:

Next, I set off in search of something to eat. While highly tempted to get another order of the seafood boil, a fantastic dish that I’d enjoyed a day earlier, I wanted to branch out and find something different. Choosing what to eat during the last game at a particular ballpark can be a bit stressful. (And, yes, I realize this is a colossal first-world problem.) I always want to get something that appeals to me, but there are normally a handful of items that fit this bill — meaning that I’ve got to make the right choice. A dish that had caught my eye a few times was the walleye and chips. It seems funny now, but the use of “walleye” really drew me in. Had the menu simply read “fish and chips,” there’s a 100 percent chance that I wouldn’t have ordered this dish. The inclusion of walleye, which is the state fish of Minnesota, made the meal seem a lot more regionally appealing — and it was enough for me to take the bait, so to speak.

I grabbed my order, took it back to a seat not far from where I’d sat for the first inning, and dug in:

The meal was good, but basically tasted like any average fish and chips I’ve ever eaten. The inclusion of the walleye instead of a saltwater fish such as cod or haddock might have been geographically appropriate, but I certainly wasn’t able to taste anything different about it.

I ended up spending the bulk of the second half of the game in this spot. While I usually enjoy wandering around and taking in all the sights, it’s also fun to grab a good seat and just enjoy watching the game. As the game wound to a close, and my third visit to Target Field ended with it, it wasn’t time to fly home just yet. Instead, I’d be spending the final day of my Minneapolis visit getting a chance to tour three of the city’s notable sports venues.

First, though, I was looking forward to spending a quiet evening relaxing in my hotel, the Embassy Suites by Hilton Minneapolis Downtown. This is definitely the hotel that I’ll be booking whenever I visit the Twin Cities again. In addition to its proximity to Target Field, the rooms were absolutely outstanding and among the largest and most impressive I’ve ever stayed in. I wholeheartedly recommend it to baseball travelers planning to see the Twins. I normally only post my own photos on my blog, but the shots that I took in my room pale in comparison to the hotel’s official images, so I can’t resist sharing the latter. Here’s a shot that shows the living room part of the suite …

… and here’s one that shows the bedroom:

After relaxing (and watching some football on that ginormous TV for a bit) I grabbed a sub from Jimmy John’s, which I could see out my window, and then returned to my room to eat, watch Sunday Night Baseball, and then head to bed in excitement of the next day’s adventures.