Tri-City ValleyCats – August 21

Five hours after shutting off my hotel room light to end a memorable first day in Troy, N.Y., I was up again and eager to get my second day underway. I had a bit of sightseeing and shopping planned before I got over to Joseph L. Bruno Stadium for that evening’s Tri-City ValleyCats game.

After breakfast, I set out to make the short drive to the Albany airport area, where my mission was to hunt down the remnants of a ballpark that was torn down several years prior. Heritage Park, which opened in 1982, closed in 2002 and was demolished in 2009, was the home of the Albany-Colonie A’s between 1982 and 1984 and the Albany-Colonie Yankees from ’85 to ’94. Many future major leaguers played at Heritage Park during its time hosting affiliated ball. Notable Yankees included Derek Jeter, who hit .377 for the Albany-Colonie squad in 1994 at the age of 20; two seasons later, he had his first World Series ring as a member of the Bronx Bombers. The three other members of the Yankees Core Four, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera all played for Albany-Colonie, as did scores of other future MLBers.

To get to the Heritage Park site, I drove down a dead-end road …

… and parked on a patch of gravel that I assume was once part of the area in front of the ballpark’s main gates. In walking around the area for a bit, it was obvious that something used to be here, but there were no clues about what it might have been. A sunken field area sloped away from the road but, by now, the entire area was thoroughly overgrown. There were a handful of metal posts that I assume were once part of a chain-link fence around the ballpark’s perimeter:

And some red posts like this one, which I think were around the main gates:

I spent about 15 minutes exploring, and while it was neat to think about what used to stand here, it was a little disappointing to not see as many signs of the old ballpark as I’d hoped.

I wrapped up my tour by opting not to check out the spooky abandoned house at the end of the road. Instead, I returned to my hotel and relaxed for a bit by watching some Little League World Series action — a favorite pastime whenever I travel in August. I also joined many staff and guests in the parking lot midway through the afternoon when the solar eclipse took place, although without any eclipse glasses, I basically just stood around and tried to resist the urge to stare at what was happening overhead.

About 3:30 p.m., I drove over to Joseph L. Bruno Stadium, a.k.a. “The Joe” with the intention of getting inside nice and early to enjoy the ballpark experience. After snapping this photo …

… I heard a familiar “click-clack” sound and turned to my left to watch the Hudson Valley Community College football team about to pass between the stadium and me on its way to the nearby football stadium. The Joe is located on the HVCC campus, and while I’d briefly checked out the football stadium a day earlier, I was curious to watch a little of the football practice. That desire grew when I peeked inside the ballpark and saw that batting practice wasn’t taking place. That meant that was I pretty early to sit in a virtually empty stadium by myself, so I changed up my plans a little and followed the football team over to its practice. For about 45 minutes, I leaned against the grandstands and watched scenes like this:

No one paid me any mind, so I guess it wasn’t assumed that I was a spy from Alabama or Texas. Other than a few players silently nodding to me as they walked past, the only interaction I had was when an agitated linebacker groaned at me, “Where the water at, man?” Apparently, the water machine had yet to arrive, and I had the appearance of the water boy.

After a while, I headed back to The Joe and there still wasn’t much going on. The field was set up, but there weren’t yet any players on it. Instead of walking around, I just grabbed a seat at the end of the concourse behind home plate, where I sat in the quiet and enjoyed the view in front of me.

Perhaps 15 minutes later, as a few players played catch down the right field line, I walked down the concourse on the third base side, went up on the hill above left field, and then took a pass directly behind the outfield fence:

It’s an area that is technically closed off, but no one was around and I wanted to see the park from a new vantage point. (Also, the fact that BP wasn’t taking place, which meant that no home runs balls would be landing on my head, was rather appealing.) When I emerged from behind the fence, I climbed up to the top of the berm in the right field corner and took this shot:

This area is one of my favorite places to hang out at The Joe, although it’s tough to narrow down all the great spots down to a short list. I love the view that this berm provides of the field, as well as the visitor’s bullpen, and I like the visual effect of the tall grass that separates the berm from the seats.

After watching the visiting Brooklyn Cyclones play catch for a bit, I set out to find something to eat. As much as it was tempting to go with another pizza from the wood-burning oven, I was eager to try something different. As I lined up at a concession stand on the first base side, I saw a great “you know you’re in the minors” scene — a pair of the visiting Cyclones buying dinner ahead of me. (Chicken fingers and fries, for the record.)

As for me, I went with something a little less conventional: BBQ in a Bag:

This meal consists of a bag of Fritos topped with smoked pulled pork, baked beans, coleslaw and bacon. It was the ValleyCats’ entry for the MiLB Food Fight promotion that takes place each season, and it was tasty — perhaps the only knock on it was the fact that when you get down toward the bottom of the bag, Fritos are a little tough to eat with a plastic fork. It’s definitely something I’d try again, if given the chance, but that probably won’t be the case. Teams switch up their Food Fight entries annually, so unless the team decides to bring this dish (bag?) back, I don’t expect you’ll see it on the menu next season.

Once I’d eaten, I went down to field level on the first base side to watch the Cyclones warming up. I was particularly drawn to their uniforms, which I thought looked super sharp:

It’s sort of hard to tell in these pictures, but the material had a heather-like appearance to it, which gave the whole ensemble a real throwback look. It’s one of the nicest uniforms I’ve seen in the minors in some time.

Here’s shortstop Dylan Snypes playing catch:

And here’s a closer look at the Cyclones uniform, thanks to third baseman Carl Stajduhar:

As I did a day earlier, I spent the first part of the game in a seat directly behind home plate, shooting action photos like this one:

Then, I went down to the ramp in the left field corner to enjoy the action from that spot. While there, an interesting event caught my eye. Remember how I took a walk behind the outfield fence before the game? It turns out that I’m not the only user of that route. There was a member of the Brooklyn bullpen staff standing behind the ValleyCats bullpen, talking with someone he obviously knew. Perhaps as a peace offering, the ValleyCats reliever tossed some bubble gum over the fence …

… and then the Brooklyn player disappeared behind the fence again on his way back over to the visitor’s bullpen.

Want to hear about a ridiculous dessert?

I don’t normally eat dessert at ballparks, but I was keen on munching on something else in the game’s middle innings. Dessert on this night came in the form of a deep-fried Twinkie sundae. Why have a deep-fried Twinkie on its own when you can have it as a sundae? is the age-old question mankind has always pondered. As the friendly server built it for me, she asked, Do you want all the toppings? I’ll give you one guess as to my answer.

Check this out:

You’re looking at one deep-fried Twinkie, chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, sprinkles and a cherry, and everything was pretty good. I can’t recall ever eating a Twinkie, let alone a deep-fried one. The middle was nice and gooey, and the crispy exterior was a nice contrast to the softness of the other ingredients. Definitely a winner, although something your arteries might not want you to eat each game.

With the game winding down, I grabbed a spot on the concourse behind home plate and snapped this panorama:

I really like how this one turned out, and I hope it gives you a good idea of just how beautiful this ballpark is.

Even though my second game wrapped up soon enough, my road trip wasn’t over just yet. I still got to hang out at my hotel, which was hugely enjoyable. In case you missed yesterday’s post, I was staying at the Hilton Garden Inn Troy, and the hotel had upgraded me to the presidential suite. After the game, I made the 10-minute drive back to the hotel, had a swim in the indoor pool and then watched SportsCenter in the living room, which looks like this:

In my previous post, I talked about the suite I was in, but there are lots of reasons that this hotel is ideal for baseball roadtrippers beyond its guest rooms and location. For starters, there’s a sports bar, Recovery Sports Grill, on the ground floor. I didn’t have a meal there, but I stuck my head in and it’s the perfect place to watch the some sports on TV with some refreshments after you’ve come back from The Joe. And that’s not the only on-site eatery; there’s also The Garden Grille & Bar, which serves breakfast and lunch. Free Internet and parking and a good-sized pool and fitness center all combine to make this hotel a great one for baseball travelers — and it’s definitely the spot I’ll be visiting whenever I’m in Troy again.

The next morning, I took a short walk around the area, stopping to snap this shot of the hotel from the outside:

Then, it was time to check out, load up the car and head home — with my next baseball road trip less than a week away.

Advertisements

Tri-City ValleyCats – August 20

I pulled onto the campus of Hudson Valley Community College shortly after 3 p.m. on August 20, noticing small groups of first-year students and their parents checking out the school in advance of moving in. It wasn’t the campus that I was interested in seeing, though — my sights were focused on the building at the rear of the campus.

That’s where Joseph L. Bruno Stadium, home of the Tri-City ValleyCats, stands. It’s one of my favorite stops in the Short-Season A New York-Penn League, and a place that I visited way back in 2010 and again in 2012. If you’re thinking that another visit was overdue, I totally agree with you — and that’s why I had two ValleyCats games scheduled on this short road trip.

The ‘Cats were hosting the Brooklyn Cyclones, who were amusingly the team that I’d seen play Tri-City in each of my previous two visits, and by the time I got to the front gate of the ballpark affectionately known as “The Joe,” there was already a sizable crowd waiting to get in:

Although I was anxious to get inside, I also knew that I’d have more than enough time to enjoy the ballpark over the course of two days. So, I took a bit of time to make a lap of the park’s perimeter and check it out from a few angles.

Seeing the field for the first time, a peek through the chain-link fence atop the grass berm in the right field corner, instantly brought back fond memories of my two previous visits — a championship series game in September of 2010 and the first day of a road trip that took me through New England in 2012:

Given The Joe’s location on the HVCC campus, there are some cool sights to see around the ballpark — namely, a football stadium and a softball field, as well as a ropes course beyond the left field corner of the ballpark. But I was here to see the baseball field, and enjoyed looking through the trees that line the hill beyond the outfield fence to catch glimpses of it. Here’s a shot of the ballpark from the back side of the “hit it here” sign in right-center:

After a full circuit, I headed into The Joe through the main gates, which put me on the concourse directly behind home plate. As I often do, I snapped a photo of the field from this angle …

… and then walked down to field level to just enjoy the sights in front of me.

Fortunately, I’d be standing on the field before too long. The ValleyCats were hosting a “play catch on the field” promotion before the game, and even though I was traveling solo and didn’t have a catch partner, I took advantage of the opportunity to walk around the outfield, trying to dodge errant throws from the scores of kids playing catch. Here’s a panorama that I snapped from the left field corner a moment after nearly getting hit with a football, funny enough:

And here’s how the scene looked from straightaway center:

The drive from my home to Troy, New York (the Tri-City ValleyCats name represents the Tri-City area of Albany, Troy and Schenectady, the latter of which I impressively spelled correctly on my first attempt) took a little under five hours, and I didn’t make a stop for food. That meant that getting something to eat was pretty high up on my list of priorities. Last visit, I had an order of delicious salt potatoes, but I was looking to try something different this time. After a quick circuit of the concourse to evaluate the options, I was drawn to the pizza concession stand on the third base side. But this wasn’t any old ballpark pizza. Rather, this stand was serving made-to-order pizzas in a wood-burning oven:

I knew I had to try one. I ordered a pepperoni and cheese pizza, and hustled to a picnic table above left field once I had the hot box in my hands. I was impressed with the look of the pizza as soon as I lifted the lid, and even more impressed once I bit into the first slice. This pizza was absolutely delicious, and gets the nod as the best ballpark pizza I’ve ever eaten:

I finished the pizza about the time that the teams wrapped up their pregame warmups, so I walked back down the length of the concourse and grabbed a seat behind home plate for the first inning. Even though I had the netting to contend with, I had fun taking some action shots, like this one of ValleyCats starter Alex House:

And this one of Cyclones catcher Scott Manea picking up his first of two hits of the game:

Next, I took another couple laps around the concourse, enjoying the sights and keeping an eye on the action. The Joe is absolutely beautiful, but perhaps the lone knock on it is that the concourse doesn’t wrap around the entire field. Maybe it’s just a matter of personal preference, but I love parks that have this feature, as it’s enjoyable to take entire circuits of the field instead of have to walk back and forth from foul pole to foul pole. On my walk, I had to chuckle when I saw this banner:

What do you think? Agree or disagree?

After I watched a ball that landed in the outfield roll under the gate beside the left field foul pole for a ground rule double, I wanted to spend some time in this area. I figured that not only could there be a chance of snagging a home run, but grabbing a ground rule double ball would make for an interesting story. I snapped this panorama of this pristine-looking ballpark on my walk to the left field corner …

… and then hung out for an inning and a half just a few steps away from the base of the foul pole. While there, I snapped this shot of myself — of course, I’m wearing one of my T-shirts:

Interested in buying one for your own baseball road trips? Here’s the link.

No baseballs came my way, but that was all right. I was still having a blast, and especially excited that I had two days in Troy on this visit. Once I abandoned the idea of getting a baseball, I went behind the home bullpen for a few minutes:

One of the things that I love about the minor leagues is just how close you can get to the bullpens. While this is occasionally the case in the big leagues, there are also several MLB parks at which close access to the bullpen is impossible. It’s fun to watch the players hanging out, getting loose and, of course, warming up for action.

Speaking of the bullpen, there were a few interesting things that I noticed. We’ve probably all seen a player go to stand next to the plate to mimic the batter while a pitcher is warming up, right? Well, at The Joe, the ValleyCats had a pair of wooden batter-shaped models that could be used instead of actual players. I’ve seen some of these in the past, but they’re still fairly rare. You can see a couple of them below, “standing” next to the bench:

Even more interesting were a couple things that I hadn’t noticed at other parks. If you look carefully in the image above, you’ll see a series of strings that run across the bullpen. These represent the top and bottom edges of the strike zone for pitchers who are warming up. Has anyone else noticed these at other parks? I’m wondering if it’s something that’s exclusively done in the lower levels of the minors. Also, you’ll notice a large target that is laying against the fence. It’s divided into four quadrants with clock-style numbers around the perimeter. I’m guessing it’s a teaching tool and may even be something that pitchers use when practicing on their own. This is the first time that I can remember seeing such a thing.

The game itself was bonkers. Tri-City won 13-10 despite being outhit 17-11. Sounds like an offensive juggernaut, right? Yes, but the teams also combined for 20 strikeouts in a game that took 3:41 to play.

About 10 minutes after the final out, I was pulling into my hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn Troy:

I’ve stayed at Hilton Garden Inns many, many times over the years, and this hotel was easily among the most impressive I’ve visited. As with many hotel chains, HGIs have a lot of common features that are similar from property to property, so I was sort of expecting the standard king room that I usually get at this brand of hotel. I was shocked, however, to learn that the hotel had upgraded me to the presidential suite — something I didn’t expect or even imagine might be possible. I’ve since learned that when suites are available (the HGI Troy has 15 suites, including the presidential suite I was lucky to stay in) guests will sometimes get surprised with upgrades. So, if you book a room at this hotel when you’re traveling to Troy for some ValleyCats baseball, you never know which room you may end up in.

This suite was hands down the biggest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in, and featured a list of amenities that was hugely impressive. Standout features included a full kitchen and bar, living room with leather furniture and a fireplace, three TVs and a separate bedroom with a king bed at the end of the long hallway. There was even a full-sized dining room. Honestly, the photos of this suite fail to do it justice, but here’s a look at part of the scene in panorama format:

Above, you’re looking at the living room, with the dining room and kitchen beyond it. The bedroom is down a hall between the dining room and kitchen.

Since you’re probably wondering:

Yes, I used all three TVs during my visit.

And, yes, I put the fireplace on when I sat in the living room.

The full kitchen was another feature that I really appreciated:

While simply having a bar fridge is usually enough for me, it was great to have a full-sized fridge and freezer so that I could stock up on some snacks and drinks for my two-day stay. And, hey, if a fella’s gonna eat some Häagen-Dazs out of the tub in bed while watching SportsCenter, the freezer means that he can ration it out instead of eat it all in one serving. Theoretically.

The location of the hotel was also perfect for me as a baseball traveler. Just a short and easy drive to The Joe, the hotel was an even shorter drive to grocery stores and walking distance to several fast-food restaurants.

My intention of going to bed in decent time was zapped when I got into bed, flipped on the TV and found that it had on-demand programming. As I tweeted out at the time, Showtime boxing captured my attention, and I watched a couple hours of fights before shutting off the lights, anxious for my second day in Troy to begin.

Can-Am League/American Association All-Star Game – July 25

I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy some pretty cool experiences since I began traveling for The Ballpark Guide in 2010, but one thing that has always eluded me was an all-star game. Fortunately, that drought came to an end late in July, when I had the fortune of visiting Ottawa for the all-star game between the best of the Can-Am League and American Association.

Unlike most all-star events that pit the best players in an individual league against each other, this game was unique in that it consisted of all-stars from a pair of independent leagues — the six-team Can-Am League and the 12-team American Association — competing against each other. I’d actually planned to take in the home run derby and skills competition a day earlier, too, but daylong rain meant those activities were a wash. That was unfortunate, but the bright skies on July 25 meant that the all-star game thankfully wouldn’t be threatened by Mother Nature.

My ballpark visits normally revolve around exploring the ballpark, sitting in a bunch of different spots and trying to come up with some unique adventures, but the priority on this night was simply to take in my first all-star game. Don’t get me wrong — there was still some exploring and a chance to do something I’d never done before on the agenda.

I got to Ottawa’s Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park about 3 p.m. and went down to the field a little before the Can-Am League all-stars began hitting. Since I’d missed out on seeing long bombs due to the derby cancellation a day earlier, I was excited to see the league’s top home run hitters pounding balls over the fences at RCGT Park. One such slugger was Rockland Boulders first baseman/outfield Joe Maloney, who was a 10th round pick of Texas and also played as high as Double-A in Minnesota’s system:

Judging by the season he had with Rockland, you have to wonder if he’ll be back in affiliated ball again. He slugged 35 home runs, drove in 101, batted .282 and had an OPS of .997. And, lest you think that his offensive game is one dimensional, he also contributed with 18 stolen bases.

Another hitter I was anxious to see was Quebec Capitales outfielder Kalian Sams, who played affiliated ball in the Seattle, Texas and San Diego systems between 2007 and 2013:

His numbers this season were also impressive, especially considering that he only played in 72 games — 23 home runs, 70 RBIs, a .291 batting average and an OPS of .943.

Maloney and Sams lived up to their billing, as did many of the other Can-Am League hitters, including Ottawa’s own catcher Danny Grauer. Ottawa isn’t a hitter-friendly park, but it was impressive to see balls sailing well over the fence, including some moon shots that landed on Coventry Road beyond left field.

The American Association players soon took the field, and while I must admit that I didn’t recognize many of their names, one player I did know was starting pitcher Mark Hamburger. If you don’t know his story, it’s an interesting one. He’s certainly one of the more colorful characters in independent baseball, as you might get the sense from this photo:

After the Can-Am League batting practice ended but before the American Association guys began to hit, I zipped up to the press box to catch the scene from a bird’s-eye view:

Then, I headed back down to the field and just enjoyed watching the various players go in and out of the cage to my right. One player I spoke to was Martin Medina, a former White Sox and Blue Jays farmhand who currently catches for the Wichita Wingnuts:

I asked him about his perspectives on visiting Ottawa for the first time, and he admitted that many of the AA all-stars had arrived so late that they’d come straight to the ballpark. In fact, the American Association roster was a little short due to some players’ travel issues — so short that Ottawa Champions infielder Daniel Bick got called in to suit up for the American Association.

After BP, I joined my brother and nephew down the third base line. They’d decided to take in the event with me, and my nephew was just a tad excited:

OK, so maybe he was excited about the prospect of trying to get a baseball and chowing down on hot dogs and ice cream, but you get my point.

Our seats adjacent to the home bullpen meant that we got a chance to see the familiar faces of the Ottawa guys and a bunch of other Can-Am League all-stars. Here’s New Jersey Jackals outfielder Johnny Bladel, who had a spectacular year at the plate, hitting .345:

And the aforementioned Grauer, who was recently named the team’s most valuable player:

Grauer wasn’t the only all-star starter from Ottawa. Former big leaguer Phillippe Aumont, who I saw throw a no-hitter earlier in the season, was starting on the mound for the Can-Am side:

Speaking of Aumont, I went to the cross-aisle behind home plate to watch the game’s first pitch:

It was a little disappointing to see so many empty seats. I mean, there was still a decent crowd on hand, but for the caliber of baseball being showcased that night, as well as the rarity of the occasion (the first baseball all-star game ever hosted in the city) it’s regrettable that more Ottawa residents didn’t attend. The Champions did an exemplary job of putting on the entire all-star event, and it would’ve been nice if more baseball fans had come out to enjoy the evening.

I wanted to watch some of the game from a different vantage point, so I went out through the front gates and walked around the perimeter of the park until I arrived in the driveway behind the visitor’s bullpen and the batting cages. This is where the visiting team’s bus parks, and it’s somewhere I hadn’t really explored in the past. The view of the game from this spot isn’t great — and that’s fine, because there aren’t any seats there, anyway — but it was neat to actually be behind the bullpen:

While I was standing in this area, Hamburger (who’d since finished his work for the evening) took a walk down to the ‘pen and mugged for the fans sitting nearby. What a character:

I watched an inning from this spot, partially hoping that one of the right fielders would make a play along the fence or that a foul ball would come my way. Neither happened, but something better took place — I was speaking for a few minutes with a member of the RCGT Park grounds crew, and he casually asked if I wanted to go up to the roof. It obviously didn’t take me long to ponder that offer or give him my answer, so we made plans to meet at the end of the sixth inning so that I could check out this uncharted territory.

That gave me a bit of time to continue checking out the game from various angles, while also occasionally dropping in on my brother and nephew. The next spot I visited was the camera platform in straightaway center field. I’d previously checked out this spot before the Champions game against Cuba, but never during a game itself. I was surprised to run into a security guard standing in front of the ramp to the game — but kind of glad, too, because I’ve occasionally seen freeloaders sneak onto the RCGT Park property and watch the game from this spot without buying a ticket. He was cool with me taking a few photos, so I took shots like this one …

… and majorly hoped for a home run ball to come my way. That didn’t happen, but by the time I made it over to visit with my brother and nephew again, four-year-old Ben had himself a nice baseball. And, as you can tell from this photo, he was pretty stoked:

Champions pitcher Daniel Cordero handed it to him, thus keeping Ben’s streak alive — he’s gotten at least one baseball at every game he’s been to. (And the streak has continued in the games he’s attended since the all-star game, for the record.)

I still had a bit of time until my rooftop adventure, so I grabbed a Fan Club Burger from the home plate concession stand and sat in the upper seats on the third base side to enjoy it:

This was the second time I’d eaten that burger at RCGT Park, and it was just as outstanding as the first time. A huge thumbs up to the Champions and their food services team for producing a burger this delicious.

After the last bite of the burger, I went down to the grounds crew’s office to meet up with my new friend/tour guide.

I’ve only ever been on the roof of a ballpark once. That was back in 2014 when I attended the last game in Jamestown Jammers history. That rooftop experience was cool, but the Jammers played in a small park, so I was basically just going up onto a platform atop the tiny press box. This would be different — RCGT Park is an actual stadium with a legitimate roof, so I knew I’d be in a for a treat. We rode the elevator up to the press level, then took a set of stairs up to the roof. The first thing I did was go right up to the edge and shoot this photo:

It felt a little weird being up so high, but there was a comforting lip around the front edge of the roof that kept me from dropping in on the fans below. I watched a couple minutes of the game from this spot, and then looked around the roof a little. It was wide, with HVAC stuff running down the middle and several banks of speakers along the front edge. Here was the view to my right:

And here’s how things looked over to my left:

That’s the press level immediately under the Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton sign. I was hoping to catch the attention of the broadcasters so that I could wave at them, but they were understandably focused on the game.

Two people who did notice my location were my brother and nephew. They’d been keeping an eye out for me, and when I appeared at the edge of the roof, my nephew was waving like crazy. (Later, he asked me, “How did you get up there?”)

After snapping the scene in panoramic form …

… my mission was to find a foul ball. I’ve been to enough Champions games to know that foul balls land on the roof. A lot. I was surprised that the roof wasn’t littered with baseballs, which indicates that someone from the gameday staff or grounds crew likely visits the roof regularly to collect them. I told my tour guide that I wanted to take a couple minutes to hunt for a baseball, and he obliged. Unfortunately, that tour yielded nothing. As I expressed disappointment, my new friend smiled and handed me a ball that he’d found:

I’ve managed to collect a bunch of baseballs over the years, but it’s hard to beat the cool location of this one!

Our rooftop visit wrapped up soon afterward, and I need to give a big thank you to my rooftop tour guide for making it happen.

Afterward, I rejoined my brother and nephew and we moved to this spot behind home plate …

… where we remained until the final out.

I’m pleased to say that my first all-star game experience was a thrill, and I commend the Champions organization for doing such a great job of putting on the spectacle for baseball fans.

Ottawa Champions – July 12

Another post about visiting Ottawa, you ask?

To that I say, yes.

While it’s my mission to see games in as many ballparks as I can, I can’t resist the opportunity to see baseball wherever it’s played and, this season, that has frequently come in the form of Ottawa Champions games at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park. I’ve got some great trips in the works for the remainder of the summer and into the fall, so you can count on a lot of blogging before the final pitch of the season is thrown. In the meantime, when I’m able to get to Ottawa — the closest city to where I live that has a professional team — I’m going to take it.

I’ve been having a blast at RCGT Park so far. You’ve perhaps read about me seeing the Cuban and Dominican Republic national teams, but for this visit in the second week of July, there wasn’t any international action scheduled. Rather, the Sussex County Miners were in town for a critical series; after a slow start, the Champions have been playing some excellent baseball, and the Miners were holding the final Can-Am League playoff spot at the time of my visit with the Champions right on their heels.

Although I’m trying to mix up my ballpark experience to give you something unique each visit, one thing won’t change — how early I get to the ballpark. As always, I arrived around the start of batting practice, and went right down to the field. One of my favorite things during BP is watching infield practice. Although the action in the cage is perhaps the prime attraction, it’s always impressive to watch the sure hands of the infielders as they go about their drills. Infield practice began soon after I arrived, so I stood in front of the Ottawa dugout on the third base side and watched as players like Ricky Oropesa took grounders at shortstop:

Oropesa, a third-round draft pick of San Francisco in 2011 who made it as high as the Triple-A level, is a first baseman. As such, I was surprised to see him on the left side of the infield. I quickly looked up his career fielding record on Baseball-Reference, however, and learned that he played a handful of games at third base in 2014 while playing Double-A. And, judging by his adeptness with short hops and his cannon of an arm, it was clear that he was more than comfortable out of his regular position.

After watching infield practice for a bit, I walked over behind the cage and watched a couple groups of the Champions hit. Then, when the Miners took the field, I took a leisurely walk from one end of the cross-aisle to the other, keeping my eye on the action on the field as I walked. At one point, as I was on my way back from the left field corner toward home plate, I noticed someone in a Champions uniform leaning on the railing and watching Sussex County. He’s barely visible in this photo, but that’s Champions manager Hal Lanier, who earned National League manager of the year honors with the Houston Astros in 1986:

The Sussex County BP was largely uneventful for me. I hung out on the field for a bit, in the stands for a bit, and did some wandering around, too. When the field was empty after BP, I took a seat on the third base side and scrolled through Twitter for a bit, before moving down the line a little as the players took the field a while later. I can never resist standing next to the bullpen as a player is warming up. At RCGT Park, the bullpens are so close to the front row of seats that it’s a real thrill to stand there and hear the ball go past you. Right-hander Steve Borkowski, who played rookie ball in the Atlanta Braves system two seasons ago, soon took the mound — and I was right there to watch:

As he threw, he had a pair of talented starters standing behind him. That’s Daniel Cordero and Phillippe Aumont from left to right. They’ve both been named as starters at the upcoming Can-Am League vs. American Association all-star game, and you might recall from my last blog post that Aumont threw a no-hitter this season. Regarding Cordero, you could make a strong case that he’s been Ottawa’s best overall starter through the first half of the season. He leads the team with six wins, has a pair of complete games, an ERA of 3.39 and 55 strikeouts in 69 innings.

After Borkowski finished tossing, he spoke briefly with all-star catcher Danny Grauer …

… and then the players headed to the dugout. That meant that it was time for me to head away to find a spot to sit for the game’s opening innings. In my previous visits to RCGT Park this season, I moved around so much that I didn’t do much action photography. I wanted to change that for this game, so I grabbed a spot in the front row behind the visitor’s dugout so that I could watch the action. Even though my camera and lenses aren’t very expensive, I love shooting baseball. It’s a fun challenge and a never-ending quest to get a photo at just the right moment. From my spot, I had a great view of home plate, so I snapped shots of shortstop Daniel Bick …

… and second baseman Steve Nyisztor:

Beyond having a clear view to home plate, one of the coolest things about sitting behind the dugout is just watching the goings-on. You can easily hear that the players are saying, as well as see subtle things that you might not catch if you were watching on TV. One such thing — and arguably something I’ve never seen before — was Sussex County pitcher Kris Regas recording a video of the Ottawa hitters. It makes me wonder if he’s friends with someone on Ottawa or he’s just doing a little scouting for himself:

In the top of the second inning, I had a great view of Miners right fielder Rubi Silva as he smoked a ball over the fence for a home run — and celebrated after crossing the plate:

After snapping the above photo, I made the quick decision to run after the ball. I was extremely far away from where it left the field, but I figured that I might as well make an attempt and see what might happen. I quickly ran up the steps of the seating bowl, navigated my way through the concourse and headed out of the stadium. Snagging balls at RCGT Park isn’t easy. The area immediately behind the outfield fence is a deep ravine-like area and is extremely thick with brush that isn’t easy to navigate. You’ve got to accept that you’re going to get muddy and scratched by thorn bushes if you have a hope of finding a ball. Here’s how the area looks:

I pushed my way down the muddy slope and through the bushes, looked for several minutes and found Silva’s ball after maybe three or four minutes of looking:

See that big green stain on the ball? It was left there in an interesting way. Silva’s blast was just barely long enough to leave the yard. In fact, it landed with a thud on the top of the outfield fence and then rolled over to end up on the muddy slope. There were a number of tree branches extending over the top of the fence, so I’m certain that the green was left after the ball squashed some leaves between it and the top of the fence.

I immediately checked to see if the home run ball would have any significance to Silva. I didn’t know of him before the game, so I had no idea whether this was his first professional home run or would otherwise be noteworthy. As you might know if you’ve followed me for a while, I’m always up for returning a home run ball to the player who hit it if the ball is noteworthy. That didn’t appear to be the case here — the baseball in my hand was his second dinger of the season and 52nd of his career between the minor leagues and independent baseball.

Here’s another number for you — this is the fourth home run ball in my collection!

I was thrilled to be holding it as I returned to the stadium, took a seat on the third base side and sent out this Instagram post:

All the running around and excitement had worked up an appetite, so I headed to the main concession area behind home plate to look for dinner. I’ve had really good luck with the food at RCGT Park dating back a few years — and while it’s tempting to stick with a proven winner, I want to continue to try new things. Dinner on this night came in the form of General Tao chicken. In the past, I’ve eaten it on poutine, but this was a plain order served on noodles that came with chopsticks:

It was absolutely delicious and actually gave me a source of vegetables at the ballpark — a rarity, to be sure. In fact, I was so excited to have a veggie at a baseball game that I felt compelled to snap this silly photo:

Once I’d eaten, I went back down to the front row to resume taking action shots. Here’s one of Grauer about to make contact for a single:

Once the inning was over, I went up to the press box for a few minutes, snapping this photo during my brief stay there:

Then, it was time to check out an absolutely awesome vantage point for photos. I’d visited this spot briefly with team president and minority owner David Gourlay during my previous visit to RCGT Park, and wanted to be sure to return in the future. The spot in question was the end of the umpires’ tunnel, directly behind home plate. It’s an amazing place to watch the game, but the ability to shoot photos from this spot was a real thrill. Here’s how the view looked from a wide angle:

Pretty cool, right? Yes, but when I zoomed in, I was able to get shots like this one of Borkowski dealing to Jarred Mederos:

And here’s one of Bick squaring to bunt as a pitch from Sussex County starter Gianni Zayas is on its way:

Since I mentioned Ottawa all-stars Aumont, Cordero and Grauer earlier, I can’t leave out Sebastien Boucher, who is the team’s fourth and final all-star selection:

I stayed in this spot for a couple innings, and while I feel like I could share dozens of photos that I took, that might be a little boring for you. So, here’s one last one from this spot — a look at outfielder Steve Brown’s big follow-through on a foul ball:

Once the Champions finished hitting, I went back up to the cross-aisle to watch the remainder of the game — including when it began to sprinkle rain a little:

As soon as the game wrapped up, I was back in my car and headed home — but very much looking forward to my next trip to RCGT Park.

Ottawa Champions – June 28

Whenever I return to a ballpark I’ve previously visited, my mission is to have a new adventure to blog about. It can be easy to fall into the ever-present blogging trap of being formulaic, and that’s something that I try to avoid as best I can.

Sometimes, I really have to get creative to give you a new story. Other times, something awesome just falls into my lap.

The latter was the case during a late-June visit to Ottawa to watch the Can-Am League’s Champions host the Dominican Republic National Team. As you might remember, I’ve seen Ottawa in international baseball action twice over the past two seasons — against Cuba in 2016 and again against Cuba earlier this June.

Once I heard that the Dominican squad would be in Ontario, I couldn’t resist traveling to Ottawa to see the Champions again. I arrived at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park about 3.5 hours before first pitch, and went down to the field as Ottawa was taking BP. I figured that I’d just be watching the action for a bit on my own, but team president and minority owner David Gourlay was in front of the dugout. I went over to say hello, and we spent about 15 minutes talking everything from baseball to baseball card collecting. Before David and I wrapped up, he asked if I’d had a chance to tour behind the scenes of RCGT Park.

“Well,” I said somewhat sheepishly, “I’ve done a little snooping … but haven’t ever had a full tour.”

He pledged to meet up with me midway through the game and give me the grand tour. Things were already looking up.

Before Ottawa finished its BP, I also got a chance to talk to all-star catcher Danny Grauer for a few minutes; he and I had chatted during my first Champions game of the season and it was fun to get caught up with him. He’s a friendly and instantly likable guy, so I make a point of saying hello to him or speaking to him for a few minutes at each the Champions games I attend.

Once Danny left the field, I spoke for a while to team broadcaster Mason Detre, and also enjoyed such scenes as this one:

Yeah, it looks like a batting cage, but that’s Ottawa manager Hal Lanier watching his players hit. Lanier is a decorated former MLB coach and manager, with a World Series title in 1982 and National League manager of the year honors in 1986. And he also had a decade-long playing career for the Giants and Yankees. It’s not every day I get to see someone with that baseball pedigree.

In each of the times I saw Cuba in Ottawa, the international team was late getting to town and didn’t take BP. That was a disappointment for me, so I was pleased to hear that the Dominicans had arrived in plenty of time — and even more pleased to see some players filtering into the visitor’s dugout with bats in their hands toward the end of the Champions BP session.

I soon learned that the Dominican side was being managed by Luis Polonia, another manager with extensive MLB experience (and a pair of World Series rings). Before long, Polonia and his club were on the field, and I was thrilled to be soaking it all in:

I watched the majority of the Dominican BP session before heading off to wander around RCGT Park a little more. What I found, however, was rain. The weather was hot and sunny enough during Ottawa’s BP session that I could feel the skin on my neck burning a bit. By the time the Dominicans were on the field, the weather was still good but there were clouds in the area. As the visitors left the field, Ottawa rushed to get the tarp in place as the raindrops fell. And a few minutes later, this was the scene:

As it rained just about as hard as I could, an usher and I checked the weather app on his phone and learned that the storm was supposed to let up around 7 p.m. With the game’s first pitch scheduled for just a few minutes later, that meant that an on-time start was in doubt — but that things looked hopeful for a little later.

There wasn’t much exploring to be done as the rain fell; I wanted to stay in sheltered areas, so I went up to the suite level and walked into the restaurant/sports bar that is located on the suite level’s third base side. It’s not a working restaurant during most games, but it’s used for a variety of functions and is adorned with lots of cool Champions action pictures, as well as an overall baseball theme. It was empty except for me, so I silently stood at the windows and hoped for the storm to go away. This scene wasn’t overly promising …

… but this one, just a short while later, certainly was:

The rainbow was so impressive that I’d quickly scampered down to the seating bowl to get a better angle of it. And, would you believe that by shortly after 7 p.m., this was how the ballpark and sky looked?

That’s right, the skies had cleared and the stage was set for a great night of baseball in Canada’s capital.

As the players hit the field, I walked down the front row of the third base seats to watch the warmups. Ottawa’s starter was Phillippe Aumont, who’s the only former major leaguer on the Champions roster and is also a former MLB first-round draft pick. He signed with Ottawa just three week earlier, and is doubling as the team’s pitching coach. I watched Aumont and Grauer go through their stretching routines and then begin to play catch:

A short while later, I went over to the visitor’s side to see the Dominican team up close for the first time since BP. One noteworthy thing caught my eye — one of the Dominican pitchers, Luis Nunez, was wearing a Hudson Valley Renegades  (short-season A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays) warmup jacket over his uniform. (He played for the Renegades last season, for the record.) Its blue was nearly a perfect match with the Dominican uniform, so it blended in, with the exception of the team logo on the left chest. I was amused enough to snap a series of photos at Nunez, who eventually noticed me and gave me a peace sign:

I also noticed catcher Danny Tavares and a teammate who appeared to be having a secretive conversation, but were really just using Tavares’s glove to block the sun:

As the game was just about set to begin, I had my first big-time surprise of the evening. A fan who was headed toward his seat noticed my shirt and stopped to ask me about it. “Are you the guy who does those shirts?” he wondered. It turns out that the fan, Ben Lampron, follows me on Twitter. Even cooler is the fact that he’s not from Ottawa — he lives in Minneapolis, and was visiting Ontario for business when he decided to take in a Champions game. Ben snapped this shot of us right away:

It was such a strange occurrence to run into each other in this manner, and we made plans to meet up once the game had begun. We ended up sitting together for the first couple innings and talking baseball. It turns out that, counting independent ball, Ben has been to nearly twice as many stadiums as me. He travels frequently for work and attends baseball games whenever his schedule allows. We had a great time comparing notes on our favorite (and not-so-favorite) ballparks, and I’m sure our paths will cross again at some point.

After Ben and I parted ways, I went behind home plate to watch a few batters, and then decided that it was time for some dinner. Earlier, I’d heard the PA announcer suggest the “Fan Club Burger” to fans, and while I didn’t know exactly what the burger was about, I decided to take a shot. I’m glad I did. The burger was like what you’d make at home if you were competent in the kitchen — a nice, thick patty with a series of conventional toppings, including bacon:

It was excellent and definitely gets my recommendation for fans visiting RCGT Park. In fact, I’ll probably try it again this summer. Once I’d eaten, I settled into a seat in the front row behind the visitor’s dugout. From there, I had a great view of the Dominican players as they leaned on the railing while their team was on offense …

… as well as the action at the plate and first base. Here’s former Blue Jays minor leaguer Gustavo Pierre at the dish …

… and Sebastien Boucher, a Mariners draft pick in 2004 who’s in his 13th season of professional baseball:

In the fifth inning, I went up to the cross-aisle, where I had this view as I watched a couple batters with Champions director of marketing/communications Craig Richenback:

At one point, a Dominican hitter showed bunt and fouled it back to the screen. Craig sort of shook his head about the idea of bunting, and I was initially puzzled by his reaction. Then, it hit me.

Aumont had a no-hitter going.

It’s funny — when I’m attending ballgames, I don’t have a complete pulse on the game. It might sound weird, given what a baseball fan I am, but I’m walking around so much and checking out different sights that I don’t always know the score. I’ll always have an eye on what’s taking place on the field, but I’m just not glued to the action. I find that at baseball games, there’s so much more to see and do than just sit watching the game itself. To me, seeing a bit less of the game and a lot more of the ballpark and the sights around it actually enriches the entire experience.

I’d never seen a no-hitter in all my baseball adventures, but that didn’t stop me from continuing to experience the ballpark as I usually do. Just a moment after realizing that the no-no was intact, I connected with David and we began an outstanding tour — most of which was out of sight of what was happening on the field.

We met up in the concourse inside the main gates, but soon descended into RCGT’s Park’s lower level. For me, no matter how many stadiums I visit, it’s always exciting to see things that the average fan doesn’t get to see — and then share them on my blog. For me, even something as standard as this hallway beneath the stadium carries with it an excitement:

Our first stop was a seemingly ordinary room with an important role. It holds the beer (and soft drinks, I’m presuming) that are pumped up to the concourse concession stands and served to fans. The Champions are one of only a handful of teams with their own beer, and there were several kegs of it waiting to be hooked up:

Next, we checked out the visitor’s clubhouse, which was marked with a Dominican Republic team logo on the door:

Want to see inside? I did, too, and David led me in to check it out for a moment:

We then walked down the a hallway that is essentially parallel with the first base line. It has a tunnel running perpendicular to it that leads you to the visitor’s dugout, but we kept going until we reached the end. Here, we could see not only the DR bus, but also the batting cage that had been on the field earlier:

I stuck my head through the roll-up door in the above photo and this is what I saw to my left:

You can see a couple of the Dominican relievers in the bullpen, as well as Ottawa mascot Champ waiting for the next on-field, between-innings promotion.

While you can see part of the field in the last picture, our next stop was to a spot where the view of the field was much better. Check it out:

David led me through the umpires’ tunnel to the door directly behind home plate, which is a spot I’d never been at RCGT Park and rarely at any of the 60+ parks I’ve visited. It provides an awesome view of the action — the pitcher looking in to get his sign from the catcher, the batter digging in, the umpire crouching as the pitcher begins his windup, and then the ball highlighted against the batter’s eye on its way to the plate. Visiting this spot was a true highlight of the tour.

While I was within sight of the video board, I checked the score. The Dominicans were still hitless.

Our next stop was the laundry room — not to look at the laundry, but to check out a concrete pillar that David was excited to show me. If you don’t know much about RCGT Park, here’s a quick primer. It opened in 1993 as JetForm Park and was the home of the International League’s Ottawa Lynx, who were the top affiliate of the Montreal Expos. The Lynx remained the prime tenant through the 2007 season, and then moved off to Allentown, PA, to become the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. In the years that followed, the stadium was used by independent and semi-pro teams, and even sat vacant for a stretch. The Champions took over in time for the 2015 season and have been there ever since. But back to the Lynx — they won the league title in 1995, just their third year in existence, and the team signed a pillar in the laundry room to commemorate the victory. How cool is this?

You can clearly make out the names of many future major leaguers who were on that roster, including Curtis Pride, F.P. Santangelo, Kirk Rueter and more. If you click on the image, you can blow it up to see the various names.

In a tip of the cap to the Lynx, the Ottawa Champions signed another side of the same pillar following their Can-Am League title last season. As I was checking out the names, David realized that he’d yet to sign it himself. “I’ve got a Sharpie,” I offered, “want to do the honors?”

David took my marker, added his name, and I snapped his shot next to the pillar:

After the laundry room, we stopped by Lanier’s office. It was pretty basic, but it was cool to see a framed photo on the shelf recognizing the manager’s 900th career win, which he’d accomplished just a few days earlier:

I knew from previous visits to the ballpark that the manager’s office is connected to the home team’s clubhouse, so I was hoping that that would be our next stop — and the tour didn’t disappoint. This was another major highlight. I’ve only been into professional baseball clubhouses a few times, so it was a huge thrill to just walk into the space and look around me. I respect that this space is the home team’s sanctuary, so I wanted to take a photo that would avoid invading anyone’s privacy while still giving you an idea of how the room looks. I figured that a wide-angle shot would do that the best:

Our last stop on the tour was a room adjacent to the clubhouse, which featured a workout area …

… and a pair of soaking tubs:

It’s hard to see in the image above, but there was a hilarious homemade sign on the wall that read:

SHOWER “WITH SOAP” BEFORE USING TUBS!

I love how “with soap” was emphasized.

The tour lasted a little longer than 15 minutes, so David was pretty darned generous with his time. Thanks so much, David!

Once we went back up to the concourse, I hurried up to the seating area to check the scoreboard. Still a no-hitter.

Next, I met up with a Twitter follower and fellow baseball fan named Jane-Anne Dugas. She and I have talked several times on Twitter dating back to last season, but our paths had never crossed in person. We’d connected earlier in the game, and I grabbed a seat next to her with this view for the ninth inning:

That’s Aumont dealing to outfielder Juan Crousset and if it’s difficult to see the goose eggs on the video board in the background, here’s a closer look:

It was great to meet and talk baseball with Jane-Anne, but as the game’s final batter dug in, we hit the pause button on our conversation to simply watch the magic before us. This is what unfolded:

As soon as I stopped recording, I rushed down to the field to snap a bunch of photos. As this was the first-ever no-hitter that I’d witnessed in person, I wanted to get as many shots as I could of this special occasion. I watched as outfielder Steve Brown and pitcher Daniel Cordero ran onto the field with a jug of water …

… and dumped it all over Aumont, much to everyone’s excitement:

This next photo isn’t the greatest, but it was a cool moment — Grauer hugging Aumont:

Here’s a teammate giving Aumont his hat back, which came off in the celebration:

You’ll notice that the pitcher has a firm grip on the final-out baseball, too.

And here’s my favorite photo of the no-hitter — Aumont saluting the fans on his way to the dugout:

While I’ve been lucky enough to see a long list of cool on-field accomplishments in person, I don’t know if anything beats seeing my first no-hitter. And this isn’t just my first no-hitter since starting The Ballpark Guide; I’ve been going to professional baseball games since 1988 and had never seen one before this night.

It was a perfect conclusion to a perfect day at RCGT Park.

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders – June 21

I woke up early on the morning of June 21 thankful that I wasn’t rushing to hop into my car to head to another city for another ballgame. Even though hitting the road is always an awesome adventure, there’s a good feeling that comes with being in the same city for games on back-to-back days, and that was the plan for this short road trip. On my second day, I’d be hanging out in and around my hotel and anxiously awaiting that evening’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders game at PNC Field.

As you might have read about in my previous post, I’d attended a doubleheader at the International League ballpark a day earlier. I’d driven about six hours that day and went to the ballpark right after arriving in town, so I the schedule for June 21 was a little less busy.

The close proximity of my hotel, the Courtyard Scranton-Wilkes Barre, and PNC Field (about seven minutes between the two on foot) meant that I was planning to walk to the game again. In the meantime, I planned to take a short walk over to a big shopping complex just a few minutes away. Here’s a map screenshot of the area to show you where I was and what I was up to:

Other than get some exercise to burn off my ballpark food from the previous night, my late-morning walk had three objectives. The first was to walk to the observation point high above PNC Field, which I’ve marked with the red star. You can see the ballpark below it, as well as my hotel above and to the left. PNC Field has an enormous rock face beyond the outfield fence, which makes for one of my favorite backdrops in the minor leagues. You can drive — or, in my case, walk — to the top of the hill to find a great vantage point for looking down at the stadium. I’ve done this in the past, including one time that I was simply driving past Scranton and wanted to see PNC Field, but it was a neat feeling to walk there this time. Here’s a shot of me at the observation point with a pretty sweet background sight:

I didn’t photograph the next two priorities on my walk — visit Guitar Center, which is located in the Shoppes at Montage complex that you can see on the right side of the map image, and then stop at Panera Bread to buy a chicken Caesar salad to eat back at my hotel:

I was so appreciative of my hotel’s great location. As much as I enjoy driving, it’s always nice to be able to park the car for a few days and do everything on foot. I relaxed for the early afternoon, spending most of it on my laptop at this desk, with ESPN playing on the TV above me:

Occasionally, I’d step out onto my balcony at the Courtyard to enjoy the quiet scene surrounding me and to peek over the trees to see the PNC Field’s light posts. At about 3:30 p.m., I made the short walk down the hill and over to PNC Field, stopping when the ballpark came into sight to snap this shot:

These rails run right up to the edge of the parking lot, and they’re not merely a decoration to support the RailRiders theme. On select game days, fans can ride a trolley from downtown Scranton right up to PNC Field, which has to be one of the coolest ways to get to a baseball game.

Of course, I was perfectly content walking to the ballpark — and perfectly content standing in front of the gates, knowing that I’d soon be inside for another awesome experience:

What I wasn’t content about, however, was that sinister-looking cloud over the right side of the ballpark. It wasn’t something that I’d really noticed during my walk, but when I snapped the above panorama and looked at it on my camera, I was a little unnerved that it might linger and threaten batting practice. Fortunately, the dark cloud soon carried any threat of bad weather away with it, and the afternoon and evening were once again perfect for baseball.

When I walked into PNC Field a day earlier, the visiting Syracuse Chiefs were hitting. This time, I was early enough that BP had yet to begin. This meant that I had an opportunity to watch both teams warming up for a few minutes before the hitting began:

After watching some RailRiders play catch along the third base line, I went over to the walkway above the bullpen, just as I’d done a day before. There, I watched right-hander Brady Lail throwing a bullpen session:

He’d started and won the game against Syracuse two days earlier, so he was simply getting some throwing in, rather than getting prepared to pitch that evening. As I watched the bullpen session, I noticed two unique things about the catcher working with Lail. Can you spot them in the photo below?

First, I thought it was interesting that he was kneeling down, rather than using a standard catcher’s crouch. Doing so obviously makes a lot of sense in the bullpen, and it’s far less detrimental to the knees, but I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed someone doing this in the past. Second, he’s not wearing the usual turf shoes that players commonly wear for warming up. Instead, he’s got on a pair of LeBron James basketball shoes. (For the record, I know absolutely nothing about basketball shoes — I simply zoomed in and saw the LJ logo on the soles.)

By now, the Chiefs BP session was in full swing, so I took a quick lap through the outfield and arrived above the visitor’s dugout on the first base side to watch the action. I stood in the front row at field level to enjoy not only the action in the cage, but also the infield drills that were going on right in front of me. One player I was keeping my eye on was Syracuse first baseman Clint Robinson, who has seen a bit of MLB action but has otherwise been a successful power hitter in the minors for a long time:

From where I stood, I also had a good view of the rock face beyond the outfield wall, and the observation point I’d stood upon earlier in the day. That area, which is partially obscured by the trees in the photo below, is essentially at the base of the building you see peeking above the trees:

This was pretty much how I spent batting practice from the time I arrived until the time it wrapped up — a few minutes at the bullpens, a few minutes at field level, a lap of the ballpark, and repeat. It was absolutely glorious.

Once the gates opened, I made another lap of the concourse to consider some food options that I’d scouted out earlier. As I mentioned in my previous post, the PNC Field concession menu is impressive — and I found that mentally shortlisting a few items and then thinking about them as I walked made it easier to choose a worthwhile candidate. As I cut through the grass berm, my eyes caught sight of a BP ball that had obviously been overlooked by the ushers and even by the fans who were in the park at this point.

It was an easy choice to grab it, but instead of my usual “hand-holding-ball” photo, I wanted to try something different. As you’ll see here, I set the ball up on the rail above the bullpens, and I’m really pleased with how the photo turned out:

Although the ball sighting slowed my pre-dinner lap around the ballpark, it didn’t disrupt my plans on what to eat. I elected for the General Tao Perogies, as I’m a big fan of perogies and seldom see this dish at ballgames. I had grand visions of perogies topped with several of the standard General Tao ingredients, so I was a little underwhelmed when I was handed a container of perogies tossed in spicy sauce:

Fortunately, the meal was good — the perogies were cooked perfectly, meaning that they weren’t too soggy and they weren’t too crispy. The sauce was nice, too, providing a decent amount of sweetness and heat without blowing my head off. What really would’ve knocked this dish out of the park, though, would’ve been some fried chicken pieces, green onions and sesame seeds, like they independent Ottawa Champions do with their Tao Poutine.

After eating, I went over to the RailRiders bullpen to watch the action. By now, starter Domingo Acevedo was warming up in the team’s pinstriped uniform, which looks awesome and must remind players that they’re just a phone call away from suiting up for the Yankees. I snapped a bunch of shots of Acevedo’s delivery, and then checked how they turned out on my camera — and noticed an odd thing. Just as he released the ball, he opened his eyes extremely widely. Case in point:

I figured this might be an anomaly, but as I continued to take photos of the right-hander’s tosses, I noticed it each time. Just as he released the ball, he really opened his eyes. Slightly amused, I continued snapping shots — and noticed this facial expression each time. I took enough shots that I could make a coffee table book called “Eyes of Acevedo,” but I’ll hold off on that million dollar idea for now.

I spent the early innings of the game in a seat down the third base line. I was far enough from the dugout that the netting wasn’t in my way, and I still had a perfect view of the action:

I’d have liked to sit for a while on the other side of PNC Field, but the sun sets directly over the third base side, making it extremely bright for those toward the right field foul pole. Don’t get me wrong — this is a great spot later in the game or during afternoon games, but the sun is just a little too bright for my liking for 7:05 p.m. games.

My next stop was the grass berm for another inning of action. A day earlier, I’d spent some time on the berm in right field, but I elected for center field this time, where I had this great view:

Midway through the game, I went out to the plaza that’s between the two sets of gates on the home plate side of PNC Field. It’s a popular gathering spot with the team shop off to one side, and the abundance of glass used in its design gives it a cool, modern feel:

In about the sixth inning, I set off in search of something to eat again. The perogies were more of an appetizer, as there were just four of them in the order. I found additional sustenance in the form of a cheesesteak sandwich. This wasn’t any old cheesesteak, however. At PNC Field’s “Steak Me Out to the Ballgame” concession stand behind home plate, there was a long list of different cheesesteak variations. My order might seem sacrilegious to a true cheesesteak connoisseur in Philadelphia, but I got a buffalo-style cheesesteak — the usual cheesesteak ingredients, but topped with blue cheese dressing and hot sauce:

Verdict? It was tasty enough, but I’m afraid it didn’t hold up to the cheesesteaks I’ve eaten at Citizens Bank Park in Philly, although the unique toppings were a fun twist.

As dusk fell, I slipped out of PNC Field to take this shot …

… and then settled into a seat on the first base side to watch the remainder of the game at this great ballpark:

Less than 10 minutes after the game’s final out, I was back in my hotel room, where I repeated the agenda from the night before — a late-night swim, watching baseball highlights on TV, enjoying the balcony for a little bit and, finally, hitting the sack to close out a great two days with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders – June 20

The last time I visited PNC Field, this happened.

Hard to top, right?

Yes, but as I made the six-hour drive to Scranton on the morning of June 20, I was partly relieved that there was no high-profile MLB rehab scheduled for my visit.

Don’t get me wrong — seeing Derek Jeter from just a few feet away will undoubtedly go down as one of the coolest memories of all my ballpark adventures, but that day was a little crazy. From the focus on Jeter to the enormous crowds, I didn’t have as much of a chance as I’d have liked to explore the then-recently renovated PNC Field.

My latest visit to the International League ballpark, located just outside of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in Moosic, PA, would be my third visit since 2011. The first time I was there, I saw a 1980s-era park in a major need of a facelift. That came in the form of a $40+ million renovation that was extensive enough to cause the team to play on the road for the entirety of the 2012 campaign. The park opened again in 2013, just a few months before I visited, and the transformation was outstanding. Now, I was anxious to return again to see how the changes had held up and what new elements there were.

I normally like to do some sightseeing when I travel, but I was late getting on the road on this day. That meant that when I checked into my hotel at 2:30 p.m., I took just a few minutes to set my suitcase on the floor, throw some food in the fridge and step out onto my balcony to check out the scene. I was thrilled to see the PNC Field lights just peeking through the trees to my left, and even more thrilled to hear some sporadic cracking of baseball bats, indicating that batting practice had begun:

As I did in 2013, I was staying at the Courtyard Scranton Wilkes-Barre, which you’ll read more about later in this post. I’d selected it again not only because I had a great stay last time, but because it’s within walking distance of the ballpark. It’s also within walking distance to a ton of restaurants and stores, and that meant that after parking my car prior to check-in on June 20, I didn’t get behind the wheel again until checking out on the morning of June 22.

The walk from the hotel to PNC Field took seven minutes, which meant that I was standing in front of the park’s main gates well in advance of first pitch — but perhaps not as early as you might think. Instead of preparing for a 7:05 p.m. start, the game was actually slated for 5:05 p.m. The RailRiders were hosting the Syracuse Chiefs in a doubleheader, which always promises to be a good and long day at the ballpark. Despite the beautiful location in which PNC Field is found, there’s not a heck of a lot to see outside the park. While I usually take a pre-entry lap around the ballparks I visit, I simply snapped this shot …

… and then this one of me …

… and then went inside. Having entered through the home plate gates, the concourse was directly in front of me. That meant that after taking just a handful of steps, I was standing at the top edge of the lower seating bowl and surveying the scene as the Chiefs took BP:

Although the 2012 renovation included a long list of changes, my favorite was how the concourse was built to wrap around the entire field, meaning that you can watch the game from beyond the outfield fence. This is one of my favorite features at any park. Above, you can see the elevated walkway above the bullpens in left-center, the grass berm throughout much of the outfield, and the party deck around the right field foul pole. Absolutely perfect.

As you might expect, the allure of taking a long walk around the perimeter of the park was appealing, so I set out by heading down the third base line. I noticed along the way that the RailRiders have signs on the concourse that encourage walking. Apparently — and I would’ve never guessed this — you travel a full mile when you walk around the concourse three times. As I walked, I stopped every few moments to enjoy BP and snap some photos. Here’s one that’s down toward the left field foul pole. You can see the multilevel party deck in the corner, as well as the bullpens beyond the outfield fence, major league style:

When I got close to center field, I stopped again and took this shot, which shows the SWB bullpen in the foreground, as well as a better view of the walkway behind/above it:

It’s always cool to be able to get close to the pitchers warming up in the bullpen, and the unique design of PNC Field means that you can virtually stand atop whoever is throwing — and that gives you a true appreciation for the nastiness of the pitchers at the Triple-A level.

Past the batter’s eye and heading toward left field, you’ll find the HomerZone. This is where the grass berm is the largest, and there are also picnic tables and benches in the area:

My favorite part of this spot is the clump of trees. Not only do they provide some nice shade for fans on the upper part of the grass, but they also tie in well with the natural backdrop behind the field — which you can partly see in this photo that looks more like a community park than a ballpark:

I completed my mile-long lap by making it back to the concourse directly behind home plate, where I spent the next several minutes just enjoying the quiet scene before me and watching the players hit. What did I do next? I took another lap around the field. It might seem a little repetitive, but I prefer walking during ballpark visits over standing around, and another lap meant that I’d have the chance to continue to watch BP, but from myriad angles. Given the heat of the day, I took a break in the aforementioned shade area beneath the trees, which was just perfect. Here’s the view from where I stood:

I also ventured out to the grass berm for a bit just before BP wrapped up, and here’s another view of that great bullpen/walkway area:

The scoreboard clock in the above photo reads 3:58 p.m., which meant that the gates would soon be opening. I hung out on the berm until fans began to appear on the concourse around home plate, and then headed in that direction myself. In the bleachers in the right field corner, I stopped to briefly talk to an usher who was picking up the last few BP baseballs hit into the stands. After we spoke, he headed in the opposite direction. A moment later, I found a ball in the seats. I called over to him and waved the ball as if to indicate that I was going to toss it his way. Instead of preparing to catch it, he walked over and said, “Want to keep it?” I couldn’t resist saying yes, so I had another nicely used International League baseball for my collection:

Because I’d been in such a hurry to get to the Scranton area, I hadn’t even stopped for lunch on my drive. That meant that by 30 or so minutes before the first pitch of game one, I was absolutely ravenous. In my pregame walking, I’d noticed a bunch of enticing-looking food options at PNC Field, and while it was nice to know that I’d have two days to sample several things, the pressure was on to start my culinary experience off right. My first meal of the visit was the Champ Dog, which looked like the most unique hot dog on the menu. The hot dog itself was stuffed with spicy cheese (this was the first stuffed dog I think I’ve ever had) and topped with coleslaw, pulled pork, BBQ sauce and a pickle wedge. This is how it looked:

It was definitely a winner, although admittedly a little challenging to eat because of its size. (Of course, I somehow managed to devour all of it in just a couple minutes, so it wasn’t too difficult to eat.)

First concession item done, I settled into a seat on the first base side to enjoy the first inning. The early start time meant there were weird shadows at play, as you can see in the following shot:

They weren’t interfering with fans’ views or players’ views; they just seemed, well, super noticeable. Another thing that was super noticeable and that irked me more than the slowly moving shadows were the nets over the dugouts. This feature wasn’t present when I last visited PNC Field, but it’s unfortunately starting to crop up around baseball. Look, I’m all for the idea of fan safety, and I hate the thought of someone getting seriously hurt at a ballpark of all places. That said, the seemingly tiny amount of netting has a weird effect of making the action seem dramatically farther away when you’re behind the dugout. One of the great things about baseball is the close connection that you get with the players, which is something you don’t get in many other sports. There’s no real barrier between you and what’s taking place on the field, so whether it’s a pitcher tipping his cap to your applause or an infielder tossing the third out ball into the seats, it almost feels as though you’re part of the game. With the netting up, that’s no longer the case, and I find it sad.

And that’s not a knock on PNC Field — it’s just a comment on dugout netting in general.

After an inning behind the third base dugout and not wanting to stare through the netting any longer, I set out in search of a better view. I found it on the right field side of the berm, which is one of PNC Field’s coolest post-renovation features. The berm wasn’t yet heavily populated — I find that the crowd tends to pick up during the nightcap of doubleheaders — so I figured that if a home run were hit, I’d have a better-than-average chance of snagging it. Here’s the view from the spot I picked:

I wanted to be far enough behind the wall that I could run forward on a short home run, rather than have to backpedal up the hill. I gave this spot two innings — during which time, nothing came remotely close. The decision I faced was to stay in the area longer or continue wandering around the stadium, and the latter prevailed as it always does.

My next stop was a concession stand on the third base concourse for a $2 tallboy of LandShark:

The low price for the beer was part of the team’s Two Dollar Tuesday promotion, and while I rarely drink, it made for a refreshing beverage while I watched the game from the standing-room area above the bullpens in left-center. When I finished the beer half an inning later, I moved just a few paces to my left to watch RailRiders left hander Tyler Webb, who had begun to warm up in the ‘pen. As I said earlier, the walkway above the bullpens gives you an outstanding view of whatever’s going on below you, so I had fun watching him and taking shots like this one:

The lefty’s tossing wasn’t the only thing of interest taking place below me. From my spot, I could see a RailRider in catcher’s gear — I’m guessing he was the bullpen catcher or coach — reviewing scouting reports and heat maps for the Syracuse hitters:

I was able to zoom in with my camera and was impressed with how advanced this stuff was — MLB-caliber scouting reports with all sorts of situational stats and a comprehensive two-page package on each player who stepped to the plate. I’m talking percentage of pitches swung at in the zone, first-pitch swings against right-handers versus left-handers, swings and misses based on different velocities of each pitch type and a whole lot more. Really interesting stuff.

It wasn’t only the RailRiders bullpen that I was enjoying watching. I was also keeping an eye on the Syracuse ‘pen over to my right side — and it was humorously apparent that these two relievers were keeping an eye on me, too:

I moved over to the third base side in time for the bottom half of the seventh inning (MiLB doubleheaders are just two seven-inning games each) and watched Syracuse closer Wander Suero — and his unique prepitch stance — close out the game:

Normally, the last out of any game I attend is a bit of a melancholy affair, but not today. Instead of heading out of the stadium, I got to stick around for the second game of the twin bill.

With a 30-minute break between games, I decided to take another walk around the length of the concourse and then find something else to eat. That exercise was a good idea, too, given that I was headed toward the Ice Cream Sliders concession stand for, you guessed it, an ice cream slider. What is an ice cream slider? Take two cookies of your choice, some ice cream of your choice, make a sandwich out of them and you’ve got the aforementioned dessert. The selection of cookie and ice cream flavors was impressive, and I went with something that you might call unconventional: M&Ms cookies with root beer-flavored ice cream:

Of course, the flavors I selected probably weren’t the best pairing, but the dessert was a winner. I’d never eaten root beer ice cream in the past, but it had an awesome flavor that was virtually identical to its namesake soft drink.

The ice cream and cookies took a while to eat, which meant that it wasn’t long before the players emerged from the dugouts and began to warm up for the doubleheader nightcap. As I was already on the third base side, I went down to field level to see some of the players close up, including outfielder Clint Frazier, who has since been called up to the Yankees for the first time:

Since I’d done so much exploring before and during the first game, I spent more of the second game just watching the action on the field. After an inning or so on the third base side, I returned to the spot above the bullpens for a bit, and and then hung out on the grass berm for a couple more innings. Look how perfect the scene was from this spot:

A little later, I made the short move over to the bar-style seating right behind the right field foul pole, where I had this view:

After another lap around the park, I returned to the above section in the sixth inning. By now, the fans who’d been in this area in the above photo had gone, which meant that I was the only person sitting in the multilevel deck. Ideal for a home run ball, right? Yes, but nothing came my way. That did nothing to dampen a long and awesome day at PNC Field, which had totaled about seven hours.

As the fans filed out of the ballpark’s gates to the parking lot, I quickly cut through the parking lot and took the short walk back to the Courtyard Scranton Wilkes-Barre, grateful for the tiny distance between the hotel and ballpark:

Although I was exhausted, sunburned and full of food (typically, three earmarks of a good day of baseball) I made time for a 20-minute swim in the hotel pool before it closed, and then returned to my room to watch the MLB highlights on TV. As much as the location of this hotel might be the most enticing feature for baseball road trippers, there are a lot of things to like about the Courtyard Scranton Wilkes-Barre. I particularly appreciated the size of my guest room …

… and the balcony, a photo from which you saw earlier in this post. Directly below my balcony, there was a nice outdoor seating area that centered around a fire pit:

(The above two photos were taken in the daylight when I arrived, rather than after the game, as you might’ve guessed.)

After my swim, I sat at my laptop for a while to catch up on some Twitter messages, and then hung out on the balcony for a little while to enjoy the night view — and then it was time for bed in anticipation of another big day in Scranton.