El Paso Chihuahuas – May 6, 2019

One of the best things about my visit to El Paso and the three Chihuahuas games that I attended was how different each day was. When you’re attending games over three straight days at a single ballpark, there’s always a chance that things will be a little repetitive — but I’m happy that wasn’t the case here.

Day one was all about presenting the team with a plaque for winning my Best View in the Minors competition.

Day two was a chance to tour the ballpark and enjoy the game (and the food) like I normally do.

What was on the agenda for day three?

I’m glad you asked.

My last Chihuahuas game of this trip was all about spreading the word about the Best View competition, my website, blog and baseball travels in general, and I had a number of people who graciously helped me in that regard. I ended up booking a trio of interviews, all of which took place on May 6 in a true back-to-back-to-back fashion.

Before the interviews began, however, I needed to spend a little time on the hotel pool deck enjoying the view. Doing so was a popular pastime on this trip, as it was impossible to tire of looking at beautiful Southwest University Park while hanging out in the equally beautiful El Paso weather. Here’s a shot that my wife snapped of me mid-morning:

You might notice that I’m wearing my Stars and Stripes road trip tee, which you can buy here.

After a bit of relaxing at the hotel and a bit of tourist stuff, the baseball portion of my day started with a 4 p.m. visit to the ESPN El Paso studio, located about 12 minutes from Southwest University Park. Steve Kaplowitz, host of the afternoon drive show, had agreed to have me on to talk about the Best View competition, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. I’ve been fortunate to do a ton of interviews on various teams’ game broadcasts overs the years, but this was the first time that I’d ever visited a radio stadium studio to sit in with the host. And that definitely had me dealing with a case of the nerves.

Anyway, I met Steve shortly before 4 p.m., and he decided that instead of leading the show off with my interview, he’d do a segment talking about the Kentucky Derby controversy from two days earlier. That suited me just fine, because I got to hang out in the studio and watch Steve go to work. I was absolutely in awe about what a professional he was. We were shooting the breeze about baseball just seconds before the show began, and he seamlessly switched into his radio voice and began the show by talking about horse racing. Absolutely amazing. It was a thrill to sit across the desk from him and listen to his Derby discussion while being simultaneously excited and nervous for my segment to begin.

After the first commercial break, he introduced me and we were off and running. I’m happy to say that my nerves only lasted a couple of minutes, and I soon felt a lot more at ease because of Steve’s easygoing demeanor. I’d initially figured that I’d be on the air with him for maybe five or 10 minutes, but Steve graciously had me on for two segments — maybe about 20 or so minutes altogether. And if it weren’t for me having to run off to my next interview, he’d actually hoped to keep me on until the top of the hour! We covered a host of topics, including Best View, my thoughts on El Paso and Southwest University Park, baseball road trips in general, ballpark food — and I even took some listener questions. At one point, I mentioned that my wife and I were enjoying the sightseeing around El Paso, and Steve asked, “You didn’t leave her sitting in the lobby, did you?” I gulped and admitted that she was actually sitting in the car in the parking lot. Steve quickly told his producer Adrian to go summon my wife to the studio, so off Adrian went while Steve and I continued talking baseball. A few minutes later, there was a commotion at the door and Adrian told Steve that he’d brought my wife in, but that she didn’t want to enter the studio for fear of making me nervous. By now, I was over my case of the nerves, but my wife had seen me fretting on the way to the studio and I guess she didn’t want to throw me off. Anyway, there was a hilarious back-and-forth exchange — all of it on the air — and she decided to hang out in the lobby while we finished our segment. The time with Steve flew past, and I’m really thankful to him for having me on.

During the commercial break, Steve snapped this shot of me …

… and then a staffer brought my wife in, and she took this shot of Steve and me:

Steve had to obviously get ready for returning after the commercial break, so after another brief moment of conversation, my wife and I headed out of the studio, where I got this photo taken:

Then, it was straight into the car and back on the road toward the ballpark for my next interview. Interview #2 was with longtime Chihuahuas broadcaster Tim Hagerty. Instead of having me on that evening’s game broadcast, Tim decided to interview me off the air with the plan of using our conversation as filler material when needed throughout the season. He noted that he’d always looking for fillers for rain delays, and that my interview might air multiple times over the course of the season. That sounded perfect to me, so I met Tim in the lobby of the ballpark and we headed up to the radio booth to get underway.

Tim and I talked for probably 10 minutes about a wide range of baseball and ballpark topics, and the time together just flew past. Understandably, he soon needed to get back to prepping for the game, so I got this quick photo with him …

… and then it was time to meet up with Nathan Nunez. He works in the team’s broadcast and media relations department and hosts the Fear the Ears podcast. Nathan and I found a quiet place to sit and talk on the suite level, and chatted about — you guessed it — Best View, ballparks and baseball trips for more than 10 minutes. If you’re interested in hearing that podcast episode, you can check it out here.

Nathan and I grabbed this photo before we said our goodbyes …

… and then for the first time in almost an hour and a half, I had time to relax for a minute.

Of course, that didn’t mean that I chose to grab one of the comfy chairs in the air conditioned suite level. Nope, I was ready to walk around the concourse in search of my next adventure. First, though, I met up with my wife, who’d been chilling at our hotel since we got back from the radio station and had since walked over to the ballpark. I should divulge that she’s not a baseball fan, and when we travel, she’ll normally go to one game with me and find other things to do on the other days that I’m at the ballpark. She’d admitted to me a day earlier, however, that after spending the night at Southwest University Park on May 4, so could, “Sort of see” what I like about visiting ballparks. To my surprise, she opted to hang out at the park with me on this night. As such, my goal for this ballpark visit was simply to enjoy the game and the atmosphere — and maybe point out a few things that might increase her enjoyment of baseball. Each of my two previous games had been busy in their own ways, so I thought that a low-key evening would be a fun way to wrap up this visit.

We headed to some seats in the shade in the upper deck for part of the pregame, and enjoyed this view as the grounds crew prepared the field and the players got warmed up:

Then, we went up to the suite level to enjoy the view from behind home plate — which, after all, was the reason for our six-day trip to El Paso:

After enjoying that view for a few minutes, we went back out to the second deck, where I noticed Tim on the video board talking about the upcoming game:

We grabbed some seats in the left field corner for the anthem, watching this impressively large flag on display in center field …

… and then enjoyed the first couple innings of action from that spot. It turned out to be a good place to be. The slugging Chihuahuas were putting on a hitting clinic. They launched six home runs en route to a 15-0 victory, but some of the round trippers were absolute bombs. See the word “Shamaley” on the bottom of the video board?

Austin Allen hit one ball off the bricks directly below it. Not long afterward, Josh Naylor smoked a ball through the structure above and onto North Santa Fe Street outside of Southwest University Park.

One player on Salt Lake who I was excited to see was Ty Kelly, whose name you might recognize from stints with the Mets and Phillies. I’ve been following his career since 2012, when he and my buddy Jeremy Nowak were teammates on the Frederick Keys. They were both Carolina League all-stars that season, and Kelly moved up through the minor leagues and made his MLB debut with the Mets in 2016. I don’t believe that I’d seen him play in person since 2012, so I was excited to see him again. We were sitting fairly far away for each of his at-bats, so here’s a picture of him on the video board:

After taking a lap around the concourse and checking out the team shop for a bit, I decided to grab something to eat in the second half of the game. I wanted to find something unique, and one particular item at one of the home plate concession stands jumped out at me — Churwaffles and Chicken. This dish consisted of four mini cinnamon sugar waffles alongside a couple of chicken tenders, with the whole thing topped with maple butter sauce:

The chicken was excellent, but the waffles weren’t my thing. I think of waffles as fluffy, and these were definitely not that. It’d probably not a meal that I’d be in a hurry to order again, but I’m glad I checked out something different. I washed it down with a horchata, which Nathan had enthusiastically recommended to me earlier. This was the first time that I’d ever had this drink — which is made with rice milk and has flavors of vanilla and cinnamon — and, to my surprise, it was served in a vessel the size of a yogurt tub:

It was really tasty, albeit very sweet, and there was no way I could get through all of it. This was definitely a beverage that I’d order again, though — although I wouldn’t mind if it were available in a smaller serving. (For the record, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever made that statement about ballpark fare.)

We’d hung out at field level in the right field corner while I ate, and I wanted to close out our Southwest University Park experience by watching the remainder of the game from a new vantage point. Earlier in the evening, I’d seen that the Big Dog House high above right field wasn’t very crowded, given that it was a Monday night, and wanted to check it out. This spot had been renovated since my visit three years earlier, and it looks really swanky. We were escorted up by a super-friendly staffer named Tony who handed me a batting practice baseball, which I somehow neglected to photograph. He gave us a nice tour of the space, which looked like this …

… and then we grabbed a spot on the couch where we enjoyed this view:

Given how the balls were flying on these evening, I had big aspirations to snag a home run in this spot, but that didn’t happen. (We did see a couple more long balls hit, though.)

And that’s how our last Chihuahuas game ended — enjoying this beautiful park from one of the poshest seating sections that I’ve ever encountered in the minor leagues.

The entire visit to El Paso was absolutely outstanding, and I’m so appreciative of everyone who played a part. Thanks so much to the Chihuahuas — especially Angela, Brad, Tim and Nathan — as well as Veronica and Maegan at Visit El Paso, who were super at helping to set up this trip, and Steve and Adrian at ESPN El Paso. Each of you augmented my trip in your own way, and I’m very grateful.

Given that I live 2,300 miles from El Paso, I don’t know when I’ll be back to the Sun City.

One thing’s for certain, though — I’m already looking forward to returning.

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El Paso Chihuahuas – May 5, 2019

When I think about all of the experiences that I’ve had at more than 200 baseball games at 70+ ballparks, it’s hard not to consider the Best View in the Minors plaque presentation on the field on May 4 in El Paso to be the most memorable. A chance to walk on the field between innings in front of a Saturday night sellout crowd is an experience that I’ll never forget.

You might think that this meant my subsequent games at Southwest University Park would be a letdown, but I’m happy to report that wasn’t the case — not by a long shot. On May 5, I had plenty of reasons to be excited about returning to this beautiful ballpark. First and foremost, this would be my first Copa de la Diversión game experience. If you aren’t familiar with the Copa series, it’s a huge promotion in the minor leagues that has 72 teams involved this year. Translated as “Fun Cup,” the Copa promotion is an opportunity to celebrate Hispanic culture — and it’d be an understatement to say that I was pumped about being in El Paso on Cinco de Mayo for the first Copa day of the 2019 season.

The game was scheduled for a 1:05 p.m. start, the weather was absolutely perfect and, at about 10:30 a.m., I set out from my hotel to take a walk around Southwest University Park before entering — something that I hadn’t done a day earlier. I started by walking down North Santa Fe Street, which is only a handful of blocks in length but is home to a variety of attractions, including the ballpark. Here’s the view from the sidewalk with the ballpark on my right:

I continued down the street and turned around at the far end of the ballpark to snap this photo of its Wall of Champions:

Most teams display their successes inside of the park — and, for the record, there’s another similar display on the outfield fence — but I think it’s a neat idea to tout the team’s prowess in a spot that passing motorists and pedestrians can see. As you can see in the image above, the Chihuahuas have had a lot of success. They’re only in their sixth season, but already have a Pacific Coast League championship, a pair of conference titles and four division crowns.

One thing that I frequently enjoy during my ballpark visits is checking out ballparks from unusual angles outside. Sure, it’s always cool to snap a photo or a panorama from outside of the main gates, but I also think it’s interesting to find a bizarre angle from which to shoot. One noteworthy thing about this ballpark is that while it’s surrounded on three sides by streets, the fourth side is comprised of a railway line. (Several times throughout the game, trains will go past. And, sometimes, foul balls will leave the stadium and land on the train tracks.) Anyway, there’s a walkway along the rail line, so I followed it and snapped this shot of the ballpark — complete with a freight train rumbling past at the time:

After a full lap around the outside of the park, I entered via the Durango Street office entrance — pausing to snap this photo of the Best View plaque already on display beside the reception desk:

I was thrilled to see it there, and happy that it wouldn’t be gathering dust on some bookshelf or filing cabinet inside the administrative offices where fans wouldn’t be able to see it. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t return to this area a few additional times over the course of my visit just to see it there.

Once I’d checked out the plaque for a moment, I went up to the quiet concourse and headed toward the outfield. A day earlier, I hadn’t done my usual amount of pregame touring, so I definitely wanted to take advantage of that on this day. Players from both teams were playing catch down the lines as I made my way around to center field to capture Southwest University Park from this angle:

I enjoyed this view for a few minutes, and then continued on my lap around the concourse until I got to the right field corner. This part of the park is really enticing, and it also plays a key role in the view that fans get from home plate. This area is home to a pair of structures — one with four levels and another with three levels — that are connected by a pair of walkways. The second and third levels are known as the City Hall Grill and Sun Kings Saloon, respectively. Both are eateries with a variety of drink and food items and good views of the ballpark. The fourth level, the Big Dog House, is absolutely one of the most impressive seating areas in all of the minor leagues. I’d had a chance to tour these areas when I visited El Paso three years earlier, and was eager to check them out again — especially since the Big Dog House had since gone through a major renovation. I made my way up to the Sun Kings Saloon and sat in the shade for a few minutes with this view in front of me:

This area was completely quiet because the gates hadn’t yet opened, and while it was tempting to remain there for a while longer, I soon decided to continue my walk around the ballpark — opting to visit the Big Dog House a day later. The next spot that I headed — another place that I’d neglected to check out a day earlier — was directly behind home plate, down at field level:

From here, you can clearly see the right field structure that I’d visited a few minutes earlier, as well as my hotel in left-center. As impressive as the view was, I was equally impressed by the seating immediately to my left. Check out this area, known as the Dugout Club, that offers fans a suite-style experience just inches from the field of play and the home dugout:

In the image above, you might have noticed a number of staff members in red shirts — 11 of them, to be precise. The gates were about to open, and they were meticulously wiping down each of the seats. That’s the norm at a lot of ballparks, but I was impressed at just how carefully they were working. I even watched one staffer patiently wiping up and down each of the rungs in the railings between sections. I’ve been to my share of MiLB ballparks that don’t get this TLC, and it shows. It’s this largely behind-the-scenes work that easily makes Southwest University Park one of the cleanest parks, MLB or MiLB, that I’ve ever visited.

Soon enough, the gates opened and the players returned to the field — this time, wearing their El Paso Margarita uniforms. I made a beeline toward the home bullpen in foul territory to snap some pictures of what one might reasonably call the loudest uniforms in the history of baseball. Here are catcher Austin Allen, pitcher Dillon Overton and bullpen coach Akinori Otsuka:

You’ll notice that Otsuka was wearing a Margaritas umbrella hat, which was the day’s stadium giveaway. For the record, he wore it for much of the pregame warm-ups, and only swapped it for his regular cap when the anthem was played. (By the way, if his name sounds familiar, he’s the former MLBer who saved 32 games for the Texas Rangers in 2006.)

It’s always fun watching players get warmed up, and the scene in front of me seemed even more lively because it was easy to tell that the players were having a blast in their bright uniforms. There were a lot of smiles as they got together, stretched and began to play catch — and definitely some laughs as they spotted Otsuka in his umbrella hat. As Overton and Allen began to throw, I positioned myself behind the catcher and took shots like this one:

I watched the players for a few more minutes, and then decided to go grab some food. As you might remember, I hadn’t eaten a ballpark meal the night before, so I was determined to make up for it during this visit. I’d been impressed with Southwest University Park’s menu when I visited three years ago, and while it’s always tempting to try items that I’ve previously enjoyed, I generally like to mix things up. El Paso might not be known for its pizza, but as silly as it may sound, I’d spotted a Peter Piper Pizza billboard a day earlier and had been thinking of pizza on and off ever since. I decided that my first meal of the game would be a pepperoni slice, which you can see here:

I was absolutely blown away by how good this pizza was. It was piping hot with a nice, thin crust, and there was a generous helping of cheese. It was difficult not to go back for another slice immediately. Of course, I needed something to wash the pizza down, and opted for a cold drink that worked well with the Copa theme. The team was selling margaritas for $2. The city of El Paso lays claim to inventing this drink, so I felt that it was an appropriate beverage on this hot, sunny day:

If you find the image above to look tantalizing, here’s another shot that is a bit more … amateurish. As I held the cup and moved it to get a good angle for some photos, I failed to initially realize that I’d tipped the cup too far forward and was pouring the drink on the concourse in front of me. Oops:

I wrapped up my meal just before the national anthem was about to begin, and went back over to the bullpen area to watch the players. While there, I noticed that El Paso’s Sammy Solis was also wearing his own umbrella hat. I was curious to see what he’d do with it when the music started to play. Here’s your answer:

When the game began, I spent the first few innings doing what I love best — checking out the ballpark and the action on the field from different vantage points and just generally soaking up the atmosphere. Eventually, I made my way to the upper deck down the first base line, where I was able to keep my eye on Chihuahuas’ right fielder Josh Naylor:

Because I always have my eye out for Canadian-born players, I’ve enjoyed following his career since he was drafted by Miami in the first round of the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft. (And I even got a chance to hold one of his bats before it was sent to him back when I toured the Sam Bat factory.) Anyway, Naylor has been a wrecking ball for the Chihuahuas this season — and has since been called up to San Diego. Before the call-up, he hit .299 with 10 home runs and 35 RBI in 45 games. And he’s only 21 years old.

After watching the game from the upper deck for about an inning, I set off to find something else to eat. I didn’t really feel like a hot dog, so I browsed the multiple concession stands around the concourse to look for something that caught my eye. On unique item that sounded appealing was called Diablo Fries, named after the El Paso Diablos franchises that played at various times for nearly 100 years in El Paso. This dish consisted of a serving of fries topped with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, diced jalapenos and nacho cheese — although the latter was more like queso, which was definitely a good thing, given how I generally feel about nacho cheese. Here’s the meal:

I have to say that it was pretty darned tasty. I’m not the biggest fry lover, but these were crisp and seasoned well, and the Cheetos and jalapenos provided some nice spice without being so hot that they melted my face. It’s definitely a meal that I’d recommend for fans who are visiting Southwest University Park.

Of course, I needed something cool and refreshing to drink with a spicy meal, so I grabbed a green apple slushie from the Slush’ae concession stand on the first base side. I’d had a couple of slushies from that stand during my last trip, and they were perfect. The green apple flavor, I’m pleased to say, was just as good as the lemonade and mango varieties that I’d previously had:

Once I’d eaten, I knew that I needed to get out of the sun for a bit. El Paso averages more than 300 days of sun per year, which is absolutely incredible. Where I live, we had snow up until about three weeks before I left for this trip, so I wanted to avoid getting a sunburn. There are plenty of spots around the ballpark in which you’re in the full sun, but there are also fortunately a number of other places where you can catch some shade. I went back down to the concourse and browsed in the team shop for a bit, and then went and found a shady spot down the third base line where I watched a bit more of the game out of the sun.

As the game progressed, I decided to once again head back to the upper deck on the first base side, and not only because it provided a good view of the action. Since I’d finished my slushie, it had been on my mind to the point that I wanted to try another. Perhaps not the best dietary choice, but the sweet, fruity flavor and the chill of this beverage made it a perfect companion during this ballpark visit. This time, I opted for the cherry flavor, and it was also delicious:

I polished this drink off shortly before the game concluded, and spent the rest of the time until the final out on the outfield concourse where I could watch the game and keep an eye on the action in the visitors bullpen. This spot also allowed me to leave the park quickly so that I could get back to my hotel, pick up my wife and head off for some more sightseeing and dinner.

After dinner, we returned to the hotel and immediately went out to the pool deck and hung out with this view of the ballpark:

Over time, the scene changed to look like this …

… and, eventually, this is what we were looking at:

After two excellent yet dramatically different days at Southwest University Park, I was already looking forward to the excitement that the next day would bring.

El Paso Chihuahuas – May 4, 2019

At the conclusion of the fourth inning of the May 4 game between the host El Paso Chihuahuas and visiting Salt Lake Bees, I left where I’d been sitting, wove my way through the crowded concourse and took the elevator down to the clubhouse level.

Checking out the various areas of a ballpark while the game is going on is nothing new to me. Going down to the clubhouse level, however, is something that I rarely do — especially once the game has begun. But this wasn’t any old game. Two days earlier, I’d traveled 12 hours and nearly 2,300 miles to El Paso — a city with warm weather and warmer people — for a big reason. The reason for my visit to this West Texas city was to present its Triple-A team with a plaque for winning the Best View in the Minors competition that I ran last year. If you’re new to this blog or perhaps didn’t hear about the competition, here’s a quick rundown.

When I visit different ballparks, I like to watch the game from as many vantage points as possible — and that usually includes spending an inning in the seats behind home plate. When I sit in this spot in any park, I always make a point of appreciating the view. To me, the view isn’t just about watching the game itself. Rather, it’s about taking in what sights are within view in the distance. In downtown ballparks, the city’s skyline is often visible. At other parks, you can see forests, mountains, bodies of water and more. I’ve always found that the right view from home plate can augment my ballpark visit, and I know many of you feel the same way. And that was the impetus behind the Best View competition. It gave you, the fans, a chance to decide which MiLB park offers the best view from home plate — and you overwhelmingly chose El Paso’s Southwest University Park. As part of the competition, I’d promised to visit the winning city to present the team with a plaque this season.

Back to the night in question. After taking the elevator down to the clubhouse level, I walked through the tunnel toward the home dugout and stopped just short of entering it. The field of play was just a few yards in front of me, roughly at waist level, and the familiar sounds of a professional dugout was nearby — the semi-muffled sounds of the stadium PA in the distance. The shouts of encouragement and claps from the dugout. The click-clack of metal cleats on cement. The dull thud of baseball bats being placed in their holders.

Here’s a quick peek at how things looked in front of me:

I hadn’t made the journey through this tunnel merely to enjoy the sounds, though. Rather, I was alongside Angela Olivas, the Chihuahuas’ senior director of marketing and communications and Brad Taylor, the team’s general manager, both of whom played a major role in my visit to El Paso. Angela, who was outstanding in coordinating a number of elements related to my visit and the presentation, had arranged for me to present the Best View plaque to Brad on the field during at the start of the sixth inning. I was also joined by my wife, who was attending this game to capture the presentation on video.

Our meetup just behind the home dugout at the end of the fourth inning meant that we had a whole inning until our moment on the field — and that was a major thrill for me, as I got to enjoy this time in this behind-the-scenes location. As I chatted with Angela, Brad and, eventually, the team’s on-field host Andy Imfield, I also noticed that my pregame jitters about going onto the field were quickly dissipating.

It turns out that the fifth inning was a bit of a marathon. Sixteen batters, seven runs scored and three mound visits meant that the inning took a long time to complete; I’d guess it was close to half an hour. That suited me just fine, because it lengthened our time spent in this area. I was constantly enjoying the sights and sounds, but was especially excited to see that the tunnel in which we stood was steadily busy, too. Left-hander Sammy Solis, who has pitched in nearly 150 games in the big leagues, went back and forth a few times in anticipation of entering the game in the sixth inning. Catcher Austin Allen, who was DHing for the Chihuahuas, made a few trips past us — presumably to get some swings in at the batting cage just a handful of yards behind where we stood. Outfielder Boog Powell, midway through his three-hit game, chatted with Brad for a moment.

Eventually, when the fifth inning came to an end, someone said, “We’re up,” and our contingent went up the dugout steps, turned left and walked along the warning track in front of the Chihuahuas dugout. As Brad and I positioned ourselves on the grass, facing the crowd, I heard the PA announcer say my name and explain the reason for my visit. The in-stadium video camera operator positioned himself in front of us, and Andy gave me a cue to wave once I was on the video board in right-center field. The whole time, team photographer Jorge Salgado snapped photos; those that you see here are courtesy of him.

Here’s Brad and me while the competition was being announced …

… and here’s me waving once I was on the video board:

On cue, I presented the plaque to Brad …

… and we then posed for another picture before heading off the field in time for the inning to begin:

(By the way, you might have noticed that I was wearing one of my new The World Needs More Baseball T-shirts. If you want to buy one of my shirts, you can click here.)

Thanks to my wife, I’m excited to be able to show you the presentation as a video. Check it out here:

*****

My visit to Southwest University Park on May 4 hadn’t begun with my walk through the clubhouse-level tunnel, of course. Nope, I’d arrived at the park several hours prior with the goal of enjoying the environment in anticipation of the plaque presentation that would happen later on. After arriving in El Paso late on the night of May 2, and spending all of May 3 doing touristy things, I was more than ready to attend a ballgame. That’s partly because this ballpark wasn’t just in my mind for much of my stay in El Paso — it was also within sight. We were fortunate to stay at the Courtyard El Paso Downtown, a new hotel that is across the street from the ballpark. Not only were we able to see Southwest University Park from our room’s window, but the hotel also has a pool deck on the fifth floor that offers this view of the park:

Absolutely perfect, right?

If you were to make a guess at how much of my trip I spent standing on the pool deck and admiring the scenery, the correct answer would be, “A lot.”

Fortunately, by the time 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 4 rolled around, I no longer had to just look at the park from afar. It was time to make the short walk over. First pitch wouldn’t be taking place for another 2.5 hours, but I wanted to get into the park good and early and enjoy its environment. Plus, I was feeling a little anxious about presenting the plaque, and figured that if I wandered around the ballpark for a while, it’d help to relax me a bit.

Of course, relaxing in the beautiful Southwest University Park was as easy as it gets. After a slow walk around the concourse, I went to the outfield grass berm and snapped this photo …

… and then hung out in this spot for a few minutes:

Neither team was hitting, which was a bit of a surprise to me. Part of the reason I’d gone to the park so early was to watch batting practice, but with little happening on the field beyond the usual pregame field prep, the park was still quiet. That was fine with me, as it gave me a chance to just enjoy the environment; my first two ballpark visits of the season, as you might recall, didn’t exactly offer favorable weather.

While I was in the outfield, I took some time to photograph the plaque before I presented it. Here’s one of those shots:

After taking the above shot, I carefully packed up the plaque in its bubble wrap-lined box and secured it in my backpack again. I’d been careful while traveling with it two days earlier, and the last thing I wanted was to chip it in the couple of hours that remained until I was due to turn it over. Upon doing so, I snapped this shot of myself with the video board — which was incidentally showing the live broadcast of the Kentucky Derby — in the background …

… and then continued to explore the park a bit more. On the upper level, I noticed an addition since my last visit — the Section 211 Patio Suite. It was added two seasons ago, and offers a private experience for groups. Check out the cool faux-foliage surroundings:

This suite has three different types of seating — stadium seats, tall chairs and, my personal favorite, this comfy sectional:

As much as I’m not a “suite guy,” because I prefer wandering around ballparks rather than remaining in one specific area, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm too hard to have me watch a ballgame in this cool spot.

Once I’d checked out the suite, I went down to the main concourse to meet up with Angela, who gave me a rundown on how the plaque presentation would go. I’d meet her at the end of the fourth inning, we’d go down below the ballpark and meet up with GM Brad behind the home dugout, and then go out onto the field between innings. Sounds just about perfect, right?

By now, the ballpark’s gates had opened, so I met up with my wife who was playing the role of photographer/videographer for this ballpark visit.

The evening’s promotion was First Responders Night, so we went over to the plaza in the right field corner to check out some of the sights. There were police motorcycles and a police car, but the big attraction for me was an FBI SWAT team’s armored vehicle. I had the opportunity to not only climb inside of the vehicle, but to also hold one of the SWAT team’s shields — which I can attest was much heavier than expected:

Soon after I decided that I probably wouldn’t cut it as a SWAT officer, we set out in search of something to eat. I made the uncharacteristic move of declining dinner on this evening. Sorry, folks. I was a little anxious about the upcoming plaque presentation, and didn’t want to put anything in my stomach. My wife, non-queasy about said presentation, was hungry and asked me for a food recommendation. During my visit three years ago, I’d been really impressed with the Juarez Dogs concession stand on the first base side, so that’s where we headed. She opted for an impressive hot dog called the Memphis Meets Mexico Dog. It consisted of an all-beef hot dog wrapped in bacon, topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce, coleslaw, pickles and pork rinds. Any time you can have pork three ways in a meal, it’s a good day, right? Here’s how this hot dog looked:

Even though I’d decided not to eat a proper meal — something that I’d make up for in my subsequent visit to Southwest University Park — I knew I needed to celebrate the plaque presentation after it was done. At several points throughout the game, my wife and I had spotted other fans walking around with a drink that caught our attention, and we knew we had to seek one out to buy. Shortly after we returned to the concourse following the presentation, we made our way to the Frutas Locas concession stand on the first base side and bought a drink known as a pinas locas. Behold:

It consisted of an entire pineapple filled with pineapple juice and fresh pineapple rings. The red sauce is called chamoy, which is a Mexican condiment that is both salty and spicy. And the straw that you see is wrapped in dried fruit and rolled in chili powder, making for even more spice with the drink. I wasn’t sure about all of the spice at first, but it quickly grew on me and I appreciated the contrast that it provided to the sweetness of the fruit. If you’re ever in El Paso, you might decide to order this drink for its Instagram appeal — but I bet that you’ll enjoy the taste, too.

It was fitting to wrap up this ballpark visit with an enormous, novelty pineapple drink, because this was a day that was sweet in a lot of ways.

I’ve got so many people with the Chihuahuas to thank:

  • Angela for so skillfully organizing the event, as well as fielding what probably felt like a million questions from me leading up to it;
  • Brad for receiving the award;
  • Andy for giving me the cue to wave and for writing the script that was read over the PA;
  • Jorge for snapping the awesome photos that you see here; and
  • The Chihuahuas fans who voted, shared and otherwise supported the Best View competition last season — and who made me feel exceedingly welcome in their city.

About 12 hours after this game ended, I’d be back at Southwest University Park for the team’s first Copa de la Diversión day, in which the Chihuahuas would suit up as the Margaritas in what are probably that loudest uniforms I’ve ever seen. A big blog post all about that experience will be coming very soon.

Buffalo Bisons – April 19 and 20, 2019

What has 700 miles of driving, three scheduled games and only two actual innings of baseball?

My first road trip of 2019, that’s what!

If you follow my adventures on my various social media channels, you’ll know that the 2019 season didn’t exactly get off to a baseball-filled start for me. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a good time in Buffalo in my quest to see some baseball at the newly named Sahlen Field.

April road trips — in the northeast, anyway — can be really hit or miss. This is the fourth time I’ve taken a trip in April, and each one has involved frigid cold, rain, snow or a combination thereof. My visit to Buffalo didn’t involve snow, but it was extremely heavy on the cold and the rain.

I left my house early on the rainy morning of April 19 with the plan to get into Buffalo around lunchtime, do some sightseeing, check into my hotel and then head over to Sahlen Field before batting practice began. Those plans changed dramatically when I got to Niagara Falls, Ontario, and was stuck in one of the worst traffic jams I’ve ever encountered. How bad? Well, it took me about two hours to cover a distance of one mile as I approached the Rainbow Bridge from Ontario to New York. It sounds implausible, I realize, but I can assure you that it’s true — after all, I had little to occupy me during this time other than watch the suggested arrival time on my GPS.

Frustrations about traffic aside, I was glad to finally cross the border, make the short drive to me hotel and check in. There wasn’t any time to unpack or get settled, though. After I took this photo of a nice pond outside of my window …

… I headed back to the parking lot and hopped back into my car to make the short drive to Sahlen Field.

It’d been raining virtually the entire day, and I was pretty sure that the Bisons game that evening against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders would be rained out. Nevertheless, the Bisons Twitter account made a few tweets that suggested the team was still hopeful to play.

I pulled into the ballpark’s parking lot a couple of minutes after 4 p.m. under drizzly conditions, and made my way through the lot toward the security gate to pick up my pass. From the parking lot, I had my first glimpse of the field …

… and it was no surprise that the tarp was on and not a player was in sight.

Still, I was excited to get my first ballpark visit of what is going to be a very exciting 2019 season underway — and to also check out this ballpark for the first time since 2012.

After picking up my pass, I walked through the tunnel beneath the stadium, rode the elevator up to the concourse and immediately went to the upper deck to snap this bird’s-eye view of Sahlen Field:

By now, as you might have noticed in the image above, the RailRiders pitchers were playing catch in left field. That didn’t mean that the conditions were dry, though. I was surprised to see the group of them out there, given that the rain was falling steadily. I watched the action for a few minutes under the overhang of the roof above the top rows of the upper deck, and then descended to the main concourse to have a look around. The gates were still about 45 minutes from opening, which meant that things were pretty quiet. This is how the concourse on the first base side looked:

And how did things look on the third base side, you might wonder? Good news! I’ve got a picture for you:

I wandered around the lower and upper concourses for a bit, which was fine, but I really wanted to be out near the field. Unfortunately, the rain was still coming down, and while I’m not made of sugar, I’m also not a huge proponent of standing in the rain. Taking photos is difficult because of how quickly raindrops get on the camera lens — which was definitely an issue because of how hard the wind was blowing — and I hate having raindrops on my glasses.

After another lap of the concourse, I went back out to the covered area in the upper deck to check how hard it was raining. The verdict? It was still raining hard, as evidenced by this photo:

I’ve been around baseball long enough to know that this game was not going to be played, despite my hopes to the contrary. That said, I figured that if I was at the ballpark, I might as well have something to eat. If the name Sahlen Field isn’t familiar to you, you might know this ballpark by its former name, Coca-Cola Field. Or the name before that, Dunn Tire Park. Or North AmeriCare Park. Or Pilot Field. Yep, it’s had a few names over the years. In any case, the park was renamed this past off-season, with the naming rights bought for 10 years by the Sahlen Packing Company — a meat processing company based in Buffalo that has been around for 140 years. As you might expect, the Sahlen name means that the ballpark’s concession stands sell Sahlen hot dogs — which seemed like a fitting first meal of the season for me. I grabbed a hot dog, topped it with mustard and went out to the covered seats on the third base side to snap this photo:

It was a tasty meal, and its warmth was highly welcome on this chilly day.

After eating, I went back up to the upper deck and stood behind home plate to snap this panorama of the scene:

I took the photo above at 5:41 p.m., which meant that the game’s scheduled start time of 6:05 p.m. was obviously not going to happen. The Bisons had made a Twitter announcement saying that the start time would be pushed back, but that they still hoped to play.

It’d already been a long day for me, and I would’ve wagered a heck of a lot that not a single pitch would been thrown that night. So, I made the executive decision to call it an evening. After one more lap through the park, I returned to the parking lot and headed back to my hotel. Not a characteristic move for me, I realize, but the idea of standing in the cold, wet and rainy conditions for much longer without any baseball to watch had lost its appeal. Shortly after I got back to the hotel, I checked Twitter and, as expected, the game had been postponed.

I spent my evening watching some baseball on TV and got to bed early in anticipation of a long day of baseball the following day, as the Bisons and RailRiders had a doubleheader scheduled.

***

Saturday, April 20:

The first thing that I did when I woke up on Saturday morning was lift the blind of my hotel room window to check the conditions outside. To my dismay, it was still raining, albeit lightly. This wasn’t much of a surprise, given that the forecast was calling for rain all day Friday and Saturday, but I was hopeful things would look a little drier. It was all well and good to lose the first game of my road trip to rain, but I definitely didn’t want the doubleheader to be a wash.

Feeling a little discouraged by the crummy weather, but still eager to get back to Sahlen Field, I once again made the short drive downtown and parked my car in the lot behind the outfield fence a little after 10 a.m. The doubleheader was scheduled to start at 1:05 p.m., and while I knew there wouldn’t likely be any batting practice, I wanted to be at the ballpark just in case anything exciting happened.

Since I hadn’t done so a day earlier, I decided to take a full walk around Sahlen Field. There was some sporadic drizzle at times, but the conditions at this point were mostly dry — although the 42-degree temperature and heavy winds made for less-than-ideal conditions. Determined to make the most of my visit, I walked across the parking lot and followed this path behind the outfield fence:

Before I ascended the stairs that you see in the image above, I peeked through a chain-link fence that was a few yards behind the outfield fence:

Once I got to street level, I started up the third base side where I stopped to take this panorama …

… and then continued a little farther before stopping to snap the ballpark from this angle:

After a full lap, I looked through to the field and saw that the tarp was still in place and that no one was around, so I decided to take advantage of the quiet morning by walking a few blocks to KeyBank Center, home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. My mission was twofold. I’d never previously checked out the arena, so I was interested in seeing it. And, if the team shop just happened to be open, I knew I could browse through it for a few minutes to warm up. I’m happy to report that I had success on both fronts. After snapping this photo of Alumni Plaza …

… I entered and spent about 10 minutes getting warm inside of the team shop.

Soon enough, it was time to brave the elements once again, so I made the short walk back to Sahlen Field, pausing to snap this cold-looking photo before I went in:

As I’d done a day earlier, I entered via the security gate adjacent to the parking lot, made my way through the tunnel and went up to the concourse. Then, I went straight out to the cross-aisle behind home plate and took this photo:

Beyond my chilly face, you’ll see a positive sight — the tarp was off! The rain had fully let up by this point, and the grounds crew was starting to prepare the infield.

A minute or so after I snapped the image above, I took this panorama and couldn’t help but smile. I had a pretty good feeling that there’d be some baseball coming up:

You might’ve noticed in the panorama above that the Bisons had come out and were playing catch in right field. The players were thoroughly bundled up due to the cold, but I decided to go get a closer look to see who I could recognize. I made my way along the wet cross-aisle to the party deck in right field, where I snapped this panorama …

… and then went down to the front row to watch the action for a few minutes.

Since it wasn’t currently raining, I decided to take some time to exploring the open parts of the ballpark that I’d neglected to see a day earlier because of the wet conditions. There are some International League facilities at which fans’ ability to spend time beyond the outfield fence is limited, but that certainly isn’t the case at Sahlen Field. In addition to the party deck that I’d visited a moment earlier, there’s a huge picnic area, a grass berm, concessions, bathrooms and a lot of walking space. Granted, there wasn’t much going on in these areas during my visit, but I know that when the weather is good during the summertime, this area is packed with fans and has a lively vibe. Here’s how the view looked from the area a handful of yards behind the fence:

After spending a bit of time walking around behind the fence, I made my way back to the seating bowl. One of the cool Sahlen Field features (which actually reminds me of Frontier Field in nearby Rochester) is that there’s a pedestrian bridge between the seating bowl and the party deck beyond the right field foul pole. It provides a nifty vantage point of the stadium, and that’s where I stood to take this next shot:

I took another lap around the concourse, mainly in an effort to get out of the wind for a few minutes, and then went down to field level in advance of the dog parade that was scheduled for 12:20 p.m. as part of the team’s Bark in the Park promotion. Normally, I have zero interest in such things, but I’d learned that my friend and fellow blogger Rox-Anne and her husband Adam were planning to be in attendance at the game, and I wanted to snap some pictures of them on the field. I wasn’t sure how easy it’d be to spot them, but the miserable weather meant that the turnout of dogs and owners was fairly low, and I quickly identified them and shot some photos like this one:

Shortly after the dog parade ended, the players began filtering back onto the field, so I went down to the front row on the Bisons’ side.

I wasn’t the only one.

While the weather kept the Sahlen Field crowd small, a considerable percentage of those in attendance were gathered down the first base line in anticipation of seeing #1 prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. take the field. I’d be lying if I wasn’t pumped to see him, too. In fact, Guerrero and the other young Bisons’ prospects — namely Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio — were a big part of the reason for my first trip of the season. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to see a number of future MLB stars in the minors — Bryce Harper, Christian Yelich, Billy Hamilton and a whole bunch more — but I’d never actually seen a #1-ranked prospect at the minor league level. (When I saw Harper in 2011, he was actually ranked #2; some guy named Mike Trout was #1.) I was fortunate to see Guerrero Jr. in a Spring Training game in Montreal last season, but there’s nothing like seeing top prospects in the minor leagues — and I was eager to see him emerge from the dugout.

Before that happened, however, there were plenty of other Bisons to see up close. When I was last at a Bisons game, they were affiliated with the New York Mets. The Toronto Blue Jays became the parent club in 2013, and while I’d seen the Bisons on the road since that change, the lifelong Blue Jays fan in me was especially excited to see them at home. David Paulino was scheduled to pitch for Buffalo, so he and catching prospect Reese McGuire were the first players to make their way down the line. Here’s McGuire after he finished stretching …

… and here he is standing directly below me:

A moment later, some familiar-looking players caught my eye as they posed for some photos behind home plate. I was obviously a couple hundred feet away, but managed to snap this photo:

Before long, pitcher Danny Barnes made his way to the bullpen bench. I was excited to see him not only because he’s played more than 100 games in the big leagues, but also because I got his autograph all the way back in 2011 when he was with the Lansing Lugnuts. Anyway, Barnes was tightly gripping a cup of coffee, which I’m imagining provided a little warmth against the chilly winds, as he sat down right below me:

The other relievers soon made their way to the bullpen area, and I watched the goings-on below me while keeping an eye trained toward the Bisons’ dugout.

During this time, I casually watched an interaction between a player and a couple of young fans that I think bears sharing. The player, who I’m not mentioning by name, was chewing tobacco while he warmed up. Smokeless tobacco is banned in the minor leagues, but that doesn’t mean that a lot of players don’t do it. Anyway, when the two young fans called out to the player, he raised his glove to his face, removed the dip, discreetly dropped it on the warning track and ground it into the clay with his cleat — and then made his way over to engage with the two youngsters. In an age in which we’re very quick to take to social media to speak poorly about professional athletes, I was impressed with how this particular player obviously wanted to portray a positive image before he approached the kids.

Soon enough, Bichette was the first of the future superstars to emerge, running onto the grass behind the infield to begin the process of warming up:

It wasn’t long before the man who’s made countless headlines in recent weeks — he made his major league debut last Friday in Toronto — ran onto the field to considerable applause:

For the next 10 or so minutes, I had a blast watching the Guerrero, Bichette and their teammates getting loose not far from where I stood:

I continued to snap some photos during the anthems, including this one of Bichette, Guerrero and Roemon Fields:

I took some post-anthem photos, too, capturing this one of Bichette playing catch …

… and this one of Guerrero Jr. telling what appeared to be a humorous story to teammate Richard Ureña, who was just out of frame to the right:

As first pitch approached, a lot of the fans who’d flocked to the front row to watch the warm-ups went back to their ticketed seats, and I moved in to get a better view of the action. It wasn’t long before Bisons hitting coach Devon White took his spot in the first base coach’s box, and I was excited to snap some photos like this one:

White, of course, was someone I closely followed as a kid. He patrolled center field at SkyDome for the Blue Jays from 1991 to 1995, winning six Gold Gloves and two World Series titles in that span.

When I visit a ballpark, I’m normally more interested in the ballpark than the game, and am happy for the game to be somewhat of an afterthought as I explore the facility. On this visit, though, I was eager to watch the Bisons’ top prospects get their first at-bats, especially since the game a day earlier had been postponed and I was a little concerned about how the weather might jeopardize game two of the doubleheader. I settled into a spot behind the end of the dugout and watched Bichette lead off the bottom of the first:

A couple of batters later, it was Guerrero Jr.’s chance to step to the plate …

… and he drew a walk:

While Biggio batted, I kept an eye of Guerrero Jr. as he took his lead off first base:

Did you notice anything in the background? More rain!

It had started to drizzle again, and the sky was dark in places. Not a good sign of things to come.

At the end of the first, I set off in search of something to eat. The Bisons have dramatically improved the concession options since I was last in town, and I was eager to try something new. I opted for an order of Pizza Logs, which consist of cheese, pepperoni and pizza sauce inside of a wonton-like wrapper:

The Pizza Log company is based just outside of Buffalo, and I always like to try local fare when I’m able. They were better than I’d expected, and way better than a pizza pocket if you’re making that comparison.

The rain wasn’t appearing to lighten up, so I moved to a covered area behind home plate after I ate:

You might be thinking, “Hey, I don’t see any rain in the image above.” If so, I can assure you that it was indeed drizzling, although the sky had lightened up a little.

I decided to run up to the upper deck for the third inning, and here’s how things looked once that inning began:

To quote Carl Lewis when he botched the national anthem back in the day: Uh-oh.

The sky completely opened up, sending the teams scrambling for their dugouts — and prompting the video board to change to a message that could aptly sum up my weekend in Buffalo:

Again, the team indicated on Twitter that it had hopes of resuming play, but the forecast told a different story. I decided that I’d make the most of the rain delay by exploring Sahlen Field a little. I started by going back down to the tunnel under the concourse, where I saw the Bisons’ clubhouse …

… and the batting cages, which were understandably quiet at this point:

I hung out around the cages for a bit, chatting with one of the security guards and secretly feeling hopeful that some players would show up to hit. That didn’t happen, so I went all the way up to Consumer’s Pub at the Park, which is a full-service restaurant on the ballpark’s mezzanine level. As you might expect, given the shelter and warmth that it provided, it was absolutely packed. I checked out the view of the field from this area, which was impressive, and kicked myself for not visiting earlier in the day.

As was the case a day earlier, I faced a decision. The team was suggesting that more baseball might be played later on, but my Spidey-sense was telling me otherwise. And when I noticed about half a dozen Bisons staff members heading to the parking lot, I knew that the probability of one more pitch being thrown was extremely low. By this time, I’d been out in the cold for more than four hours, and had pretty much had my fill of being frozen and wet. As I’d done a day earlier, I took a gamble that there’d be nothing more to see during this visit, and headed out of Sahlen Field. As I left via the right field corner, I turned back once more to take a last look at the rainy park:

Indeed, I was right. As had happened a day earlier, the Bisons officially called the game shortly after I left. I hadn’t expected this day to wrap up so early; with a doubleheader scheduled, I was originally counting on being at the ballpark from about 10 a.m. until probably 6 p.m., and that left me with a big block of time to fill. I gave some thought to doing some sightseeing around town, but most of the attractions I’d earmarked before my trip were outdoors, and the idea of spending more time outside was unappealing. I decided to grab some food and head back to my hotel to hang out for the rest of the evening. That proved to be a good decision, because my hotel was a fun place to be. I’d booked this stay at the Hyatt Place Buffalo/Amherst, and chose it because of my familiarity with the Hyatt Place brand — a brand I’ve visited in several different major league and minor league cities. Here’s the hotel from the outside:

Each of the guestrooms at this hotel is divided into a sleeping area and a living space, and I knew that with a lot of time to kill, I wouldn’t feel cramped in my room. Check out the large sitting area, complete with this L-shaped couch that was perfect for reclining on while I watched an afternoon baseball game on TV:

This hotel is located about 15 minutes from Sahlen Field, in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst. It gives you the best of both worlds — you can make the short, easy drive downtown, but not have to deal with the inconveniences of staying downtown. In addition to its huge rooms and convenient location, it offers a stylish lounge with an impressive 24/7 menu, an extensive breakfast area, an outdoor fire pit, a clean and modern athletic center and a lot more. The Hyatt Place Buffalo/Amherst was a good choice for a baseball road tripper like me, and definitely the place I’ll choose when I next set my sights on Buffalo. If you’re planning to see the Bisons in action this season, I’d highly recommend this hotel as the place to stay.

A Look at My Baseball Collection

I didn’t set out to build a collection of baseballs.

I swear.

It just sort of happened.

I will admit, however, that I definitely possess what I like to call the “collecting gene.” Or, as my wife might call it, the “collecting disorder.”

I like putting together various collections of things that bring me joy, and that happens to include baseballs.

But, like I said, it was never my intention to collect baseballs.

When I first started traveling for this blog back in 2010, the first ballpark that I attended was Frontier Field in Rochester. I had an outstanding time, and it didn’t involve getting a single baseball. Things changed a day later, however, when I visited Falcon Park in Auburn. I arrived well before the gates opened, so I spent some time wandering around the perimeter of the park and taking photos of it from different angles. During batting practice, I was on a grassy area behind the outfield fence when I heard a baseball thud to the ground a short distance from where I stood. I walked over, picked it up and looked at it. A moment later, another ball cleared the fence — so I went to pick it up, too. This continued for the next 30 or so minutes, and I’d gathered up 11 baseballs by the time BP ended.

Looking back, this was the pivotal moment that introduced me to baseball collecting. A gateway experience, if you will.

I wouldn’t categorize myself as rabid when it comes to trying to get baseballs, though. If I’m at a small ballpark, I’ll always walk behind the outfield fence before the game to see if there are any BP balls laying around, but the result won’t make or break my visit. When I enter a park, I’ll sometimes take a look through the outfield seats to see if there are any baseballs that the ushers missed, but I don’t do this every time. And if there’s a sparsely populated seating section that a foul ball might reach during the game, I’ll occasionally spend a bit of time there. When it comes to BP, I don’t tend to spend more than a few minutes actively trying to snag baseballs, though. I’d much rather explore the stadium, especially if I’m visiting for the first time.

All that said, I’ve managed to put together a decent-sized collection of baseballs over the years.

Even though I don’t necessarily go out of my way to acquire baseballs, I absolutely love when I get one. There’s no better souvenir in all of sports, as far as I’m concerned, and whether it’s a home run ball or a random, muddy ball that I found in a puddle outside of a minor league park, it makes me happy.

Every baseball in my collection has a story, but I want to highlight a handful of balls that I find particularly noteworthy.

First, though, some statistics.

My collection currently sits at 202 baseballs. Through the 2018 season, I’ve made 162 ballpark visits — which means that I’ve acquired 1.25 baseballs per visit.

(Last week, I posted a picture of my collection in its 58-quart bin and asked people to guess how many balls were pictured. Big kudos to Bill Adams on Facebook, who actually chose 202!)

Let’s start by breaking down how many balls from each league I’ve acquired, as well as looking at one random ball from each of those leagues so that you can see how they all look.

Major League Baseball: 37

International League: 29

Eastern League: 28

New York-Penn League: 20

South Atlantic League: 10

Can-Am League: 7

Midwest League: 5

Frontier League: 4

Texas League: 4

Carolina League: 3

Pacific Coast League: 3

Northwest League: 1

There are some interesting things of note here. While I have more MLB baseballs than anything else, I’ve snagged most of the 37 at minor league parks. MLB baseballs begin life as game balls, and when they’ve been scuffed up, they become batting practice balls in the big leagues. Eventually, if an MLB batting practice ball hangs around long enough, it gets sent to the minor leagues where it’ll presumably be used until it’s no longer usable. When you look at this photo of most of my MLB balls, it’s pretty clear by their condition which ones I got at MLB ballparks versus MiLB ballparks:

It makes sense that I’ve acquired more baseballs from the International League than from any other of the minor leagues, as I’ve been fortunate to visit 11 of the 14 IL ballparks. The same theory holds true for the Eastern League. That league has 12 ballparks, and I’ve been to 11 of them.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’m always amused when I see my lone Northwest League baseball. That’s because I’ve never even been close to attending a Northwest League game. I managed to find this ball at a Vermont Lake Monsters game, of all places — which, geographically, is about as far from the Northwest League as it gets.

There are a number of other balls in my collection that don’t fit into the above list. I have a total of three balls that are labeled as Minor League Baseball balls, rather than being specific to any one league. Does anyone know when these balls are used? Each minor league has its own official ball, so I’m unsure of what these balls are all about. Here’s one of them:

And I’ve got another four MiLB Practice Balls, which are fairly ugly. Here’s my best one:

I snagged that one back in 2011 when I was at G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, home of the Carolina League’s Potomac Nationals. I love when baseballs tell a story, and this one definitely does. If you look at the following image …

… you’ll see a series of diagonal lines on the right side of the ball. I found this one in the aluminum bleachers, which have treads to provide grip for people climbing up them. It’s evident that the ball acquired these marks after it was hit into foul territory and skipped off the treads of the bleachers.

Speaking of the MiLB Practice Balls, here’s the worst-looking of my four:

It clearly did battle with a lawnmower and lost:

I’ve also managed to get a pair of NCAA baseballs, despite never attending an NCAA game. I found one of them outside of Lakewood’s FirstEnergy Park in 2012. That ballpark visit was a rainout, but this soggy ball was obviously left behind after the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournament, which Lakewood had hosted a few days earlier:

My trips to various independent ballparks have yielded three of the awful Official League balls (sometimes used during BP in indy leagues) that you can buy at any discount sporting goods store …

… as well as one majorly scuffed baseball that isn’t stamped in any way. There’s also the generic Wilson ball that I found during BP at a Washington Wild Things (Frontier League) game in 2014:

Finally, there’s one ball that isn’t from one of the minor leagues. In fact, I can’t tell where it’s from. It’s very difficult to see, but there appears to be a diamond-shaped logo with lettering inside of it. I originally thought the letters read “CCBL,” which might suggest Cape Cod Baseball League, but that league’s logo looks nothing like the one on the ball:

If you’ve got any guesses about what league that baseball might represent, please leave a message in the comments below.

I don’t have any commemorative baseballs, but I do have a couple of Frontier League baseballs that have big logos — including this one:

And speaking of Frontier League balls, I’ve also got a couple that have red and blue stitching like this:

There are a few balls in my collection that have interesting handmade markings. Several minor league teams mark their balls with initials — here are balls from Binghamton and Staten Island:

There’s also a considerable variance in the quality of the baseballs. Condition wise, here’s what I’d call the cleanest and dirtiest of my collection:

Of the baseballs in my collection, only four are game home run balls. I’ve actually snagged six game home run balls over the years, but have given two of them back to the players who hit them.

Here’s a look at the four that remain in my collection.

Jeremy Nowak, Frederick Keys, May 23, 2012:

Tony Caldwell, Greensboro Grasshoppers, May 28, 2013:

Reynaldo Rodriguez, New Britain Rock Cats, April 14, 2014:

Rubi Silva, Sussex County Miners, July 12, 2017:

I’ve also been fortunate to snag 14 foul balls. I have to admit that early on in my travels, I did a sub-par job of documenting who hit some of them. Here are those baseballs, along with what specifics I know.

Batter unknown, at Great Lakes, May 22, 2011:

Batter unknown, at West Michigan, May 23, 2011:

Tuffy Gosewisch, at Erie, May 29, 2011:

Batter unknown, at Vermont, August 21, 2011:

Paul Hendrix, at State College, July 8, 2012:

Pete Orr, at Syracuse, April 14, 2013:

Batter unknown, at Syracuse, April 14, 2013:

Tyler Saladino, at Syracuse, June 22, 2015:

Champ Stewart, at Binghamton, May 17, 2017:

Luis Guillorme, at Binghamton, May 17, 2017:

Adrian Sanchez, at Syracuse, April 17, 2018:

Rafael Bautista, at Syracuse, April 17, 2018:

Austin Meadows, at Syracuse, April 17, 2018:

Casey Sadler, at Syracuse, April 18, 2018:

Of course, I wanted to do something more fun than just photograph a bunch of my baseballs individually, so I put together this pyramid that uses most of the balls. Here’s a short time-lapse clip of me building it:

And here are a couple photos of the finished product. The first one’s from the side …

… and this one’s from overhead:

Thanks for checking out my baseball collection. And an extra thanks to those folks online who expressed an interest in me writing this post. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time — partly because I had no idea how many balls were in my collection — and perhaps I’ll do another version of this post in several years’ time.

Triple-A Championship Game – September 18, 2018

What’s on your baseball bucket list?

One item that has been on my list in recent years is the Triple-A Championship Game. It pits the winner of the International League against the winner of the Pacific Coast League in a one-game showdown held each September at a neutral site. Every time that the host city is announced, I keep this game in mind as I’m planning my trips, and I’m happy to say that I was able to check out this game as my last game of 2018.

My final trip of the season consisted of four days in Milwaukee. But, instead of flying straight home after my time at Miller Park, I took a detour to Columbus to see the best of the IL and the PCL square off. As I was planning this trip, I was happy with how easily things came together. The flight from Milwaukee to Columbus was only $139, and it was kinda/sorta in the same direction as home, so I figured this wasn’t an opportunity that I could miss.

September 18 began with another 3:30 a.m. alarm, followed by a drive to the airport to catch an early flight. There weren’t any direct flights from Milwaukee to Columbus, which meant that I had to fly to Atlanta for a 65-minute layover and then onto Columbus. That was fine, though, and even upon losing an hour due to a time zone change, I was in Ohio before noon. The early arrival meant that I could pick up my rental car, grab some lunch and then check into my hotel early in the afternoon so that I could relax for a couple of hours before heading over to Huntington Park.

Throughout the day, I was excited to get back to this ballpark. I’d only been there once in the past — a visit back in 2013, which you can read about here — and was really impressed with it. Plus, the excitement of the Triple-A champ being crowned meant that this was anything but a regular minor league game. After a couple of hours relaxing in my hotel room, I made the short drive to Huntington Park, parked cheaply a few block away and was soon looking at this sight:

It was still about an hour before the gates were scheduled to open, but I was pleased to see a handful of fans already milling around at each entrance, including the home plate one pictured above. I’ll admit, though, that I had no idea what to expect in terms of the crowd, given that this was my first time at an event of this type. I soon made my way around to the center field entrance, and there were a handful of fans already lined up in this area, too. Here’s how this spot looked as a panorama:

I wasn’t feeling a big need to be the first fan into the park, so I took the next little while to hang out in the shade. I also spent some time standing with some other fans along West Nationwide Boulevard, which runs beyond left field. Batting practice was taking place, and I knew there’d be a chance that some baseballs would leave the ballpark in this area. I didn’t manage to catch anything, though, so I soon went back to the center field gate and waited in line. As soon as the gates opened, I headed directly to the seats in right field, and saw that the PCL champion Memphis Redbirds were hitting. The major thing that struck me, however, was the use of temporary netting above the outfield fence:

I’ve never seen such a thing in the outfield at any of the stadiums I’ve visited, and thought this was a strange site. As expected, it was taken down before first pitch, and while I can understand the team’s efforts to protect fans, I also think the idea of preventing people from catching BP baseballs is something that would’ve likely bothered a lot of people in attendance. I was pretty indifferent to the whole thing — just surprised, mainly — and, besides, I don’t think I could’ve fit a baseball into my carry-on suitcase even if I’d wanted to. (For the record, there were a few balls that soared above the netting and landed in the bleachers, much to the delight of the fans who were obviously hoping for a souvenir.)

Next, I went over to the grass berm in left-center and snapped this photo of the video board, which was currently displaying the Redbirds and Durham Bulls lineups. A couple of noteworthy things in this next shot — more netting in the foreground, and a neat Triple-A Championship Game flag flying high on the left of the image:

Before leaving the outfield area, I decided to spend some more time watching BP from a vantage point I found that wasn’t obscured by the netting. I’d gone up into this picnic area, which was currently unoccupied …

… and from there, I had this view of the field:

I figured that if one of the Memphis right-handed hitters pulled the ball a little, it might stretch into foul territory and end up landing near where I stood. That didn’t happen, but I still enjoyed hanging out in that area for a few batters.

Next, I started to make my way down the third base side toward home plate, and stopped to look back and snap this photo of the netting above the fence:

Has anyone else experienced a ballpark with temporary outfield netting for BP?

I decided that it was now time to eat, and I knew exactly what I was going to get. While I like switching up my ballpark meals as much as possible, there was no way that I was missing out on some ribs from the City Barbeque concession stand. I’d tried them during my previous visit in 2013, which happened to be a “Buck-a-Bone” promotion, and really enjoyed them. I don’t normally eat so early upon arriving at the ballpark, but I wondered if concession stand lines might be long later on, and wanted to take advantage of a quick bite now. The City Barbeque stand is in the right field corner, so I made my way around home plate and was happy to see no lineup at the concession stand when I got there. A moment later, I was happily seated in the third base seats munching on these:

The ribs were every bit as good as I’d remembered them, and while ribs aren’t generally the first type of barbecued fare that I’d order, this is a must-eat item at Huntington Park, as far as I’m concerned. Crispy bark, good smoky flavor and not too much fat = my definition of perfect ribs.

After eating, I went around to the seats behind home plate to watch a few minutes of batting practice from this vantage point:

You’ve got to admit that the home plate view from Huntington Park is outstanding. I love seeing the city skyline, and that includes Nationwide Arena (home of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets) which you can see in the distance on the foul side of the left field foul pole.

The next spot that I visited was the two-level home run deck in right field, which you can actually see on the right side of the panorama above. It’s a spot that groups normally reserve, but there didn’t appear to be a group that had booked it for this game. I spent a few minutes enjoying this view …

… and then shifted my attention to the AEP Power Pavilion:

This is one of the most unique seating selections that I’ve encountered in the minor leagues so far, and while you’re a considerable distance from home plate — as the creative markers on the building will point out — I think it’d be outstanding to watch a game from those bleachers under the “480” sign. Unfortunately, the upper level of this structure appeared to be closed on this occasion, so I’ll have to wait a little longer to explore it.

Despite all the exploring (and eating) that I’d done so far, first pitch still hadn’t happened. By now, BP had wrapped up and the grounds crew had prepared the field, so I went down to the third base line to snap some photos of the Redbirds warming up. Given that I’d only seen four PCL teams in action up to that point, I was excited to check out the Redbirds in the flesh feathers, so to speak. Here’s infielder Alex Mejia warming up:

And here’s outfielder Randy Arozarena playing catch:

Finally, here’s outfielder Lane Thomas:

I grabbed a spot in the seats on the third base side for the pregame ceremonies …

… and then went over to the first base side of home for the first inning:

I spent the next inning or so just wandering around the park and enjoying the various sights. I spent a decent amount of time in the team shop, which is on the ground floor of the AEP Power Pavilion. In particular, I was checking out a number of game-used items, including lots of cleats and promotional jerseys. (No pants, though!)

Then, I met up with a Twitter friend who runs the Minor League Promos Twitter account, which is one of my favorite Twitter follows. (I’m not mentioning his name here because I get the feeling that he likes to stay at least somewhat anonymous.) We’d made plans to meet at this game, and I spent a couple of innings sitting with him in the outfield bleachers. It’s always fun to meet another baseball nut, and I really enjoyed hearing some of his stories about his various baseball trips and asking him questions about his super-successful Twitter account. I hope our paths will cross again at some point.

After he and I said our goodbyes, I went over to the grass berm, where I had this view:

Later on, I returned to a spot in the outfield bleachers, where I had a good view of this sprinkler system malfunction:

And that’s where I spent the remainder of the game, watching the Redbirds beat up on Durham — which was the defending champion — by a score of 14-4.

I didn’t waste much time hurrying out of the park as soon as the game wrapped up, and was back to my hotel and into bed for some overdue sleep not much later.

Instead of flying home the next morning, I’d booked a second day in Columbus as a precaution in the event that the championship game got rained out. I spent the following day doing a few bits of sightseeing around the city, including touring the Ohio State University campus and checking out the sports facilities. Here I am in front of Ohio Stadium, the 100,000+ seat football facility:

The following day, I was once again up at 3:30 a.m. to begin my trip home, thus wrapping up an outstanding 2018 season of baseball travel

Bring on the 2019 season!

Milwaukee Brewers – September 17, 2018

My last day in Milwaukee was a special one, and not just because I had another opportunity to visit Miller Park.

I was also getting a chance to meet up with my longest-standing Twitter friend, Craig Wieczorkiewicz, also known as the Midwest League Traveler. We’ve talked regularly on Twitter dating back to 2011, which is when he started his website and when I was in the second year of The Ballpark Guide. He was among the first 50 people I followed on Twitter and I have the unusual honor of being the first person Craig followed on Twitter outside of each of the MWL teams. (These details are important to know in case they ever come up in a trivia game.) So, yeah, we go back pretty far. But, even through we’d had countless Twitter exchanges, DMs and emails, we’d never had the opportunity to meet up. There were a few times that we tried to sync up trips that never panned out, and in 2014, we were both in Syracuse at the same time but didn’t get a chance to meet.

Craig was the first person I contacted when I planned my trip to Milwaukee, knowing that he lives less than two hours from there, and I was thrilled when he confirmed that he’d be able to take in a Brewers game with me on the last day of my visit.

My first two Miller Park experiences gave me plenty of opportunities to explore the park, which was good because I knew that visiting with Craig would be more of a “find somewhere to sit and blab our faces off” visit than a ballpark exploration one. Our plan was to meet up well before the gates were scheduled to open so that we could get in line to eat at the Friday’s restaurant located inside of the ballpark. I’d purposely avoided checking out this eatery during my two previous visits, and found myself thinking of it several times as game time approached.

The day itself was fairly quiet for me once again. Instead of doing a bunch of touristy things, I mostly stuck around my hotel, the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. As I’d done throughout my visit, I frequently enjoyed looking at Miller Park in the distance. On this day, though, I took out my zoom lens and snapped this photo of the park:

As much as I was enjoying keeping an eye on the ballpark, I was also enjoying the environment immediately around me. This hotel was easily one of the most impressive that I’ve ever had the fortune of visiting, and not only because it’s such a convenient choice for baseball travelers. Beyond its prime location and the numerous on-site amenities that I enjoyed throughout my stay, the room was outstanding. My photos don’t do my room justice, so I’ve decided not to show them here. If you’re curious, though, check out this link to read more about the rooms. Beyond being spacious, having a super-comfy bed and a roomy bathroom, my favorite feature were the window blinds. The entire ballpark-facing side of the room was a window, and drawing the blinds was as easy as pressing a button on the wall to shut out the sun and turn the room dark. (If you’re wondering if I may have possibly overused this fun feature, I plead the fifth.)

Throughout the day as I waited for Craig to arrive, I kept an eye on the Marquette University fields that were visible from my room. They’re quiet here, but there were several times throughout the day that they were in use with school teams practicing lacrosse and soccer on this perfect autumn day:

Eventually, I met Craig in the lobby of the hotel and we drove over to Miller Park together in my rental car. We made a beeline for the Friday’s door as soon as we parked, and despite my worries that we might not be early enough to get a spot toward to the front of the line — I tend to overdo things in the early department sometimes — Craig repeatedly convinced me that we were in more than enough time. Soon enough, we were standing here …

… and, most importantly, there were only a few people in line ahead of us.

Friday’s at Miller Park has ample seating, but the coveted spots are the “outside” tables. Fans who get into the restaurant first generally choose to sit outside, so being too far back in the lineup outside could relegate you to an inside seat at the restaurant — still cool, but not nearly as exciting as an outside spot. When the doors finally opened, we headed inside and there was no problem getting an outside spot. Craig was right all along, and I was relieved. As we were about to sit down, I snapped this panorama to show the view from our table:

The Brewers were taking batting practice when we first arrived at our table, but left the field just a moment later. That was no concern, though. The home team takes BP first, so I knew that the visiting Cincinnati Reds would soon be headed to the cage — and hopefully hitting lots of home run balls our way.

I took advantage of the empty outfield to snap this shot of the view to my left:

Check out how close we were to the field!

Before we ordered, I took this shot of Craig and me …

… and then we got down to business getting acquainted and, of course, talking baseball. It’s tough to think of a better place to finally meet another baseball fan than exactly where we were sitting. Things got even more exciting — and a bit challenging, to be honest — when the Reds began to hit. I hadn’t taken a glove on this trip, simply because it never fits in my carry-on luggage, so I definitely had to be attentive to balls when they were hit. It was a juggling act to have a conversation while also watching the action on the field, and the challenge intensified when our food arrived.

I’d ordered a beef dip sandwich, and was hungry enough (and possibly distracted enough by watching BP) that I took a few bites of it before I realized that I’d failed to snap a photo. A first-world problem, granted, but in all of the 170+ other ballpark food photos that I’ve shared on this blog, I’ve always documented my food with a photo before digging in. The OCD side of me bristles with the idea of having one food photo in which the food is partially eaten, but I’ll share this shot anyway:

I can categorize the meal as “fine.” Nothing to write home about, but not bad, either. What was several steps above “fine,” however was the combination of the view and the company. As an introvert, I can sometimes feel a little anxious about meeting new people, especially if we’ll be spending a few hours together. But I was thrilled at how naturally Craig and I got along — which I suppose makes sense, given the amount of time that we’ve been Twitter friends. We chatted non stop about baseball, blogging and many other things that don’t start with the letter “B.” And, all the while, we were both digging the view. As we talked, I’d occasionally grab my camera and document the view from different vantage points. For instance, when I looked up and to my right, I had an outstanding view of the upper deck and the enormous glass panels:

Early in the BP session, four Reds wandered over and stood on the grass right below us:

This proved to be the biggest source of action we saw the whole time we were at Friday’s, believe it or not. There were a couple of home runs that entered the restaurant several tables to our left, but otherwise, no baseballs came remotely close to us. I was absolutely blown away by the lack of home runs, as I’d figured we’d have no trouble snagging a few balls between the two of us. The lack of baseballs did nothing to dampen the fun, though, and the Friday’s at Miller Park definitely goes down as one of my favorite ballpark eating experiences because of its uniqueness. I definitely recommend that you check it out when you visit this stadium.

Eventually, we wrapped up our meals and headed out to the concourse of Miller Park. The first thing that I wanted to do was take a look at where we’d been sitting from the perspective of the seating bowl, so we went down into the seats in the left field corner where I took this photo:

Our table was directly above the “YS” in Fridays; the person wearing the red T-shirt is a staff member who was preparing our table for the next group.

I knew that we’d be spending more time during the game sitting than walking around like I usually do, so I wanted to continue to check out the ballpark’s sights until we found a place to sit. Before we headed up to the concourse, I took this shot of the seats in right field, which clearly shows the variety of seating options available in that part of the ballpark:

Given that this would be my last visit to Miller Park on this trip, I knew that I once again needed to visit the Brewers Authentics kiosk to investigate more game-used pants options. Craig did a fairly good job of keeping his eye rolls to himself as I hurried us to the display and babbled about the pants that I’d bought two days earlier. I tend to take forever to make decisions involving baseball memorabilia, but didn’t want to make Craig stand idly by while I indecisively browsed others dudes’ drawers. Luckily, I’d scoped out another pair of pants two days earlier and knew that I’d buy them if they were still around during my next visit. Fortunately, they were, and I was soon the proud owner of a pair of Darnell Coles’ pants!

(For the record, that’s probably a line that has never been written in the history of everything.)

There were several reasons that I’d chosen Coles, the team’s hitting coach between 2015 and 2018. (He resigned just over a month after I bought his pants, but my sources say that my purchase of the pants had nothing to do with his decision.) In addition to the pants being of the throwback variety, which made them instantly special, Coles played 14 years in the big leagues — including two seasons with my favorite team, the Blue Jays. I remember watching him as a kid, especially during the 1993 season when the Jays were on their way to their second straight World Series title.

I didn’t take a photo of the pants at the game, but I definitely put them on when I got back to my hotel later that night and snapped this shot, feeling quite delighted that the pants matched my shirt:

(This photo was taken around midnight, or roughly three hours before I had to get up to catch a flight. I definitely wasn’t grinning then, nor was I still wearing these pants.)

Pants safely tucked into my backpack, Craig and I completed our walk around the concourse and then ascended to the upper deck to find a spot from which to watch the game. We chose a spot on the third base side of the upper deck, and in what was apparently a strange case of foreshadowing, I randomly took this photo of Christian Yelich on the video board when he came up to bat in the first inning:

Just a couple of hours later, Yelich hit for the cycle — the second time he’d done so during his 2018 MVP season, and Craig and I were pretty pumped to be there to see it. This was the first time I’d ever seen a player hit for the cycle in the big leagues in person. (I saw Adalberto Mondesi, then known as Raul Mondesi, Jr., hit for the cycle back in May of 2013 while playing for the Lexington Legends. You can read about that visit here, if you’d like.)

Craig and I sat in the upper deck for a few innings, and then moved to a spot in the outfield, where we had this view:

Midway through the game, I bailed on Craig for half an inning to meet Andy and Patrick, a pair of super-friendly baseball fans with whom I’d recently connected on Twitter. They’re Reds fans who were visiting Milwaukee from Indiana — and were impressively making the drive back home after the Brewers game. It’s always a thrill for me to meet people from Twitter at games, and Andy and Patrick are no exception — and I hope our paths will cross again in Indiana or elsewhere.

Then, I returned to the bleachers and met back up with Craig, and we remained in that spot for the rest of the game. Afterward, we drove back to the hotel parking structure and said our goodbyes. Craig began his ride home, and I headed into my hotel and began thinking about my next adventure — one that would begin well before dawn of the next day.