You know those baseball roadtrips (or even single games) that rank pretty high among your all-time favorites? This was going to be one of those days.
On the morning of September 10 last fall, I woke up early and loaded up my car for the seven-hour drive to Manchester, New Hampshire, home of the Eastern League’s New Hampshire Fisher Cats. The Cats are the AA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, so their roster is usually stacked with guys you’d recognize. My plan was to make the drive to Manchester to catch Game 3 of the Eastern League semifinals against the Trenton Thunder, the Yankees affiliate. The Thunder won Games 1 and 2 at home, and with a best-of-five series, the game I would attend would be pivotal.
The drive to Manchester was beautiful — lots of picturesque views through the Adirondacks. The nice views started, however, after I snaked my way through Montreal. Anyone who’s driven in Montreal rush hour knows how ridiculous it is. I arrived in Montreal about 9 a.m., meaning I was right in the heart of it and had to cross the city to get to the border. That took longer than expected, but pretty soon, I was off.
After a painfully slow stop at the border, and a couple bottles of Vitaminwater later (you’ve gotta go with orange and lemonade in the morning) I had to go. Bad. Of course, being in the middle of nowhere, there wasn’t exactly a place to stop. So I kept driving. And driving.
Pretty soon, it was either pull over and find a discrete area or risk unfortunate circumstances. I elected to stop. I pulled off the highway and found a back road in sort of a cottage country area.
(If this story is horrific, or boring, feel free to skip ahead. Otherwise, it might give you a chuckle.)
Anyway, on a quiet, wooded street next to a body of water, I, uhh, relieved myself. As I stood there, looking at the giant lake ahead of me, I casually wondered what body of water it was. Then, I had a minor, silly panic. This was Lake Champlain!
This lake, like Scotland’s Loch Ness, is known for supposedly containing some sort of creature of the deep. I had horrible visions of my empty car being discovered a day later after I’d been eaten by a lake monster who took exception to my adding a little liquid to his lake. Quickly, I got back in the car and was on my way.
(Back to baseball briefly: The Short-Season A team in Burlington, VT, is called the Vermont Lake Monsters in honor of this creature.)
The rest of the drive was more relaxing, and offered plenty of spectacular views through the mountains:
Yes, I took that photo while driving, and yes, I did it when the road was otherwise deserted. See the dark clouds and rain on my windshield? I had my fingers crossed that the game would go off as scheduled and my roadtrip wouldn’t be for naught.
Typically, I book my ballpark travel hotels on Hotwire, opting for a low price over knowing exactly what I’m getting. For this trip, however, I booked my room on another site because I wanted to stay at Manchester’s Hilton Garden Inn, which overlooks the Fisher Cats stadium, Automerchants.com Stadium. (It’s since had its name changed to another equally long one: Northeast Delta Dental Stadium.) More specifically, I wanted a field-facing room. Other than Rogers Centre in Toronto, I don’t know any pro ballparks with hotels overlooking the field. If you do, please leave a comment below. I’d love to know about them!
I arrived mid afternoon, checked into my hotel and couldn’t wait to get to my room. Here was the view:
Absolutely outstanding! As I said earlier, this trip was awesome.
Because I was three or four hours early for the game, there was very little going on at the stadium. Eventually, the grounds crew came out to prepare the field, but otherwise, it was cool to just keep an eye on the empty ballpark.
Here’s a panoramic I took from my window, which was on the third or fourth floor:
And this is The Porch, an outdoor eatery that is ideal for snagging batting practice home runs:
Unfortunately, the teams didn’t have BP, otherwise I would’ve been able to add a few more balls to my collection.
Pretty soon, the teams came out to stretch for a bit. Here’s Trenton:
And here’s another group of Thunder players:
After some waiting in my room, and continuously checking the field to see what was up, I took a brief tour of the hotel, scouting out the pool and gym, and packed up and headed on the short walk to the park.
Here’s a shot looking back at the hotel. Pretty nice, huh?
Merchantsauto.com Stadium is located on Line Drive:
And the stadium front is pretty different looking from the front:
You buy your tickets at the window on the left, then climb about 30 stairs up to the concourse.
Here’s my ticket shot:
Before the gates opened, I took a walk down a path at the side of the stadium that runs parallel to the Merrimack River. It’s all pretty nice looking:
On the path, I saw this:
I don’t know what it is, but it looked old and neat. After walking for a few minutes, I could hear players taking swings at an indoor cage, but couldn’t see anything. By now, the stadium was ready to open, so I headed back and walked in. Here are those stairs leading up to the concourse:
Before I climbed them, however, I stopped at the team shop. Because this was potentially the team’s last game of the season, there was a huge sale. I bought an official Fisher Cats cap for $15 and a T-shirt for $10.
Here’s the view when you get to the top of the stairs:
This is the outdoor patio for the Samuel Adams Bar & Grill, which is located indoors just behind these picnic tables, as you can see here:
And you can see the hotel in the background. And here’s a view looking toward home plate while standing in the area around the picnic tables:
I spun to my right, and snapped this photo of the sun setting over the Merrimack River:
Time to walk around and get my bearings! The ballpark has an open concourse and only one level of seating. There’s a suite level, but I don’t count that as regular seating. Here’s a panoramic I took from the concourse in left field:
The autograph seekers were already hanging out at the Trenton dugout:
I should point out that Andy Pettitte pitched for the Thunder the night before, but didn’t make the trip to Manchester. Too bad, because he’s since retired and it would’ve been pretty neat to see him.
Here’s a look at the seats and press box behind home plate. I think you’ll agree this is an awesome-looking stadium. I can assure you the vibe was even better:
Even though I’m not a suite type of guy, I climbed up to the suite level to take this photo looking back at the concourse:
To the left of the giant milk bottle is where you enter the stadium and you can see the picnic area and bar on the right.
I descended back to the main concourse and checked out the Ted Williams Hitters Hall of Fame, which is roughly located behind home plate. The real one is in Tampa, but this replica museum was all right. It focused largely on Williams and had some displays about New Hampshire-born MLBers:
Pretty soon, I found the game’s starting lineups and got even more excited. I have to admit I knew none of the names on the Thunder, but I knew all the guys on the Fisher Cats:
Darin Mastroianni has lots of hustle; Adeiny Hechavarria is the Cuban shortstop snatched by the Jays a few months earlier; Eric Thames is a home run machine; Edwin Encarnacion can’t play defence but was down from Toronto for a rehab stint, so that was cool. I won’t go on, but it’s neat to go to a Minor League game and see a lineup full of guys you recognize.
I headed over to the right field corner, which is the only area of the stadium that has bleacher seating. New Hampshire’s bullpen is also in this area. Here, I took a panorama that shows what a perfect evening for ball it was:
The stadium was still mostly empty, so I went behind the Fisher Cats dugout and snapped this photo:
Then went behind home plate and got this one:
I sure get my exercise during ballgames. After those photos, I walked back down the concourse (saying “no, thanks” to the vendor who tried to sign me up for some insurance thing for the fourth time) to the picnic area to get this panorama:
I also snapped this photo of the hotel. My room is either the bottom or middle window on the left:
After these shots, I once again climbed the stairs to the suite level, took a browse around and chatted with a friendly Fisher Cats staffer.
By now, there was action in the Fisher Cats bullpen, so I walked over to watch Canadian Scott Richmond warm up:
And spotted Encarnacion, who was signing autographs along the fence:
I grabbed a ball from my bag and got him to sign it:
I also spotted Hechavarria, who’s supposed to be Toronto’s shortstop of the future. I called out to him and he came over to me. As he turned, he tripped on a groundskeeper’s rake and almost fell, briefly giving me visions of a blown ACL and an angry call from Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos. Anyway, he signed quickly for me and I must admit his autograph is one of the oddest I’ve seen:
Pretty soon, the clock said a few minutes before 7 p.m., meaning the game was set to begin. I snapped the shots to build this panorama during the national anthem:
Then, took my seat behind the visiting team’s dugout. (Not that it mattered where I sat, because I would soon be on the move again!) After the first batter, the three or four kids beside me who were yelling, eating and generally not paying attention to the game got on my nerves. Normally I sit in my designated seat for the first inning or two, but not this time. Off I went again.
Here’s Hechavarria batting:
And a panorama from sort of behind home plate:
Merchantsauto.com Stadium/Northeast Delta Dental Stadium (say that five times fast) has a Fenway Park-style manual scoreboard in left field:
You can also see it in the shot below, which captures the busy concourse behind the third base line:
Dinner time! I’d read about the ballpark’s decent selection of seafood, given Manchester’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. Normally, I’d be wary of eating something too exotic at a baseball stadium, but on this chilly night, I wanted something hot and tasty. Here’s the seafood menu:
I went with a clam basket, which came with fries and coleslaw. It was all right — lots and lots of breading but the slaw was excellent and the clams and fries were nice and hot:
It was also amply sized. I had trouble finishing it, but perhaps that’s because my hands were shaking because of the cold. I was only wearing a light jacket, so I was very chilly on this September evening. After I was done eating, I sat in the left field corner for a couple innings. If you love baseball like I do, you’ll appreciate how passionate I am about attending live games. It’s awesome, though there are hardly the words to describe it. I love moving around, taking photos and watching the game from different angles. Here’s a close-up shot of the scoreboard:
I was so close I could hear the men who were operating it talking back and forth. And here’s a look down the line from the corner. That’s Trenton’s bullpen; you can see one of the Thunder’s relievers stretching his throwing arm with a band tied to the fence:
Remember that $15 cap I mentioned earlier? Here it is on the fence:
And speaking of the fence, it’s ideal for snagging foul balls. I had no luck, but unlike solid fences that require you to hang over them to grab a ball, you can simply reach through the rungs of this one:
I watched a freezing cold inning from the picnic area behind the left field fence. I was the lone person braving the cold in this area. More sensible people were enjoying warming beverages in the bar behind me. Here’s a view from the picnic zone:
By now, the game was nearing its late stages, and things were still close. Trenton led 1-0 through six, but New Hampshire had trouble getting any kind of rally going. To make matters worse, the Thunder scored two in the seventh, four in the eighth and one more in the ninth. Normally, I don’t cheer for either team unless the Jays are involved, but given Toronto’s connection to the Fisher Cats, I was cheering like crazy for the home side. New Hampshire put up one run in the bottom of the ninth, but that was it. Final score: Trenton 8, NH 1. End of the season for the Cats, who quickly beelined it for the clubhouse. I was hoping they might return to greet the fans, as teams occasionally do after the end of the season, but soon the lights went off and a fireworks show began:
After the show, it was a bit of a depressing feeling. The team’s season was over, and my 2010 ballpark adventure might be over, too. I needed to check to see if the Tri-City ValleyCats had advanced to the New York-Penn League final; if so, they’d play in nearby Troy, NY, the following night.
So, with my 2010 hanging in the balance, I looked around at the dark Merchantsauto.com Stadium:
(As I had not been drinking, my vision wasn’t this blurry; it was just the camera.)
Because I’d yet to get a ball at this game, I decided I’d take advantage of the quickly emptying ballpark to see if I could come up with one. There was nothing in the NH bullpen, nor the home side’s dugout. As a last-ditch effort, I checked the Trenton dugout. Nothing. A hopeful peek into the elevator that helps people in wheelchairs get into the dugout, however, yielded a white sphere in a shadowy corner. Aha! I reached for the ball … and reached … and reached again. The elevator was so deep there was no way I could get the ball. Unless, of course, I climbed into the elevator. Its door was latched, so I quickly scaled it and reached for the (very cobwebby) ball. Got it! When I got back out and held it to the light, I could see it was an Official Eastern League Baseball. It had obviously been there a significant length of time, and I have no idea whether it was a game ball or just a practice ball:
Anyway, with ball in hand, I left the now-almost empty park, walked quickly past the line of traffic waiting to exit the stadium parking lot and was back in my hotel room watching ESPN before many fans were on the highway. Awesome! I also kept an eye on the darkened stadium. Lots of workers were scurrying around the concourse cleaning and doing other duties. Eventually, the workers thinned out and soon, the lights were turned off.
The next morning, I woke early, worked out in the Hilton’s gym for an hour and stopped in at the business center to check the Tri-City website. It turns out the ValleyCats beat Batavia in the opening round of the NYPL playoffs, setting up a championship round Game 1 against Brooklyn starting that night. One more game to get to in 2010! Troy, NY, is a 3.5-hour drive from Manchester. I quickly packed up my room, loaded up the car and returned to the hotel lobby to check out. In the lobby, I ran into a familiar face. It was Edwin Encarnacion, who was leaving the hotel to wait for a shuttle. The shuttle would take him to the airport where he’d fly back to join the Jays. He was carrying his Jays duffel bag, too. I said hello to him, and he said hello back. I should’ve asked to get a photo with him, but there was no one readily available to take it, and I like to be respectful of pro athletes’ privacy when they’re not at work.
Before leaving, I walked back down to the ballpark and took one last shot of the building front:
Then I hopped in the car, punched Tri-City’s Joseph L. Bruno Stadium into my trusty GPS, and hit the road.