Opening Day is the day that most baseball fans circle on their calendars each April, but for me, the day I think about the most is the day of my first live game. When I started The Ballpark Guide in 2010, my first game didn’t come till July. In 2011 and 2012, it was May. This year, however, I wanted to get a game under my belt early, as I’ve got some great trips planned for the spring and summer.
For the last month or so, I’ve been eyeing yesterday’s Syracuse Chiefs doubleheader at NBT Bank Stadium against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. As I wrote in my previous blog post, the Chiefs are the closest MLB/MiLB team to where I live and since visiting in 2010 for a game, I’ve wanted to get back to the Cuse. And though the forecast was calling for a high of about 46 degrees and a chance of rain, I decided to chance it — after all, 46 degrees and a little rain is better than the ice and snow back home, right? Fortunately, I didn’t see more than a few drops of rain on the drive and by the time I got to the ballpark, I was pleased to see this sign:
(It’s much better than the sign I saw when I tried to watch the Chiefs in 2011.)
After parking, I decided to walk away from the stadium to take some shots of this little train platform, appropriately named Chiefsville:
I also wanted to check out the far end of the giant parking lot in front of NBT Bank Stadium. As I walked across the lot, I turned around and took this panorama:
And then I took this shot:
Why? Well, before NBT Bank Stadium opened in 1997, the Chiefs played at MacArthur Stadium, which was located on this site. Minus a three-year window, it was home to the Chiefs between 1934 and 1996, so you can imagine the long list of stars who played here. Although there isn’t a plaque marking the area (at least there isn’t one that I noticed), it’s a neat spot to visit.
Next, I went up to the pavilion in front of the home plate gate to capture the park’s new sign and name:
The NBT Bank Stadium name is new — the name was changed in the off-season from Alliance Bank Stadium. As I’ve said before, I love the look of this ballpark from the outside. I’m a sucker for brick ballparks and the turret concept is cool:
Although I was tempted to grab my media pass and dash inside the park to wander around, I decided to take a little more time outside. I wandered to the corner of the parking lot beyond the right field corner of the field, followed a winding path up to a set of train tracks, wandered along the tracks and balanced on a rail while I took this photo:
OK, time to get inside. I picked up my media pass (thanks again, Chiefs!) and stopped to look at a historical display honoring a bunch of former Chiefs …
… before I hopped in the elevator and rode up to the concourse level. It was just after noon, and with nearly an hour until the gates opened and nearly two hours until first pitch, the concourse was very quiet:
In fact, so too was the seating bowl:
Obviously, with a doubleheader on the schedule, batting practice wasn’t in the cards, and with the cold weather, only a handful of guys were out on the field — all from the visiting Lehigh Valley IronPigs side. You can barely see them in this panorama:
While I was walking around, I noticed a familiar name on a sign — the Ramada Syracuse is not only the hotel I’d visit after the game, but it’s also the official hotel of the Chiefs. I’ll have much more on the hotel later in this blog post, but for now, it was cool to see this sign:
As I continued to walk around and take photos, I got a Tweet from the Chiefs, who’d been Tweeting with me over the last week or so leading up to my visit. The person behind the team’s Twitter account, Desiree Ellison, said she’d give me a tour of the park! Desiree works in the team’s marketing and promotions department, and as I soon found out, she’s a big-time baseball nerd — and I mean that in a completely complimentary way. (It takes one to know one, right?!)
Anyway, the first thing we did on our tour was go out on the field, which is something that never gets old:
We went into the Chiefs dugout where I snapped this picture of the helmet rack:
And, after turning 180 degrees, I took this shot showing manager Tony Beasley’s view:
Then, it was down the third base line to the home side’s bullpen …
… and even the sod farm behind the outfield fence. (I’ll spare you the photo I took of sod growing, but I thought it was neat.) Next, we went into the bowels of NBT Bank Stadium to see the indoor batting cages, which were quiet:
And then up to the press box, which has this view:
See the video board?
It was installed last year and I think you’ll agree it’s a huge upgrade from the board that was in use when I visited Syracuse in 2010.
The tour continued to the second deck, where Desiree showed me her favorite vantage point:
I’d use this spot throughout much of the game, as you’ll read soon enough. The tour was awesome; it’s always impressive to not only learn some interesting facts about a park, but also wander through some behind-the-scenes areas. Thanks so much, Desiree!
After the tour, I decided to check out the team’s souvenir shop, which is notable for having a working train ride the rails above your head:
There was a bit of a group of people in front of me, and after I snapped the photo of the train, I looked down and realized I was standing face to face with Chiefs (and former Toronto Blue Jays) pitcher Jeremy Accardo! He was signing autographs in the team shop so I got him on my game program:
By this time, both teams were out on the field, so I jetted down to field level to take in the sights. I like this shot of Syracuse’s Yunesky Maya, who started game one, warming up in the bullpen:
As I said earlier, it was a chilly day. In the sun, it was all right, but in the shade, it was very cold. It didn’t take long to notice how different guys were keeping warm:
But Syracuse infielder Mike Costanzo had a more traditional method of keeping his hands warm:
I spent the first inning in the lower seats along the first base line with this view:
As you can see, the park wasn’t exactly full, but on a cold day that coincided with the final round of the Masters, some people might’ve chosen to stay at home on the couch. (Mini rant: The Chiefs are the closest affiliated team to my home and if they were closer, I’d be at the ballpark all the time. Support your home team, people! There’s nothing better than live baseball.)
By now, it was after 2 p.m., I’d been up since 6 a.m. and at the park since 11 a.m. I was hungry. Desiree recommended the Pops Special hot dog, so that’s what I went with. It’s a hot dog loaded with mac and cheese, and while I had a similar item back in 2011 at Nationals Park, I was anxious to try it:
The hot dog itself was absolutely the best dog I’ve ever eaten at a ballpark, and while the mac and cheese was a nice touch, it wasn’t quite as flavorful as I’d have liked. Still, it was a delicious meal and it’s something I heartily recommend. I neglected to pick up any utensils, so I ate it without — it’s a good thing the upper deck was so quiet, as I would’ve undoubtedly disgusted any fans around me. Seriously, though, it was very tasty. The NBT Bank Stadium dog was good enough that I’d be interested to eat a plain dog with traditional toppings.
After eating, I moved to my right a little and hung out on a second-level group deck that Desiree recommended and that was empty during the game. I can’t argue that it’s a prime spot — especially given that foul balls were flying in and around this area during the first inning alone, before I got up there. From here, you’ve got not only a nice panoramic view of the park, but no obstructions for photos. Granted, you’re not in the first row at field level, but lots of my shots, including this one of Lehigh Valley starter Ethan Martin, turned out well:
My quest for a foul ball, however, wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped. It was a standoff; I refused to relocate elsewhere, as Murphy’s Law would dictate that as soon as I left the section, a foul ball would land in the area. But in the fifth inning, Canadian Pete Orr came to bat for the IronPigs and fouled off a Yunesky Maya pitch that went off the facing of the suite next to me, bounced twice on the concrete and then into my (winter gloved) hands:
Mission accomplished! I decided to spend the game’s final innings (remember, doubleheader games are only seven innings each in the minors) at field level, and I found a spot next to the Lehigh Valley dugout with this view:
I don’t often sit in this spot at ballparks, but from here, I had a neat angle for shots like this one of IronPigs reliever Jake Diekman:
Diekman didn’t fare too well during his appearance — he went just 0.1 innings and gave up three walks, and when he was pulled, he walked back to the dugout entrance just a few feet to my right with a strange sense of calm. Once inside the dugout, however, he slammed his glove against the bench and didn’t seem too happy as he sat there. The visitors won 5-2, and during the 30-minute break between games, I was on the move again. By this time, I was pretty cold. I’d dressed warmly, but just being outside for that length of time was taking its toll. As I walked around to stay warm, I was glad to find this:
OK, so it didn’t provide refuge from the cold. Actually, I don’t know what it provided refuge from. But it gave me a chuckle.
Before long, the teams came out to warm up for the second game, and I went over to the Syracuse bullpen to watch the warmup of Ryan Perry, who got the start in game two for the Chiefs. I saw him pitch back in 2011 with the Tigers at Comerica Park, so it was neat to see him again. As he was warming up, I could see a colorful tattoo sticking out from beneath his glove. I couldn’t tell what it was from where I was standing, but now that I can enlarge the photo, it looks like a skeleton version of the MLB logo:
I decided to sit in the sun for a bit to get warm, and given that it was shining bright on the first base-side seats, that’s where I ventured. From here, I had a clear view to the plate and could take pictures like this one of Jeff Kobernus, who actually hit a single on this non-textbook swing:
Being in the sun warmed my bones a little, and it wasn’t long before I wondered if I could get a foul ball during the second game; I figured it’d be quite the feat to get balls in games one and two of a doubleheader. I went back to my prime foul ball territory, and in the fifth inning, a foul ball flew back toward the suite level, where it bounced around and landed out of sight. I estimated the ball to be about six suites from where I was standing, and since no one was rushing out from those suites (or any others) to retrieve the ball, I wandered over but the ball had disappeared. I looked for a few moments and wondered what the heck had happened. Then, I noticed that the concrete wall in front of each suite has a drainage hole at the bottom. Could the ball have magically found the hole? I couldn’t tell, so I looked over the fence into the gutter below, and this is what I saw:
So, I blindly reached my hand through the hole into the cold water, felt around and came up with this:
After the Chiefs led the entire game, Lehigh Valley scored late to tie the contest 2-2 and force extra innings. In the bottom of the eighth, Chiefs third baseman Jimmy Van Ostrand got up with the bases loaded and hit a walk-off single:
It was a very full and entertaining day at the ballpark, and as I walked out to my car, I turned and took one last shot of the sunset hitting NBT Bank Stadium:
Fortunately, I didn’t have to drive far to reach my hotel. Remember how I mentioned the Ramada Syracuse earlier? It’s less than three miles from the ballpark, making it the perfect choice for Chiefs fans — no trekking downtown and no driving out to the suburbs to find a hotel. It’s also within sight of the junction of I-81 and I-90, which made getting on the road this morning super easy. I’ll definitely stay here during future visits to Syracuse, and I think it’s the best choice in town for baseball fans. I didn’t have a chance to use the hotel’s on-site amenities, but it’s got a restaurant, as well as a pool and athletic center — perfect for burning off the extra hot dogs you ate at the Chiefs game!
After seeing where the hotel was, I decided to find a supermarket nearby. There’s a Wegman’s about five minutes away, and I always enjoy hitting this brand of store when I’m on my trips, so I made the quick drive to load up on some snacks for the night. If you want something closer to the hotel, Subway, Burger King, Denny’s, a pizza place and an ice cream parlor are all within walking distance. If you need an extra reason to choose this hotel, it’s ranked fourth among Syracuse hotels on TripAdvisor.
When I got back to the Ramada, I took this photo from the outside …
… before heading to my room which was thankfully nice and warm, but also large and inviting — king-sized bed, couch, coffee table and desk, which is where I sat to work on this blog post. I waited till morning to take this shot, which shows the how roomy the room is:
I managed to get about 1,100 words of this blog post written Sunday night while watching Sunday Night Baseball, and checked out just before 7 a.m. this morning. After loading up the car, I took a an early-morning shot of the exterior before hitting the road:
But wait! There’s a little more. If you remember this blog post, you’ll know that when possible, I enjoy checking out collegiate baseball fields. Instead of seeing a collegiate field, though, I stopped at Duffy Fairgrounds, a park in Watertown, NY. Built in 1938, the park has been home to a long list of teams, including the Watertown Pirates (1983 to 1988), and later the Watertown Indians (1989 to 1998), of the New York-Penn League. The park had a classic grandstand, as you can see here:
If you’re wondering, guys including Sean Casey, Brian Giles, Moises Alou, Orlando Merced and Jay Buhner played here during their stint in Watertown. And in 1988, the Watertown Pirates had a 21-year-old first baseman named Tim Wakefield, who hit just .189, began pitching the following season and eventually rode his knuckleball to a pair of World Series titles with the Red Sox. Neat, huh?
One more side note: I was stuck in a long lineup at the border waiting to cross back into Canada, and at one point, I looked out my window and saw this, which shows I was sitting exactly on the line between Canada and the U.S.:
Also, when the border guard asked my reason for being in the U.S., I explained that I’d watched the “Syracuse Chiefs Triple-A baseball team playing a doubleheader.” He responded with: “A Double-A team playing a tripleheader?” I’m guessing he’s not a baseball fan.
Now that my first road trip of the season is in the books, I’m already looking forward. In fact, I’ll have a big announcement this week! As always, you can follow me on Twitter and visit The Ballpark Guide. Your traffic on my website helps support my trips.