With day one of my July road trip for The Ballpark Guide in the books, it was time to shift my attention to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, PNC Field and Derek Jeter. I planned this trip months ago, and when I heard last week that Jeter would begin rehabbing with the RailRiders on July 6, I had my fingers firmly crossed he’d still be around a day later during my visit.
Fortunately, the team confirmed the news on Twitter and I was thrilled to get a chance to see the captain up close. What perfect luck!
I was also excited to see the new PNC Field. I visited the park back in 2011 and found it outdated and in need of a facelift. In case you don’t follow the International League, the S/W-B team played its entire 2012 campaign on the road while a multi-million dollar renovation put a new face on PNC Field, and I can definitely say the new look is outstanding.
I arrived just before 10 a.m. for the 1 p.m. game and a pile of fans were already waiting for Jeter in the parking lot. As much as I was tempted to hang out and see if I could spot him, I was more excited to document the stadium renovations. Here’s a panoramic shot of the front gate area:
(If you click on the link about my 2011 visit, you can see how the park looked back then and draw your own conclusions.)
John Sadak with the RailRiders had left a media pass for me at Will Call, which was awesome. Thanks, John! Not only would it give me a chance to get in early on what would be a Jeter-induced sellout, but I’d get the opportunity to really explore. I entered the park through the Mohegan Sun Club entrance and climbed the stairs to find an MLB-quality bar/lounge area:
I believe this area is only open to suiteholders, but if you’re lucky enough to score a suite at PNC Field, you’ll sure enjoy this spot:
The club was virtually deserted except for a few servers scurrying around and a guy mopping the floor. I went outside to the suite-level seating to take this panorama of the park and its hilly backdrop, which I think gives the park a really cool feel:
Next, I went down to field level to take in the sights. In its previous incarnation, PNC Field’s concourse was a dark tunnel that ran beneath the seats. I’m not a fan of this type of design because you miss the game as you’re standing in line for food. The new look, however, was bright, wide open and welcoming:
An added perk was you could now walk around the entire field — there wasn’t anything in the outfield during my last visit. I love parks like this, and the walk with the field on one side and the cliff on the other was awesome:
Many parks have grass seating areas, but the grass area at the new PNC Field has trees and rocks to make it fit in with the surrounding terrain, and it definitely works. Some of the other post-reno features? An enormous, four-level party deck in the left field corner:
An upscale bar area in right field:
And standing-room areas in the outfield, bullpens you can stand over and a huge kids’ play area:
The RailRiders dugout is on the third base side, and while the players can access their clubhouse through the tunnels, many were walking around the concourse. I saw third baseman Josh Bell talking on a cellphone and pitcher Dellin Betances walked so close to me that I had to step out of the way. I don’t think I realized how big he is, but at 6’8″, he towered over me. Before he disappeared into a doorway, I quickly snapped this photo (he’s on the left):
Surprisingly for an afternoon game, the cage was on the field and I was hoping Jeter would be among the players hitting. I kept an eye on the RailRiders side of the field and sure enough, he emerged at 11:09 a.m. Although dozens of media members were descending on PNC Field for the game, I can safely say I got the first photo of Jeter after he came out of the dugout:
The area between the cage and the stands was roped off for the media, and since I had a pass, I went out onto the field and stood about 20 feet from the cage for the next 45 minutes or so. I took dozens of photos of Jeter and while there’s no need to share them all, here are a few that I like. Before he hit the cage, he jogged up and down the line:
And when teammate Addison Maruszak stepped in, Jeter stood and watched:
The whole batting practice experience was amazing. I was so close I could hear Jeter groan when he hit a ball awkwardly and yell “Wooo!” when a teammate hit a home run. The group that joined Jeter was small — just Thomas Neal, Bell and Maruszak. Here are the latter three waiting while Jeter hits:
And here are Maruszak and Jeter chatting:
It was cool to see Maruszak again. I saw him in Columbus on my first big road trip and follow his wife, Breanna, on Twitter. She writes a really cool blog, Married to Baseball, about her life as the wife of a professional baseball player, and I’d get a chance to meet her later in the day and talk baseball for about 10 minutes.
When the gates opened, it didn’t take long for the autograph-seeking crowd to pour down the steps to field level and begin screaming Jeter’s name:
After the captain finished hitting, he took some infield drills, and it was absolutely surreal to stand there on the field and watch it all unfold:
It was also funny watching how everything revolved around Jeter. For example, when he saw Lehigh Valley pitching coach Ray Burris walk past, Jeter just stopped fielding ground balls and everyone waited for him to finish chatting with Burris:
After Jeter finished the drill, he headed down the line and signed for a few minutes with a pair of cops and three RailRiders employees surrounding him:
Before long, he disappeared back into the dugout and then the clubhouse, and I continued wandering around the park. The game’s starting lineups are displayed on a board outside the press box and, as you might imagine, people were anxious to photograph Jeter’s name:
I was getting pretty hungry, but as game time approached, I wanted to be sure to see Jeter’s first plate appearance before I went off in search of lunch. As you might expect, he got a lengthy ovation as he led off the bottom of the first …
… and then drew a walk:
After seeing him, my next mission was lunch, and I was drawn to the smoky smells of a concession stand in right field that had pulled pork, brisket and the like. I went with a beef brisket sandwich and chips:
The beef itself was smoky and delicious and the sauce was good, too. My first bite, however, was not. Somehow, there was a chunk of fat nearly the size of a golf ball buried in the sandwich, which was beyond gross. It wasn’t a bit of gristle or a tiny sliver of fat. It was enormous and although it partly hurt the overall quality of the sandwich, I’d still recommend this meal — just inspect your meat first.
Before Jeter’s next trip to the plate, I made sure to get in better position, opting for a seat on the first base side. Jeter swung and missed at this pitch …
… but then hit a single for the first hit of his rehab stint with the RailRiders. He scored three batters later on a home run from Randy Ruiz. I mention Ruiz because back in 2011, I got one of his game-used bats in New Hampshire.
I spent several innings in this location and at one point, noted a mother and her kid who had sat down behind me. The kid was eating one of those fluorescent red frozen ice drinks, and I remember thinking how awful it’d be if he spilled it on me; I was wearing one of my new, white The Ballpark Guide polo shirts. They left soon enough, thankfully — but flash forward to me arriving at my hotel after the game and noticing the back of my shirt was completely covered in red dye. It’s probably ruined. I can understand that kids are occasionally clumsy, but think of the parenting here — watch your kid make a horrible mess on a stranger and then quietly leave before he notices? Parent of the year.
Betances, who I saw before the game in the concourse, pitched in relief and check out how long his stride is; in particular, how far he ends up away from the rubber when he releases the ball:
Jeter had two more plate appearances — a strikeout and a walk, and I took a picture of him during virtually every pitch he faced and a bunch more after he walked:
The RailRiders ended up winning 6-2 and regardless of the score, this game will go down as a real highlight for me since I started traveling for The Ballpark Guide in 2010. Although I’m not a Yankees fan, I’ve always admired how Jeter plays the game and carries himself and seeing him in this context was incredible.
The whole experience was awesome, but having been in the full sun for about six hours, I was majorly burned and was looking forward to getting to my hotel. Good news: The place I was staying is within walking distance of PNC Field! I’d booked a room at the Courtyard Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, which sits on the hill above the ballpark. In fact, I could see the roof of the hotel during the game:
If you’re taking in the RailRiders on your baseball road trip, this is the hotel to visit. Its convenience is just one reason to do so; I also found the hotel staff exceptionally friendly and personable. The lobby is huge and leads to a business center, sitting area and a large restaurant with a wide-ranging menu. For me, though, I was pumped that my room was great. Here’s a shot that shows the sitting area, king-sized bed and the corner of the desk:
And here’s the room from the other direction:
And, finally, the outside of the hotel:
Beyond being close to PNC Field, you can’t beat the Courtyard Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s location. Less than a minute away is an enormous complex with a ton of eateries, shopping and even a movie theater. The eateries include a LongHorn Steakhouse and an Italian restaurant, plus a Quiznos, Panera bread, pizza place and Pancheros, which is where I grabbed dinner after the game.
The next morning, I got up early, packed up the car and drove to the same observation spot I’ve used on two other occasions. From here, it was cool to see the new-look PNC Field. If you’ve read my blog frequently, you might remember me taking similar photos during my 2011 visit and again in 2012 while passing through town:
Next up: Two games in two cities in one day — Harrisburg and State College.