For the third consecutive day, I stayed within the Philadelphia Phillies system on this road trip. After checking out the Phillies Short-Season A and Triple-A affiliates (Lehigh Valley and Williamsport, respectively), I traveled to Reading, PA, to check out the Fightin Phils, who play in the Double-A Eastern League. The who, you might ask? The team’s been known as the Reading Phillies since 1967, but during the offseason, management made a number of changes that included a name and logo change.
I was anxious to explore Reading’s FirstEnergy Stadium on this trip. The park opened way back in 1951, but the team has consistently made upgrades to give the park a historic feel with modern-day perks. Best of all, I’d get an awesome opportunity to check out the entire park with director of PR Eric Scarcella, who had not only given me a media pass for my visit, but had also arranged to give me a tour once I arrived. I hung out around the press box to meet up with Eric, and snapped the photos to make up this panorama, which should give you an idea of how things look:
The first stop on our tour was a huge plaza outside the first base stands that was very reminiscent of Fenway Park‘s Yawkey Way or, more aptly, Citizens Bank Park’s Ashburn Alley. At FirstEnergy Stadium, this area opens early and fans can grab some food, catch some live entertainment and even play carnival-style games. Here’s what the area looks like from the opening:
From there, Eric took me outside the park to check out the recent renovations to the front gate area. The brick walkway is full of plaques recognizing different inductees from throughout the team’s history. If you’ve been a fan of the Phillies (or should I say a phan of the Phillies?) over the last half-century, it’s pretty likely that your favorite players once suited up in Reading. Here’s a plaque honoring a trio of 1987 Reading hall of fame inductees with a couple names you’ll surely recognize:
Eric was more than generous with his time and we kept a pretty good pace throughout the tour because we had so many spots to hit. Up next was the main concourse, which is absolutely awesome. It’s under the stands, and while this type of concourse can occasionally seem dark, damp and dingy, that’s not the case in Reading at all. In fact, when you walk through this area, it feels like you’ve just stepped back in time. The signs are hand painted to really give the area a vintage feel — much in the same way as some parts of Fenway Park. Here’s a concession stand, for instance:
On top of the concessions, the concourse is also lined with historical displays. If you want to know virtually every detail about the history of baseball in Reading, take a wander through here and you’ll soon be a walking trivia machine. Here’s one example of the year-by-year data:
Once Eric had given me a crash course on the team’s history, we followed the concourse up the area behind the third base line and took this ramp:
To the right of this ramp, we stopped in the ’67 Club, a picnic area with this view:
Then, it was farther along the walkway and over to this awesome deck area in the left field corner:
This deck is an absolutely perfect place to enjoy the game. It’s got standing room areas, bar-style tables and, my favorite, boxes like this one:
I think if I was visiting FirstEnergy Stadium with a handful of people, I’d push pretty hard to buy tickets in one of these boxes. Wouldn’t you?
As we checked out the sites, I couldn’t help but try to keep an eye on the field. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats were taking batting practice, and balls were thudding into the area all around us. Want proof?
Those balls weren’t the only ones I saw. There were at least eight or 10 others in various spots throughout the deck. Although I left most of them where they saw, I couldn’t resist grabbing one for my collection:
Eric had already spent more than half an hour with me and there was still lots to see. We retraced our steps back down to the concourse, where I snapped this photo to give you an idea of what it looks like when it’s empty:
Our next stop was the party deck area in right field, which has this view:
But as great as the view is, it’s not the prime spot in this area. You know the swimming pools in Miami’s park? Check out Reading’s version of this style of “seating”:
By now, Eric had spent about an hour with me and soon had to get back to his pre-game responsibilities. First, though, he took me to two last spots in the park, starting with the team shop. I’ve found on my travels throughout the minors leagues that team shops at MiLB parks vary considerably. The one at FirstEnergy Stadium, however, is one of the nicest I’ve visited. In addition to an enormous selection of Fighting Phils stuff — including a ton of their various jerseys — I was impressed with the Mitchell & Ness wall of retro Phillies gear:
Equally impressive, albeit for another reason, was a pair of lockers dedicated to a couple former Reading stars — Ryan Howard and Darin Ruf. Each locker was loaded with a bunch of game-used gear, plus some other neat items:
Just when I thought our tour was over, Eric led me through a door into the team’s offices, where I not only spotted this Mike Schmidt signed jersey …
… and raised an eyebrow about this Taylor Swift plaque. Turns out that Swift grew up just a few miles from Reading and still has ties to the area. In fact, long before she became a household name, she sung the anthem before a game at FirstEnergy Stadium:
Once Eric and I said our goodbyes and he went to get ready for the game, I went back out to the seating bowl and contemplated my next move. My brain was swimming with all the information Eric just dropped on me, and I was pumped to get wandering around and see all the sights again. It made sense to start outside, so I went back through the gates (which were now open and full of people streaming in) and checked out the front of the park, which I captured in this panorama:
I also got a closer look at the two ostriches outside the front gates. We all know that ostriches are extremely fast and have big eggs, but did you know they can stand up to nine feet fall and weigh more than 300 pounds? Neither did I. (That’s comparable to Shaq, by the way.) I learned this information by talking with the staff member handling the pair of birds. The two are female, as males would be too aggressive toward fans. One last interesting tidbit: During the season, the two ostriches live at FirstEnergy Stadium in a pen behind the outfield fence. Here’s one of them checking me out:
Next, I went back into the plaza behind the first base stands to capture this panorama, which shows just how happening the area is:
I got back to the seating bowl just in time to see a few Fightin Phils heading to the field. One of the best parts of FirstEnergy Stadium is just how close you can get to the players. I mean, this concept is common throughout the minors, but it’s at a different level in Reading. The home team’s clubhouse is just behind this door …
… and before the game, the guys cut across the concourse and through a walkway to the field. You’re close enough to touch the players although, as with the ostriches, I suggest keeping your hands to yourself. Here’s one player making his way toward the field:
It was neat to see a handful of Fightin Phils up close, but as a Jays fan, I was more interested in seeing the Fisher Cats. I raced through the concourse and got to the spot outside the visiting clubhouse just in time to see a bunch of New Hampshire players pass by:
After watching most of the guys walk by, I saw 2012 first-round draft pick Marcus Stroman leave the clubhouse in his street clothes. He was carrying a clipboard, so he was obviously tasked with charting pitches for the game:
That’s him in the plaid shirt with the New York Rangers cap, and the two guys walking in front of him are also members of the Fisher Cats. I’ve followed Stroman’s path through the minors and can’t wait until the “Stro Show” takes the mound for the Jays.
Anyway, wanting to confirm my theory that Stroman was charting pitches, I trailed him through the concourse until he took his seat behind home plate:
I moved out to the left field deck for the anthem and the first inning, and then set my sights on dinner. When I asked Eric about the park’s notable eats, he recommended the Churger — a burger, slice of cheese and a chicken breast on a roll. If this had been the first day of my trip, I would’ve wolfed down this sandwich, but having eaten ballpark food for several days, I decided to get something lighter. Not healthier, mind you, but lighter. When I’d passed through the concession area earlier, I was intrigued with the several varieties of gourmet hot dogs, and decided to pick the Chooch Dog, named after Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz. It features chili, shredded mozzarella cheese, coleslaw and hot sauce. And it looks like this:
OK, so it might not look that great, but it was tasty. A little tough to eat, which reminded me of the Pops Special hot dog I ate back in April at Syracuse’s NBT Bank Stadium.
Once I finished eating (and finished glaring at the drips of hot sauce that were mocking me from my T-shirt), I found a camera bay-type area on the third base line and started to take a bunch of action photos. As much as I love touring new parks, I really enjoy taking action shots — especially since I upgraded my camera. I’ll continue to upgrade my lenses over time but, for now, I’m pretty happy with the shots I’m able to get. Here’s Fisher Cats second baseman Ryan Schimpf:
(You’ll notice a large sign for the Churger in the background, mocking me.)
Fightin Phils third baseman Maikel Franco:
And New Hampshire DH Gabe Jacobo who, in his first game after being promoted from High-A Dunedin, had a three-hit game that included a home run and two runs batted in:
His home run came just a moment after I captured him on deck, and from my spot next to the New Hampshire dugout, I had a great view of Jacobo shaking hands with Fisher Cats manager Gary Allenson:
I spent several innings in this spot and shot dozens more action photos before taking another walk through the stadium. I soon came across Stroman, and snapped this photo of him:
Speaking of the Fisher Cats, they were en route to a 5-1 win, thanks (in part, at least) to Jacobo’s blast). As the game progressed, I decided to make a lap around the outside of the park, as I hadn’t had a chance before the game. One of the neat things you’ll notice outside FirstEnergy Stadium is a giant brick wall, which gives the park a really neat, retro feel:
After a full lap, I went back inside, found a seat and watched the remaining few innings before packing up and heading to my hotel. Although I was in Reading, I decided to drive on to Allentown, PA, for the night. I’d been in Allentown for the previous night’s IronPigs game, but heading back to the city made sense geographically. The next day, I was driving on to Little Falls, N.J. to see Jeremy Nowak play again, and Allentown was right on my way. Before long, I got to my hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn Allentown – Bethlehem Airport. I love staying in Hilton Garden Inns. I’ve done so a number of times in the past and the Allentown hotel was as great as I’d expected. I didn’t take any photos upon arriving, but the next morning snapped this one of the outside of the hotel:
The room was great and had all the amenities I’ve grown to expect at a Hilton Garden Inn — comfy bed, desk, sitting chair, fridge, etc. Here’s a look at the room from the front hallway:
And here’s the scene looking back toward the door:
The next morning, I went down to the hotel’s main level and swam for about half an hour in the indoor pool, which I often love doing on my baseball road trips. Afterward, I hopped in the car and checked out the surrounding areas. One of the perks of staying in this hotel is the neighborhood. Not only is the hotel close to the highway, it’s also close to virtually anything you’d need. It’s across the street from a Target, which I visited for some snacks and a couple packs of baseball cards, and eateries including Five Guys, Dunkin’ Donuts, Friendly’s, Sonic, Waffle House, Starbucks and more are within walking distance. And if you’d rather eat in the hotel, it has a neat feature I don’t recall encountering in the past. A Red Robin sits across the parking lot from the hotel, and you can order things off the Red Robin menu for room service. Pretty cool, huh?
I’d definitely recommend the Hilton Garden Inn Allentown – Bethlehem Airport when you’re staying in the area, and this will definitely be the place I visit next time I’m back. Up next, though, I’d head back to New Jersey for the first time since 2012. This time, I’d be checking out some indy league action!