The good: I woke up on May 16 knowing that I’d be spending two days in El Paso, seeing the Pacific Coast League’s Chihuahuas play at the beautiful Southwest University Park and staying in an awesome hotel across the street from the ballpark.
The bad: My alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. that morning.
The ugly: The weather that had caused a rainout a day earlier had intensified into one of the strongest storms I’d ever seen and I had an early morning flight to catch.
Time to get things started.
I’d gotten myself organized the night before, so I was out of my hotel before 4 a.m., into my rental car and peering through the windshield (with the wipers on psycho mode) at the dark and rain-ravaged streets of downtown Corpus Christi a few minutes after the top of the hour. My hotel was only 10 or 15 minutes from the airport, but the drive was one of the most harrowing I can recall — steering with one hand, holding my GPS with the other and gritting my teeth when I’d hit places that had an inch or two of standing water on the road. I was glad to pull into the airport about 4:30 a.m. — even if it meant getting completely soaked on the walk between the rental car drop-off lot and the terminal.
“Quite a storm,” said the cheerful lady when I checked in at the Southwest desk. “We’re hoping to fly out this morning.”
Uh, hoping? Turns out that my apocalyptic view of the storm wasn’t exaggerated. Corpus Christi got something like five inches of rain overnight, many roads throughout the city were closed and a fellow passenger in line behind me heard that people in certain areas were being evacuated from their homes.
Of course, I wouldn’t have to worry about any of this silly weather in the desert climate of El Paso — but I’d have to get there first. With some time to kill, I hung out in the quiet airport …
… and was delighted a short while later to learn that my 6:30 a.m. flight was still scheduled to depart on time. Soon enough, I boarded the flight and had this view:
A little over an hour later, though, the view had dramatically improved:
I took the above shot of the mountains through the window of the El Paso International Airport shortly after touching down and, as you can imagine, I was very pleased to see the clear skies after the previous day’s rainout.
I picked up my rental car and made the short drive to downtown El Paso to check into my hotel. It was still only mid-morning (there’s an hour’s difference between Corpus Christi and El Paso) but my hotel room was free, so I was thrilled to be able to get in and relax a little. I was staying for two nights at the DoubleTree Downtown El Paso, which is an absolutely fantastic hotel and the perfect spot to stay for baseball fans visiting El Paso. As I wrote earlier, it’s basically across the street from Southwest University Park and many of the rooms face the field. Mine didn’t, but I had a great view of the city and of the mountains beyond:
I’d planned to have a short nap after arriving, but when I settled into my room and saw a bunch of welcome goodies from Destination El Paso (the city’s tourism department) I got too giddy to sleep. There were some delicious treats that served as a late breakfast for me, as well as this:
Speaking of Destination El Paso, I was scheduled to visit with Veronica Castro, the director of tourism development, and Leesy McCorgary, the digital marketing manager, to learn more about the city — and, of course, talk some baseball. We visited Anson 11, a restaurant within walking distance of the DoubleTree, and I ate a delicious plate of pork belly nachos with kimchee slaw, avocado and smoked mayo:
You could certainly say that my visit to El Paso was off to a good start.
After lunch, we took a walking tour of the city’s downtown area and checked out a number of interesting sights, and I was thoroughly impressed with the downtown area. El Paso is an interesting city, seemingly equally influenced by Texas and Mexican culture. It’s right on the border with the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, which has often made headlines for its astronomical murder rate. El Paso, however, is exactly the opposite — it has repeatedly been named the “Safest City in America,” and I could see why. I did a ton of walking all around the downtown area during my visit, both with Veronica and Leesy, and on my own, and I was struck by how clean everything was and how safe it felt. El Paso is definitely in my sights for a return visit.
Anyway, after checking out some of the downtown sights, I was paired up with Angela Olivas, the Chihuahuas’ director of marketing and communications, for a one-on-one tour of Southwest University Park. (The day just kept on getting better and better!)
Beyond the insider information that I always get on my tours, one of the best things is getting access to areas I’d never otherwise see — even with a media pass. Our tour began in the bowels of the ballpark and we soon made our way through the tunnels into this grounds crew area, which is somewhere I wouldn’t have explored on my own …
… and then out onto the field!
No matter how many times I get to stand on a professional baseball field, it’s always a thrill. I routinely find myself bending down to touch the grass and kicking at the dirt just to feel it.
Sometimes, a tour’s visit to the field is short. This time, however, we spent several minutes out there while Angela explained the top-notch job that the team’s grounds crew does. You can imagine, given the desert climate, that it’s a big challenge to keep the field in pristine shape, but as you can see from these photos, the grass looked sensational.
By the way, how cool are the structures in right field? Here’s a closer look, and you can rest assured that you’ll see lots more photos (including the view from inside) later on in this post:
One of the neat features that Angela pointed out while we stood on the field is Southwest University Park’s Peter Piper Pizza Porch, which is also known as the “blue monster” as a tip of the cap to the Green Monster at Fenway Park:
This one isn’t quite as tall, but it’s an awesome feature and has seats above it, just like its green counterpart.
Before long, the tour continued through the tunnels below the ballpark. Check out how bright and clean everything was:
We went past the home clubhouse …
… and into an area called the “Dugout Club.” It’s a posh spot that the season ticket holders can access. Now, it’s nothing new for a team to provide swank surroundings for those who support the team in this manner, but the Dugout Club area has an awesome feature that I hadn’t ever seen before — a private viewing area of the indoor batting cages!
Players use these cages before the game when it’s either raining (not very often) or so hot that they don’t want to hit on the field (likely more often). Can you imagine how cool it’d be to stand at the window and watch indoor batting practice? And, as cool as that vantage point is, here’s something else that was impressive — season ticket holders’ access to the seating bowl:
(Can you tell that I’m just a tiny bit excited about my visit to El Paso? I sure hope so!)
After checking out the Dugout Club, we continued through the tunnels past the umpires’ locker room …
… and eventually out to the concourse, where Angela led me toward the group decks in right field:
This multi-level area was ultra impressive. Here’s how one of the seating/dining areas looks before the doors are rolled up at game time:
On the wall opposite from the roll-up doors, there were dozens of artifacts related to the long history of baseball in El Paso:
(In the above picture, did you notice the baseball-themed women’s bathroom sign on the right side?)
We then visited another of the enclosed seating decks in this area …
… before going out to the stadium-style seating at the front of the structure:
As you can see, this area provided an outstanding view of the entire ballpark, and gives those who book space here an awesome atmosphere.
Next, we descended to the bottom of this structure to check out the visitors’ bullpen. Whereas the home bullpen is in foul territory on the third base side (pretty standard in the minor leagues) the ‘pen for the visiting team is in this area behind the right field fence and below the party decks:
It was built this way to allow fans to have close-up access to the visiting team — not only from the concourse, but also from the sidewalk outside the ballpark! In this next shot, you’ll see the field, the bullpen, the concourse and the sidewalk (and street):
So many teams design their parks so that passing pedestrians can’t see any of the action, but that’s obviously not the case here, and I think it gives the facility a friendly vibe. Just a few steps from the bullpen, there’s another nice seating area. The seats here aren’t reserved; they’re on a first-come, first-served basis, and are obviously a hot commodity among fans who get to Southwest University Park as soon as the gates open:
And speaking of hot, there’s a great place for kids to cool down on sweltering days, and that’s the splash pad in center field. Water shoots through a bunch of jets in the ground to keep kids feeling refreshed, and I was contemplating going over and lying on third base, given the heat:
There’s also a sizable baseball-themed play structure in the area …
… but my favorite center field attraction is the grass berm that offers this view:
Once we were done checking out the berm (and I was done catching imaginary home runs in my mind), Angela took me over to the exclusive seating section on top of the Peter Piper Pizza Porch:
Next, we went back through the clubhouse and road an elevator to the club level. We passed through this upscale eatery …
… and entered the press box, where I enjoyed this spectacular view:
Now, I know that each ballpark offers a unique view, and there are some sensational ones throughout the minors. It’s always hard to compare, but this one is definitely among my favorites of the 50+ parks I’ve been to. (Did you notice my hotel just to the left field side of center?)
Here’s the scene as a panorama:
As we left the suite level, I was looking over toward Ciudad Juarez, and Angela explained what I was seeing. In this photo, you can see two arched bridges. There’s such heavy traffic between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez that one bridge is for people going one direction, and the other is for those coming the other direction:
After a tour that lasted more than 45 minutes, Angela and I parted and I met up once again with Leesy to do a little more sightseeing, which I’ll write about in an upcoming blog post. Soon enough, I was back enjoying my hotel room — in particular, the air conditioning and the view.
A couple hours later, I made the short walk back to the ballpark, this time using my GoPro to document the sights. I’ll have a video put together to share very soon. Anyway, I was eager to check out the view from behind home plate again, and can you blame me? Here’s how things looked now that the visiting New Orleans Zephyrs were hitting:
And of course, I couldn’t resist taking this shot of my hotel:
(If you’ve followed my blog for a long time, you’ll know my love affair with hotels that face ballparks, and you’ve probably seen more than a few shots like the above.)
Wearing my GoPro on a chest harness (and looking like a
major minor nerd), I went out to spend some time on the grass berm in center. I didn’t have my baseball glove with me on this trip, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until I could snag a home run ball. True enough, just a couple minutes after arriving, this Pacific Coast League ball landed nearby and I grabbed it:
A moment later, I got the attention of New Orleans pitcher Nick Wittgren, who has since been recalled to the Miami Marlins, and tossed it to him. And I’m pleased to say that I got this cool moment on video, thanks to my GoPro and chest mount.
After throwing him the ball, I asked Wittgren what it was like playing in such heat. To my surprise, he actually turned around and walked over to me, and we chatted for several minutes. I told him all about my travels, and we compared some of the different ballparks we’ve both visited. A short while after he and his teammates wrapped up BP, I sent him a quick tweet and was surprised to get one back from him just a few minutes later:
Even though the field was now empty, I couldn’t resist hanging out on the berm. No, I didn’t think I’d get a home run ball; I just was loving the vibe out there:
There was still more than an hour before the gates were set to open, so I had 60-plus minutes to enjoy this breathtakingly beautiful park all on my own. Once I’d stayed on the berm for a bit, I shot this photo of my shadow on the field …
… trying to recreate this photo that I took in Jamestown, N.Y. a couple seasons ago. What do you think? Pretty similar?
Given the thoroughness of my tour with Angela, I wasn’t in a hurry to run around and take a million photos before the gates opened, which I customarily do on my ballpark visits. While I did indeed take some shots, I mostly just wandered around for the next hour and enjoyed the sights. Occasionally, I’d hear the low rumble and high-pitched whistle of a freight train, so I went to investigate. Here’s a shot that I took from the landing of the stairs up to the upper deck:
You can clearly see the train tracks on the left side of the image, and you’ll also note that they’re pretty darned close to the ballpark. In fact, the gap between the concourse and the tracks is netted off to prevent foul balls from hitting any passing trains. I’ve certainly seen parks that are close to the tracks, but this is about as close as you’ll ever get — and the trains rumble past very regularly, so you’ll definitely see lots of action.
Once the gates opened, my first stop was one of the two team shops at Southwest University Park. This one is located behind home plate (the other is in right field) and it’s very impressive. My favorite feature was the enormous wall of caps:
Before long, the players hit the field, so I went down to the third base side to watch El Paso’s starting pitcher, Jeremy Guthrie. He, of course, has had a long major league career, so I wanted to take a bunch of shots and shoot some video of the righty getting in his pregame tosses. The location of the home bullpen means that you’re just a couple feet from where the pitchers warm up. See what I mean?
From here, I also had a good view of some of the El Paso position players. Here’s third baseman Diego Goris:
Center fielder Manuel Margot:
And catcher Rocky Gale:
I stayed in that area through the National Anthem, and then relocated over to the top of the blue monster for the top of the first inning, where I had this view:
Between the top half and bottom half, I bolted over to this spot and enjoyed this wonderful view:
Once the first inning was in the books, it was time to eat. It’d been a long time since lunch, and I’d done more walking than on any single day during this trip, so I was definitely hungry. There were tons of good-looking options in front of me, and I wanted to get something that was unique to the area. With that in mind, I opted for the Chihua Dog — an all-beef hot dog wrapped in applewood smoked bacon, topped with pinto beans, pico de gallo, jalapenos, guacamole and mayo:
I ate the hot dog from a seat along the edge of the upper deck concourse, where I had this view:
In the top of the third, I snapped this amusing image of the video board:
Did you catch what I found funny? If so, post it in the comments. (Clicking to enlarge the picture will help your chances of spotting what I’m talking about.)
I ended up staying in this spot for a few innings. The view was great, there was a pleasant breeze that helped to counteract the heat and the usher for my section, Quincy, was among the friendliest ushers I’ve ever come across. I told him all about my travels, and we had fun talking about the various parks we’d each been to. As the sun began to set, I snapped some shots to make up this panorama, which I’m really happy with:
Although the hot dog had strangely filled me up, I was eager to sample something else with local ties. I almost never drink alcohol, but I couldn’t resist a margarita — El Paso claims to be the place where this drink was invented, although there are also cities that make a similar claim. Either way, it’s a popular drink in this city, and the one I ordered was perfect:
(And, yes, I did manage to spill salt on my thumb before I took this photo. Oops.)
I spent the next few innings walking around the park and enjoying it from various vantage points. I wasn’t feeling pressured to take a ton of photos; I knew this blog post would already have several dozen, and I also knew that I’d be back at the park a day later to do it all over again.
When the sun set, I was interested in checking out the view outside the walls of Southwest University Park and, in particular, seeing Mexico.
Here’s a shot that shows Ciudad Juarez in the distance:
And another that shows the two bridges after dark:
Next, I went down to field level in right field to watch a bit of the action with this view:
In addition to wanting to see a bit of the game from this unique spot, I also wanted to hang out around the New Orleans bullpen, given that there was now starting to be some action in it. Here’s what it looks like in the dark:
Pretty cool, huh?
I’d hoped that Wittgren would be warming up so that I could watch him throw, but he was settled on one of the benches between a pair of teammates:
After watching a Zephyrs pitcher warm up, I went back to the grass berm to shoot this nighttime panorama:
At the top of the eighth, I did something I rarely do — I left the ballpark and went back to my hotel.
But I have a good reason, I promise. The DoubleTree has a rooftop pool and patio area on the seventh floor that faces the ballpark. I’d checked it out earlier and had grand aspirations of standing on the deck in the dark and watching the last inning or so of the ballgame, and then having a swim. Sounds perfect, right? That’s exactly what I did, although I didn’t bother taking my camera to the pool, so you’ll have to trust me on this. It was amazing to see the game from this one-of-a-kind location, and then jump into the pool and splash around while listening to the post-game sounds coming from across the street. I had the entire area to myself, too, which made it even better.
After my swim, I went back to my room and checked out the view a little more. In this photo, the bright light that appears to be floating in the air is actually an enormous star on Franklin Mountain:
It’s a famous feature in El Paso that is managed by the chamber of commerce. People can pay a fee to have the star lit on certain nights. For example, if it’s your wedding anniversary, you can arrange to have the star lit in your honor, and also have your message posted on the chamber’s website. A pretty cool feature, I think.
Given that I was up at 3:30 a.m., I hit my bed about five minutes after taking this photo, already excited for my second day in El Paso.