Binghamton Rumble Ponies – May 17

The last time I visited Binghamton’s NYSEG Stadium was in July of 2011, and the experience wasn’t very memorable. I found the ballpark to be old and a little dreary and, despite my visit taking place on Independence Day, it wasn’t an overly festive time.

As a result, I didn’t made a point of revisiting Binghamton in the years since, despite it being a little over an hour from Syracuse, which is the closest minor league park to where I live and a city I’ve visited repeatedly for ballgames.

A lot has changed in Binghamton over the last couple years. The team was bought in December of 2015 and rebranded as the Rumble Ponies in 2016, and the ballpark has gone through a lot of changes, too. I’d seen some exciting pictures online of the new ballpark elements and they were enough to compel me to book a return trip to Binghamton and attempt to rewrite my experience from 2011.

I’m glad to say it’s been fully rewritten.

The recent additions give this Eastern League ballpark a whole new feel. Not only are there plenty of admirable physical changes, but the rebranding of the team seems to have injected a new enthusiasm into the fan base and overall community, too.

I arrived in Binghamton in the early afternoon of May 17, did a tiny bit of sightseeing and then pulled into the parking lot of NYSEG (New York State Electric and Gas, for those wondering) Stadium about 4 p.m. for that evening’s 6:35 p.m. start. During my last visit, I recalled seeing fans hanging out in the parking lot in the hopes of snagging a batting practice home run ball, so I wanted to give that experience a shot, too.

It didn’t take long — all I had to do was exit my car, walk across the parking lot, and there were a pair of scuffed-up Eastern League balls sitting on the asphalt. I picked this one up and photographed it …

… and an instant after grabbing the second one, which was closer to the street, a resident of one of the houses across the street began shouting at me and waving her hands. I couldn’t tell what she was saying, but it was obvious that she wanted the souvenir. I wasn’t going to hurl the ball 100 feet to someone without a glove, so I jogged over to the sidewalk and tossed it to her.

Then, I returned to the parking lot not necessarily to try to get another ball, but rather to just enjoy the scene. The outfield fence was open in one spot, so I was able to stand back at the edge of the pavement and peek through to the field:

A moment later, I saw a man coming across the parking lot straight toward me. “I wonder what this is about,” I thought. It turns out that the man was John Hughes, the team’s new owner. He asked if I was the baseball blogger visiting town and wanted to welcome me to Binghamton. We talked briefly about some of the changes to the park, which John was eager for me to see once I got inside. This wasn’t my only encounter with the owner — over the two games that I attended, he approached me four separate times to ask how my visits were going.

After speaking to John, the inside of the park was beckoning. I decided to take a quick walk around the exterior and get inside. My first stop was Gate 1 in the right field corner, which has had a huge facelift since my last visit. I think you’ll agree that this is a sharp-looking spot to enter the ballpark:

Next, I headed to the gates behind home plate, where I snapped this shot:

If you take a look at this image from my 2011 visit, you’ll note that this area looks largely the same, with the exception of the color of the NYSEG Stadium sign and, of course, the Rumble Ponies emblem.

I couldn’t resist turning the corner and taking a walk down a side street for a short stretch so that I could once again get a glimpse of the field. From where I stood, I could see players from the visiting Altoona Curve playing catch …

… and this sight was more than enough to draw me into the park. I decided to enter through Gate 1 in the right field corner. That’s where I entered during my last visit, and I was anxious to see the multitude of changes in this area. This is the view I had upon stepping through the gate:

What a great sight, right? There’s a lot going on in this picture. The Roundabout BBQ Pit concession stand on the right side has been hugely improved since 2011, and the benches and wide pavilion area are new, too. In the distance, you’ll see an awesome party deck, which is perhaps the biggest recent addition to the ballpark. Just out of sight to the left is a big children’s play area with inflatable attractions, while this structure stands to the right:

It’s brand new, too, and houses the ballpark’s batting cages. They weren’t currently in use, given the sunny 90-degree weather.

Another awesome new feature in the right field corner is the picnic area directly behind the fence. As you’ll see here, the fence has a chain-link section so that fans sitting in this spot can watch the game:

I used the term “picnic area” because there are picnic tables, but this isn’t a group area that you need to reserve. It’s open to any fan in the stadium, and I enjoyed time in this location during both games I attended. I decided to hang out in this spot for a few minutes to watch BP. Although I was pumped to continue walking around the ballpark and seeing the sights, it’s always a treat to watch BP just a few feet from the field.

A minute or two after I approached the fence, a long fly ball carried an Altoona outfielder over in my direction. He caught the ball, threw it back to the infield and then turned to me and said hello. I was a little surprised, given that I’ve watched BP a million times with very few players actually initiating conversation, but I said hello back and noted that the player was Connor Joe, the 30th-ranked prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates system. I also snapped this shot of Joe as he walked back to his position:

I stood in the area for another minute or two before proceeding to the party deck down the first base line. It’s one of the nicer decks I’ve seen at the Double-A level — half-tables along the fence, two rows of full tables behind, string lighting overhead and Rumble Ponies-themed furniture all combine to make this spot a winner:

With the exception of the game staff, NYSEG Stadium was still virtually empty at this point, so it was fun to just stand on the quiet party deck and enjoy a few minutes of BP. Before long, though, I wanted to check out the home plate area. Altoona was still hitting at this point, so I spent a bit of time standing on the cross-aisle where I had this view:

The ballpark’s seating situation is pretty straightforward. There’s a cross-aisle that separates two levels of seating — the field-level section consists of nine rows throughout most of the park and six rows behind the two dugouts. Behind the field-level seats is the cross-aisle, and then there are 14 rows that make up the upper level of the stadium. Here’s a sense of what this all looks like while empty:

If you’re wondering about the location of the concourse, it’s under the seats. This isn’t a ballpark feature that I particularly like, given that you can’t see the action on the field when you’re getting your food (although I should note that NYSEG Stadium has a number of TVs throughout the concourse that can keep you informed about the game), but it’s a reality of many older stadiums in the minors.

I walked the length of the cross-aisle until I got just past third base, and then took a ramp down to an open area down the third base line. This was a spot I recalled from my last visit, and I wanted to see how it now looked. Unlike the drastic changes to the right field corner, the left field corner was largely the same as in 2011 — and that suited me just fine. As you’ll see from this next photo, this spot is a prime area for snagging long foul balls, so I made a mental note to spend at least an inning or two in this area once the game began:

I watched BP for a couple minutes from this spot before electing to search for some shade. If you look at the above photo, you’ll see several rows of shaded seats at the top of the seating area, so that’s where I headed next. After about an hour out in the sun, the shade was a welcome relief. I would’ve been happy to just sit and enjoy the breeze, but given that BP was still taking place, I could get some shade while also enjoying this view:

Just about perfect, right?

I spent long enough in the shade to cool down a little, but wanted to check out the new kids area before the gates opened. I knew that once fans were inside the park, this spot would be a popular attraction, so I wanted to snap a shot of the new attractions while the area was still quiet. This is how the kids area looks:

Three fun inflatable attractions for the youngsters, and cool Rumble Ponies-themed benches for their parents:

Shortly after I took the above photos, the gates opened and fans began to head inside. BP was now done, but I sat at one of the picnic tables in the right field corner to just soak up the scene. The grounds crew was preparing the field, families were starting to congregate around the kids area and the smells wafting through the air from the nearby Roundabout BBQ Pit concession stand were starting to get me hungry. Before I ate, I wanted to see if I’d be able to find a baseball that was hit during BP. A quick look around the right field corner turned up nothing, so I made the walk over to the left field corner in hopes of changing my fortune. As I arrived, a staffer was busily picking up a couple balls that were sitting on the asphalt and tossing them into the bullpen. After he left, I decided that I’d take a look under some of the picnic tables in the area to see if anything was missed — and it wasn’t long before I found this beauty:

Balls in the minor leagues aren’t often marked, so it was cool to see this one doctored up with a “B” for Binghamton.

(Off the top of my head, the only other marked MiLB baseball that I’ve come across over the years was from the Staten Island Yankees. Interestingly enough, I snagged that ball in June of 2011 on the same trip that I first visited Binghamton, and you can see a photo of that ball and read about how I got it here.)

My next priority was to grab something for dinner before the game. My pregame tour of the concession stands showed lots of interesting food choices and a better selection than my last visit, and I was drawn to the BBQ concession in the right field corner. I wanted to try a chicken spiedie, which is a sandwich that is popular in Binghamton and throughout Central New York. The chicken is marinated, grilled over charcoal and served on a roll. Among other things, the concession stand sold a chicken spiedie and a chicken spiedie deluxe.

I’ll give you one guess which one I went for.

The deluxe version came with your choice of toppings, and I opted for bacon relish and jalapeno spread. I took my food all the way back over to the quiet left field corner, where I snapped this photo …

… and sat down to eat at one of the picnic tables. The chicken’s flavor was delicious, thanks to the tasty marinade and the cooking method. I found it just a little dry, though, and the toppings were a little on the sparse side, giving the overall sandwich a dry consistency. I would order the sandwich again, but I’d keep my fingers crossed that it’d be a little juicier. Either way, it’s always fun to try a local specialty at the ballpark, especially when it’s something I haven’t previously eaten.

Since I was in the area, I decided to see if I might be able to find another baseball. A quick glimpse under each of the picnic tables and the hilly area beyond turned up nothing, so I shifted my attention to a small hut behind the corner of the bullpen. The area was a little difficult to access, but it wasn’t roped off, so I reached behind the hut and discovered this:

Here’s the neat thing about this baseball — I think it might be a home run ball from an actual game. As you can likely tell from the photo, it’s in way better condition than an average minor league BP ball. It’s been mud rubbed and doesn’t have much wear, leading me to believe that it was hit during a game. And, because it was behind the bullpen in fair territory, I think that it’s a home run. Of course, there’s no way to tell for sure — and there’s no way to know who might’ve hit it.

But, before my visit, the last home run hit to left field at NYSEG Stadium was back on May 2 — a first-inning shot by Akron RubberDucks infielder Todd Hankins in a 5-4 Binghamton win. I’d expect that a ball sitting out for nearly two weeks would’ve been waterlogged, but this one wasn’t. Then again, the ball was up against the shed and likely protected from the rain.

We’ll chalk it up to a ballpark mystery, I guess.

There was nothing mysterious about what happened next — the players took the field for their pregame warmups, and I went over to the fence to watch. One player who caught my eye was Altoona shortstop Kevin Newman. While his teammates were stretching, he held a bat and posed for some photos for an on-field photographer:

I watched the Altoona guys for a few minutes and then decided to head over to left field to watch the Rumble Ponies. It’s always fun watching warmups from field level. The players are just a handful of feet away at times, which is conducive to taking photos. Here’s Binghamton outfield Champ Stewart, who’d play a role in my ballpark experience later on:

As the warmups went on, I made a quick stop at the Dippin’ Dots stand on the first base concourse. I’d noticed it earlier and, given the heat of the evening, I was eager for a cool snack. Plus, you could buy Dippin’ Dots in Rumble Ponies colors — blue and red — so that was hard to pass up:

Incidentally, I tweeted the above photo with a crack about Sean Spicer and his apparent disdain for Dippin’ Dots, and the ice cream company retweeted me and started following me on Twitter.

I finished my dessert after the top half of the first inning, and then went down to the paved area in left field. As I noted earlier, this spot felt like foul ball heaven, and I thought I’d stand a good chance to snagging one if I was patient.

Patience, it turned out, wasn’t necessary.

I arrived in the spot as Stewart, the Rumble Ponies leadoff hitter, was digging in. On the second pitch he faced, he launched a long fly ball in my direction. It sailed well over my head, clanged off the picnic area and I snatched it up quickly:

Hmm, that was easy.

The next batter, infielder Luis Guillorme, made contact with the first pitch he saw and the ball had a nearly identical trajectory to Stewart’s foul — over my head, off the picnic area and into my waiting hands:

This all happened in the span of little more than a minute, which was enough to attract the attention of the Altoona bullpen, whose players jokingly heckled me. I remember clearly thinking that with two foul balls in the first inning, it might be possible to snag five, six or even 10 fouls by the end of the game. I can’t help but admit that I thought about the notoriety this feat might gain on Twitter — but then I snapped back to reality when another fan approached me because he recognized my T-shirt, which I’d posted on Facebook before my trip. One of the things that I really enjoy about my baseball road trips is meeting other fans, especially those who have traveled extensively, too. This particular fan, PJ Harmer, has been to a ton of stadiums, including many that I’ve visited. We had a great time over the next three innings comparing notes on places we’ve been and talking baseball.

I should also note that not another single foul ball came remotely near where we were standing. PJ suggested that he might’ve been a bad luck charm, but whatever the cause, it was odd to have such a foul ball drought after snagging two from back-to-back batters in the first inning.

After PJ and I said farewell, I headed straight for the gate and exited NYSEG Stadium — not to leave for good, but rather to snap this shot of the stadium’s exterior:

Then, I went back inside to grab a seat up high down the first base line. It was a cool spot, giving me a nice view of not only the action as the sun set …

… but also of the new party deck that now had the overhead lights on:

I didn’t end up sitting in the spot for long. The sunset was extremely bright, and while it made for a nice backdrop to the ballgame, it washed out the field a little (and definitely made photography a challenge). I decided to relocate to a spot behind home plate, where I enjoyed this perfect view:

At the start of the seventh inning, I moved into a seat in the first row behind home plate, where I got to watch Binghamton infielder L.J. Mazzilli, son of longtime MLBer Lee Mazzilli, hit a two-run home run:

For the eighth inning, I sat in one of the bar seats in left field, and took a spot in the seats behind third base for the ninth inning:

After the game, I was glad that I didn’t have far to travel to get to my hotel. I’d been at the ballpark for more than five hours and I’d spent about five hours driving to Binghamton, so I was more than ready to relax. My lodging for the night was the Holiday Inn Binghamton, which is less than a mile from NYSEG Stadium. That meant that just a few minutes after pulling out of the ballpark parking lot, I was standing in the hotel’s parking lot:

The hotel is located in the heart of the downtown, directly across the street from the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena, home of the American Hockey League’s Binghamton Devils, just a short walk from a number of eateries, and on the banks of the Chenango River. In fact, I could see the river from my room:

Speaking of my room, it was perfect — a big two-room suite with a king-sized bed, living room, fridge and microwave and two TVs. The hotel also offers free parking, which I find to be a rarity with downtown hotels, and free Wi-Fi. Here’s a shot of the bedroom …

… and one of the living room area:

Another cool thing about this hotel? It’s the official host hotel of the Rumble Ponies, which means that rehabbing Mets players stay there and the team in town to play Binghamton also stays there. The next morning, I saw a handful of Altoona players in the lobby just before they boarded the bus for the short ride over to the ballpark. The hotel offers baseball packages for fans — you can book a package that includes accommodation, tickets to the game, free breakfast and a baseball-themed gift upon checking in. This is definitely the spot that I recommend when you visit Binghamton on a baseball trip, and it’s the spot I’ll be staying whenever I visit again.

I was in bed before midnight — a rarity on my baseball trips — and not just because it’d been a long day. The Rumble Ponies were hosting the Curve in a 10:30 a.m. matinee the next day, and I’d be in attendance before I headed back home.

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