Just one week after wrapping up an enjoyable two-day visit to Troy, New York to see the Tri-City ValleyCats, I was back on the road early on the morning of August 28 and heading down I-90 again. My route took me along a route rich with baseball history — through Syracuse, home of the Chiefs; Utica, former home of the Blue Sox; the Tri-City area, home of the ValleyCats; Springfield, former home of the Giants; and, finally, into Hartford, home of the Yard Goats.
The Hartford Yard Goats are an Eastern League team that is affiliated with the Colorado Rockies, and despite the team joining the Double-A ranks in 2016, this past season was its first in Hartford. That’s because Dunkin’ Donuts Park, the team’s ballpark, wasn’t ready for opening day of 2016, nor was it ready at any point during that season. That meant that the Yard Goats spent their entire inaugural campaign as a road team. I’d hoped to visit Dunkin’ Donuts Park in 2016, but since that obviously wasn’t possible, getting to Hartford in 2017 was a big priority on my to-do list.
I’d scheduled back-to-back games at the Eastern League’s newest ballpark, anxious to see all that it had to offer — and, boy, I wasn’t disappointed.
It took me more than eight hours to drive to Hartford, which meant that I was in a hurry as I checked into my hotel north of the city (more on it later) a little after 3 p.m., dropped off my luggage, and then took the 10-minute drive into downtown Hartford. Just after 3:30 p.m., I parked my car in a $5 lot a block away from the ballpark, and was excited to realize that I could see the park immediately upon climbing out of my car:
The walk to the ballpark was super quick, so just a few minutes after parking, I was standing at the corner of Main and Pleasant streets to capture this shot of the ticket office and front gates:
I spent the next little bit walking around the park’s exterior. There’s not a lot to see immediately adjacent to the ballpark, and I’m assuming that’s because it’s so new. In fact, parking lots pretty much dominate the landscape. I find that this situation is common with newer parks, so it’ll be cool to see what developments pop up in the coming years to give fans more things to see and do before the gates open. That said, the downtown location of the park is excellent, and there are lots of restaurants and other things to check out just a few blocks away. The XL Center, a multipurpose arena shared by the University of Connecticut Huskies and the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack, is about a five-minute walk from Dunkin’ Donuts Park, so that’s something that sports fans might want to check out while visiting.
Shortly before I excitedly headed into the ballpark for the first time, I noticed that a coach bus had pulled up on Pleasant Street outside the park’s admin offices. Curious, I walked toward it and as I got to the tail of the bus, the front door opened and the visiting Portland Sea Dogs piled out and walked hurriedly into the park:
The team had been in Binghamton a day earlier to play the Rumble Ponies, and was obviously cutting things a bit close in terms of the arrival time. (Although, I think it’s a bit of a testament to my baseball nerdery that this wasn’t the first time that I’d beaten a team to the ballpark!) Anyway, the players were entering the ballpark via the admin entrance, and that’s where I was going, too. So, I waited for a gap in the line of Sea Dogs and headed that way. There were a bunch of autograph collectors standing along the sidewalk who were flagging down different players to have them sign — you may not be surprised to know that no one misidentified me as a ballplayer and asked for a signature.
Once I picked up my pass, I went through the admin area to get to the concourse, and felt my excitement ramping up a notch as I heard the stadium music and the bats cracking down on the field during batting practice. I made my way across the concourse to the top of the seating bowl, and here’s what I saw:
Not only was it a thrill to be in a brand new ballpark, but this was a bit of a personal milestone for me, too — Dunkin’ Donuts Park is the 65th different ballpark I’ve visited since 2010. (You can click here to see my entire ballpark list.)
I spent about 10 minutes in the top of the seats behind home plate just enjoying the scene. On top of watching batting practice, there was just so much to take in about the new park, and it was exciting to think that I’d be exploring it in its entirety over the next two days. With so many exploratory options in front of me, I decided to return to the concourse and walk down toward the left field foul pole. Check out how empty things still were at this point:
I walked most of the way along the concourse, and then turned right and went down to the front row of the seats to check out the view from there. It was sunny enough that I had trouble picking up balls as they were hit, so I decided to head back to a safer part of the park instead of risk spending my visit to Hartford in the emergency room after taking a line drive in the head. First, though, I noticed this nicely worn Eastern League baseball, so I picked it up, photographed it and tossed it to a Yard Goats outfielder who walked past a moment later:
After walking around an elevated concession stand in the left field corner called Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ, I made it to the left field seats to check out how they looked. I was highly impressed with the layout of this area. Instead of just a standard seating section, there were a few interesting things going on:
First, you’ve got the visitor’s bullpen, and I love just how close fans can get to it. Next, you’ll see multiple rows of bar-style seating. Even though I never sit in one area for too long during my ballpark visits, this style of seating is always something that I love. If I were buying season tickets to a team with a ballpark that offered this feature, this is the type of ticket I’d probably buy.
Before I left this area, I looked over toward right field and was impressed with what I saw:
I’m a sucker for ballparks with eye-catching backdrops behind them, and the buildings in the background on the right field side of Dunkin’ Donuts Park really add to the scene. This is a ballpark that is jammed into the city center, so the office buildings that overlook the park make for a cool feature. I was also impressed with the seats themselves. The upper seats remind me of the right field seats at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, and although there’s no river flowing past these seats, the concourse behind them is a popular hangout spot that was packed with fans during both games I attended.
My next stop during this initial exploration of Dunkin’ Donuts Park was the lower level of seating in the image above. If you notice the white “Right at Home” signage in the above photo, this next photo was taken just above and to the left of it:
This is definitely a unique vantage point for watching a game. You’ve got the home bullpen down to your left, and the deck above you and the small amount of seats in this area give it an intimate feel. This is also an example of a rare time that you’ll see protective netting in front of a section of seats in the outfield; I’m not personally a big fan of protective netting except for immediately behind home plate, but if you’re visiting with children and you want to feel safer, I can definitely understand the netting’s value — even about 400 feet from home plate. And, hey, if it helps to make baseball fans feel safer when they visit the ballpark, that totally makes sense.
I watched BP from this area for a moment, and then returned to the small concourse behind the lower-deck seats in right field, pausing to check out the city scene over the railing to my left …
… and then went all the way to the upper deck, where I finally got my first bird’s-eye view of Dunkin’ Donuts Park:
A unique feature that I spotted from this angle was the somewhat unusual position of the press boxes. At most MiLB parks, the press area is positioned on the suite level (or sometimes on the concourse level) directly behind home plate. Here, though, there are two press boxes on the concourse level — one on the first base side and the other on the third base side. See the gray structure with the tall and narrow windows across it? That’s the third base-side press box. While I can’t speak to how the broadcasters feel about not being directly behind home plate, the press box’s position is pretty fan friendly — if you’re walking around the concourse, you have the ability to stand on the concourse directly behind home plate and watch the game, which isn’t possible at parks that have the press area in this location.
From here, I snapped this shot of myself at ballpark #65:
(As always, I’m wearing one of my T-shirts, which you can buy at this link.)
While I was still in the right field corner, I looked back at the seating situation and took this shot to illustrate it:
See the Budweiser sign above the batter’s eye? That’s a party deck that was absolutely hopping during both games I attended. I don’t think it’s a stretch, based on what I saw, to label this area the most popular spot in the ballpark. In terms of other neat things in this photo, I really like the small seating sections. Small sections, of course, are nothing new at some MiLB parks, but they really work well. Hartford did remarkably well with attendance in its inaugural season, but at larger parks, bigger seating sections that are sparsely populated don’t look very good from afar and can lack the atmosphere that many fans want. When you build a park with smaller sections, they naturally get filled up and have lots of energy. And that was definitely what I found during this visit.
I understandably wanted to see Dunkin’ Donuts Park from the upper level behind home plate, so I continued on my walk. Partway toward home plate, I turned back to snap this shot that shows the bridge-style concourse and the bar-style seating — two noteworthy features on the park’s upper level:
And here’s how things looked from behind home plate:
You’ll notice sections of bar-style seating in the immediate foreground, which was another feature that I really liked. It reminded me a bit of Columbus’ Huntington Park, which also has this type of seating behind home plate. As many of you probably know, I love standing behind home plate at different parks and taking in the view. One day, I’m sure I’ll compile and blog about my rankings of the parks that offer the best view from this area. When evaluating views of this nature, it’s important to not only look at the park itself, but also what’s beyond it. (PNC Park, for example, is often cited as having the best view from home plate in baseball, but much of the beauty that fans get to enjoy comes from the city’s downtown skyline in the distance, rather than from the park itself.) Anyway, this leads me into my one small knock on Dunkin’ Donuts Park, which is the concrete building to the right of the video board. I find that it looks old and stale, and it would be awesome to see some snazzy condos or a building with a little more character there in the future.
If you’re interested in how the suite level looks, I’ve got good news — the next couple photos illustrate this beauty of this area. Here’s a shot that shows more bar-style seating, including rows with stadium seats and rows with bistro-style chairs, which I thought were a nice touch:
And, immediately behind the glass on the right side of the above photo, there’s an enormous dining/hangout area for those with suite access:
This is another spot that was popular during both games — fans were hanging out at the tables and enjoying drinks from the bar, all while being able to keep an eye on the game through the windows.
While I was in this spot, I noticed that the Sea Dogs had come onto the field. Hartford’s BP had since wrapped up, and I wanted to go watch the visiting club get warmed up. I retraced the steps I’d taken just a handful of minutes earlier to end up back in the right field corner, where I had this view:
I watched the players stretch and play catch for a few minutes, and then took the opportunity to explore the upper level of the seats in right field. Here’s how things looked from the end of the concourse behind the seats:
Notice the netting on the right? That’s because there’s a sidewalk and street directly below this area.
Next, I walked toward home plate, stopping midway down the line to take this panorama:
Portland wasn’t hitting, so I watched the warmups for a few minutes longer, and then headed back toward home plate. This time, I went down to the lower seating bowl, where I encountered another cool feature that Dunkin’ Donuts Park offers. Check out this area, dubbed the “Dugout Suite,” and its counterpart on the other side of the field:
This is prime territory at any ballpark, so I’m sure the decision to provide exclusive seating wasn’t a decision that the team and ballpark designer took lightly. After all, there could definitely be dozens of additional seats squeezed into these spots, but the open design really looks awesome, in my books, and gives fans who enjoy suite-style seating but want to be close to the field a perfect spot from which to enjoy the game.
Next, I cut through the seats behind home plate and went down to field level on the third base side. The Sea Dogs were still warming up across the field, but the home side of Dunkin’ Donuts Park was quiet, and that suited me just fine as I enjoyed hanging out and taking in the scene. I also noticed a few balls from BP, including this one …
… and gathered them up and then tossed them onto the warning track in front of the dugout.
If it sounds like I was all over the place during my first visit to Dunkin’ Donuts Park, that’s because I was. Just a few minutes later, I went up to the concourse on the third base side, turning briefly to snap this shot of the right field corner:
I said earlier that I wasn’t a fan of the gray building beyond the outfield, but I absolutely love the look of the right field corner. The buildings add a perfect backdrop, don’t you think?
After enjoying that scene for a few minutes, I continued along the concourse as the gates opened up and fans began to pour in. The fan support for the Yard Goats has been incredible — and considering I was at a late-August weekday game for a team that finished the season 29.5 games out of first place in the Eastern League’s Eastern Division, I was hugely impressed at the turnout and passion of the fan base. Check out how the gates looked as they opened. You’ll admit that this isn’t always a scene that you see in the minor leagues, especially given the above circumstances:
Even though I was excited to continue exploring the ballpark, I figured that it was a good time to eat. I was hungry from my long day, and wanted to eat before lineups formed at the concession stands. For those who might be wondering, there is indeed a Dunkin’ Donuts concession stand inside the park:
But, that wasn’t where I was headed. Instead, I was looking for one of the ballpark’s most notable concession items, which I found at the Dark Blues Diner stand. (The “Dark Blues” name pays tribute to the historic Hartford team of the same name that was actually a member of the National League in 1876 and 1877.)
Ready for this?
I present to you the Dunkin’ Donuts Park BLT, which consists of bacon, lettuce and a slice of tomato with maple mayo, all sandwiched between two DD glazed donuts:
While the concept of a sandwich made with donut buns might be nothing new to some, this was the first time I’d ever eaten something like this. I was hugely surprised when the concession worker handed it to me, mainly because I expected to see one donut sliced through the middle to make the two “buns.” This one, however, actually had a full donut as the top bun and a full donut as the bottom bun. It’s a mouthful to eat a pair of donuts at the best of times, but when you add the significant amount of bacon that was on this BLT, it definitely made for a heavy, filling sandwich. I was expecting maybe two small slices of bacon, but the mound on this sandwich was very generous.
Here’s how this bad boy looked when put together:
The good news? I really liked it.
The bad news? I really liked it.
Part of me wondered if this sandwich, which was one of those things that you pick up and have to hang onto until you’re done eating it, would be more novelty than tasty. I was thus surprised at how delicious it was — the sweetness of the donuts, the saltiness of the bacon and (thank goodness) a few plant products really made this a good sandwich. That’s why I say the fact that I liked it was both good and bad news. I was glad I got my money’s worth, as this bad boy was $10, but I’m tempted to try to make one at home myself, which is probably not a good idea.
I ate the BLT at one of the bar-style seats down the first base line, and there were more than a few fans who were rubbernecking as they filed past me. This was the type of ballpark fare that required a few minutes of recovery after eating, so I sat for a short stint after finishing it. When I got up again, I decided to take another lap of the ballpark to encourage a little digestion, and my next stop was over at the visitor’s bullpen just as the starter had completed his warmup:
I watched first pitch and spent the entire first inning in that area, before heading to a seat in right-center for the second inning:
Later on, I enjoyed some of the game from this vantage point …
… and then watched the last few innings of the game from here:
Less than five minutes after the final out, I was back in my car and headed toward my hotel, the Hyatt House Hartford North/Windsor:
Located about 10 minutes from Dunkin’ Donuts Park, the hotel’s prime attraction, for me, is its suite-style rooms. I hadn’t previously stayed in a Hyatt House in the past, but have often stayed at Hyatt Place properties, which feature similar suite-style rooms. It’s nice to be in a room that is larger than a standard-sized room, but is still affordable — and that’s definitely the case with Hyatt House. My room had a full kitchen and living room, in addition to a king-sized bed and a large bathroom area. Other features that guests can enjoy? Free parking and Wi-Fi and a really impressive gym and indoor swimming pool.
By the time I got settled in my room, I didn’t have anything on the agenda other than relaxing. As always, it’d been a long first day of traveling, and I was exhausted. I flopped down on this sofa with a bag of popcorn and a bottle of Snapple (but, alas, no donut BLTs to eat), flipped on the TV and watched some — what else? — baseball:
When it was time for bed, I spun the TV 180 degrees so that it was now facing the bedroom part of my room, hopped into bed and fell asleep watching SportsCenter — anxious to spend another day in Hartford and enjoy another visit to Dunkin’ Donuts Park.