I woke up in Norfolk, VA, on the morning of Tuesday, May 29 to the sound of heavy rain.
It wasn’t really a surprise.
Since I’d arrived in Norfolk the previous afternoon, it had rained without reprieve, and I’d be lying if I said I was concerned that I might not get to see a single Norfolk Tides game on this trip. The plan for this trip was to get to Norfolk on Monday, attend the Tides games on Tuesday and Wednesday, and cram in whatever sightseeing I could manage when I wasn’t at the ballpark.
Of course, Mother Nature seemed to have different plans, dropping more than three inches of rain on the city on Monday night. It actually rained so hard at times that I couldn’t get any TV reception in my hotel room, which was definitely a first for me.
By 10 a.m. on Tuesday, though, the rain had stopped and the forecast seemed to improve — making me cautiously optimistic that I’d actually get a chance to see some baseball on this trip.
After some really good sightseeing around the city, I got to Harbor Park around 3:30 p.m., roughly three hours before first pitch. By now, the conditions were dry and the forecast looked fine, and I was very relieved.
Harbor Park is the 67th professional/affiliated ballpark that I’ve visited since 2010 and the 53rd different Minor League Baseball park that I’ve been to. It’s also, for those keeping score, the 10th different International League park at which I’ve seen at least one game. It’s always exciting to visit a ballpark for the first time, and this visit was no exception. I was immediately impressed with the look of Harbor Park from the outside — and I think the following photo does a good job of showing the eye-catching design from just outside the front gates:
As you might’ve noticed in the above photo, there wasn’t much going on outside due to my early arrival time. That was just fine with me — I was just thankful that the rain hadn’t interfered with this ballpark visit. I decided to walk through the parking lot to the right of the main gates, and soon made it to a large plaza area outside the first base entrance:
Did you catch the propeller statue? It’s just one of many nautical-themed sights in and around Harbor Park. The Elizabeth River is immediately beyond the outfield fence at this ballpark, and Norfolk is just a short drive from Virginia Beach. So, yeah, lots of nautical stuff to see.
While still in this area, I snapped the following photo of the gates and the ramp that led up to the concourse level:
My favorite thing in that image? The small ticket office nestled below the ramp. As is the norm, there was a large ticket office beside the main gates, but I thought the inclusion of this other office was a cool touch.
The river was just over my right shoulder as I took the above photo, and I wanted to get a little closer to check it out. Norfolk and the entire Hampton Roads area is dominated by shipbuilding/repairing/naval industry, and that was evident within sight of where I stood outside Harbor Park. This next photo shows an enormous dry dock that belongs to Colonna’s Shipyard. There’s a huge boat from New York City being repaired in it:
Unfortunately, that was as close as I could get to the water. The space behind Harbor Park was completely fenced off, so I gave up on further explorations in that area and took the long walk around the front of the stadium toward the third base entrance and left field corner. Before I got there, I came across another cool sight — a light rail system with a stop adjacent to the Harbor Park parking lot. The train, known as “The Tide,” travels to several areas through Norfolk, but I think it’s awesome that it stops next to the ballpark. It wasn’t long ago that I was in Minneapolis, marveling at the light rail system that carries fans to Target Field, but I think this might be the first time I’ve encountered the opportunity to travel to a minor league ballpark by train:
I continued on my walk across the parking lot until the elevated railway bridges that I believe give Harbor Park one of the most iconic views in the minor leagues came into view. If you’ve seen any picture of Harbor Park over the years, you’ve almost certainly noticed the pair of bridges that point skyward beyond the outfield fence. From where I stood at the far edge of the parking lot, I could see them clearly:
Curious to see how close I could get to them, I headed to my left to a small railway platform that serves Amtrak’s Norfolk Station (which is separate from the light rail station I showed you earlier). I walked the length of the platform toward the bridges before being thwarted by a sign, but I still had a nice view of this iconic Norfolk sight:
Speaking of other Norfolk sights, it was time to get inside Harbor Park to officially be able to cross ballpark #67 off my list. I entered via the main gates, which open into a lobby that houses the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame. I took a couple minutes to browse the many plaques recognizing people from all different sports, and then eagerly climbed a set of stairs to the concourse, hurried across it and snapped this shot:
How’s that for a view? Sure, the clouds weren’t looking all that friendly, but I was thrilled to be inside the stadium and excited to start checking out all of the sights.
I started by going up to the press level, which offered a similarly impressive view. I then descended back to the concourse and began to walk around — starting with a walk down the third base side. I was relieved to quickly identify the Hot Dog Nation concession stand, which I’d read about in advance of my trip and wanted to visit once the gates opened up. After perusing the menu for a moment, I continued all the way down the concourse to the group party deck known as The Virginian-Pilot Picnic Area. It’s new for this season, and I noticed the mild smell of new paint in the air — a definite sign of just how fresh this area is. This is how the picnic area, which can accommodate up to 500 people, looks from the edge of the cross-aisle:
And here’s the view from the edge of this section:
As is always the case with group areas at minor league ballparks, you can’t buy tickets in this section unless you’re buying as a group. But, I later learned, when there’s no group that has booked the section for any given game, it’s open to all fans — and that’s definitely a fan-friendly feature.
I spent a few minutes wandering around the picnic area, in part because it offered a nice view of the field, and in part because it provided me with some much-needed shade. Even though the sky was overcast, the humidity this close to the ocean was tangible, and cooling off under the roof of the picnic zone soon had me feeling refreshed and ready to continue exploring. Instead of retracing my steps along the concourse, I took the opportunity to get closer to the field by walking along the cross-aisle. I think the following photo gives you a good idea of the seating setup at Harbor Park — essentially, two different levels of seating on the lower section, a suite level above, and an upper deck down the lines.
I followed the cross-aisle all the way around the park until I ended up in the party deck immediately behind the right field foul pole. This one contained a bar and a bunch of bar-style seating, and provided this view of the field:
From there, I could also see the railway bridges and the river, as well as the remnants of a dock that once held a popular Norfolk concert venue that was demolished in 2011 after being severely damaged during Hurricane Isabel:
I realize that this area might not look that hot, but I liked it because it was neat to think about a who’s who of popular music playing just behind the ballpark over the years. I also appreciated the rugged appearance of the area, although I can imagine that the Tides management would love an opportunity to develop this area into usable space at some point in the future.
Speaking of management, my next stop was back in the press box where I met up with Ian Locke, the team’s longtime director of media relations. He offered me a tour of the ballpark, and you know I wasn’t about to turn it down. Even though I’d been to several spots around the park over the last hour or so, hearing Ian’s inside information and insight on these areas really augmented the visit for me — thanks again, Ian!
We began our tour immediately outside of the press area, which provided this view of downtown Norfolk. As you can see, the ballpark is conveniently located to the major arteries running through the city, and the view of the city’s skyline — including the Ferris wheel in the distance — was perfect from this spot:
Next, we headed somewhere that I’d hadn’t previously been — one of the team’s suites. This one is the swankiest in the ballpark, and even featured a vaulted ceiling:
As you might expect, it provided an excellent view of the field, including the railway bridges — one of which was currently descending as we stood in the suite:
Before my visit, I’d strangely always assumed that the bridges remained up. I had some idea in my head that they were historic bridges that were no longer used and were set to the upper position to create a cool backdrop behind Norfolk Park, but Ian assured me that they were fully functional. (And I definitely saw them go up and down multiple times over my two visits the ballpark.) I’m not really sure how I came to my erroneous conclusion, other than the fact that the bridges were always pointing skyward in any photo I’d ever seen of Norfolk Park.
We next visited another suite on the opposite side of the park, taking a few minutes to step out into the seats on the balcony in front of it:
This is the setup that many MiLB suites offer, and it’s a cool design. You can enjoy some food and A/C indoors, while also watching the game’s broadcast on TV. And, when desired, you can grab a seat outside to really get the traditional ballpark experience. Talk about the best of both worlds.
Ian took me through the left field picnic area I’d visited earlier and then all the way over to Hits at the Park, a buffet-style restaurant in an enclosed area in the right field corner. It seats 225 people, has a nice-looking bar with multiple TVs and gives fans a pretty extensive buffet — all for less than $20 for adults. Most notably, this is where fans can take the Salute to Pork Challenge, one of the most notable eating challenges in the minor leagues. What does this eating challenge feature, you might ask?
- Four pulled pork BBQ sliders
- Four four-ounce Cajun-smoked sausages
- A dozen pork wings
- Bacon and chili cheese tots
The whole thing weighs about five pounds, and if you can successfully conquer it in an hour, you win tickets to a future Tides game and get your photo on a wall of fame inside the restaurant. Should you fail, your photo goes on the wall of shame. There were far, far more photos on the latter, thus convincing me that I didn’t need to partake in any pork-fueled eating challenges on this visit.
The last stop on our tour was probably my favorite. Ian took me out to the roof to the left field side of the press box, which provided an awesome view of the field and everything beyond it (including the slightly foreboding skies — yikes):
I’ve been fortunate to be able to get up to the roofs of several ballparks over the years, and it’s always a thrill. And Ian told me to feel free to visit the roof as much as I wanted throughout the game, so that’s definitely something I made a mental note to do.
After Ian and I said our goodbyes, I went back down to the concourse level to grab dinner. As I mentioned earlier, the Hot Dog Nation concession stand was on my radar, and one of the noteworthy dogs in particular had my eye. I ordered the Oriole Dog, which pays homage to the Tides’ MLB parent club and one of the popular food choices in Baltimore. It consisted of a hot dog topped with macaroni and cheese and crab meat. I’ve had mac and cheese on hot dogs on a few occasions, but never with crab, too. This was definitely one that I was excited check out:
I definitely give the Tides food services team credit for a cool idea, but it felt a little flat for me. The hot dog itself had a squishy texture instead of the snap that I look for. The mac and cheese was tasty, but the crab was cold — and I got a big piece of shell in my first bite. I think that a few minor tweaks, like heating the crab and maybe seasoning it with Old Bay, would make this hot dog a definite winner.
I’d taken the hot dog to the upper deck, and as soon as finished eating, I went back down to the concourse and made a beeline over to the Tides bullpen in the right field corner. The party deck is directly above the ‘pen, so it provides a perfect spot for watching the Tides pitchers warming up. I spent several minutes watching starter Tim Melville:
And then, once the game began, I spent the first inning in the picnic area in left field in the hopes of snagging a home run ball — something that didn’t happen. There weren’t any fans in the area, so I could’ve theoretically hung out there for a long time in the hopes of getting a baseball, but you know me — I’ve always gotta be on the move. I decided that I’d take Ian up on his offer to visit the roof, so I took the stairs back up to the press level and walked out on the roof on the third base side. Here’s how it looked as I got there …
… and here’s the view of the field from the edge:
I snapped off a handful of photos, and then was content to just hang out in the unique spot and enjoy the game. I ended up staying on the roof for an entire inning, and then went back down to the concourse to visit the team shop — and enjoy a bit of the air conditioning to cool off from all the walking I’d been doing.
After another lap of the concourse, stopping here and there to watch the game from different angles, I went back up to the press level and went to check out the roof on the first base side. From here, I was enjoying looking into the visitors dugout, and there are a couple of things worth pointing out:
For starters, check out the length of the dugout. Harbor Park’s dugouts are longer than average, and Ian told me why. When the park was being built, the team discussed where fans like to sit at games. The consensus was that many fans enjoy sitting behind the dugout, so why not make them longer than they’d otherwise be? It’s a win-win for the fans and for the players. The other noteworthy thing is that there isn’t any netting over the dugouts here. (Woo hoo!) I asked Ian about it, since netting has become the norm in baseball, and he said the nets will be up before much longer. I think it’s cool that I got to experience Harbor Park before that.
After watching a bit more of the game, I snapped this picture …
… and soon afterward, noticed a baseball that had obviously been fouled back onto the roof, and was happy to grab it:
I love the black smudge where it smacked the roof.
A moment after stuffing the ball into my backpack, I headed to the door that led off the roof, turned the knob, and … nothing. It was locked.
I assessed the situation. There wasn’t another way off the roof that I was aware of, at least without acting like Spider-Man. Hmmm. I knocked on the door — normally at first and then loudly, but I knew it was largely futile. On the other side of the door, there was a long hallway with a bend in it, and that meant that no one would likely be within earshot. Plus, anyone who might’ve heard the knocking would’ve been working — the radio/TV rooms and stadium operation rooms were not too far away, but their doors were shut and their staffs were busy. I walked back out the roof to think about my choices. All things considered, at least I was trapped in a good spot to watch the game. But, I legitimately needed to figure out a way off the roof. Thankfully, I thought to send an email to Ian. The Wi-Fi was spotty in this part of the park, so it probably took me 10 minutes to get a connection and actually send the email — but I eventually did … and a short while later,
my knight in shining armor Ian showed up and rescued me.
The rooftop misadventure had worked up an appetite, so I headed along the concourse in search of something else to eat. I don’t always eat two meals at ballparks, but given that I was concerned about a rainout the following day, I wanted to sample another concession stand. There’s a barbecue stand down the third base side that I’d checked out earlier, and it looked promising. I arrived in maybe the fifth inning, and was told that the stand was just about to close. Fortunately, I was able to order a brisket platter, which I took over to one of the picnic tables on the concourse:
The platter consisted of a good helping of brisket, along with two sides and coleslaw. The only sides still available when I placed my order were baked beans and green beans, so I narrowly missed the opportunity to have my second serving of mac and cheese of the day. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very impressed with this meal. The baked beans were fine, the green beans were very soggy — which I can chalk up to the stand about to close, I guess — and the brisket contained far too much fat for my liking.
Underwhelming barbecue did little to dampen my enjoyment of the evening, though, and I soon found myself back on the roof — the third base side, with the unlocked door, for those keeping score — where I took this photo during the game’s late innings:
After a bit of time up top, I watched the last bit of the game from the seats behind home plate, where I had this view:
Just minutes after the final out, I hopped into my rental car and headed back to my hotel. On the drive, I figured that if the next day’s game ended up being a rainout (spoiler alert — it wasn’t) I’d crammed an awful lot into my first Harbor Park visit, and I was thrilled with the overall experience.