Waking up in a city and knowing that you’ve got a game to attend that night is one of the best feelings you can experience on a baseball road trip.
The realization that you’ll be at a ballpark for several hours might be the first thing that enters your mind, but it’s also easy to get excited when contemplating the block of spare time that you’ll devote to checking out the sights around the city.
Fortunately, my brother-in-law Shaun and I didn’t have to spend much time on our second day in Philadelphia trying to decide what we’d do before heading over to Citizens Bank Park. Prior to our trip, we’d thoroughly evaluated the tourist attractions around the city and beyond, and because we’re both history and military history nerds, it was easy to come up with a list of the things that we wanted to see before it was time for baseball.
Our downtown hotel gave us a perfect home base for getting around to a number of the sites we wanted to check out. After breakfast at a bagel spot a couple of blocks from the hotel, we walked over to Independence National Historical Park to step back into the city’s rich history. This area is home to a number of big attractions, but there were a few that we especially wanted to check out. Our first stop was the Liberty Bell Center, which wasn’t yet open for the day. That wasn’t a big deal, though, because we were happy to take a walk around the building …
… and peek through the glass to get a look at the Liberty Bell itself:
Sure, it would’ve been cool to see the bell without having the window in the way, but we were happy to simply see it — and to avoid the lineups that were already forming well before the center opened. Just a few steps from the Liberty Bell sits Independence Hall, the building in which the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were adopted. It, too, was closed at the time we arrived, but we enjoyed taking a walk around it and snapping some photos:
We walked around and read displays about a number of the other buildings and sites in Independence National Historical Park — the American Philosophy Society Hall, Congress Hall, Washington Square and more. These are sites that date back to the 1600s and 1700s, and it was fascinating to simply be in this space and take it all in. That’s one of the things that I really love about my baseball trips. Sure, baseball is always atop my priorities list, but I’m fortunate to get the chance to check out a variety of noteworthy attractions when time permits.
In all, we spent a couple of hours wandering around this area before we grabbed an Uber and headed to our next sightseeing location of the day — over the Ben Franklin Bridge into Camden, N.J., to visit the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial. Longtime readers of this blog might recall that I’m always up for a chance to visit museum ships, and that I’ve done so on a number of occasions. Sites in Boston and Corpus Christi are particular highlights that you might recall. Anyway, the U.S.S. New Jersey is one of the most noteworthy vessels in naval history, so the chance for us to tour it was one that we couldn’t pass up. The New Jersey is the most decorated battleship in the history of the U.S. Navy. It’s hard to believe, but it served from 1943 to 1991, meaning that it was active in the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and even the Lebanese Civil War. Getting to walk its deck and browse its different areas was impressive beyond words. I’ll just share a few quick shots of from the time that we spent checking out the ship, but I definitely recommend making time for it if you’re in Philly and naval history is up your alley.
Here’s a shot that shows the New Jersey from the pier:
And a look toward the bow of the battleship with the Ben Franklin Bridge that connects Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the distance:
Here’s a shot of me beneath the ship’s 16-inch guns …
… and Shaun keeping an eye out for any enemies off the starboard side with a machine gun:
As much as our attention for the bulk of our visit was on the ship itself, it was fun to check out the sights along both shores of the Delaware River. On the Philadelphia side, we had a good view of the city skyline and a distant view of Citizens Bank Park which, of course, made me even more excited for that evening’s game:
Our visit to the U.S.S. New Jersey was a couple hours in length, followed by another Uber ride back to Philly, where we grabbed a late lunch. No cheesesteaks this time, unfortunately. Instead, we opted for something relatively healthy at a small cafe near the water. With the goal of eating something light so that I’d have more room for ballpark food, not to mention some cheesesteaks the following day, I got a sliced turkey sandwich topped with apple and brie, along with a side salad:
After lunch, we headed back to our hotel to get changed, and then hopped in another Uber and zipped over to Citizens Bank Park. Just like a day earlier, we arrived shortly after the gates had opened. Again, we grabbed tickets at the nearest ticket office and headed in immediately afterward. This game’s promotion was a special one, giving fans a chance to go down on the field as part of the pregame ceremonies. This meant that huge throngs of fans were lined up outside of Citizens Bank Park long before the gates opened. While this experience would’ve been neat, it also would’ve involved a lot of standing around and waiting during the time that we could’ve been out doing some sightseeing. That said, we opted not to bother with trying to get down onto the field, but instead just enjoyed the spectacle in front of us.
Here’s how the scene looked a moment after we got through the gates, across the concourse and into the seating bowl:
As you can see, there were several hundred fans already on the field in specific roped-off areas. You might have also noticed the visiting Atlanta Braves leaving the field, which meant two things — the Phillies were due to come out shortly, and this would be a good opportunity to get down to the Atlanta dugout to see some players close up. We watched as the players filtered into the dugout in front of us, and I pointed out some of the stars to Shaun. One player who caught my eye was right-handed pitcher Anthony Swarzak:
He doesn’t exactly fit into the “star” category, but he’s noteworthy to me. In my very first game upon launching my website and blog — a 2010 visit to Rochester’s Frontier Field to see the Triple-A Red Wings in action — Swarzak was a member of the Red Wings roster and I got his autograph on a baseball. You can read about that first visit here and see a picture of the signed ball here. It was neat to see Swarzak again, now with 16 seasons of professional baseball under his belt.
A moment after Swarzak disappeared into the Atlanta dugout, I pointed out former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel. He’s another player that I’ve seen on my travels, although not nearly as long ago as when I first saw Swarzak. I watched Keuchel pitch with the Houston Astros during a visit to Minute Maid Park in 2015.
Once all of the Braves had left the field, we decided to make a move down toward the left field foul pole. I wasn’t positive about what would be going on once the Phillies took the field, but the crowd of fans in that area made it evident that that was the place to be. As we found a spot in the left field corner, the Phillie Phanatic made an appearance to entertain the gathered crowd for a bit:
The Phillies took the field soon afterward and, to my delight, were wearing their throwback uniforms. It turned out that we’d picked a good spot to visit, because a moment after the players began to appear, Bryce Harper made his way to left field:
His visit consisted of two laps around the left field corner, mostly spent waving to fans and giving a few high fives:
As far as I saw, he didn’t signs any autographs or pose for any selfies with fans. A number of other current and past players, as well as members of the coaching staff, soon arrived and many signed autographs and took photos with fans, though. Here’s infielder Cesar Hernandez pointing at a group of fans:
And pitcher Juan Nicasio stopping for a selfie with a lucky fan in front of us:
Outfielder Nick Williams is another player who spent a lot of time greeting not only the fans who were gathered on the field, but also those who were standing along the fence down the line:
We watched for quite as while as the players took laps around the field in front of us, and then headed off in search of something to eat. Once again, I had cheesesteaks on the mind, but a trip past the Shake Shack concession stand on the main concourse caused a change in our plans. I’d never previously eaten at a Shake Shack, nor had I encountered one at any ballpark I’d visited. (And the nearest Shake Shake is hundreds of miles from where I live.) I’ve seen a ton of videos on YouTube that extol the virtues of the Shake Shack menu, so I couldn’t resist grabbing one while I had the opportunity. Like the cheesesteak concession stands, the lineup at Shake Shack was lengthy — we were in line for close to 10 minutes before we placed our order, and it was another five or so minutes before the food arrived. The menu had four burgers on it, and I opted for the SmokeShack — a cheeseburger topped with bacon, chopped cherry peppers and ShackSauce. I grabbed a strawberry shake with the burger, and once I had both in my hands, we headed to the upper deck to find a spot to sit down and eat. Here’s a look at the burger …
… and the shake:
One bite into the burger, it was clear why there’s so much fuss about Shake Shack. It was a perfect burger with a legitimate homemade taste. I did, however, find it to be pretty small. I’d ordered a single instead of a double, granted, but I could’ve eaten several of these without even being silly. The shake was really good, and a perfect complement to the burger.
We remained where we’d eaten for a few minutes after wrapping up our burgers, enjoying the sight of the field as the fans left it and some of the Phillies began to play catch. Here’s a look at the view from our seats:
I don’t think Citizens Bank Park gets mentioned enough when people talk about beautiful ballparks. You can’t take a look at this panorama and not think of this facility as one of the best in baseball.
After a bit, we went back down to the main concourse to take a look around. I made a stop at the Phillies Authentics kiosk, which is always my favorite type of store in any ballpark. It’s loaded with all sorts of game-used equipment, game-worn apparel and other items that are hugely enticing to a collector like me. Here’s one display that caught my eye — a selection of game-used baseballs from the previous night’s contest:
Resisting the urge to buy anything, we continued along the concourse until we arrived in Ashburn Alley for our first visit of the day. We’d spent a considerable amount of time there a day earlier, and were eager to return. This time, instead of hanging out on the main level, we took this set of stairs …
… up to the Budweiser Rooftop:
Once there, we grabbed a couple of chairs along the rail and enjoyed this view as the action got underway:
We spent innings one and two on the rooftop, and then abandoned our seats in favor of finding a spot to hang out on the concourse level. The spot we chose was a location against the railing in shallow right field, where we had this vantage point of the field …
… and this picturesque view of the setting sun:
If you noticed the 11-1 score for the Braves in the image above, things didn’t get any better for the home side. After an inning on the main concourse, we went to the upper deck and saw that Atlanta had scored two more runs while we were climbing the stairs:
(If you’re wondering why the video board’s content looks vintage, it’s because it was a retro night. In addition to both teams wearing their throwback uniforms, there were a number of other old-school details around the park — including this change to the video board.)
We chose this bird’s-eye view of the field for the next few innings:
It gave us a chance to take in the ballpark from this area for the first time in our visit, as well as enjoy a cool breeze that was blowing through the upper deck. That breeze did a good job of cooling us down after all the walking around, but I knew we needed to grab a cool snack before we left. With a couple of innings left in the game, we went down to the main level, found the Philadelphia Water Ice concession stand that we’d visited a day earlier, and grabbed a couple of frozen treats. This time, I opted for lemon:
It wasn’t quite as good as the cherry flavor that I’d had 24 hours earlier, but it also didn’t leave me looking like I was wearing Joker-esque lipstick. You win some, you lose some.
Speaking of winning some, this day turned out to be a total winner. Shaun and I packed it full of sightseeing and baseball, and it was one of those days that makes you think, “Boy, I sure did a lot of stuff today,” when your head hits the pillow.
This would be our last baseball game of the road trip, and my final game of the 2019 season — but there was another day of fun in Philly before we headed home. Rather than devote a separate blog post to it, here’s a brief recap of what we did on an off-day on July 28.
As we’d done a day earlier, Shaun and I laid out a full day of sightseeing for our final day in Philadelphia. This day wouldn’t feature any baseball, but it would give us a chance to take in some of the city’s iconic sights — and eat some more cheesesteaks.
We left out hotel early in the morning and took a long way to the Philadelphia Museum of Art — not because we were interested in art, but because we were interested in the steps outside of the museum. Yep, those steps are the famous “Rocky Steps” from the Rocky movie, so we knew there was no way we’d leave Philadelphia without running up them. Here are the steps as they came into view …
… and here’s a panorama that I took with my back to the museum, looking toward the park space known as The Oval, and with Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Philadelphia City Hall in the distance:
After I snapped the panorama, we grabbed this shot of ourselves posing triumphantly atop the steps:
This was an absolutely beautiful part of the city. As much as the Rocky Steps were our prime focus, we thoroughly enjoyed a walk up Benjamin Franklin Parkway and a trip around The Oval.
After spending some time around the Rocky Steps, and posing in front of the iconic statue of the Italian Stallion …
… we set off to another of Philadelphia’s must-see sights — Eastern State Penitentiary. It’s a famous penitentiary that operated from 1829 to 1971, and is now a museum. It’s notable for a handful of things, including revolutionizing incarceration by focusing on rehabilitation. More than 300 other penitentiaries were modeled after the Eastern State mentality, making it one of the most important penitentiaries in the world. When it was built, it was the biggest and most expensive public building in the country, and it eventually became home to such notorious inmates as Al Capone. The thing that I found most interesting about the prison was how it apparently hadn’t gone through extensive cosmetic upgrades when it became a museum — which added to the creepiness and intrigue of the experience. Here’s what I mean:
Not all of the prison was in this state, though. Some areas were a lot more swanky. Here’s a recreation of how Capone’s cell looked during his 1929 incarceration:
After leaving Eastern State, we made stops at a handful of museums throughout the afternoon. Between all of the sightseeing and walking, we’d definitely worked up some cheesesteak-worthy appetites. Now, there are countless places to get a cheesesteak in Philly, but we decided to head to East Passyunk Avenue to sample sandwiches from Geno’s and Pat’s — two longtime cheesesteak joints that are conveniently positioned across the street from one another. It’s a spot that is busy virtually 24 hours a day and popular among locals and tourists alike. We arrived shortly before dinner time — a good piece of advice that I read prior to our visit is to schedule cheesesteak restaurant visits outside of traditional meal hours in order to avoid long lineups — and I snapped photos of Geno’s …
… and Pat’s:
Next, we got in line at each eatery. The plan was to buy a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz from each of them and tear them in half so that we could try each of them at the same time.
Although our tear didn’t turn out to be very equal …
… we both dug in and it was immediately apparent to us that Geno’s was a better sandwich. Pat’s was good, but on this day, the Geno’s product was perfectly gooey and provided the exact taste and texture that I want in a cheesesteak. I mentioned in my last post that my favorite cheesesteak ever was from Tony Luke’s. This one from Geno’s was just as good in my mind, so I’ve got Tony Luke’s and Geno’s in a tie atop my cheesesteak list. What about you? Let me know in the comments section below.
Our dual cheesesteak dinner was a fitting and perfect way to wrap up an outstanding weekend in Philly. We’re already making plans about where we’ll go this season. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll make a baseball fan out of Shaun yet.
Bring on 2020!
Many of you know that when I take my baseball road trips, I’m a solo traveler almost 100 percent of the time. Of all the games that I’ve attended since launching The Ballpark Guide in 2010, only a handful of them have been with someone. There are rare occasions in which I plan a trip with a travel partner, however, and my late-July sojourn to Philadelphia was one of those times.
On this trip, my travel partner was my brother-in-law Shaun. He’s not just my brother-in-law, though. He’s my partner in The Ballpark Guide, and while you don’t see any references to him on the website, his work is absolutely critical to it. Simply put, there’d be no Ballpark Guide without him.
Funny enough, given all the work that he’s put into the site, he’s not remotely a baseball fan. Fortunately, it didn’t take much convincing to get him to agree to a weekend in Philly with a little baseball, a little sightseeing and a bunch of cheesesteaks.
We live close to eight hours from Philadelphia, so instead of driving down in one shot, we drove to Syracuse on the evening of July 25, and then proceeded onto Philly the following day. This was actually Shaun’s first baseball game, so it was a thrill for me to be an ambassador for the sport, so to speak. My mission wasn’t necessarily to turn him into a baseball fan by the end of the weekend, but rather to show him how I experience ballparks and baseball games and, hopefully, give him some fun along the way.
And introduce him to cheesesteaks. Lots of cheesesteaks.
After some sightseeing on the trip from Syracuse to Philadelphia, we got to the city 4 p.m., checked into our downtown hotel and after soaking in some air conditioning for a short period, grabbed an Uber and headed over to Citizens Bank Park. You might remember that I visited CBP twice back in 2013, so this wasn’t going to be a ballpark visit in which I’d spend the entire game exploring the park and documenting the sights. There’d be some of that, certainly, but this weekend was more about just soaking in the ballpark experience with my brother-in-law.
We hadn’t bought tickets in advance, so as soon as our Uber driver dropped us off, I snapped this picture …
… and then hurriedly made my way over to the closest ticket office and grabbed a couple of cheap tickets. The ballpark’s gates had just opened, so instead of taking a walk around the exterior, we went straight in.
Batting practice had already finished, which was unfortunate because I’d hoped we could hang out in the outfield for a few minutes and try to get Shaun a baseball. Undeterred, we went straight down to field level so that I could point out of some of the various elements of the park. Our first stop was the right field corner, where we had this view:
Sure, the spot where we stood may be pretty standard for baseball fans, but given that I had a chance to let someone into my world, these scene in front of us was a thrill. I probably sounded like an auctioneer as I rattled off details about the various sights in front of us, told anecdotes about my previous visits to Citizens Bank Park and answered any questions that Shaun threw my way. Once we’d spent a few minutes down at field level, we made our way up to the concourse and began to walk along the third base side, eventually making the turn around left field, where we stopped so that I could snap this panorama:
As you can see, the ballpark was still fairly empty, but the one area that was hopping was Ashburn Alley, which stretches from left-center to right-center. You can actually see all of the red-clad fans if you look to the left side of the panorama. Ashburn Alley is my favorite spot at CBP — and I’m certainly not the only fan who feels this way. By the time we got there, it was absolutely packed with fans. Here’s how it looked:
We’d come to Ashburn Alley for a few reasons. As the most fun and boisterous spot in the park, I wanted to make sure that Shaun got to check it out. I also wanted to show him the bullpens, which are stacked in this area:
Of course, there are a million exciting things to see along the alley. We took a lengthy browse through one of the team shops and I pointed out the Liberty Bell sign overhead:
As you might guess, food was on my mind — which was a good thing, because we were in the right place. Ashburn Alley has a number of concession stands, and my constant babbling about the merits of cheesesteaks on the drive to Philly made it a simple decision for us to get in line to grab a couple. Now, there are a few cheesesteak vendors at Citizens Bank Park — as well as countless across the city — and everyone has his or her favorite. I’ve been fortunate to try a number of them over the years, and the best cheesesteak I’d eaten up to that point was at a Tony Luke’s location. It was easy for me to recommend this particular brand over anything else, and the long lineup in front of us was a testament to the popularity of this particular eatery. When we made our way up to order, I ordered mine with Cheez Whiz and Shaun got provolone. With cheesesteaks in hand, fought our way across Ashburn Alley to a spot along the railing, and then dug in:
(In reviewing the photo above, I noticed the tendon on the side of my neck bulging out a little — a testament to how much I was apparently enjoying the bite.)
My cheesesteak was delicious, as expected. Shaun liked his, but found it to be a little dry. I suggested that he go with Cheez Whiz next time, as I feel that cheese choice gives you the moist, greasy, artery-friendly consistency that you’re going for with this type of meal.
Before I started the second half of my sandwich, I snapped this cross-section shot to give you an idea of how much meat it contained:
I find that this is the perfect amount of meat. Yes, it’s possible to fit more in, but when you’re standing to eat it — and don’t want to be wearing half of it — this is the right amount to eat with ease.
After eating and taking a few minutes to let the meat sweats subside, we continued our walk around the concourse to take in the sights. The next spot was checked out was the Phillies Wall of Fame area, which features a number of plaques and, a new addition since my previous visit, some statues that honor the team’s World Series titles in 1980 and 2008:
Next, we took an escalator ride up a level to continue checking out the sights. I love the fact that you can see the Philadelphia skyline from CBP, and took Shaun over to a spot where we could check it out:
Our next stop gave us an overhead vantage point to check out the open space with the World Series trophy statues, as well as the displays honoring the team’s retired numbers:
We then moved into a spot that gave us a good view of Ashburn Alley from one end. It was still fairly busy, and you can see that the crowd lined up at Tony Luke’s was still very long:
The Campo’s Philly Cheesesteaks concession stand, for the record, is just on the far side of the staircase leading up to the Budweiser Rooftop. It had a decent-sized lineup, too.
Before too long, the players had taken the field and begun to warm up, so we headed to a spot where we could see right fielder Bryce Harper. I’ve been a fan of Harper’s since I met him as an 18 year old with the Hagerstown Suns and got his autograph after patiently waiting next to his truck in the ballpark’s back parking lot. (You can read all about that adventure here.) Funny enough, though, this would be the first time that I’d ever scene Harper in action. On my visit to Hagerstown, he had the day off because of a minor injury, and I hadn’t managed to see him later that year as he rose through the minors, nor after he’d made it to the big leagues. In any case, we were a considerable distance from the field, but I still took a few shots of Harper playing catch:
We watched the first inning from roughly where I took the above photo, and then made our way up to the upper deck for the second inning. Here’s a view of this beautiful ballpark in the bottom of the second:
From this spot, Shaun snapped this photo of me with one of my new The World Needs More Baseball shirts:
Like this design? You can buy one here.
Eventually, we returned to the main concourse to continue to walk around the check out the sights. The next place we visited was the Harry Kalas statue not far from Ashburn Alley:
We watched a bit more of the action on the field from the alley, and then went back up a few levels to check out the view of the neighborhood around Citizens Bank Park. Here’s a panorama that I really like, showing Lincoln Financial Field and Wells Fargo Center, as well as the Xfinity Live! venue:
Since we were headed to the upper deck, anyway, we grabbed a pair of seats on the third base side and enjoyed a little more of the action with this outstanding view:
Midway through the game, I could see some signs of action in the bullpen areas, and wanted to give Shaun a chance to see a reliever getting ready to enter the game. It’s something that I enjoy watching as often as I can, so I figured a first-time ballpark visitor would get a thrill out of a front-row spot to the action. We made our way down to the main concourse and made a quick detour to a nearby Philadelphia Water Ice concession stand to pick up a pair of cherry ices. Here’s mine:
My photo didn’t turn out all that well, in part because of the dark conditions and in part because I was rushing to get to the bullpen before one of the Atlanta Braves pitchers got up and started to throw. Fortunately, our hurrying paid off, and we were able to grab a pair of spots at the railing above and behind the bullpen plate to watch the action:
As the game wrapped up, we took a quick Uber ride back to our downtown hotel, the Sonesta Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square:
This was the first time that I’d ever stayed at a Sonesta hotel, and was thoroughly impressed with not only the service we encountered during each interaction with staff, but also the size and stylish design of the rooms, as well as the on-site dining options — a funky spot called Art Bar, which is perfect for a post-game drink and snack, and Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Perhaps most impressive about this hotel is its location. The Rittenhouse Square neighborhood is easily one of the most popular areas in the city, and is filled with restaurants, shopping options and plenty of green space. Although a walk from this location to Citizens Bank Park would be lengthy, the Uber ride was a quick and easy one. And, using our hotel as a home base for the weekend, we had no trouble covering a wide variety of Philly’s downtown attractions on foot.
We were on the move so much all weekend that we didn’t have a proper chance to enjoy all of the hotel’s amenities, but they certainly looked appealing. Take a look at this nighttime shot of the pool, located on the roof of the eighth floor:
And here’s an image off the hotel’s website of a room that looked just like ours:
I’d wholeheartedly recommend this hotel to you if you’re planning a baseball road trip to Philadelphia — and especially if you want to do a lot of sightseeing on foot when you’re not at the ballpark.
Speaking of sightseeing, we began our second day in the city with plenty of that before heading back to CBP for another memorable evening.
As you might suspect, the last day of my North Carolina baseball road trip concluded with a baseball game.
From the time that I left my hotel in Fayetteville until I pulled into the parking lot of Intimidators Stadium in Kannapolis, however, this day was all about stock car racing.
The drive between these two North Carolina cities is only about two and a half hours, so I drafted up an itinerary that would take me to half a dozen NASCAR-related attractions — namely, a museum and a handful of race shops — and still get to Kannapolis before the ballpark gates opened. I was a huge NASCAR fan in my late teens and early 20s, and after a handful of years away from the sport, I’ve been getting back into it over the last couple of years. (You might remember my exciting visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame when I was in Charlotte in the summer of 2018.) I’m not planning to blog about my visit to each of these attractions on this day, but I can tell you that even if you’re a moderate stock car racing fan, visiting any race shop around Charlotte is something to add to your to-do list if you’re in the area.
My NASCAR-themed day made sense based on where I’d end up. The Kannapolis Intimidators, who played in the South Atlantic League, owe their name to NASCAR hall of famer Dale Earnhardt. He was born in Kannapolis and nicknamed “The Intimidator” — and, for a short amount of time, was a minority owner of the baseball team.
My daylong sightseeing was so extensive that I only got to Intimidators Stadium about 30 minutes before the gates were due to open. That didn’t leave me much time for my usual pre-entry touring, but that was just fine on this occasion. Why? The 2019 season was the team’s last in this ballpark — and the last with the Intimidators nickname, for that matter. Earlier this off season, the team rebranded to the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers and will move into a downtown ballpark for the 2020 campaign. All of that meant that I wasn’t feeling any pressure to meticulously document Intimidators stadium for my website. Instead, this evening was all about visiting a new-to-me ballpark (#76!) and enjoying the experience.
So, instead of spending some time outside of the park, I entered just a couple of minutes after parking my rental car. Normally, I spend a fair bit of time on the main level concourse upon arriving at a park, but I decided to change things up a little during this visit. Immediately after I walked inside, went up to the suite level, where I had this view of batting practice:
Nice looking ballpark, right?
I was immediately impressed at the scene before me. At the time of my visit, the Intimidators would only be using this park for another two months, but virtually everything that I saw was in tip-top condition. I can’t say that I was expecting to see things looking unkempt to some degree … but I suppose that I wouldn’t have been surprised if some part.
As I looked over to my left, I started to take in some of the park’s unique design features. Take a look at the following photo:
You’ll notice a number of noteworthy things — small seating sections, a wide cross-aisle, an enormous concourse and the press box in its own building at concourse level. You’ll also see some picnic areas down the third base side and, on the far left, a tree growing in the concourse. Pretty neat, if you ask me.
Encouraged by what I saw from my high vantage point, I headed down to the concourse to begin taking in the sights.
As it had been during my two previous days in Fayetteville, the temperature was hovering around the 100-degree mark — and I was feeling it for the entirety of my walk around the concourse. Undeterred, the first place that I stopped was the third base side of the press box, where I stood for a few minutes to watch the visiting Rome Braves take BP. I’ve said it before, but there’s something so peaceful and enjoyable about taking in batting practice, especially at the minor league level. It’s something I’ll never tire of watching.
As the gates opened and Intimidators Stadium slowly began to fill, I moved to the other side of the press box to snap this picture of myself:
(You can buy my shirt here.)
Then, it was time to head down the third base concourse to check out the stock car that I’d spotted earlier from the suite level:
It’s an Intimidators/Earnhardt-branded Chevrolet stock car, which was neat to look at — even if it had regretfully seen better days. The body of the car has several rust spots on it, likely a result of dents from foul balls causing the paint to chip off. Nevertheless, I was glad to see the unique sight of a stock car in a ballpark — especially on a day that was centered around racing and baseball.
Before batting practice wrapped up, I took this panorama of the field not far from the stock car …
… and then took a short walk around the concourse area behind the press box. Check out how expansive this area is:
It’s definitely the type of place that you could stand for a few innings and almost certainly snag a foul ball.
After a brief stop in the modest team shop, I made my way down the first base side …
… to check out the carousel — another feature at the park that impressed me:
In the right field corner, I turned back toward home plate and admired this view of the park:
It’s always sad to see ballparks go the way of the dodo, and while I’m certainly excited to check out Kannapolis’ new ballpark, I can’t deny feeling a bit of melancholy at the idea that this would be my first and last visit to Intimidators Stadium.
I took this next shot to give you another view of the ballpark’s unique layout:
You’ll see the press box and picnic areas on the right side of the shot, but take a look at the structure on the left. It’s the ballpark’s lone building, and houses the suites, offices, team shop, ticket office and more.
One of the things that I love best about visiting ballparks at all levels is thoroughly exploring them and finding unusual nooks and crannies. Just past the carousel, I followed this pathway …
… around to the left and found myself in this unique area:
You can catch a glimpse of the field and video board in the distance, but this spot is otherwise completely isolated. It was a neat and random place to visit, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take a couple of minutes to search for errant BP baseballs in the shrubs around the path — to no avail, unfortunately.
After spending a bit of time in the right field corner, I made my way back around the concourse to the left field corner. While there, I peeked through a fence at the end of the grass berm to look at the home bullpen …
… and managed to step in a quicksand-like puddle of mud next to the bullpen fence that almost made me stumble right out of my shoe. No photos of that, unfortunately.
Once I’d aggressively rubbed my muddy shoe through the grass until it was respectable again, I made my way over to the cross-aisle and headed toward home plate:
Batting practice had since ended, and the Intimidators ground crew was getting the field prepared. From where I stood, I snapped this panorama:
When I got back up to the concourse and was contemplating where to go next, a man approached me and introduced himself as Alan Hand — one of my Twitter followers, and a 100+ ballpark visitor. I didn’t realize that he lives in the Kannapolis area, but he made a point of attending this game to say hello. Of course, we snapped a picture:
You might notice that Alan is wearing a Vancouver Canadians shirt, which I’m guessing aren’t too common in North Carolina. You might also notice the unsightly sweat marks on my shirt — an unfortunate byproduct of the mix of a hot day and a lot of walking.
I’m always thrilled to meet fellow baseball fans on my travels, and enjoyed chatting with Alan for several minutes about our various travels, baseball in Kannapolis and, of course, NASCAR. We decided that we’d sit together for some of the game, so after a quick farewell, I continued down the first base line again. There wasn’t any action in the visitors bullpen when I arrived — but I couldn’t help but smile at the following scene:
You’d think that a bunch of guys who get paid to throw strikes would fare a little better at tossing their paper cups in the trash, right?
I decided that I’d grab some food before the game began, so I took a brief lap around the concourse in search of Kannapolis’ famed “Mater Sandwich” — a simple tomato and mayo sandwich served on white bread that was Earnhardt’s favorite. I’d heard about this sandwich a few years ago, and I liked the story behind it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t track it down anywhere, and no one I asked seemed to have a clue what I was talking about. Undaunted, I opted for the next best thing — a sausage on a bun:
As you probably know, I try to focus on unique ballpark fare whenever possible, and a sausage on a bun isn’t exactly unique. But it caught my eye, and nothing else on the Intimidators Stadium menu really jumped out at me. One bite into the sausage made me very happy that I’d chosen it. While very simple, it was perfectly executed — a high-quality sausage cooked perfectly on a fresh bun. There’s something really satisfying about simple food done right, and this was a perfect example.
I wrapped up my meal just before first pitch before going partway down the first base side to watch the top half of the first inning …
… and then moved all the way to the corner before the half-inning was over:
In the second inning, I met up with Alan in the bleachers on the third base line, where we sat with this view as the summer sun slowly began to set, making long shadows over the field:
I sat with Alan for the rest of my visit — which, sadly, wasn’t until the end of the game. I had nearly a 2.5-hour drive to get to where I was staying for the night, and as much as I’d have loved to stay until the final out, I was tired enough that the idea of leaving for a long, solo drive at 10 p.m. wasn’t appealing. I pulled the plug on this game about 8:30 p.m., pausing to take one last look at the stadium’s exterior before I hopped back in my rental car and hit the road again.
My first day in Fayetteville had a little of everything — which would make it hard to top on Day #2.
Truth be told, I wasn’t really worrying about trying to make my second day better than the first. If it could be just a fraction as enjoyable, I’d be more than happy.
I began my second day in this North Carolina town by getting up early, peeking out my window at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Fayetteville North to ensure that the Salem Red Sox bus was still sitting in the parking lot (spoiler alert — it was) and then working out in the hotel’s gym. After breakfast, I settled down in front of my computer for a few hours to do some blogging, and headed out after lunch for a bite to eat and to check out my first stop of the day.
The Woodpeckers are reason enough to visit Fayetteville, but they’re certainly not the only thing to check out while you’re in town. A big attraction that I wanted to make time to see was the Airborne & Special Forces Museum, which sits in the city’s downtown area. Fayetteville is home to Fort Bragg which, among other things, is home to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. The museum is free to enter and is a must-see stop for any military history buff. It provides a detailed history of the Airborne and Special Forces from the Second World War right up to the present day. I viewed more artifacts than I can begin to list here, but I want to share one that was especially noteworthy — and one that you might know about.
If you’ve seen the movie Black Hawk Down, you might be aware of the 1993 downing of an American Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia. The museum has on display the rotor of the helicopter in question, Super 61, which wasn’t returned to the U.S. until 2013. It was equally impressive and eerie to see this piece of machinery, given its infamous history:
I spent about 90 minutes at the museum — which is actually within walking distance of Segra Stadium — before making a short drive to a spot in town that partially tells the story of Fayetteville’s deep history with baseball. It was here that a young George Herman Ruth picked up the moniker of “Babe,” long before he became a household name across the country. And, as you’ll see on this plaque, Fayetteville is the town in which Ruth hit his first home run as a professional, way back in March of 1914:
(This news came as a bit of a surprise me, as I’d often heard how Ruth hit his first professional round tripper in Toronto. In fact, there’s a plaque at Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Islands that claims Ruth had his first pro HR at that location in September of 1914, six months after the Fayetteville home run. Curious, right?)
In any case, this was a special plaque to see, and one that I was glad to visit. It’s situated just over a mile from Segra Stadium, so it’s definitely a spot to check out when you’re in Fayetteville to see the Woodpeckers play.
After I was done taking a few photos of the plaque, I made the short drive over to the ballpark to begin my second visit. I mentioned earlier that I’d had such a good time during my first visit that I wasn’t worried about my subsequent one being better. It quickly became clear, however, that Day #2 would top Day #1 in one regard, anyway — the temperature. Here’s a screenshot that I took just after arriving at Segra Stadium:
I parked my rental car in the same lot that I’d used a day earlier, and made the short — and hot! — walk to Segra Stadium. My blog entry about my first visit touched on the construction that is taking place around this new Carolina League ballpark, including the tall crane that towered over the area. One thing that I didn’t mention, however, was the large Woodpeckers flag that hung off the crane. A slight breeze on Day #2 meant that I was able to snap this shot of the flag:
After entering the ballpark, I set out down the third base concourse to begin my customary walk around the field. As you can see here, the concourse was very quiet at this hour …
… but as you might notice in this photo, there were some goings-on down on the field:
A handful of players from each team were playing catch, and the grounds crew was well underway in its efforts to get the field ready for action. The careful prep of the field just after 4 p.m. told me that there’d be no batting practice on the agenda for the second straight day.
With no BP to watch, I watched some Salem pitchers play catch for a few minutes, and then set my sights on checking out the kids’ play area beyond the left field grass berm. I mentioned in my previous blog post how this area is really impressive, especially by Class-A Advanced standards. Case in point? Take a look at this outstanding baseball diamond for kids to run around:
The triple-digit heat limited my desire to channel my inner Joe Carter and leap around the bases, so I instead went down to the outfield fence just to the left field side of the Rocking Porch, and enjoyed this view:
I love the funky shape of the outfield grass and warning track, which you can see in the immediate foreground. Symmetrical outfields are so bland, don’t you think?
Even though I was disappointed in the lack of batting practice, it was nice to stand behind the outfield fence before the game and not worry about a ball landing on my head for a change. As such, I watched the scene for several minutes from that vantage point, before continuing over to the right field corner, where I checked out this huge, multilevel picnic deck:
The next place that I visited was the front row on the third base side. By now, most of the players had left the field, so I just hung out for a minutes and enjoyed the quiet space in front of me. From here, I also snapped this photo that shows one of the other things that I like about Segra Stadium’s design — the open appearance of the netting-covered wall, rather than their concrete, foam-covered counterparts that are still the norm at most minor league parks:
This design gives fans the feeling of being closer to the action, in part because they can more easily see players as they approach the wall, as well as track the path of foul balls as they roll past. It’s little details like this that improve the overall ballpark experience, and I commend the Woodpeckers on making this decision.
I spent a little time sitting at field level, and then checked out the grass berm immediately behind the wall between the two bullpens …
… before the heat drove me into the shade of the concourse and, eventually, the air conditioned confines of the team shop. As with many other elements at Segra Stadium, the team shop was impressive. Large and roomy, and with a wide selection of apparel, it definitely didn’t feel like a Class-A Advanced retail space.
Once the gates opened, I went back out to the concourse to take another lap around. As I stood by one of the railings, I looked down and saw my shadow on the field — and couldn’t resist taking the latest version of this shot from Russell Diethrick Park or this shot from Southwest University Park:
Since I hadn’t taken much in the way of action shots a day earlier, and I’d thoroughly explored the ballpark by this point, I decided to head over to the home bullpen to watch starting pitcher Luis Garcia throw:
The grass berm immediately above Segra Stadium’s bullpens gives fans a really good view of the goings-on. I love when ballpark designs provide this up-close-and-personal access, rather than have the bullpens situated where you can’t get too close. From where I stood, I was just a handful of yards from Woodpeckers catcher Michael Papierski, and enjoyed the challenge of trying to snap photos just as the baseball was entering his glove. Here’s a shot that turned out pretty well:
I watched the entirety of their session, and then found a spot behind home plate to watch the first couple of innings …
… and then spent the remainder of the game watching from different vantage points — and grabbed some shade here and there when possible.
I was thoroughly impressed with Segra Stadium, and glad that I finally had a chance to check out an MiLB ballpark in its first year of operation. This is a ballpark that you’ll appreciate for a number of reasons, so I encourage you to give Fayetteville, N.C. some thought when you’re looking at potential destinations for your upcoming baseball road trips.
My two days in Fayetteville were a blast, but my trip wasn’t done yet. I had one more North Carolina city to visit the next day.
I always admire my fellow baseball road trippers who make plans to visit new MLB or MiLB parks in their inaugural seasons. This is an idea that has often caught my eye, but for various reasons, I’d never been able to make it work prior to this season. I’ve been traveling since 2010 for The Ballpark Guide, but never fared better than visiting a second-year park. (In fact, as far as I can recall, the last time that I visited a ballpark during its first season was Toronto’s SkyDome, waaaay back in 1989. Yikes!)
Fortunately, that would all change this summer.
When I was setting my June and July travel plans for North Carolina, I knew that a visit to Segra Stadium, home of the first-year Fayetteville Woodpeckers, had to be on the agenda. And so, after a day with the Richmond Flying Squirrels and a much-needed off day, I was back on the road and headed to another city.
I got to Fayetteville early in the afternoon, and after a quick bite of lunch in the car, drove straight to the campus of Methodist University. If you’ve been reading my posts about my trip through North Carolina, you might recall that I’d made a point of visiting a number of NCAA baseball facilities whenever possible, and I’d added Methodist’s Armstrong-Shelley Field to my must-see list. The Methodist Monarchs are notable for making the Div. III College World Series on six occasions, and finishing as the tournament’s runner-up in 1995. Upon pulling onto the campus, I was immediately struck by its beauty and tranquil nature; in a visit that maybe lasted 15 minutes, I saw only two people. After a couple of minutes of driving, I’d made my way to an empty parking lot outside of the baseball facility. I wasn’t able to get inside of the facility, unfortunately, but after snapping this shot of the main gate …
… I climbed up on top of the third base seats and shot this panorama:
Armstrong-Shelley Field is the 15th different NCAA baseball facility that I’ve visited — none to actually see a game, unfortunately — and the sixth different NCAA stop on my June/July road trip. Yes, I even track the ballparks that I visit when it’s only to take a few photos, not to see a game.
After a short walk around the field, it was time to head to my hotel to enjoy some air conditioning for a bit. Why? Well, North Carolina was in the middle of a heatwave that saw the temperatures on this day hit 99 degrees.
During my visit to Fayetteville, I was staying at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Fayetteville North. It was just a couple of minutes from the campus of MU and, most importantly, only 12 minutes from Segra Stadium. It’s the number one hotel in Fayetteville on TripAdvisor, and with good reason — although it opened in 2014, you’d have had a hard time convincing me that the hotel wasn’t a month or two old. Large rooms with comfortable beds, an impressive fitness center, an indoor saltwater pool and a really good free breakfast were all big pluses in my book — and would likely be for any other baseball road tripper, too.
If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you know that my favorite hotels are those that are within sight of the ballpark. My second favorite type of hotels are those that host the visiting team, and I quickly realized that was the case when I got to my room, looked out the window and saw the coach bus of the visiting Salem Red Sox in the parking lot:
Its presence made me irrationally giddy, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t peek out my window every 10 or so minutes to look at the bus until it departed.
Once it left, I soon followed suit, and got to enjoy the sights of Fayetteville on the short drive to the ballpark.
I parked a short distance from the ballpark and, upon leaving my car, this was the first view that I had:
Segra Stadium is situated just behind the trees on the right. If you look carefully, you’ll see the stadium lighting rising above the treeline.
A couple of minutes later, I had my first view of this Carolina League ballpark:
As you’ll notice, the area surrounding the park was still under construction at the time of my visit. In fact, it wasn’t possible to do my usual full lap of the park because of all the construction. Construction or no construction, I was thrilled to finally be at ballpark #75 — and very eager to start exploring this first-year facility. Before I entered, though, I wanted to do as much checking out of the exterior sights as I could. That included walking over toward the main gates and team shop:
If you noticed the “Victory Means a Little More Here” design on the wall, it’s making reference to the city’s deep connection with the armed forces. Fayetteville is home to Fort Bragg, which is the largest military base in the world. This slogan was one of many military references throughout the park, making it evident that the park’s designers put a lot of thought into tying the design of the ballpark to the community in which it’s located.
Unless you noticed the under-construction building at the left of the image above, you might be asking, “Where’s all this construction that you speak of?” Here’s one image that shows Segra Stadium from another angle:
And here’s a look at the front gates of the park from a distance:
For the record, I’m not remotely pointing out the construction in a pejorative way. On the contrary, seeing this work being done only served to excite me about what the future holds for this new ballpark and for the fans who will be visiting it. It’s clear that there’s a lot of development being done around the park, and I love parks that give fans a selection of things to see, do and eat before the game. It’s clear that’ll be the case for Segra Stadium, even if all of the work wasn’t quite done during my visit.
I figured that I’d done enough pre-entry wandering for now — besides, the temperature was still hovering just below triple digits, so I felt a strong pull to find some shade. I entered through the gate to the left of the team shop and immediately took a few minutes to stand in the shade and just enjoy some reprieve from the sun. It wasn’t long before I was on the move — fortunately, to another shaded area — as I headed right down to field level behind home plate to snap this panorama:
There are a handful of noteworthy things to point out in this photo. I love how the front-row seats are truly at field level. This is something that seems to be occurring at more and more new ballparks, and it really gives fans in these sections the feeling of being right in the middle of the action. There’s also a wrap-around concourse, which is a must in my books, and a combination of seating options throughout the outfield. I also like the small seating sections down the lines. Lots of newer MiLB parks are taking this approach to give fans a cozy feel, rather than having vast sections that may be half empty on any given night. I share these points because I was immediately impressed with the look of Segra Stadium, and excited to continue exploring.
I watched batting practice from the above spot for a few minutes, and then decided to go back up to the main concourse and walk down the first base line. Here’s the first shot that I took once I headed in this direction:
You’ll notice a number of cool design features in this image, too — standing-room railings behind the upper rows of seats, a wide concourse, a big picnic deck in the corner and a large open space at the end of the concourse. I love these large open areas for a few reasons. As someone who spends a lot of time walking at ballparks, I always appreciate these spaces because they’re easy to get through. When things get tight at the end of a concourse, there tends to be a logjam of people that can make these areas congested. Wide-open spaces such as those at Segra Stadium are always easy to navigate. Of course, the other benefit of these spaces is that they can be optimal for snagging long foul balls. Spend a few innings standing with your glove in any such location, and the odds are good that you’ll be rewarded for your efforts.
So, just how expansive is the space down the first base line at Segra Stadium? Here’s a shot that should answer that question:
This wide-open space wasn’t the only exciting feature in this part of the ballpark. This area is also home to the team’s batting cages, which was visible from the concourse:
Traditionally, teams have often had their cages below the ballpark, which might provide convenient access from the clubhouse, but isn’t the most fan-friendly location. Having the cages in a spot where fans can stand and watch is another big plus in my books.
Next, I made a quick climb up to the Landing Area party deck in the right field corner that was quiet now, but would be lively from the time the gates opened through the end of the game. It offered a variety of seating options, including couches, as well as plenty of ways to keep entertained between innings — table tennis, jumbo Jenga and cornhole were all available in this area:
Fortunately for fans, this deck wasn’t the only unique seating option in the area. Here are some other places to hang out for the game:
This impressive selection of seats is located just a few steps away from the large Healy’s Bar structure:
I watched BP for a few minutes from the shade of the bar’s overhang, and then continued my lap around Segra Stadium by walking behind the batter’s eye …
… and around to left-center field, where I took a spot along the railing above the grass berm:
From this spot, I kept an eye on BP while focusing the majority of my attention on the Red Sox bullpen session taking place in front of me. I could watch countless hours of bullpen sessions without ever getting bored. Not only is it impressive to watch a professional pitcher throw from just a few feet away, but it’s fascinating to hear snippets of conversation between the players and pitching coach.
As you might’ve noticed from the panorama above, I was standing in the full sun, and even though it wasn’t the midday sun, it was still enough to have sweat dripping off my face. I was thoroughly enjoying the scene, but soon decided to keep walking. Next, I took a moment to check out the kids’ play area beyond the left field concourse. With a rubber floor, a pair of bounce castles and number of other attractions, including these play structures …
… this was definitely one of the better play areas that I’ve seen in the minor leagues.
Resisting the urge to take a trip down the play structure slide, I continued along the concourse and stopped to note this group of seats along the edge of the concourse:
This type of seating layout is increasing popular in the minor leagues, but it was the seats themselves that caught my eye. You’ll notice that instead of being plastic, they have fabric/mesh backs and seats. This feature not only makes them more comfortable to sit for long stretches, but also helps fans to avoid the heat that plastic seats can hold on a sunny day. Another smart idea from the folks who designed this ballpark.
As I made my way back toward home plate, I stopped to snap this shot of myself:
The shirt that I’m wearing is one of my raglans, which you might think of being an odd choice on a 100-degree day. I can’t argue much with that sentiment, but I will tell you that the three-quarter sleeves can help to avoid sunburn, which is why I was wearing it on this sweltering day. Plus, its colors were a perfect match to the Woodpeckers uniforms. Want your own road trip shirt? You can shop for one here.
I grabbed a seat in the shade behind home plate and watched batting practice from that spot, keeping an eye on a TV nearby that was showing the MLB Network feed. The death of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs had been reported just a short while earlier, so that heartbreaking story was understandably dominating the day’s baseball news. As I watched the Salem squad hit in front of me, I wondered which players might have crossed paths with Skaggs at some point in their careers, or perhaps even been teammates of the deceased young lefty.
After a few minutes of sitting and watching the scene in front of me, I decided to head up to Segra Stadium’s second level and see how things looked from up there. The ballpark’s second level consists of suites, a club area and a party deck — and no matter where you sit, you’ve got a really good view of the field and the ballpark as a whole:
I hung out in the party deck until shortly before the gates opened, and then went down to the main level to take another walk around the field. My next stop was center field, where I looked back toward home plate at this view:
Perhaps it’s the construction crane or the partially finished building that looms above the suite level, but the ballpark has a bit of an incomplete appearance from this vantage point. It’s not a criticism, but I think this area could benefit from a splash of color — maybe a Segra Stadium sign or some team branding. Or maybe even some advertising. Perhaps these things will come in the future and, if so, I think they’ll boost the look of this part of the ballpark.
Near where I stood when I took the photo above is the ballpark’s Rocking Porch, which is definitely one of the best seating sections I’ve come across in the minor leagues. It consists of three levels of rocking chairs, giving fans a fun and unique way to enjoy the game:
Of course, I couldn’t help rocking on one of the chairs for a few minutes, just as I’d done several years earlier in the rocking chair section at Round Rock’s Dell Diamond.
Then, I was on the move again, stopping briefly to snap this photo of the berm and the bullpens in left field …
… and then heading down to field level to watch the players get warmed up. I focused my attention on right field, where the Woodpeckers starting battery of pitcher Chad Donato and catcher Scott Manea were playing catch. Here’s a shot of Donato …
… and one of Manea:
Next, it was time to begin my search for dinner. There were a number of good options that caught my eye — grilled chicken wings from Healy’s, a cheesesteak from Sherwood’s Steaks or any number of enticing hot dogs from Sgt. Stubby’s. In the end, though, I opted for the Rise & Shine Burger from the Bagwell’s Burgers concession stand. It wasn’t just any old burger — it was topped with bacon, ham, smoked gouda, a fried egg, garlic-herb mayo, lettuce and tomato, and definitely goes down as one of the most creative burgers I’ve had at a ballpark:
It wasn’t just creative, though — it was outstanding, and definitely takes a spot among the best ballpark burgers I’ve eaten in all my travels. (By the way, if you aren’t eating your burgers with fried eggs on them, it’s time to get on that.)
Although I shot the above photo in the left field corner just before first pitch, I took the burger over to the bar-style seating in right-center to eat. One thing I’ve learned from eating big burgers (and especially those with over-easy eggs on them) is that you generally want a semi-private location in which to eat, simply because of the risk of a catastrophic yolk mishap.
Fortunately, I managed to avoid such difficulties, and thoroughly enjoyed scarfing down the burger while I kept an eye on the game:
I watched the action from this sunny spot for about an inning after eating, and then went behind home plate for another inning. The next spot that I wanted to check out was the third base side, which was in the shade by this point. First, though, I wanted to grab one of my favorite ballpark treats — frozen lemonade:
Then, it was time to sit back, relax and enjoy the next several innings with this view:
I watched the last inning from a standing-room spot in center field, and then made the short drive back to my hotel after the game — where I kept a watchful eye for the eventual arrival of the Red Sox, bus.
Of course I did.
The majority of my nine-day road trip took place in North Carolina, but there was one notable exception — a June 29 sojourn into Virginia so that I could see the Richmond Flying Squirrels play.
About nine hours after getting back to my hotel after seeing the Carolina Mudcats in action, I was back in my rental car and headed north about 170 miles. This would be the first time I’d be in Virginia since seeing the Norfolk Tides just over a year ago. The drive to Richmond should’ve been easy, but it took way longer than I’d have liked, thanks to a few major traffic jams on I-95. Between the traffic and a couple of sightseeing detours, I arrived in Virginia’s capital city much later than expected, and after checking into a hotel out the outskirts of town, I had to race downtown to get to The Diamond.
The June 29 game against the Hartford Yard Goats was a 6 p.m. start, which is common on Saturdays. I had it in my head that the game was a 7 p.m. start, so when I arrived about 4:30 p.m. — early, but not nearly as early as usual — there was a huge crowd and the gates were just 30 minutes from opening. This was the first time that I’d ever botched a game time, and while it wasn’t a huge deal, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little rattled as I climbed out of my car upon realizing what had happened.
I always love getting into the ballpark before the gates open, but I also love a walk around the outside before I go in. There simply wasn’t enough time to devote to a comprehensive perimeter walk, so after I took this shot from the parking lot …
… I headed through the main gates into the park:
You might’ve noticed in my first photo that The Diamond has a unique look from the exterior. Some might call it dated, but let’s stick with unique. This ballpark opened in 1985, making it the second oldest in the Eastern League. Only Reading’s historic FirstEnergy Stadium, which opened in 1951, is older. This means that by today’s high standards of minor league ballparks, The Diamond has a few less-than-desirable architectural features, but the team has done an exemplary job of making this a high energy and fun place to watch a baseball game.
The Diamond is the 74th different stadium at which I’ve seen a game, but it’s more noteworthy to me because visiting it now means that I’ve seen at least one game in every Eastern League ballpark. I first visited an EL facility back in 2010, but it took me until this summer to hit the 12th and final Eastern League park. Interestingly, this marks the first league that I’ve “completed,” for lack of a better term. (I’m also just a few parks away from completing a handful of other minor leagues.)
Resisting the urge to take a lap around the concourse right away, I cut through the park and went down toward the seating bowl to get a look at the view from home plate, which looked like this:
If you’re wondering what looks a little different about this shot, it’s the black frame around the netting behind the plate. While every MiLB park obviously has netting in this area, I can’t recall another that has the distinctive framing around it. It definitely looks obstructive in this photo, and I wondered how it might seem during game action. I’m happy to report that when you’re in any seat behind home plate and are focused on the game, the frame tends to disappear just like the netting that it supports.
My semi-late arrival meant that I’d missed batting practice — or, more likely, BP had been cancelled because it was 95 degrees — so after standing behind home plate for just a moment, I decided to start exploring the seating bowl. Eighties-era ballparks are known for their vast seating bowls, and because there aren’t that many examples like this left in the minor leagues, I was excited to make my way up toward the top. I started by heading down the third base side, climbing up the steps and turning to take this panorama:
The shade blocks things out a little, but there are some interesting things to point out. If you look at the upper deck seats on the first base side, you’ll notice that the top handful of rows — I’d say about six of them — have been tarped off. I like how the team has closed only the top few rows of each section rather than closed sections entirely. I’ve been to a handful of games in which the team closes specific upper deck sections, and I hate the idea of not being able to explore whatever sections I want. Over the course of the evening, I spent time in many of the upper deck sections at The Diamond, and didn’t feel that I was missing out by not having a chance to sit in the top few rows.
After snapping the panorama above, I took this shot to share on social media:
You’ll see by the handful of fans in the stands that the gates had now opened, so after taking this photo of the Richmond skyline beyond the outfield fence …
… and this shot that shows the press box and the space around it …
… I decided to go back down to the concourse to explore it before things got crowded.
I mentioned earlier that The Diamond has some unusual architectural features, but that the team does a good job of overcoming them. Here’s an example:
This is a walkway that wraps around the exterior of the stadium above the main concourse. It feels pretty isolated in this spot, and and it doesn’t seem like an area that you’d be in a hurry to check out, right? That may be true, but look how many displays there are on both sides of the walkway. The displays pay tribute to past Flying Squirrels teams and alumni who’ve reached the major leagues, which instantly boosts the appeal of being in this part of the stadium.
As I made a lap of the concourse, I noticed several things of note. It’d been a while since I’d visited a ballpark of this era. (I visited PNC Field in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2011, and although it opened a few years after The Diamond, there were lots of similarities. PNC Field was closed for 2012 as it went through a $43 million renovation that turned it into one of the gems of Triple-A baseball, for the record.) That meant that even though some of the features are outdated by today’s ballpark standards, they were still interesting to see.
Here’s one thing that you don’t see very often anymore — narrow walkways leading from the concourse to the seating bowl:
Remember when arcade games were a thing at ballparks? There was a large collection of arcades at one end of the concourse at The Diamond:
I didn’t see anyone playing them in all the time I spent walking around, which makes me wonder — with the easy access to mobile games today, does anyone play arcade games anymore? This spot arguably seemed like the most dated section of the ballpark, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it changed the next time that Richmond’s ownership plans a renovation.
The position of the suites made for another interesting design feature at this stadium. Because they’re located on the concourse level, and are positioned between the concourse and the seating bowl, they stick out into the concourse. The team has done a really good job of having local artists paint the back sides of the suites in different ways. Here’s an eye-catching “Greetings from the River City” motif:
As I made my way around the concourse, I noted how the crowd was quickly growing. It seemed very apparent that Richmond strongly supports its Flying Squirrels. That made for a fun atmosphere as I continued to walk around and note some of The Diamond’s unique design features, like this one — the upper deck seats that loom large over the concourse, and are supported on the outer edge with enormous concrete posts:
Eventually, I returned to the seating bowl to explore it a little more. First, I made my way to the upper seats behind home plate, where I shot this panorama:
Then, I made a long walk from the left field end of the seating bowl all the way to the right field end, pausing to take this shot of the upper rows of seats and the tarp mounted behind them:
When I got to the right field side, I was able to look down and see the area known as the Bullpen Deck, which was added in 2016:
It caught my eye for a number of reasons. First, it’s open to any fan who wants to visit it. So many decks and picnic areas are reserved for groups, which definitely makes sense from a business perspective, but I’m always excited when I see a deck that any fan can check out. Additionally, the Bullpen Deck isn’t just one deck. Rather, it consists of two deck areas, both with plenty of standing room and seating areas, that are joined with a walkway.
I definitely wanted to check out the Bullpen Deck, especially before it got crowded once the game began. On my way down from the upper deck, I snapped this panorama …
… and then made my way down to the deck to check out the view. There were a number of neat places to stand, but most of them were occupied by the time I arrived. This was the lone spot that I could find without people:
This is definitely a place to check out when you visit The Diamond, but you’ll want to get there promptly to claim your spot.
The teams had taken the field by now, and although my current position gave me a really good view of the Flying Squirrels warming up, the players were in some fairly serious shadows that I knew wouldn’t translate well to photos. I decided to follow the cross-aisle all the way around to the left field side to watch the Hartford squad getting read. Plus, the Yard Goats were wearing their alternate green jerseys, which I’d yet to see in person and was excited to check out.
Here’s a look at Hartford infielder Alan Trejo:
And his teammate, outfielder Manny Melendez:
After they finished playing catch, this trio of Yard Goats celebrated by tapping their gloves together:
Once warm-ups concluded, I went back to the concourse to take another look around. My next stop was the team shop, which is easily one of the largest that I’ve seen at any level of the minor leagues. It was really impressive, especially given the era of this stadium.
When the game began, I found a spot in the shade, and didn’t do as much walking around as I normally do. I’d been able to check out virtually all of the sights and spots before first pitch, and now it was time to relax a bit. It’s not often that I just sit and watch a ballgame, but after several extremely hot days and an average of more than 16,000 steps taken per day, the truth is that I needed a bit of a break. It was a pleasant change to simply chill out during the game — and a good way to recharge my batteries for the rest of the trip.
After two outstanding days watching the Durham Bulls at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, I set my sights on the small North Carolina town of Zebulon, home of the Carolina Mudcats, on June 28. This wouldn’t be a day that required a lot of travel — Durham and Zebulon are only 50 miles apart.
Instead of going straight to Zebulon, I first did a bit of baseball-themed sightseeing in Durham and Raleigh, making stops at three notable universities. My first stop was Duke University, which is located in Durham. My primary reason for visiting was to see the baseball field, but as soon as I got onto the campus, its picturesque nature quickly made me realize that I should stick around for a bit. I enjoyed driving around the tree-lined streets until I found a parking spot, and then took a long walk around the campus — concentrating on the area around the athletic facilities, of course.
My first stop was the baseball facility, Jack Coombs Field:
I arrived between games of a youth tournament, and took a few minutes to walk around the field before climbing up to the top of the grandstand to snap this panorama:
My next stop was just a short walk from the baseball facility, and it’s one that you’ll know if you’re a collegiate sports fan. Cameron Indoor Stadium, home of Duke basketball, is arguably the most famous NCAA basketball facility in the country. It’s beautiful from the exterior, but doesn’t exactly scream “sporting venue” — and if not for a couple of signs, I think I’d have likely missed it:
Cameron Indoor was absolutely outstanding. I’m not remotely a basketball fan, but this is a facility with a ton of history. It opened in 1940, and had a seriously historic vibe — wooden doors, narrow staircases, etc. As seemed to be the theme for my sports sightseeing, there was a youth event taking place, so I watched for a couple of minutes and then continued on my way:
Before I left the campus, I stopped to check out Duke University Chapel. At 210 feet tall, it’s a tough building to miss, and it’s also very close to Cameron Indoor Stadium. I didn’t bother going inside, but I was deeply impressed with the beauty of the exterior of this building:
My next stop was just 10 miles down the road, and served as the other half of one of college sports’ best rivalries — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I quickly made my way to Boshamer Stadium …
… and went inside to look around. Once again, I’d arrived between games of a youth tournament, so the concourse was pretty crowded with players, parents and, I’m guessing, college recruiters. I walked along the concourse until I reached the upper edge of the seating bowl, and then snapped this photo of the pristine field:
Believe it or not, my NCAA baseball sightseeing wasn’t done just yet. While I was excited to get to Zebulon to see the Mudcats, I first made the short drive from Chapel Hill to Raleigh to check out North Carolina State University. It was another absolutely beautiful campus, and it wasn’t long before I found the athletic facilities. I hope you’re sitting down, but there was another youth sports tournament taking place, so Doak Field at Dail Park was full of action. Yet again, I arrived between games — don’t ask how I managed to keep doing this — and after snapping this shot of the exterior of the ballpark …
… I walked inside and took this panorama:
After a short walk around the NC State campus, I headed to my hotel in downtown Raleigh. There are places to stay in Zebulon, but many more choices in Raleigh, the capital city of North Carolina. I opted to stay in Raleigh because I wanted to do some sightseeing the following day, and Zebulon and Raleigh are only about 25 miles apart. Given all of the campus visits that I’d made, I only had time to check into my hotel — the outstanding Residence Inn Raleigh Downtown, which was easy to get to and put me in a beautiful and highly walkable part of Raleigh — and then head to Zebulon.
Five County Stadium opened in 1991 as the home of the Carolina Mudcats of the Southern League. That team existed from 1991 through 2011, before moving to Florida and becoming the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. The team that I was seeing shares the Mudcats name, but is a completely different franchise. It plays in the 10-team Carolina League (Class-A Advanced) and has been in existence in Zebulon since 2012. Got all that?
The first thing that I noticed as I approached Five County Stadium was the Mudcats water tower, which jutted well above the treeline:
What an impressive sight, right? This begs a question — do you know of any other MiLB teams that have their logos on water towers? I can’t think of one, so leave a comment below if you’ve seen one.
After parking my car, I walked around the ballpark to snap this photo of one of the home plate gate. Definitely some neat architecture, but I think this area could benefit from some Mudcats signage, don’t you?
Instead of entering right away, I proceeded along the driveway that wraps around the ballpark to check out other sights. As is often the case with 1990s-era parks, there wasn’t a lot of things to see and do around the park’s perimeter. I made my way toward the right field corner to see if I could take a lap around the park, but was greeted by a “No Trespassing” sign and this is as far as I got:
That was fine, though. After just a few minutes outside on this 90-degree day, I was more than ready to get inside and find some shade. I went back to the home plate gate, walked inside the park and went right down to field level behind home plate to snap this panorama:
Some parks of this era make the mistake of having enormous seating sections. The issue with this idea is that when then crowd is light, the park really looks dead because the empty seats are so visible. That wasn’t the case here, fortunately. I loved the small seating sections around home plate, consisting of just four rows, which is a concept that a lot of the newer small parks are adopting. In this sense, Five County Stadium was ahead of its time:
I watched batting practice for a few minutes in the shade, and then decided to start properly exploring the ballpark. My first stop was the left field corner, where I had this view of the field:
As you might suspect, this area was completely devoid of shade, and the heatwave that North Carolina was experiencing during my visit made any unsheltered area less than hospitable after a few minutes. While I was enjoying watching BP from this vantage point, I soon opted to return to the covered area behind home plate for a few minutes. I decided to head up to the upper deck next, where I took this shot:
You’ll notice not only the action on the field, but also the different seating options that Five County Stadium provides. In addition to the small field-level seating section, there’s a larger upper deck (red seats) and a separate seating deck down the line (green seats). Looking at the latter two seating sections in the same shot should give you an idea of just how steep the red upper deck seats are — something that is often another sign of a 1990s-era ballpark. Everyone has an opinion about steep seating decks, but I tend to like them because you always feel close to the action.
I stood in the shade provided by the suite level for a few minutes, and then descended back to the main concourse and took a walk down the first base line. Here’s a shot from the base of the general admission seats close to the foul pole, looking down the line toward home plate:
My next stop was once again the concourse behind home plate. The big knock on ballparks of this era is that they almost always have enclosed concourses. Virtually all new MiLB parks, of course, have open concourses so that you can always see the game as you walk around. Like the small seating sections, the concourse at Five County Stadium seems to have been a bit ahead of its time. While it’s indeed placed under the upper deck, there are pillars around its outer edge instead of a solid wall. This means that as you walk through the concourse, you can still mostly see the field of play:
Here’s another look at the concourse:
It’s a setup that really works, and that definitely differentiates Five County Stadium from other parks of its age. The natural light coming from the direction of the field (on the left of the image above), as well as the openings on the upper right really make the concourse bright and inviting.
After a walk through the entire concourse, I once again braved the sun by heading down the third base line to an elevated party deck in the corner:
I was really impressed with the bird’s-eye view of the field that this party deck provides. I’ve often found that party decks at smaller MiLB parks tend to be at field level, and while that can certainly be appealing, being elevated in this manner is pretty sweet, too. By the way, I’m seeing more and more of the team-logo metal seats across the minor leagues. It wasn’t too long ago that these seats were an anomaly, but I’m now seeing them almost everywhere I go. (Also, I majorly need to get my hands on a couple of these at some point!)
Since I’d now spent some time in each of the seating sections, my next stop was back behind home plate to watch batting practice for a bit. This is something that I always like to do, and while watching it from the field or from the outfield are my favorite spots, it was simply too hot on this day to be out in the open. I opted for this shaded spot from which I could clearly see the action in the cage:
When BP wrapped up, I once again returned to the upper deck — this time, to check out Cattails Restaurant, which is found above the first base line. It’s a climate-controlled environment (definitely a plus during my visit) with a sizable food and drink menu, as well as comfortable seating options. Here’s the view of the field from Cattails:
Suite-level restaurants are nothing new at MiLB parks, but it’s rare to see one of this size at a Class-A Advanced facility. Eateries of this nature are far more common at Triple-A parks; Syracuse’s NBT Bank Stadium comes to mind.
Remember how I mentioned that the upper deck at Five County Stadium is steep? Here’s photographic evidence, which I documented after leaving Cattails:
Instead of going back down to the concourse next, I made my way around to third base side, where I took this photo to show the position and size of Cattails:
Next, I headed toward the upper deck seats behind home plate. I not only wanted to photograph the view from this spot, but also grab a seat in the shade for a few minutes. The gates had opened by this point, but there wasn’t a single fan in the upper deck other than me. I found a seat from which I took this photo …
… and then relaxed in the shade for about 30 seconds before a family climbed up the steps to my left and made its way toward me. I asked if I was in the family’s seats; sure enough, I was. What are the odds?
I sheepishly got up and left the area, returning to the concourse and waiting for the players to come out. Soon enough, that’s exactly what happened, and I went down the first base line to the visitors bullpen area. There, I watched Potomac Nationals catcher Alex Dunlap perform some drills with Potomac’s pitching coach:
On my walks around the concourse earlier, I’d been checking out the concession stands to decide what I might want to eat. Much of the fare at Five County Stadium is standard — hot dogs, nachos, burgers, popcorn, and so on. As you know, I like to find something unique as often as I can, and that’s exactly what I encountered at a concession stand on the first base side. This is a catfish po’ boy sandwich, and it was absolutely delicious:
The breading was light and crispy, and didn’t have that old oil taste that is too common at ballparks. The fish was flaky and not too fishy. There was a semi-spicy sauce on the sandwich, but it didn’t overwhelm the taste of the fish. I had been allured not only by something unique to eat, but also the connection to the team name — the Mudcats moniker refers to catfish, so it was exciting to find a catfish dish on the menu. And it was good enough that if I hadn’t been so hot, I’d have been tempted to eat a second one.
Once I’d eaten, I went down to field level on the home side to watch the Mudcats warm up. This was a Copa de la Diversión night, so the home team was playing as the Pescados de Carolina. (This was my second Copa game of the season; you might remember that I saw the El Paso Margaritas in action back in May.) As is always the case with the Copa games, the team wore funky uniforms. Here’s starting pitcher Noah Zavolas in his Pescados jersey:
With the pregame ceremonies beginning, I went to the upper deck and found a spot to watch the exchange of the lineups, the anthem and the top of the first inning:
What a view! And did you notice the water tower beyond left field? So good.
In the first frame, a player on Potomac — I think it was second baseman Cole Freeman — hit a foul ball that soared over the suite level and out of the ballpark. I didn’t think about rushing out to look for it, given that there were still lots of fans trickling into the stadium and I figured there was a very good chance that it would be picked up. After the end of the first, however, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to go take a look for it. I left via the home plate entrance, took just a couple of dozen steps, and there was the ball sitting in an open area of the grass. I was very surprised to see it, especially given that there were fans passing by just a few yards away, but I was happy to grab it to add to my collection:
With the foul ball — the 15th foul ball that I’ve collected over the years, for the record — safely tucked in my backpack, I returned to the ballpark and took a spot down the first base line that offered this view:
I watched about an inning from this spot, and then took a walk through the concourse, visited the team shop and found a spot on the third base side to watch the remainder of the game. The evening was still warm, but the heat of the sun has subsided to some degree, making for a perfect night of baseball in a ballpark that is better than I expected it to be. There are certainly some ballparks that are flashier in North Carolina, but if you’re planning a visit to this state, don’t shy away from leaving yourself a day to go see the Mudcats.