Less than three months after attending my first Ottawa Champions game of the season, I was back in Canada’s capital city to see the Can-Am League team again — this time, as it competed for the league crown.
I don’t normally make it a priority to attend playoff games, because larger crowds impede my ability to explore different ballparks with ease — in fact, the last time I saw any playoff action in person was 2010, when I watched the New Hampshire Fisher Cats and Tri-City ValleyCats on back-to-back days. But, I was happy to add a Champions game to my schedule just a few days before I’d head off to Denver.
As always, I arrived good and early and I appeared to be the first fan in the parking lot at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park:
Before entering, I decided to check out the ballpark from a vantage point I hadn’t explored on my last visit. If you read that post, you might recall me writing about how Coventry Road passes directly behind the outfield fence and, in particular, is very close to the fence in left field. Pedestrians will often watch some of the game from the sidewalk, so I wanted to see how the view looked from this spot. I was impressed — you’d have to contort your body a bit to see the whole outfield, but you’d definitely be able to follow the game from here:
Of course, you’d enjoy the game much better from inside the stadium, and that’s where I headed next.
One of my favorite ballpark experiences is walking into a park before the gates open and just standing quietly on the cross-aisle. There’s something special about being in this environment; it’s calm and peaceful, but you can hear the music playing and BP taking place. It’s almost like a mini meditation for me. Anyway, BP hadn’t yet started when I entered RCGT Park, but the cage was set up and the players were just minutes away from hitting:
Next, I went down to the field and took this shot for Instagram:
(I’m fairly new to Instagram and often post stuff there that doesn’t appear elsewhere, so if you feel like giving me a follow, I’d appreciate it.)
The Champions were hosting the Rockland Boulders, who hadn’t yet appeared as I made my way down to the field to talk with Dante De Caria and Mike Nellis, two of the team’s broadcasters whom I’d met during my last visit and are great guys to talk baseball with.
After catching up with them for a bit, they got back to their pregame routine, and I stayed on the field to watch BP. At one point, I noticed Hal Lanier, Ottawa’s 74-year-old manager:
Does his name sound familiar? He played in the big leagues from 1964 to 1973, and was the manager of the Houston Astros from 1986 to 1988, earning a National League Manager of the Year award in 1986.
Once I’d watched Ottawa finish its BP session, I decided to do some more exploring of the ballpark. My first stop was the home bullpen down the third base line. I stood there to watch a bit of the Rockland hitting session …
… and then took a walk through the still-deserted concourse:
Next, I made a brief stop up in the press box just to grab the rosters and lineups and check out the view …
… and then went back down to the field just after BP had finished:
Since I’d enjoyed checking out the view from behind the left field fence earlier on, I decided to go up beyond the right field foul pole, just to see RCGT Park from a new vantage point:
I was standing on a driveway that is closed off to the public, but this is near the area where the visiting team’s bus parks during the game, as you can see on the left of the above photo.
Since I was beyond the fence, I couldn’t resist taking a look for a home run baseball from BP. It didn’t take long for my search to pay off, but this ball had definitely been there a long time, and didn’t have any discernible markings on it:
By now, first pitch was getting closer, so I went back up to the suite level and headed to the press box. First, though, I stopped in a bar/eatery that was closed, but that I think is used for private events throughout the season. This was the first time I’d ever checked this spot out in all my visits to the Ottawa stadium:
I can see this being a cool place to watch a game — here’s how the view looked from the seats along the window:
Before heading back down to the concourse, I poked my head into the press box one last time … and was surprised to see a former colleague I hadn’t seen in eight or nine years. He was shooting the game for his newspaper, so we decided to shoot the game together and get caught up in the process. We headed down to the camera pit at the end of the Ottawa dugout, where I’d have a perfect view for a bunch of action shots.
How close was I?
You’re looking at Cuban import and infielder Alexander Malleta, catcher Jonathan Salcedo and pitcher Andrew Cooper, who was a 12th-round pick of the Washington Nationals in 2013.
The camera pit was a neat spot. Not only did it provide a good view of the action on the field and a front-row spot to the goings-on in the dugout, but if I turned to my left, the Ottawa bullpen was just a few yards away. As such, I had a unique spot to watch starting pitcher (and 2016 Can-Am League Pitcher of the Year) Austin Chrismon warming up:
As much as I typically enjoy spending each game I attend on the move, it was fun to just hang out with my friend and watch the action from this spot. And there was plenty of action to see, too. Here’s Rockland’s Marcus Nidiffer blasting a home run:
Ottawa’s big righty dealing:
Champions third baseman (another Cuban import) Donal Duarte playing a ball right that carried him into foul territory right in front of me:
And outfielder Adron Chambers taking a lead off second:
You might recognize Chambers’ name — he earned a World Series ring with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. I was glad to be able to snap a shot of Chambers, not just because of his MLB connection, but also because he played in the Midwest League. I’d noticed before the game that many of the players on both sides had MWL experience, so I wanted to take some action shots to share with my buddy Craig Wieczorkiewicz, a.k.a. The Midwest League Traveler. He used some of the pictures and wrote about the series on his blog. Hands down, Craig provides the most thorough MWL coverage around, so give his blog a look and be sure to check him out on Twitter, too.
My ex-colleague left about two-thirds of the way through the game, so I decided to head out, too — not out of the park, just out of the camera pit to continue looking around. I watched a bit of the action from here …
… and then from here …
Next, I finally got around to eating a late dinner. Once again, I visited the poutine stand where I’d enjoyed the Tao Poutine during my last two visits to RCGT Park. To change things up, I ordered the smoked meat poutine, which contained a heap of smoked meat on the usual poutine ingredients. It was good, but not nearly as good as the Tao variety, which’ll likely be my choice during my next visit. Unfortunately, my photo doesn’t show much other than smoked meat, but you get the idea:
In my blissful meat coma, I watched the remainder of the game from high on the first base side. Rockland put up an eighth-inning rally, thanks in part to Nidiffer’s second home run of the game, to top Ottawa 6-5. Ottawa would get the last laugh, though, clinching the Can-Am League title in five games to earn top honors in just their second year in the league — and earn the name on the front of their jerseys.
I try to visit Rogers Centre every two years, which means that after not seeing a game at the stadium since the spring of 2013, I was way overdue to travel to Toronto.
Time to do something about that.
For this visit, I think I was more excited about the hotel I’d be visiting than the game itself, despite being a longtime Blue Jays fan. That’s because I had one night booked at the Delta Toronto, which is one of the city’s newest hotels and the tallest hotel in the Toronto skyline. Even more importantly, it’s located about a Jose Bautista home run distance from Rogers Centre, and the ballpark-facing room photos that I’d obsessively browsed online offered as impressive a view as I’ve ever had from a hotel. (And, if you know me, you know one of my very favorite things is a hotel from which you can see the ballpark.)
I opted to take the train to Toronto instead of drive, as I was swamped with work and sitting on the train would allow me to get caught up on some writing during the trip. The VIA Rail train arrives at Toronto’s Union Station, which is the city’s central travel hub downtown, and I was pleased to see that I could actually access the Delta through a series of walkways and pedestrian bridges.
Anyway, I arrived super early, as I was hoping to get into my room before check-in, and I wanted to give myself some time to check out the new hotel and tour the area around it, too. When I passed through a walkway from Union Station to the Delta, I found my path blocked by a large group of men stretching on the floor — I quickly noticed that they were all wearing Vancouver Whitecaps uniforms, and were obviously doing their pregame stretching routine at the hotel before playing Toronto FC in Major League Soccer action later that afternoon. Always a good sign when a major league sports franchise is staying in the hotel you’re visiting, right?
My early arrival meant that my room wasn’t quite ready, so the front desk clerk asked if I wanted to visit the exclusive Club Lounge on the 46th floor while I waited. Umm, that was a no brainer!
When I reached the lounge, I rushed to the window to check out the view, and this is what I saw:
How’s that for incredible? The focal points, of course, are Rogers Centre and the CN Tower, but you can also see Ripley’s Aquarium, Roundhouse Park and a whole lot more. See the island on the left? That’s the tip of the Toronto Islands, home to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. And, since I love my panoramas, here’s the same view in panoramic format:
While the view was the main attraction, the lounge was outstanding, too. Here’s how it looks:
With the exception of an attendant and a couple people working on laptops, the lounge was empty, so I toured around it and learned that there were complimentary drinks and snacks — including red licorice, which I may or may not have overindulged in. It was cool being so high off the ground; I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a hotel so tall, so I had a blast looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows and identifying the sights below that I recognized.
Soon enough, I was called because my room was now available, and I was in for even more of a treat. Here’s a photo of how my room looked; this shot is off the hotel’s website because it looks better than the ones I took:
I’ve been lucky to stay in some outstanding hotels over the years, and this room is easily on the shortlist of the very best, both in terms of in-room amenities and view. My room was on the same side of the building as the lounge I’d just left, so the view was similar, albeit with a lower vantage point as it was on the 33rd floor. Here’s the view from the desk, which I took just after the dome started to open:
Would you like to see a dozen or so shots of the dome in various states of opening? No? Fine, I’ll respect that. (But I’ve got the photos ready if you want to see ’em.)
I was fortunate to be in a corner room, so I had a spectacular view in two directions. The outer walls were entirely made of glass, truly giving a panoramic feel to the world outside. I normally don’t devote too many words to hotel bathrooms, but this one was outstanding. It featured a soaker tub set up to offer amazing views of the city and lake:
I was loving the room, but there would soon be baseball to watch — and even though I’ve been to Rogers Centre a million times, I was still eager to arrive early. So, I quickly changed into my Gregg Zaun shirsey …
… in the hopes of having it autographed by the former Jay and current Sportsnet studio analyst, and headed downstairs. As you could tell from the earlier photos, the Delta is very close to Rogers Centre, making it a perfect choice for baseball fans or those who want to stay in a central area downtown. This is the view from the sidewalk directly outside the hotel:
When I got closer to the stadium, I turned around and snapped this photo of the Delta:
Then, at exactly 4:36 p.m., I claimed the first spot in line at Gate 2 …
… and began the process of standing there for another 54 minutes until I was able to hustle inside the park. When you enter through Gate 2, which I don’t think I’ve ever done before, you’re in right field. I was the first fan into the second deck seats less than a minute after my gate opened, and I was soon looking at this view:
My plan was to spend 10 or 15 minutes seeing if a BP home run would come my way. I’ve had reasonably good success snagging BP balls at Rogers Centre with minimal effort over the years, and hoped that being in the virtually empty second deck for the lefty hitters might yield some results. Unfortunately, it did not, so I soon began to tour the park and note the changes since my last visit. My first visit was the game-used room of the team shop, which is always a cool place to check out. The prices are beyond ludicrous, but I always get a kick out of seeing artifacts from the team and ballpark. Here’s the rubber that sat under Mark Buehrle’s cleats when he pitched his 200th inning of 2014, for example. Yours for a cool $2,500:
Speaking of pricey, how about a Blue Jays pub table for $650? Buck Martinez books not included:
After opting not to spend three or four figures on anything at the shop, but thoroughly enjoying perusing everything, I went back to the main concourse and headed over behind home plate:
And, as I made my way over to the third base side, I looked up and could see the top of the Delta poking above the upper deck:
Beyond wanting to see the hotel from inside the stadium, I had another reason for heading to the third base side — I wanted to visit the broadcast studio and flag down Zaun for an autograph and a photo. After all, I figured he’d get a kick out of my shirt. To my dismay, he had a rare night off, and a couple other panelists were talking with host Jamie Campbell:
Argh. Of all the luck.
I decided that it’d be appropriate to quell my tears with some food. Rogers Centre’s food selection has changed dramatically over the years since I started The Ballpark Guide. My all-time favorite concession stand at the park was the Quaker Steak & Lube stand that sold delicious chicken wings, but it’s no longer there. My second-favorite food item was sold at the Shopsy’s concession stand, which has also gone the way of the dodo. (By the way, the sandwich that I’d always get at Shopsy’s was called the Bill Cosby Triple Decker, which I imagine is no longer available anywhere except perhaps a cell block.)
After a full lap of the main concourse to note all the new food selections, of which there were many, I opted for the buffalo cauliflower poutine. It’s a dish that was new for 2016 and had been receiving lots of publicity, so I was curious to check it out. (Plus, I also thought it’d be fun — and rare — to have a veggie at the ballpark.) I grabbed the food and ascended to the upper deck to eat it. Here’s how it looked:
As I dug in, I was surprised at the lack of fries. The “poutine” label, to me, suggested that there’d be fries at the bottom of the container, but that wasn’t the case. Rather, the pieces of breaded and fried cauliflower made up the bulk of the meal. They were topped with cheese curds, buffalo sauce and fresh parsley. The verdict? It fell into the odd “good but I wouldn’t order it again” category. The fried cauliflower was definitely tasty, but I found there was a lack of variety in this meal. Soon enough, the cauliflower was soggy from the melted cheese and hot sauce, so everything sort of clumped together. I definitely appreciated the meal’s creativity, though — even if it wasn’t something I’d likely order again, it was fun to try something so unique.
The game began as I ate, so I enjoyed watching the first inning from a section I don’t think I’d visited much in the past. Of course, the ever-present Rogers Centre usher had to come over and check my ticket. I had a ticket for a section in the 500 Level in right field, but had stopped in a nearly empty section in left field to eat. For the record, the usher “let” me stay but admonished me to leave the section as soon as I finished eating.
Anyway, it takes more than an overzealous usher to get me down, so I finished my meal, enjoyed the unique view from my seat …
… and then decided to head over toward my seat in right field.
As I walked through the 500 Level concourse for the first time since 2013, I noticed a change. Ever since the Blue Jays became good again, the 500 Level has once again come alive. In the glory years of the team, the seats in the upper deck were often packed. During the team’s down years, though, many sections were blocked off and several of the 500 Level concession stands remained closed, giving a bit of a ghost town feel to the sections and concourse toward the foul poles. It was nice to see this part of the stadium so lively during this visit, and I imagine it’ll stay that way as long as the team continues to be competitive.
Moving from the 500 Level concourse to the seating area, I did a bit of exploring around to look at some of the varied/bizarre seating options that I hadn’t previously noticed during my Rogers Centre visits. This photo shows the top row of Section 504, which is the first section to the right field side of the video board:
I initially thought the seats behind the “504” sign were sort of a cool area, but you might beg to differ if I showed you the view from those seats:
After watching the game from this section for a bit, I continued to meander around to see the various sights. I noticed my hotel from a different part of the stadium, with the base of the CN Tower visible on the left:
My next stop was the WestJet Flight Deck in center field, which is one of the hottest places to catch the game in the entire stadium. Here’s how this party deck looks …
… and here’s the view from this area:
Later, I returned to the team shop as it was a little less crowded, and that gave me a better chance to look at the game-used items. Perhaps the coolest thing I saw there was Roberto Alomar’s glove from the 1992 and 1993 World Series championships:
It was, as you might expect, not for sale.
I spent the last part of my visit watching the action from behind home plate, enjoying views like this one:
I’ll admit, though, that my visit ended before the game’s last out. I’m not typically a fan of leaving a game early, but I ducked out of Rogers Centre a couple innings before the game was over so that I could get back to my hotel room and shoot some time-lapse images of the evening scene. Although it’s tough to beat the idea of being in the stadium, the idea of watching the sun setting over it from an awesome hotel room was pretty appealing, too.
Here’s how that view looked:
At about the midway point, you’ll see the Rogers Centre dome close, which I think looks cool.
I spent the rest of the evening enjoying the outstanding view, occasionally peering down at the street 33 floors below …
… and then I drifted off to sleep with the glorious scene of Rogers Centre and the CN Tower in front of me. My sleep, however, was rather short-lived by design — I had my alarm set for 3:30 a.m. so that I could get up when it was still dark, set up my GoPro again, and capture the sunrise in time-lapse mode. It was fun to watch the city come to life through my window:
(By the way, if you’d click to give each of those videos a thumbs-up, I’ll send you a virtual high five. Subscribe to my channel and I’ll send a double high five.)
When the sun rose the next morning, I — you guessed it — enjoyed the view some more before having an awesome breakfast at the hotel restaurant and then going back up to my room just to hang out and enjoy the view until it was checkout time. Given the cool corner bathroom, I sat on a stool next to the tub, drank a black cherry lemonade, and just relaxed:
The Delta Toronto definitely provided an outstanding visit, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for baseball fans. You can’t beat the view or the easy proximity to a ton of major attractions, as well as the impeccable guest rooms and top-notch service. It’ll definitely be my choice when I visit Toronto again to see the Blue Jays.
Even though I focus on the major leagues and minor leagues when I plan my road trips for The Ballpark Guide, I had my eye on a mid-June visit to Ottawa since the early spring. Why? Because the independent Can-Am League’s Ottawa Champions were hosting the Cuban National Team, and if that’s not a unique reason to head to the ballpark, I don’t know what is.
The Cuban squad, which is the same group of players that hosted the Tampa Bay Rays in Cuba during Spring Training, was scheduled to play a handful of games in North America, and I knew that I wanted to at least see the team in action once. This was a special occasion because it would mark the first time since 1954 that a Cuban team played baseball in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. That team, the Havana Sugar Kings, is one that you’ve likely heard of if you know baseball history.
I visited Ottawa’s Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park once last season, as you might recall, and was eager to visit the former home of the International League’s Ottawa Lynx once again. I got to town a couple hours before first pitch to give me time to explore the stadium a bit, as well as get down to field level and watch the Cuban team warm up, which I was especially excited about.
Here’s how RCGT Park looks from the parking lot:
The ballpark was built in 1993 and while I’m generally not the biggest fan of the look of ’90s-era “bowl-style” stadiums, you’ve got to admit that the exterior of this one looks sharp. The combination of brick and silver looks cool, and I especially like the variety of colors of glass in the middle structure.
Although I was, as usual, eager to get inside the park, I wanted to take a quick look around the surrounding area. RCGT Park is located next to the highway, and there’s a modern pedestrian bridge …
… that runs between the stadium and close to one of Ottawa’s train stations, making the stadium easily accessible on foot if you decide to visit Ottawa by train.
The bridge provides a cool vantage point of the stadium, too, and I took this photo of the side of the building when I was standing at the entrance of the bridge:
From this spot, I could also hear that batting practice was taking place, so I decided to quickly head inside and check out the action on the field. To my surprise, it was the Ottawa side — not the Cuban team — that was hitting first. This is what the scene looked like after I made it through the concourse and to the cross-aisle behind the lower bowl seats:
I watched BP from the cross-aisle for a few minutes, before deciding to start walking around and surveying the park from various spots. My first mission was to head down the third base line to the large grass berm, which features a variety of seating options beyond actually sitting on the grass:
The weather was super hot and sunny, and I was amused to see three members of the Champions getting a tiny bit of relief from the shadow of one of the light posts; one player seemed to be making sure that his arms were in the shade, too:
There were a couple baseballs laying in the grass on the berm, but since the gates weren’t yet open, I didn’t want to take them — although I made a pledge to remember to return to the area once the park was open to all fans.
The Champions were kind enough to hook me up with a press pass, which gave me field access. Although I’ve been on professional fields a ton of times, the thrill never gets old — and I wanted to be standing behind the batting cage when the Cuba side began to hit. I took a spot on the visitors’ side of the field and enjoyed the action for several minutes with this view:
Ottawa wasn’t showing any sign of giving up its BP just yet, which meant that the Cuban hitters probably wouldn’t take the field for a while, so I decided to head to the upper row on the first base side and snap this panorama:
When I got some reprieve from the sun by standing against the cement wall between the upper deck and suites, I saw this sign and had to laugh:
It reminded me of a time that I broke this very rule myself — way back during a chilly April doubleheader in Syracuse.
A few minutes later, the Champions left the field, so I went up to check out the press box during the break in the action. Here’s the view from up there:
You can see the grass berm I visited earlier on the left side of the photo; there’s no berm down near the right field foul pole, as the stadium’s batting cages are in that area instead. I also want to draw your attention to Coventry Road, which passes behind the left field fence. The road is less than 50 feet from the outfield fence, so long home runs definitely have a chance of reaching it. Additionally, you’ll often see passers-by lining the chain-link fence behind the berm on game nights, as there’s a good view of the field from the sidewalk.
I spent a few minutes in the press box enjoying the view, and then headed back down to the main concourse. By this time, a pair of horses and riders were taking laps around the warning track. Certainly not something you see every day at the ballpark, right? In fact, I think this is probably the first time I’ve seen horses on the field at any of the 60-plus parks I’ve visited. I quickly descended to the field and snapped this picture of one of the horses and its rider …
… and then shot this one of the other horse and rider:
I watched the horses take a bunch of laps around the field, but that was about it for the action down at field level. The Champions were in the clubhouse, and the Cuban side seemed conspicuously absent; I hadn’t seen a single player wearing a Cuban uniform, despite first pitch being on the not-so-distant horizon. I figured the national team was still in its clubhouse, but when I went back to the press box and talked to a couple members of the Champions broadcast team, I learned that the club had yet to arrive! Apparently, the Cuban bus had experienced some sort of problem on the way to Ottawa. We learned that the team was scheduled to get to town in time, but that it wouldn’t be hitting, unfortunately.
When the gates opened, I went back down to the berm where I’d previously seen the ball, and snagged it:
I love the black bat smudge on this one. I grabbed another baseball, too, and gave it away to a little boy midway through the game.
A little while later, I saw a positive sign out the press box window — a coach bus wrapped in Cuban colors backing up to the stadium:
The players actually came off the bus wearing their uniforms, so I quickly bid farewell to the press box and returned to field level to watch the warm-ups. I really enjoy watching international baseball, so it was a thrill to be standing next to these Cuban pros, and I took a ton of photos, like this one of some players stretching:
And this one:
That’s catcher Yosvani Alarcon in the foreground and a teammate whose #35 doesn’t appear to be on the official roster in the background.
Here’s Osvaldo Vazquez, another catcher, who seemed to be posing for me:
And Jefferson Delgado, an infielder:
And Raul Gonzalez, another infielder:
Next, I witnessed a reunion of sorts. I was standing in front of the visitors’ bullpen down the first base line, when a couple of the Champions players approached and embraced several of the Cuban guys. The two players, Donal Duarte and Alexander Malleta, signed with Ottawa earlier this season after long careers as professionals in Cuba, playing on the island since 2001 and 1998, respectively. Here’s Duarte with some members of the Cuban team:
There was definitely a unique buzz in the ballpark with the Cuban team in town, and it was an experience I won’t soon forget. It just felt … different, but it was also neat to realize that despite all the differences between North America and Cuba, baseball is just baseball. From that perspective, things on the field didn’t feel very different at all. Of course, there were always constant reminders of the special nature of the night, like this selection of Team Cuba gear in the visitors’ bullpen:
As the Cubans wrapped up their truncated on-field drills, and first pitch approached, I set off in search of something to eat. Well, it was more of a beeline walk than a meandering wander — straight to the poutine kiosk on the first base side. I’d eaten a tremendously good order of poutine a year earlier, and even though I like to vary my ballpark food to try as many things as possible, I knew there was no way I wasn’t going to partake again.
While I waited in line, I noticed that the Champions offer a team-branded craft beer, which I thought was neat — especially at the independent level:
As I did a season earlier, I ordered the “Tao Poutine,” an Asian-inspired dish with breaded chicken, hot sauce, diced green onions and black and white sesame seeds atop the poutine mainstays of fries, cheese curds and gravy:
It was absolutely delicious once again, and for $5.75, it was a heck of a lot of food. It might seem like a random comment, but I was also hugely impressed with the attention to detail of the food services worker making the meal for me. All the poutine is made to order, which means that there can occasionally be a bit of a lineup. One young man was handling all the assembly, and while he was working quickly, he was also putting a great amount of care into putting the orders together. With mine, for example, he sprinkled some green onions on top, held the container out to inspect it, and then sprinkled just a couple more to top it up. That type of care is impressive and appreciated, and I can tell you this from experience; there have been too many times that I’ve had my food thrust at me at various stadiums with barely a grunt and absolutely no interest in the task at hand. It’s a thumbs up for the Champions, and I hope other fans have had this experience, too.
I mowed through my food during the pregame ceremonies, which included lots of photos and first pitches, and was intrigued with what I saw next: After the two national anthems were played, the Champions and Cuban National Team moved through the infield and shook hands. I don’t know if this is the norm in Cuba, or if it was just to celebrate the moment, but it was a nice scene of solidarity:
As the players wrapped up their handshakes, the two horse riders (carrying Canada and Cuba flags) took a fast run along the outfield warning track …
… and then it was finally time to play ball. I settled into a standing-room spot behind the visitors’ dugout:
You probably know by now that I enjoy watching each game I attend from numerous vantage points, so as much as it was fun to hang out behind the Cuban team and watch the goings-on, I wanted to find a different spot for the bottom of the first inning. I settled on the berm when I’d previously found the BP balls, and I think you’ll agree that it provides a great view of the ballpark:
Did you notice the Cuba flag hanging from one of the suites in the above photo? If not, here’s a closer shot:
There was one hanging over the visitors’ dugout rail, too, although it faced in the wrong direction from where I was standing:
I spent the next stretch of time watching an inning here, an inning there, and enjoying all of it. Here’s my view from the press box:
And a panorama from the cross-aisle behind home plate:
Here’s an action shot I took an inning or two later, which shows something cool — the grounds crew had painted Champions and Team Cuba logos in the dirt behind home plate:
Later in the game, Cuba had reliever Frank Medina warming in the bullpen, so I made my way over to the front row at the fence and snapped some shots like this …
With Medina on the mound soon after, I spent the last part of the game from this spot, watching Ottawa cruise to a 6-1 win:
I left quickly after the game wrapped up, snapping this panorama of the exterior of the ballpark on my way out:
As was the case last year, I was highly impressed with my visit to RCGT Park. Currently, the Champions are tied 1-1 in the first round of the Can-Am League playoffs with the New Jersey Jackals, whose ballpark I visited back in 2013 to see my friend Jeremy Nowak play. If the Champions are able to advance, I’m going to try to catch another game — and get some more of that poutine.
When I woke up early on the morning of May 21, my first mission was to run to my balcony and check out the view of Dr Pepper Ballpark like a kid charging downstairs on Christmas morning to see if Santa came. Yep, the ballpark was still there, as expected, and it still looked great.
Next, it was time to excitedly think about returning to the ballpark — where I’d spent an awesome evening a day earlier — later that day.
While I was pumped to get inside on the nicest MiLB parks I’ve visited, I was especially excited for two stomach-related things:
- Filling my stomach in the exclusive JC Penney Club, thanks to an invitation from Jason Dambach, executive VP and general manager of the Frisco RoughRiders.
- Feeling butterflies in my stomach being interviewed during the team’s broadcast.
After a big, delicious breakfast at my hotel, the Embassy Suites Hotel and Convention Center, I settled down at the desk with my laptop to catch up on a little blogging … but I’d also intermittently go out to the balcony, sit on the chair and just take in the beautiful view in front of me. This was the pattern for the bulk of the day, and pretty soon it was time to pack up my stuff and walk over to the ballpark. I walked through the gates early so that I could shoot a bunch of video with my GoPro, which you’ll be able to see on my YouTube channel in the future.
In between recording video clips, I also wanted to make sure that I could simply enjoy the ballpark experience. I’d be up around 4 a.m. the next morning and had a travel day that exceeded 12 hours, so I wanted to have a relaxing visit and savor every last minute of my 10th day in Texas. One of the first things I did was stand right behind the home plate netting and enjoy a long stretch of batting practice … turning around for a brief moment to take this picture:
While I was in that spot, I took a bunch of peeks at the JC Penney Club, where I’d be eating later:
Let me explain the context: A day earlier, I’d met Jason and we’d talked about my baseball trip, Dr Pepper Ballpark and bunch of other cool things. The topic of food came up, and I’d excitedly told him about my plan to eat the Texas Mac & Cheese BBQ Sandwich. He mentioned the JC Penney Club, an upscale eatery with a great view of the ballpark, and told me that I’d be hard-pressed to find better food in all of the minor leagues — and then told me that he’d make me a reservation to eat there before the RoughRiders game a day later. Wow!
I was scheduled to eat at 5 p.m., and had about an hour to continue to explore the park before then; I wanted to do lots of walking around, as I suspected I might be a little sedentary after experiencing the buffet-style dining.
With BP still taking place, I took a walk down the first base line and found a spot to stand next to the visiting team’s bullpen. From there, I watched a pitcher throw a side session, while also keeping an eye on the action on the field. It was glorious:
In my blog post about my first day in Frisco, I wrote about the unique, fan-friendly position of the home bullpen. The visitors’ bullpen is in basically the same position, albeit on the first base side, but is a little different in the way that it’s laid out. It has seats on two sides of it and a party deck above, which is where I was standing a moment earlier. Here’s what the scene looks like:
And, for good measure, here’s a panoramic shot of Dr Pepper Ballpark during BP from the first base side:
My next stop was the Diamond Deck group party area in the left field corner. I’d originally planned to hang out on the grass berm for a bit, but when I passed the Diamond Deck, something caught my eye:
See the baseball right below the rail?
I picked it up after taking the above photo, and saw that it was a generic minor league practice ball:
I’ve got a few of those in my collection, but I don’t think I’ve seen once since I visited G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, home of the Potomac Nationals, back in 2011. Anyway, since the gates weren’t open and I didn’t want to keep the ball, I tossed it to a San Antonio Missions player (the guy in the middle):
It was awesome to still have a bit of time until the ballpark opened; I was loving just watching BP from various vantage points and taking in the park’s beauty and uniqueness — here, for example, is a look at the separate buildings down the third base line, which I talked about in my previous blog post:
Soon enough, it was time to head up toward the JC Penney Club and check out the buffet. First, though, I shot this image of the construction crew still hard at work on the lazy river …
… and this shot of the beautiful ballpark as the grounds crew performed its post-batting practice duties:
I was impressed when I finally entered the JC Penney Club. The room was long and thin, and had identical buffets on each side of the door, which meant that long lineups wouldn’t be an issue. There were a number of bistro-style tables throughout, and windows that ran the full length of the club, giving diners an outstanding view of the ballpark from wherever they sat:
The menu, however, was what impressed me the most:
- Beef Wellington with shallot and red wine sauce
- Pan-seared chicken with chasseur sauce
- Roasted carrots with hazelnut tapenade
- Lyonnais potatoes with herb compound butter
- Baked Brie with assorted dried fruits and nuts
There were also several salads — let’s be honest, I wasn’t going to focus much on them — and some traditional ballpark fare that seemed favored by the kids who were dining at the same time as me. When I stepped up to the buffet for the first time and asked for a slice of the beef, the server asked, “Just one? You’ll be back for sure.” And then, a bit later when I did indeed return, he offered, “I told you that you’d be back,” with a smile.
For those of you who enjoy my food photos, check out plate #1:
That’s the beef Wellington on the left side, a huge chunk of the baked Brie on the top and the pan-seared chicken on the bottom right. And, of course, there was also another plate:
You’re looking at more beef Wellington, baked brief, pan-seared chicken and, this time, some of the Lyonnais potatoes and a bit of chick pea salad, too.
I can definitely say that the meal was one of the best I’ve ever eaten at a ballpark, and the tremendous quality of the food was as good as you’d find in a fancy restaurant. If you get the chance to eat at the JC Penney Club, make sure that you go for it!
For a reason that could only be described as greed, I grabbed these two cookies before I hit the road …
… and waddled back down to the concourse level. (Come to think of it, waddling seemed to be a bit of a theme on my Texas trip!)
As I made my way along the concourse, well, looking for somewhere to sit down for a little bit, I noticed the Roughned Odor-themed drinks that had made headlines a little earlier in my trip. As you likely remember, the Texas Rangers infielder had sucker punched Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista after a hard slide at second, and the RoughRiders capitalized on the moment quickly by producing souvenir cups depicting the image and filled with a red energy drink. I hadn’t noticed the drinks for sale during my first day at Dr Pepper Ballpark, so I was glad to track them down on my second day. It turns out, there was a “licensing issue” about the use of the cup, so the promotion had to be changed a little. The teams were offering the cups for a donation, and I stopped to snap this picture:
I sat in a shaded area in the left field corner while my food digested, and then returned to the standing room area behind home plate in time for the anthem:
I watched the first inning from the same spot, enjoying views like this …
… before heading down the third base line and finding a spot against the railing, where I had this view:
After a couple of innings in that spot, it was time to make my way toward the press box, as I was slated to join the broadcast in the top of the fourth inning. As I said earlier, I had a few butterflies in my stomach, which is always the case when I’m interviewed on the air. This time, though, I wasn’t as nervous because I’d had a chance to talk to the broadcast guys during a quick visit before the game. They were all super down to earth and fun to talk to, and we exchanged lots of baseball stories. They even asked me to name my best ballpark adventure story, which was an easy one to answer.
Anyway, I hung out outside the broadcast studio, and as soon as the third inning wrapped up, I went in and grabbed a seat and a set of headphones between Nathan Barnett and Ryan Rouillard. My nerves quickly subsided, thanks to the fun, easy banter and professionalism of Nathan and Ryan, and the top of the fourth was just about in the books. Luckily, Nathan asked if I’d stay on for the bottom half, and of course I was thrilled for the chance. We talked about my Texas trip, my assorted ballpark visits and more, and it was an absolute blast. As soon as the inning ended, the third member of the broadcast team, Steve Goldberg, took a photo of me between Nathan and Ryan:
By the way, give the RoughRiders broadcast team a follow on Twitter, and check out a broadcast online, too. These guys are great.
When I left the press box for the last time, I went back to the concourse and picked up a lemon ice …
… and then grabbed a spot behind home plate to watch the remainder of the game, which seemed to fly by quickly. Each passing inning meant that my Texas trip was coming to an end, but I was grateful for all the wonderful memories I made, the great people I met and the help of all those who contributed to the adventure. I’m certainly looking forward to returning to the Lone Star State again soon.
The next morning, I was up about 4 a.m. to begin my long trip home — but I couldn’t resist taking one last photo of the darkened Dr Pepper Ballpark from my balcony:
So long, Texas. I hope to see you soon again.
The final days of a baseball road trip can be a little challenging — sometimes, I simply don’t want the trip to end. Other times, I’m exhausted and admittedly ready to get home and resume a normal schedule that includes sleeping and eating vegetables. Fortunately, that wouldn’t be the case on days nine and 10 of my Texas trip — I was thrilled to visit Frisco and see the RoughRiders for a pair of games.
Frisco is located just north of Dallas, and is about a five-hour drive from Midland, where I’d spent May 18 and 19 seeing the RockHounds in action. Although the RoughRiders were playing an evening game, I was anxious to make the drive east through Texas and get to my hotel for an early check-in. It’s an understatement to say that I was excited to experience my hotel, the Embassy Suites Hotel and Convention Center. That’s because — in addition to looking very impressive online — it is located directly beyond the outfield of Frisco’s Dr Pepper Ballpark, meaning I’d once again be fortunate to visit a hotel with a field-facing room.
I pulled into the hotel’s parking lot just after 3 p.m., hurriedly unloaded my backpack and suitcase and checked in quickly. I remember being amused at myself as I walked with a profound sense of purpose through the hotel lobby to the elevator, and then from the elevator to my room, as I was pumped to see what the view was like.
Well, it certainly exceeded my expectations!
I dropped my luggage in the living room area, made a beeline down the hall and through the bedroom, went out onto the balcony and saw this:
What a great looking ballpark, eh? I instantly loved the unique structure of the park — instead of the standard look that I’ve often seen around the minors, this park was visually engaging because of the smaller structures around the concourse, instead of one larger building. Like other parks, Dr Pepper Ballpark has a number of concession stands around the concourse and suites above, but I think it’s neat how it’s not all one continuous structure. The little walkways between the buildings, I’d soon find out, make getting around this ballpark really easy and fun.
The only thing that troubled me about the glorious sight in front of my eyes was the way the trees were overgrown and partially covered the Dr Pepper Ballpark sign. I realize this is a first-world problem, but I think it’d be nicer if the sign were fully visible to people in the hotel.
As you might have seen in the above photo, the batting cage was set up and the players were hitting, but I didn’t want to get to the park just yet, as I’d skipped lunch and was starving. I made a quick run across the street (heading in the opposite direction from the ballpark) to the Stonebriar Centre mall to grab a quick lunch from the food court. As you might suspect, I brought the food back to enjoy eating it with the great view from my balcony.
… and then noticed the baseball field-shaped details in the balcony railings, which I thought were cool:
I love when hotels think of small details like that.
Once I finished eating, I checked out a generous gift basket that the people at Visit Frisco had left me. They were instrumental in setting up my visit, and surprised me with a bunch of goodies, including a RoughRiders cap and towel and some other sports gear from the local area’s teams — a Dallas Cowboys pin and a Dallas FC scarf, as well as some other awesome treats.
Next, it was time to pack up my camera and GoPro and head out to the ballpark. Just as I love the view from ballpark-facing hotels, I love the short walk when you stay so close to the park: No sitting in traffic, no paying for parking — just a pleasant walk that lasts only a few minutes. As I left the hotel, I turned back and shot this photo; my room was on the right side of the left bank of balconies, fifth from the top:
From where I stood on the sidewalk just outside the hotel’s doors, here’s what the view looked like ahead of me:
Within a minute or so, I was standing outside the fence beyond the outfield and soaking up the view and atmosphere:
Next, I made my way along a side street to the main gates of Dr Pepper Ballpark, where I snapped this photo:
Again, you’ll see that this park has a unique look, with a series of individual building sections (and turrets, of course) that make the home of the RoughRiders unlike any other MiLB park I’ve seen.
Here’s the area as a panorama:
After taking the above photo, I entered through the main gate, went through reception area and out to what I expected to be the concourse — and, boy, was I surprised. Here was the scene that awaited me:
Yes, there’s a huge kids’ play area ahead and a bar/eatery on the right side, but check out the gravel walkway! And the trees! It felt like I was in cottage country or at a campground. Now, make no mistake — there is a traditional concrete concourse at Dr Pepper Ballpark, but behind the buildings that line the concourse, you’re treated to this campground/neighborhood feel, and it’s outstanding.
Although I was anxious to get exploring what I could already tell was going to be one of my favorite ballparks, I wanted to watch batting practice for a bit first. I made a beeline for the grass berm in left field, where this was my view:
The San Antonio players were hitting bombs left and right. Look at all the balls that were sitting on the grass in a perfect line just to the left of me, obviously having hit the facing of the deck and then rolled back down the hill:
I left them where they sat because the gates weren’t yet open and, instead, moved a little closer to center field to take this panorama:
After standing on the berm for about 10 minutes and enjoying the action, I moved a little farther away to a spot behind the video board, where I took this shot partly to just show a different view of the scene during BP, but also to show the plants that grew at the base of the video board — once again giving Dr Pepper Ballpark a comfortable, natural feel:
And, while I was in the area, I snapped this shot of me, squinting into the bright sun:
Although it was tempting to just enjoy my spot on the berm and watch more BP, I was itching to finally explore more of the park — so that’s what I did next. My main priority was to first check out some of the unique sights around the ballpark, like the area I’d seen immediately upon entering earlier. Behind the third base concourse — there’s another gravel area with plenty of trees, plants and concession stands selling diverse food products like funnel cakes, custom-built hamburgers, street tacos and more:
And the structure you see in the background is the batting cage area, so you can watch players taking some pregame cuts while you wait for your food. How perfect is this setup?
I found this area to be extremely serene before the gates opened; even though there was music playing, the smell of stadium food wafting through the air and staff members hustling around, being in this spot seemed to transport me back to going to the cottage as a kid, enjoying the crunch of the gravel beneath my feet and the trees and bushes around me. And, funny enough, I still had this experience even once the gates opened and the area was flooded with fans. A little more exploring revealed this wasn’t the only tranquil spot in Dr Pepper Ballpark — head behind the first base concourse, and you’ll enjoy this sight:
Being away from home, traveling every day or two and often being in crowded environments can feel a little hectic, so it was comforting to be able to take a walk through the quieter areas of Dr Pepper Ballpark whenever the feeling suited, and I certainly encourage you to try it, too.
After enjoying the aforementioned tranquility, I headed out to the main concourse, where I snapped this photo …
… and stood to watch batting practice for a few minutes. Having been to 62 major and minor league ballparks, I’ve seen a lot of great views from behind home plate, and this one is right up there. Don’t you agree?
Next, I took a walk down the first base line, enjoying the sun and the sounds of batting practice. As I descended to field level, a baseball caught my eye:
As you can see, the ball was jammed under one of the doors leading out to the field. My “no baseballs before gates open” rule kept me from grabbing it, but I vowed to return after the gates had opened up, to see if it was still there.
Once I put the ball out of my mind, I stood in the front row and enjoyed a little more BP with this view:
From this vantage spot, I couldn’t resist taking another photo of my awesome hotel:
It wouldn’t be long until BP wrapped up, so I paid another visit to the outfield grass berm to enjoy the last group or two of hitters:
Next, with nothing to watch on the field and plenty of time before first pitch, I continued exploring the park. Heading back to the tranquil food area on the third base side, I now saw some food trucks parked inside the park’s gates, including this one:
What a cool feature! Food trucks arrive on game day, park inside the ballpark and then leave at the game’s conclusion. I’ve often seen food trucks outside ballparks — especially in the majors — but I can’t recall seeing one inside a park; just another creative thing that the RoughRiders do very well.
Since I was in the area, I watched a bit of action in the batting cages, and then decided to take a climb up to the press box area to check out the view. The myriad levels, walkways and bridges connecting the various buildings made this short walk unique — and also provided some cool vantage points. Here’s a view looking down from one of the pedestrian bridge/walkways a few levels up …
… and here’s another view that shows the unique layout of this ballpark:
As expected, the press box offered a sensational view of the park:
I stood at one of the press box windows and took everything in, allowing my eyes to slowly pan from left to right, and then it hit me — the baseball that was hiding under the gate! I’d been so enjoying all the sights that I’d forgotten to check for the ball after the gates had opened. By now, the gates had been open about 20 minutes, and while there were lots of fans in the park, most of them were congregating around the concourse and concession stands. This meant that there was an outside chance of the ball still being there, so I hustled down to the concourse, made my way toward the right field corner and … voila!
Above five minutes after grabbing the ball, I was leaning against the railing and enjoying the view, when a young family (parents and a boy about five) approached and asked me to take their photo. They descended a couple steps in front of me and I snapped a few shots with their iPhone. As I went to give the phone back, I pulled the ball out of my pocket and handed it to the kid, whose jaw dropped enough that the ball might’ve fit in his mouth. As much as I love collecting balls for myself, it’s sure a thrill to give them away, too.
Speaking of thrills, my next stop at Dr Pepper Ballpark was to see one of the most unique sights I’ve ever seen at any park, MLB or MiLB. In case you haven’t heard, the RoughRiders have installed a lazy river beyond the right field fence! It wasn’t complete when I visited, unfortunately — I guess I’ll just have to make a point of visiting again to check it out — but I was able to take a look at it and snap some photos.
In the following shot, you’ll see how the lazy river rises above the outfield fence; it’s behind the stone wall, which also serves as the backdrop for a waterfall:
And here’s a shot from behind the foul pole, which gives you an idea of the layout and depth of the lazy river:
Lazy rivers are my absolute favorite attraction at water parks. You can keep your slides and wave pools; give me a lazy river and I’ll happily float around for hours. Can you imagine how cool it would be to watch a minor league game from this vantage point? Hmm, I really need to return to Frisco, don’t I?
With still a bit of time before first pitch, I took a walk through the outstanding team shop, Riders Outpost:
The store was enormous and was one of the best I’ve seen in the minor leagues. I couldn’t resist buying this Under Armour long-sleeved shirt:
After restraining myself to avoid buying more, I went down to field level on the third base side, where I shot this picture of the main building behind home plate:
As seems to be the theme at Dr Pepper Ballpark, this building is different than virtually everything else I’ve seen during my travels. On the concourse level, there’s a large open area where fans congregate during games. The second level is the JC Penney Club, an upscale eatery that I had the fortune of experiencing on the second day of my visit — and you’ll want to make sure that you read that blog post. The third level is made of suites and way up on the fourth level is the press box. Also, how awesome does this building look?
While at field level, I noticed the netting over the dugouts. Now, I get the important reason for it, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that it somehow makes the game seem farther away, as well as all but negates your chance of having a ball tossed to you at the end of an inning. This netting is slowly getting more common at MiLB parks, but I noticed something cool above the dugout — there’s a small opening next to the railing:
I don’t know the specific reason for the inclusion of this opening, but if it was to give fans a chance to get pregame autographs from players, I give a big-time kudos to the RoughRiders for creating a fan-friendly element to the netting.
Speaking of autographs, I checked out the team’s autograph area down the third base side next. A player signs before the games, and pitcher Victor Payano (who pitched when I was in Midland) was signing for some kids:
This is another thing that’s awesome about the minor leagues. When a MLBer signs in a designated area before a big league game, it’s pandemonium. In the minors, countless fans were passing by the autograph area without making a fuss. Some were exchanging greetings with Payano, others were shaking his hand and others were completely oblivious. As a fan, the idea of running up and grabbing an autograph and a photo without having to dedicate an hour to the process is truly welcome.
As first pitch approached, I took a few minutes to watch the pregame show on the video board. I was especially interested because it was hosted by two of the team’s three broadcasters, Nathan Barnett and Steve Goldberg:
This was significant because I was scheduled to join the live broadcast to talk about my Texas trip, blog and website a day later. I’ve been interviewed on the air in several different cities, and it never fails to be a huge thrill … and something that’s a initially a bit nerve-wracking, too. So, seeing and listening to the guys in advance of joining them on the broadcast helped me to relax a little.
I browsed the park until first pitch, and then grabbed a spot along the railing to watch the early innings, enjoying this view:
By the end of the first inning, the seating bowl below me had filled up significantly, which was a sign of things to come. Both RoughRiders games I attended were packed with fans:
About this time, I got the chance to meet up with Jason Dambach, the executive VP and general manager of the team. (And the president of the State College Spikes, too!) He’d tweeted at me before the game and we’d agreed to meet up, and it was great to get a chance to tell him about my travels and hear some details about the ballpark, too. One of the best things about visiting so many ballparks is the opportunity to chat with friendly baseball people, and Jason certainly fits that description to a T. I’m looking forward to crossing paths with him again somewhere down the line.
My next stop was the berm in left-center, which had filled up, too:
I watched a little bit of the action from the berm, and then headed over to the Frisco bullpen down the first base line. In general, most bullpens in the minors are set up in a way that gives fans outstanding access, whether it’s to get an autograph before the game, ask for a ball or, as I enjoy, just standing next to the bullpen and taking in everything. The Frisco dugout is actually situated between different seating sections. This means that you can stand next to the bullpen on three of the four sides, which provides an awesome vantage point for watching pitchers get warmed up. See what I mean?
It was nearly time to eat — I’d been walking around a lot because I knew I’d need a big appetite for the meal I’d soon be tackling. First, though, I wanted to take a few more photos to show just how beautiful this ballpark is. Here’s a panorama from the first base side …
… and here’s a shot from behind home plate that I really like because I think it captures the beauty of this ballpark:
Time to eat!
Before my trip, I’d researched all of the notable concession stand items at each of the five Texas ballparks I’d be visiting, and Frisco offered the one I was most excited about — the Mac & Cheese BBQ Sandwich. Behold:
This memorable sandwich comes on a mac and cheese bun; allow me to explain. Take a hunk of mac and cheese, form it into a patty, cover it in bread crumbs and deep fry it — and you’ve got one half of a “bun.” Sound excessive? Sure does! You get a choice of meat, and I got smoked brisket. That meant that each bite had a nice crunch, the gooey deliciousness of the mac and cheese as the breading broke open and, of course, the tender smokiness of the brisket. It all made for a sandwich that was outstanding and truly original.
As you might have guessed, it’s not optimal to do much walking after eating this sandwich, but I managed to waddle my way back to the standing room area behind home plate, where I enjoyed this awesome view:
Here’s the same view as a panorama; it’s too good not to show this way, too:
Then, midway through the ninth inning, I slipped out of the park and walked back to my hotel. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll know that I don’t like to leave games early, but that I’ll do so if there’s a worthwhile reason, as I did when I visited El Paso. Well, I had a good reason on this night — I wanted to sit on my balcony for the Friday night fireworks show that would begin soon after the final out, rather than watch it from inside the park. (The team has fireworks after Friday night games throughout the season and Sunday night games (during the summer) and one thing that is really neat is that fans can sit on the field to watch.
I made it back to my hotel just as the game was wrapping up, so I enjoyed a view minutes of this view …
… and then used my GoPro to film the show. I wasn’t the only hotel guest enjoying the fireworks; there were a ton of people sitting on their balconies to take in the show. Here’s how it looked:
Following an awesome two-day visit to El Paso, it was time to hop back in my rental car and set my sights on Midland for the seventh and eighth days of my Texas road trip. The drive from El Paso to Midland is one that I’d been cautioned about by multiple people soon after I announced my trip — including a Twitter friend named Steven Ericson, who is a geography instructor and knows about such things. He strongly advised me to make sure that my car was full of gas before I left El Paso, given that there are long stretches without gas stations (and without much at all, to be honest) between the two cities.
I heeded the advice, topped up my car and pulled out of El Paso about 7:30 a.m. on May 18. There was a Midland RockHounds game scheduled for that evening and, while the drive from El Paso to Midland is only about 4.5 hours, I’d be losing an hour due to a time zone change. Plus, I was scheduled to meet with some folks from Visit Midland in the afternoon before the ballgame to tour the area a bit.
As promised, the drive between the cities was indeed memorable — and not because of running out of gas, thankfully. There was plenty of beautiful terrain to enjoy, including the mountains around El Paso …
… and vast areas of flat ground that stretched as far as the eye could see:
Occasionally, I’d see a small town, so I’ll pull off and top up my gas. In one stop, my car would only take $5 to fill the remainder of the tank, which shows you that I wasn’t taking any chances! Someone told me there’s a stretch of about 80 miles without a gas station. I didn’t measure, but this doesn’t seem improbable.
Eventually, the scenery around me began to change, and I was soon seeing pump jacks and flares on each side of the road for miles on end. Yep, I was definitely entering oil country. In addition to being the midway point between El Paso and Fort Worth, Midland is very well known for its oil. Oil was discovered in the Permian Basin in the 1920s, and the oil production has been going strong ever since. I’ve since read that today, this area produces around 20 percent of the country’s petroleum and natural gas. One more quick noteworthy fact about the area — if you’ve read the book “Friday Night Lights” or seen the movie or TV show of the same name, you’ll recognize the name of Permian High School. Well, it’s located in Odessa, which is just outside Midland. Or, you could say that Midland is just outside Odessa — there’s definitely a sports rivalry between the two cities!
Under dreary skies, I pulled into Midland and checked into my hotel just 10 minutes before I was supposed to meet up with Visit Midland. After spending so many hours in the car, I only had the chance to drop my luggage in the room, splash some water on my face and run back down to the lobby. There, I met up with Visit Midland’s Lyndsey White and Amy Harrison, who’d arranged for me to have a private tour at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, which had just undergone a $18 million renovation to improve the facility and its exhibits for local residents and tourists alike. It was an informative experience, and one that I’ll write about in a future blog post. For now, though, here’s a photo of me in front of two pump jacks on the museum’s property:
I came into the experience knowing very little about oil production, so it was interesting to learn a lot from our well-versed tour guide, as well as see a ton of artifacts from the area’s rich oil history. Lyndsey and Amy dropped me back at my hotel later in the afternoon, and I had a few minutes to relax and check out the amazing gift basket that had been left for me by the people at Visit Midland, who really went out of their way to make my stay memorable. I hadn’t had time to look at it earlier, but I was excited to now check it out. It was brimming with cool RockHounds souvenirs, including this bucket hat, Security Bank Ballpark replica and logo baseball:
There were also treats from local vendors, including some white chocolate-covered Oreos with baseball stitching from a local candy store — and how Visit Midland knew that Oreos are my weakness is beyond me!
Before making the short walk over to the ballpark, I thought I’d check to make sure that the game was still on. Though it wasn’t raining, the sky was definitely dark and rain was in the forecast. I looked on my Twitter to see if there were any updates about that night’s game and, to my disappointment, I read that it had been postponed due to the weather. There was good news, though — there’d be a doubleheader the next day.
A little more good news: The hotel I was staying in, Home2 Suites Midland, was outstanding, and the idea of having a sit-down dinner and then relaxing in the air conditioning for the evening more than a little appealing at this point on my trip. The hotel was new, clean and the suite-style rooms were huge, so I zipped out for a big steak and loaded baked potato at Outback, and then returned to relax for the evening … and also shoot this photo from my window looking across a few parking lots to Security Bank Ballpark under dreary skies:
The next morning, I’m pleased to say that the scene outside my window looked significantly brighter, as you can see here:
The doubleheader was scheduled for 4:30 p.m., and I had plenty to fill my time before then. I was fortunate to get invited to lunch with Lyndsey and several of her colleagues, as well as Ray Fieldhouse, the RockHounds assistant general manager/operations, to taste some local fare and learn more about the city. We went to Gerardo’s Casita, a place that has authentic Mexican cuisine and reminded me a bit of L&J Cafe, a place I’d visited in El Paso a couple days earlier. I ordered the steak enchilada platter, and it was delicious:
During lunch, the discussion turned to the fact that President George W. Bush was raised in Midland, which is something I hadn’t realized. In fact, the Bush family home is still intact and now serves as a museum. After eating, Lyndsey took me over to the museum and had a tour, which I’ll be blogging about in a future post. Here, though, is a shot of me in front of the house:
Lyndsey dropped me back off at the hotel shortly after 2 p.m. and I immediately headed out for the short walk to Security Bank Ballpark. I figured that the crowd would be pretty sparse for the early innings of the first game, as is often the case with doubleheaders, but I still wanted to get to the park good and early to tour around, take lots of photos and shoot some video with my GoPro.
Although I’m always excited when I approach a ballpark, this one had an extra-special feel, as it was the 50th different Minor League Baseball park I’ve visited since 2010. By the way, if you want to see everywhere I’ve been, it’s all at this link.
After I took the photo of the main gate …
… my plan, like always, was to take a long walk around the park’s perimeter and check out everything from all angles. I enjoyed a nice walk around the quiet park by myself, stopping occasionally to photograph things like this statue, which has plaques recognizing the team’s various championships and awards:
(The RockHounds won back-to-back Texas League titles in 2014 and 2015, and those plaques are on the base of this statue behind the catcher.)
When I stopped in the team’s office to pick up my press pass, I saw those two championship trophies, as well as another from when the club won the Texas League championship in 2009. The tall trophy second from the left is the John H. Johnson President’s Trophy, which was awarded to Midland in 2007 after it was named the top franchise in the minors:
This was the first photo I took upon entering the ballpark:
As you can see, it was a little dreary and there were a few puddles from the previous day’s rain, but I had my fingers crossed that weather wouldn’t interfere with the doubleheader. I set out down the third base side to take my customary lap of the concourse and, as this picture shows, Security Bank Ballpark was still majorly empty, which suited me just fine, as it would make my life easier when it came to shooting some video:
Although Security Bank Ballpark had a pretty standard feel (it was built in 2002 and shares a lot of traits with other parks from that era) there were a bunch of cool features that I enjoyed seeing. Check out the expansive areas down the baselines — perfect for hanging out if you want to catch a long foul ball:
Another neat thing was the grass berm beyond the left field fence:
The berm is very tall — more of a hill than a standard berm, and climbing it provided a great panoramic view of the park. Here’s the view from close to the top of the berm:
After climbing back down from the berm, I took this shot of myself with my 50th different MiLB ballpark as the backdrop:
Then, I walked around a baseball-themed splash pad in center field …
… and a good-sized kids’ play area nearby:
While the grass hill in left field might be the prime attraction as far as grass seating is concerned, it’s hardly the only place to throw down a blanket and enjoy the game. There’s also lots of grass seating just to the right field side of the batter’s eye:
If you’ve been following along with my Texas trip, you’ll know that I’ve been impressed with the basketball courts at several of the parks I’ve visited. Well, Security Bank Ballpark no different, and actually has the best in-stadium basketball court I’ve seen in all my travels. It has one of those rubber-mat surfaces in RockHounds colors and is emblazoned with the team’s logo:
Speaking of that logo, I found a foam RockHounds ball near the basketball court, just after taking the above photo:
I grabbed it and gave it to a kid soon after the gates opened a while later.
Shortly before the gates opened, I snapped this photo from the wide concourse area down the first base line to show just how empty the park still was:
Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of staffers running around getting ready for the game, but there were occasional pockets of time in which I was really the only person in the area — and that was awesome. It’s always such a treat to get to wander around an empty ballpark; it’s hard to explain, but it’s a feeling that I really enjoy when I get to experience.
About the time that the gates opened, the teams came onto the field and began to play catch. I was in the area behind home plate, so I snapped this photo that shows the view from the area:
Did you notice the big hill in left field? This picture should hopefully put its size into perspective.
As I suspected, the crowds weren’t exactly flooding into Security Bank Ballpark right away. But, I suspected that by midway through the first game, the park would be hopping — and that was indeed the case, thanks in part to the team’s Thirsty Thursday promotion that began after the conclusion of Game #1.
So, how empty was the ballpark at the start of the first game? Here’s a shot I took in the top of the first inning that puts things into perspective:
I was positively giddy about the initial emptiness, thinking that I’d have an excellent chance of snagging a foul ball or two. In fact, I even sent out a tweet jokingly wondering how many foul balls I’d end up with. Well, the answer was a little humbling. Despite hanging out in a great area — I sat in the top row of right near that wide concourse that you saw a few photos earlier — no balls came even close to me. I had easy access to a couple seating sections, as well as the wide concourse behind me and down to the corner, and there wasn’t a single ball hit anywhere near that area in the first few innings. I suppose that if I’d stayed, my luck might have changed, but I never like to sit in one single area for too long, so I soon headed off to enjoy the ballpark from different areas.
My next stopping place was the grass berm in right field. By now, there were a few fans on the left field berm, but the right field one was empty. I watched a bit of the action from this spot and was surprised to end up with not one, but two baseballs:
Now, they weren’t home run balls, nor were they hit during BP. They were both sitting on the grass berm when I arrived, and were soaking wet. They hadn’t been there earlier, so I’m certain they were found in a bullpen by a pitcher and simply tossed up onto the grass for a fan to find. Since I was the only fan in the area, I was happy to add two more Texas League balls to my collection.
After snapping the shot of the two balls, it was time to get something to eat. Before my visit to Midland, I’d seen that the RockHounds’ entry in the MiLB Food Fight competition was a unique hot dog, and I knew I wanted to try it. It was a hot dog with a couple strips of bacon and slathered in peanut butter and jelly. Sound good? I thought it was:
In fairness, I think it could’ve afforded more peanut butter and jelly, as I found they got a little lost behind the strong flavor of the bacon and the hot dog itself. I was impressed with the solid amount of bacon, though, and I think I may try to recreate one of these hot dogs at home sometime.
After eating my first meal of the evening, I decided to find a front-row seat on the first base side and shoot some action photos. The crowd was still pretty thin, so it was easy to get a good spot and start clicking away with my camera. Here’s Midland starter Sam Bragg:
And Frisco starter Connor Sadzeck:
I spent an inning or so right behind home plate where, despite shooting through the netting, I was able to get a decent shot of Midland infielder Franklin Barreto just after making contact:
For the remainder of the game, I took a few more laps around the concourse, shot a bit of video with my GoPro and, in general, just enjoyed a laid-back night at the ballpark.
During the break between games, I grabbed a spot at field level to rest my legs, and noticed something amusing. The Midland groundskeeper had a dog with him. Now, we’ve all seen the bat-retrieving dogs at minor league parks, but this wasn’t the deal here. The dog simply appeared to be a pet — and one that enjoyed hanging out on the field while it was being prepped. It was nice to see a dog behaving so calmly, despite lots going on around it; while the infield was being leveled, the dog just waited at the end of the grass:
Here’s a wider-angle shot that shows the scene:
Some dogs aren’t crazy about water hoses, but when the base paths were being watered, the dog — once again — just hung out nearby. It was definitely neat to see:
Soon enough, the players returned to the field and began tossing. I was still at field level on the third base side, so I got some cool shots, like this one of Frisco infielder Luis Mendez:
And this one of Frisco catcher Alex Burg:
As the game began, I made another trip over to one of the concession stands to get something else to eat. This time, I went with something that was a little more conventional for a ballpark — a sausage on a bun, which I loaded up with lettuce, onions, pickled jalapenos and mustard:
I watched the early innings of the game behind home plate. By now, the crowd had definitely thickened, but I found a good spot in the front row, where I was able to enjoy views like this one of Frisco starter Victor Payano on the mound:
Here’s a picture from the same spot that turned out sort of neat:
Midland first baseman Viosergy Rosa has just made contact, and you can see the ball against the outfield fence.
Partway through the game, I watched a bit of the action while leaning on the railing at the edge of the concourse behind home plate, where the view looked like this:
Great looking view from home plate, right?
As the sun set, I slipped out of the ballpark to snap this panorama of the main gate …
… and then went back inside to watch the last couple innings from my earlier seat behind home plate and just enjoy the game and the park. It was too bad I didn’t get to experience two days at Security Bank Ballpark, but I’m glad that the doubleheader allowed me to spend lots of time at this Texas League facility — and the other things that I was able to experience in Midland certainly made this a memorable stop on my Texas trip. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit again soon.
When the game wrapped up, I had just a quick walk back to my hotel where I’d relax for a few hours and then go to bed knowing that I’d be up in the morning to drive to Frisco for the last two days of my Texas trip.
After the outstanding first day I had in El Paso, I was eager to get my second day in town started — and I wouldn’t have to wait too long. The Chihuahuas were hosting the New Orleans Zephyrs in an 11 a.m. game, so I planned to get to Southwest University Park between 9 and 9:30 a.m.
First, though, it was time to check out one of El Paso’s top restaurants. The plan was to again meet up with Leesy McColgary from Visit El Paso to have breakfast at L&J Cafe, a restaurant that you’d hardly notice from the outside but that is ranked third on TripAdvisor’s list of top El Paso eateries.
When I exited the DoubleTree Downtown El Paso to meet Leesy, I was amazed at how cool and fresh the morning air was. El Paso has virtually no humidity, and while I’d found it hot a day earlier, it was downright chilly in the morning, which I certainly welcomed.
As I waited, I was excited to look at Southwest University Park just across the street from my hotel:
Soon enough, Leesy arrived and we were off to L&J Cafe. It’s a favorite spot for locals — so much so that when we arrived about 15 minutes before the restaurant opened, there was a lineup outside. On a Tuesday. Here’s the outside of the restaurant:
Since we were a little early, we took a quick tour of the historic Concordia Cemetery, which is something that I’ll blog about in an upcoming post.
While the breakfast choices on the menu looked good, I’m not a huge breakfast guy — and, besides, the other examples of traditional Mexican food were making my taste buds tingle. I decided to forgo the idea of a traditional breakfast and, instead, order an enchilada platter with a combination of red and green sauce. This, ladies and gents, was my breakfast, and it was absolutely delicious:
And, in case I needed more, Leesy suggested that we order some sopaipillas, which are fried pastries served with honey:
They were much lighter than I expected and definitely something I’ve craved a few times since.
This was one of the best overall meals I’ve had in a long time, and I can assure you that L&J Cafe will be on my agenda whenever I make it back to El Paso. Once I finished eating, Leesy dropped me back at my hotel and I waddled over to Southwest University Park, eager to get my second visit underway.
My first visit a day earlier had included a private tour and a lot of ballpark exploring, and frankly it was nice to know that during my second visit, I could do a little more focusing on the game and just enjoying the view. Doing so isn’t always possible when I only have one day in a city, so I was once again thankful for having two days in each city on this trip. Before I grabbed a seat and relaxed, though, I had an exciting experience — I was meeting up with Felix Chavez from the El Paso Times for an interview. I’ve done a handful of newspaper interviews over the years, and as a longtime journalist myself, it’s always fun to be on the “other” side of the interview. I met Felix outside the press box as soon as I arrived, and we chatted for several minutes about my baseball travels, blog/website and, of course, my impressions of Southwest University Park. It was super enjoyable; I’ve occasionally been interviewed by disinterested reporters, but it was clear that Felix was curious about my adventures, which made the process really pleasant. (By the way, you’ll see his story at the end of this post.)
Felix also had a surprise for me — one of the Times‘ photographers was there, and he’d be following me around for a while to take some photos of me to run with the story. I met the photographer, Victor Calzada, after my interview, and we headed down toward the concourse. I was impressed with Victor’s ethical approach to taking my photo. I asked him how he wanted to set me up, and he told me that he didn’t want anything that was staged. Instead, he asked me to do my thing and he’d be a “fly on the wall” behind me for 20 or 30 minutes. It was definitely a new experience to walk around a ballpark and have someone following me to snap photos, but Victor was such a natural that it made everything easy.
This is the first shot I took at the ballpark on this day …
… and as I looked at the video board through my camera’s viewfinder, I could hear Victor snapping off shots in the background.
Since I’d taken so many ballpark shots a day earlier, I primarily wanted to focus on action shots during this visit. I love grabbing a spot close to the field and shooting the players, so that was my main goal today … and Victor was always just a few steps behind me. I began by going down to field level on the first base side, where I took some shots of New Orleans warming up. Here are outfielder Kenny Wilson, a former Toronto Blue Jays prospect, and infielder Elliot Soto:
Even though my focus was on player shots, I still couldn’t resist documenting the beauty of Southwest University Park. It’s one of those places that looks great from every angle. I walked along the outfield concourse and snapped the photos to make up this panorama:
While I was there, I noticed that the grass berm was much more full than it had been a day earlier:
Because it was a morning game, there were a bunch of school groups in attendance, and many of the kids had clearly flocked to the berm.
As I did a day earlier, I went down to the El Paso bullpen to take action shots of the Chihuahuas’ starting pitcher warming up. On this day, it was Daniel McCutchen, and I got a bunch of photos that turned out well, including this one:
Once he finished tossing, I made my way behind home plate snapped this panorama just before the anthem that shows just how beautiful this ballpark is:
I forget exactly when Victor and I parted, but I think it was during the first inning. In any case, he took some great shots of me doing my thing, as you’ll see at the bottom of this post. As the first inning got underway, I found a spot in the front row above the dugout on the first base side, which gave me a great place to shoot the action.
One of the fun things about watching baseball at the Triple-A level is seeing all the guys you recognize from MLB stints, so you’ll likely see some players throughout the rest of this post that you’ve seen on TV in the big leagues.
Here is New Orleans’ Robert Andino …
… and here is El Paso’s Josh Satin, each of whom has played parts of multiple seasons in the bigs:
It was wonderful to sit in the front row on a hot, sunny day and shoot the action. There were a few empty seats on each side of me, so I wasn’t cramped at all as I shifted left and right to snap my shots, like this one of Manuel Margot jumping out of the way of a pitch:
Chris Reed making a pick-off move:
And Margot swiping second base a pitch after the pick-off attempt:
Here’s something interesting that I noticed: Reed, the New Orleans starter, is 6’3″, but has a squat delivery to the point that he looks much shorter just before he releases the ball. Don’t you agree?
As for Margot, he proved himself to be impressive on the base paths, promptly stealing third base, too:
There was plenty of action at home plate, too. Here’s El Paso’s Hunter Renfro about to connect on what ended up being a home run …
… and celebrating with teammate Alex Dickerson just after crossing home plate:
Here’s a funny shot I snapped of Rocky Gale experiencing the definition of chin music:
And this is a better shot of the El Paso catcher connecting on a pitch a moment later:
(I always love when I get a shot just as the bat meets the ball!)
Here’s another of Wilson, who is on his way to the New Orleans dugout after hitting a home run:
After a couple innings of shooting, I decided to get back to walking around the ballpark. Remember this shot of the nighttime view of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez that I took from the upper level of the park a day earlier? This is how the scene looked in the daytime:
Next, I went down to the front row behind home plate for an inning of action. Shooting through the netting rarely yields outstanding photos, but the overall view from this seating area was certainly enjoyable:
By now, it was past noon and although the thought of a ballpark lunch was appealing, I was way too full from my breakfast. I was a bit disappointed to miss the opportunity to sample something else of the Southwest University Park menu, but that’ll just have to wait for another visit.
Speaking of food, I was continuously noticing fans with frozen drinks — which made sense, given the hot temperature. I’m a sucker for frozen lemonade and other such products, so I made my way to the “Slush’ae” concession stand down the first base line. Now, I’d been particularly intrigued by the yellow and red combination of slushie that I’d seen countless fans drinking, and I wanted to give it a try. I scanned the available flavors and, for some inexplicable reason, decided that the mystery color combination had to be pink lemonade. (This, despite the fact that red and yellow do not equal pink. Maybe the heat was getting to me.)
Anyway, I was handed this …
… and while it was delicious and chilly, it didn’t satisfy my curiosity for the red and yellow product that continued to be enjoyed around me.
As I took this photo …
… I said to myself, “Time for another slushie,” and returned to the same concession stand where I’d been less than 10 minutes earlier. “Back again?” the server asked me, with a smile on her face. I explained my predicament and she handed me what is arguably the most unique ballpark drink I’ve ever had:
You’re looking at a mango slushie. Pretty standard, right? Yes, but here’s where the twist comes. The red stuff on the top and bottom of the cup is chamoy sauce, which I certainly hadn’t heard of. It’s a Mexican sauce made of pickled fruit (typically apricot or plum), and the taste is difficult to explain. You’d expect gooey red sauce to be super sweet, but that isn’t the case. It’s sort of a combination of salty and sour, if that makes sense. You can choose how much chamoy sauce you want added; since I was a newbie, the server gave me a small amount, but I saw people who’d obviously asked for a heap of it.
The intrigue didn’t end with the chamoy sauce. It’s hard to clearly see the straw in the above photo, so take a look at this one:
The red stuff wrapped around the straw is flechazos, which is a dried fruit that’s not unlike what is often called “fruit leather.” It’s sweet, chewy and delicious. The twist, though, is that the flechazos-covered straw is rolled in chili powder, which gives you a unique spiciness that you certainly don’t expect when you’re having a frozen fruit drink.
The slushie was outstanding, and something that you should definitely seek out whenever you visit Southwest University Park. I’d definitely order it again, maybe even twice.
Once I slurped down the slushie and gnawed the chili and flechazos off my straw, I headed back down to the front row behind the dugout to take some more action shots — and just in time. Nick Wittgren, who I’d talked to a day earlier during BP, had just taken the mound, and I was anxious to photograph him in action:
I also took another shot of him on the way to the dugout after one efficient inning of work:
It took him just six pitches to get three outs. He was called up to the majors a week after this outing and picked up his first career MLB win a little over a week later.
Wittgren’s efforts aside, his Zephyrs fell to El Paso. And, unlike a day earlier, when I’d slipped out early to enjoy the last bit of the game from my hotel’s roof deck, I had a front-row seat for the final out and the post-game high fives:
As the fans began to filter out of Southwest University Park, and I followed suit, I was definitely sad to be leaving. Although I’d had two full and awesome days in El Paso, they’d gone by very quickly. Still, as much as I was sad to be leaving this beautiful ballpark, I was looking forward to taking a walk around the city and then hanging out in my hotel room, so that’s what I did for the afternoon and evening. There was a short rainfall late in the afternoon, and a nice rainbow right outside my window:
The next morning, I woke up early in advance of my drive to Midland. First, though, I needed to track down some copies of the El Paso Times to read the story about me. I walked over to the Times building, but it didn’t open until 8 a.m. and I wanted to be on the road well before then. So, I took the opportunity to snap this photo of me in front of the newspaper’s building …
… and then found a gas station and bought five copies of the newspaper. “You know they all say the same thing, right?” said the clerk when I flopped the stack of papers down on the counter.
I eagerly flipped through to the sports section and was shocked to see my story as the top item. Here’s a scan of the front page banner:
And the front of the sports page:
And, finally, the turn on the third page of the sports section:
If you’re interested in reading the story, you can click the above images to enlarge them.
Special thanks to everyone who helped make my visit to El Paso so memorable. I can’t wait to return!
Next up, a doubleheader at Security Bank Ballpark, home of the Texas League’s Midland RockHounds.