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.
On my first day in Durham, I’d hurried from the airport to my hotel and then straight to the ballpark. My experience a day later would be completely different. I began my second day in Durham by spending a few hours working on a blog post about the previous day, and then met up with Veda Gilbert from Discover Durham for lunch.
She chose a spot within walking distance of my hotel called Bull City Burger & Brewery, which prides itself on using local beef and making its burger toppings (and buns) from scratch. That sounded perfect to me, and I opted for a burger topped with house-made pickles and pimento cheese:
It was absolutely outstanding — and served as good fuel for the two-hour walking tour of the city that followed. We hit a number of interesting and historical places as we made our way around Durham’s downtown, but there’s one spot in particular that I think you’ll like. If you read yesterday’s post, you’ll know that the Durham Bulls moved from Durham Athletic Park to Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995, and have called it home ever since. Fortunately, DAP still stands, and it was the biggest highlight on our walk. This is the park where the Bulls played from 1926 to 1994 and, of course, where the movie Bull Durham was filmed:
There was a showcase tournament taking place at the time …
… but we were able to enter a check out the historic ballpark for a bit:
It’s easy to make an argument that this is the most famous minor league park in the country, so I’m very happy that I had a chance to visit it:
I could’ve sat there and watched the action for a long time, but there were plenty of other interesting sights to see around town. One of the other downtown attractions that we visited was the famous statue of Major the bull, which is a popular spot for photos. Here’s me making an attempt at the “bull horns” hand signal:
After a really interesting tour of the American Tobacco Historic Area …
… I went back to my hotel, enjoyed some air conditioning for an hour or so, and then made the short walk over to DBAP. A day earlier, I’d been intrigued by the gate that opened into the outfield concourse, and had followed it rather than taken my usual lap around the outside of the park. On this day, I made it my top priority to check out the exterior of the ballpark from all angles. After walking behind the office buildings that are situated beyond right field, I turned right and made my way down Jackie Robinson Drive, which runs behind the first base side. Here’s the side of the ballpark from that spot:
One thing that really caught my eye in this area was the Victory Garden, which is situated between the ballpark and the sidewalk. I’ve seen lots of ballpark gardens that supply veggies and herbs to the ballpark’s food services team over the years, but this one’s a little different. The Victory Garden is a partnership between the Bulls, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, and the produce goes to local families in need. This garden produces more than 2,000 pounds of food a year, and together with some other similar gardens around the area, helps to feed 60,000 people each month. I enjoyed walking through it and noting the unique plants — in addition to all of the veggies that you’d expect to see, there were other crops such as a fig tree and some okra plants. Here’s a look at one section of the garden:
After checking out the garden, I arrived at the picturesque plaza in front of the main gates, where I snapped this photo …
… and then went inside. By now, batting practice was taking place, so after a quick lap of the concourse, I grabbed a spot in a semi-shady area and watched for a bit:
I hung out in this spot for about 10 minutes, before moving down the line to continue watching with this view:
As I stood in that area, I noticed something that I’d missed a day earlier. If you look at the following photo …
… do you see the low, gray building in the distance with the horizontal slot-style windows? That’s the Durham County Detention Facility. The stadium’s PA and crowd noises can get pretty loud, and I wonder if those who are jailed in the facility can ever hear the game. I’m assuming that the jail doesn’t have a lot of windows that open, but I’d still be curious if the sound from outside gets in at all. I can’t imagine much being worse than jail, except for perhaps being behind bars while hearing the exciting sounds of a ballpark!
I was glad to be spending a second day in Durham not only for the chance to enjoy DBAP again, but also to see the special jerseys that the Bulls were wearing on this night. The team was honoring the Durham Tobacconists, which was the name of the franchise when it was founded in 1902. The Tobacconists played in the North Carolina League and only made it as far as July before the league abruptly folded. Here’s a picture of pitcher Ricardo Pinto in his Tobacconists uniform:
When BP concluded, I continued walking around the concourse and taking in the various sights. Here’s another thing that I’d failed to notice a day earlier — temporary netting that was draped over the railing and attached to spikes in the warning track to protect the video board during batting practice:
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a setup in all my travels. Sure enough, a couple of Bulls employees began to remove the netting shortly after I took the above photo.
If you read my previous post, you might remember that I mentioned a pop-up mini golf course that was located adjacent to the ballpark. Here’s a view of it in the daylight, and I think you’ll agree that it’s pretty appealing:
The Bulls and the city have done a really good job of making the area around DBAP really appealing. Throughout my visit, it was clear that there were people who had come down to the area just to hang out, and not necessarily with plans to attend the game. It wouldn’t be long before the mini golf course — and a bunch of restaurants in the area with patios — were full of people enjoying this late-June night, and it made for a really fun vibe around the ballpark.
While I was in the left field corner, I went over to the Blue Monster to watch the grounds crew pack up the protective netting. As they worked, the Monster’s door (I always call this the “Manny Ramirez door”) was open, as you can see here:
Seeing the door open gave me an idea, so I followed the concourse past a concession stand to the end of the Blue Monster, and was able to lean in and see behind it. If you look at this photo, you’ll see the light coming from the open door:
The manual scoreboard operators work in this space, albeit well on the other side of the door. One day, I tell you, I’ll get to help out with a manual scoreboard during a game!
After the grounds crew tucked the protective netting safely behind the fence, I continued walking around the park and went over to the right field side. There, I snapped this photo of this impressive seating section:
Wherever I walked, it seemed as though there was a unique and appealing place to hang out and watch the game, and this was just another example. Kudos to the Bulls for going beyond the standard stadium seats to give fans a variety of fun seating choices.
Sensing another big crowd — especially with the special Tobacconists uniforms in use — I decided to grab dinner soon after the gates opened. Pizza might not be the most original pick at a ballpark, but I’d seen a LOT of fans carrying slices around a day earlier. This had to be a good sign, so I headed for the Pie Pushers Pizza concession stand and checked out the menu. Beyond the standard slices, there was a good selection of unique options. But, I always feel that the best way to evaluate a pizza is with a slice of pepperoni and cheese, so that’s what I ordered:
While it wasn’t the best ballpark pizza that I’ve had, it was pretty good and definitely worth checking out when you visit DBAP.
As I’d done a day earlier, I grabbed a Rita’s Italian Ice as a post-dinner way to beat the heat:
This time, I opted for the blue raspberry flavor, which was a poor choice. I’ve obviously yet to see a blue raspberry in the wild, which should’ve been a warning. This flavor basically just tasted sweet, so I think I’ll stick with better choices such as strawberry, cherry or lemonade in the future.
Once I’d eaten — and furiously rubbed my lips with the back of my hand so it wouldn’t appear as though I was wearing blue lip gloss — I went down to field level on the third base side to watch the visiting Norfolk Tides warm up. Here’s starting pitcher Luis Ysla:
One of the things that never gets old about visiting minor league ballparks is just how close you can get to the players. It’s one of the most appealing things about MiLB games, as far as I’m concerned. I stood fewer than 10 feet from Ysla throughout his entire warm-up, which is far closer than fans can get at most of the MLB parks.
When the game began, I grabbed a spot behind home plate that provided this view for the first inning:
I spent the second inning in this standing-room spot …
… and later went to this spot in straightway center, using the edge of the batter’s eye to block out of the sun as it set beyond the third base line:
For the last half of the game, I continued watching an inning here, an inning there, and loving the overall design and feel of DBAP. It’s a park that I didn’t know much about before arriving, but that has quickly climbed toward the top of my favorite MiLB ballparks list. I can’t wait to return, whenever that may be.
Exactly 12 hours after my alarm rang to start Day #1 of my nine-day baseball trip, I walked into Durham Bulls Athletic Park for the first time. I’d made the 815-mile trip using four different methods of transportation — an airport shuttle, two flights, a rental car and a whole lot of steps — and was thrilled to visit my 72nd different ballpark since 2010.
About half an hour earlier, I’d checked into my hotel — the Aloft Durham Downtown — and quickly realized that this is a perfect hotel for the baseball traveler. In addition to being close to DBAP, it has a ticker on the walls of the lobby that displays MLB scores! How perfect is that?
If that’s not perfect enough, being able to see the ballpark and its iconic “Hit Bull Win Steak” bull from the window of my room was definitely a sign that I was in the right place:
After checking in, I dropped my suitcase off in my room, quickly changed into a road trip tee and headed over to the ballpark. The hotel and the ballpark are both key features in Durham’s American Tobacco Historic District, an urban renewal neighborhood that is one of the must-visit spots in this city. It’s the type of area in which you can easily spend a large chunk of day shopping, eating and sightseeing. These were things that I’d do on my second day in town; first, though, I was intent on getting over to the ballpark as quickly as possible.
I’ll admit that DBAP wasn’t a park that I knew a lot about before I arrived in town. Sometimes, I do a lot of advance reading about parks before I visit, but that’s not what I did in this case. It can be fun to be a little in the dark, so to speak, because that can help to make the experience more exciting.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll likely know that I tend to take a walk around each ballpark’s perimeter before entering, but that wasn’t the path that I took during this visit. Instead, I was allured by a sidewalk that headed up toward the base of the large bull, so followed it and was surprised to see that the gates were open:
The ballpark’s actual gates don’t technically open until an hour before first pitch — 6 p.m. in this case — but I’d stumbled into an area of the park that is accessible well in advance of that. The sidewalk that I was on quickly turned into an outfield concourse situated above the ballpark’s 32-foot Blue Monster and, when I walked to the railing, this was my view:
I LOVE when teams make community-friendly decisions like this. This gate closes once the game begins, but until then, people are free to walk through this area — from the left field foul pole to about straightaway center — and enjoy the view. More teams need to make parts of their parks accessible like this. I mean, I can think of a lot of ballparks that use privacy slats in their exterior chain link fences and other similar methods to ensure that people from the community can’t even look into the ballpark. Being able to walk through a part of the concourse before the gates open, or perhaps even if you aren’t going to the game, is absolutely outstanding.
On the other side of the concourse is a huge sports bar called Tobacco Road. It was still quiet at 4 p.m., but it got gradually busier and by the time the game began three hours later, it was packed with people enjoying food and drinks while they watched the game. Here’s a shot that shows the restaurant, the field and the concourse that people can use before the park’s gates open:
There were a couple of other fans in the area, but it was still mostly empty. I headed over to center field, where I took this panorama …
… noted the attractive batter’s eye …
… and then snapped this shot of myself:
I continued along the concourse, noting how the look of the office buildings in the area matched nicely with the ballpark:
(By the way, how amazing would it be to work in one of these buildings?)
Downtown ballparks can have a lot of challenges “fitting” in with their environment, but it’s very clear that DBAP does that well. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The ballpark was designed by Populous, which is most widely known for designing the outstanding Oriole Park at Camden Yards and essentially rewriting the book on not only how ballparks should look, but also how they should fit within their neighborhoods. DBAP opened in 1995, three years after Camden, and it’s visually evident that the same visionaries were behind both projects.
I continued along the concourse until I came to this gate that prevented me from walking any farther:
The concourse that you see beyond the gate is set behind the seats in right field, and very much reminds me of Eutaw Street in Baltimore. After standing near the gates and enjoying the scene for a moment, I retraced my steps past Tobacco Road and toward the iconic bull. Another gate in this area prevented access to the main concourse of the park below me, so I exited and made my way down Blackwell Street toward the main gates. After picking up my credential, I snapped this shot of the team’s retired numbers:
You’ll notice that Crash Davis’ #8 is one of the six numbers retired by the team. He, of course, was the inspiration for Kevin Costner’s character of the same name in the 1988 movie Bull Durham. What you might not know, however, is that the real Davis hit .317 while playing for the Bulls in 1948.
I obviously had to snap a photo with it:
Blue Jays fans may also enjoy noting the retired #25 of current Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo. He served as the skipper of the Bulls from 2007 through 2014, winning a pair of International League championships and one Triple-A title during that span.
Next, I walked around to the plaza in front of the main gates, where I took this photo:
What a beautiful looking park! The fountains, dual staircases and brick design combine to make this one of the most stylish MiLB park entrances that I’ve ever come across.
After a short browse through the team shop, I road an elevator up to the concourse. Check out the signage inside of the elevator:
The concourse at DBAP is under and behind the seating bowl, which is perhaps the only less-than-perfect design feature of this ballpark. I love concourses that are open to the field, and I think that most MiLB fans feel the same way, but I also feel that there are both right and wrong ways to approach enclosed concourses. This one was definitely built the right way — tall ceilings, wide walkways and with lots of natural light, you won’t mind spending time in this area. Plus, if you’re concerned about missing the game, there are a bunch of TVs to ensure that you can always keep your eye on the game. After a short walk through the concourse, I made my way through one of the tunnels to the seating bowl …
… and was immediately impressed with what I saw. Take a look at how wide this cross-aisle is:
The small seating sections and wide cross-aisle mean that it’s easy to get around this part of the park. So, unless you need to head to the concourse to buy food, you can get where you want to go without being out of sight out of the game.
I decided to start checking out the inside of DBAP by walking toward the left field foul pole, so I headed in this direction …
… and soon stopped at field level to snap this panorama:
Eventually, I got close enough to the bull that I was able to take this photo of it:
This bull isn’t the one that you might recognize from the Bull Durham movie. That bull, which moved from the old Durham Athletic Park in 1995 when the team relocated to DBAP, was damaged in a 2007 storm. This one is a recreation — Bull #2, for lack of a better term. Its eyes light up and it snorts during home runs and wins, but it was still quiet at this point.
From this spot, I watched batting practice for a few minutes before heading the opposite way along the cross-aisle toward the right field corner. Here’s the view from the opposite end of the concourse that I’d spotted through the closed gate earlier:
And here’s a look at the Blue Monster and the bull, where I’d stood only a few minutes ago:
Next, I walked around to the grass berm in center field to take this panorama …
… and then continued back to the right field corner to do some preliminary food research. DBAP has an extensive menu and it was no surprise to see some Carolina barbecue available for sale. What was a surprise, however, was just how impressive the Smokehouse Barbeque concession stand looked. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into the design of this concession stand, including the use of barn board, tin and the vintage lights. Check it out:
Just after I took this photo, an usher approached me. I’d seen him picking up BP balls in the outfield seats earlier, and he now was carrying a handful of them. He asked me if I was looking for a ball. I replied that I wasn’t, and he asked if I wanted one anyway. He said that he keeps a few to give out to kids once the gates open. “Big kids, too?” I asked, and he laughed and handed me one that I photographed after he continued on his way:
While I was in the area, I continued to check out some of the interesting and appealing spots for fans to hang out. The White Street Picnic Area in the right field corner seems to answer the age-old question, “Why have a standard party deck when you can have a three-level one?”
Another neat spot that I noticed was a private party area called the Lowes Food Landing. With couches and bar-style seating, it shared a lot of common traits with other party areas that I’ve seen around the minor leagues, but with one exception — the concession stand was a stylishly finished shipping container:
Next, I went back down to the enclosed concourse to take another walk through the part of it that I’d missed earlier. One attraction that I noticed was an on-site brewery from the Bull Durham Beer Company:
I’ve seen a handful of MLB parks with breweries (Coors Field and SunTrust Park immediately come to mind) but I can’t immediately think of another brewery inside of an MiLB facility.
After walking the length of the concourse, I went up to the suite level to check out the PNC Triangle Club, an upscale suite area that looked like this:
It also offers an outstanding view of the action, all from a climate-controlled space that was definitely appealing on this 86-degree day. Here’s the view, through glass, from behind home plate:
I spent a few minutes to enjoy this view, drink a bottle of water and to cool off for a little bit, given that I’d already been walking a lot in the full sun. Then, it was time to head back out into the heat and continue exploring the ballpark. I went along the concourse toward the right field foul pole, and then walked down to the front row of the outfield seats to continue watching BP. This was the view to my right — check out the sweet front-row seats in this area:
This type of seating arrangement is found in many minor league parks, but I don’t know if I’ve seen it make up the front row of the outfield as it does in Durham. Often, it’s found on party decks. Another really creative idea from those who designed DBAP.
I decided not to spend too long in this area. It was extremely bright, and while I could follow most of the hit balls through the air, there were definitely some that I couldn’t track — and standing in the front row of right field is never a good spot to be when you can’t see what’s coming toward you. After a ball that I’d lost in the sun clanged off the picnic deck several yards to my left, I knew it was time to find another spot to check out. I retreated to the concourse to watch the remainder of BP, and then made my way around to left field to check out the Blue Monster up close:
Once the gates opened, I had a sense that this game would be well attended, so I wanted to grab some food before the lineups got long. I originally headed to the Smokehouse Barbeque concession with the hope of grabbing some Carolina barbecue, but nothing on the menu caught my eye. There were lots of pulled pork dishes, and while I’ll eat pulled pork if I have to, it’s not something that I’m all that keen about. The wide selection of concession items throughout the park meant that I wouldn’t be thwarted, so I made my way to the Gonza Tacos Y Tequila stand in the left field corner — a place with eye-catching signage and a food truck-style vibe. After scouring the menu for a moment, I chose a pair of soft corn tacos that were filled with braised beef short rib meat, cilantro, roasted corn-poblano salsa and spicy creme fraiche:
There were only a coupe of people ahead of me in line, so my order came quickly, and I took it up to the top of the Blue Monster and grabbed a comfy seat while I ate. The tacos were very good, and I appreciated the variety of ingredients. They weren’t cheap, though. The two tacos cost $10, and it only took about three bites to eat each one.
I’d added a bit of some delicious hot sauce before eating, so that meant that I needed to look for something cool and refreshing after I finished. The answer was a strawberry Rita’s Italian Ice, which I’m always a sucker for. I took my cup all the way out to the outfield seats and enjoyed cooling down while I ate it:
After eating, I went down to the front row of the seats and took a look around. Something that caught my eye were the video boards in the outfield fence. In particular, I noticed how far back they were from the rest of the fence. I don’t know if I’ve seen this setup before; video panels are always protected by some sort of cage, but it seems to me that they’re not usually set back this far:
One of the things that I love about visiting different ballparks is noticing the small details that I might not pick up during a game broadcast, and this fence/video panel situation definitely falls into that category.
Speaking of the outfield fence, let’s take a moment to pause and appreciate how outstanding the Blue Monster is:
One thing that’s unique about DBAP is that the park’s video board is a part of the fence. There’s no large video board elsewhere in the park, which is highly unusual by MiLB standards. I think including it in this location just adds to the unique and innovative nature of this ballpark. You’ll also notice a manual scoreboard, which always boosts the visual appeal of a ballpark in my books. Throw in the home run bull, a sports bar and tons of seating/standing choices on top of the Monster, and you’ve easily got one of the coolest features throughout all of the minor leagues.
I figured that I needed to spend some time in this unique outfield area now that the game was underway, so that’s exactly what I did. I watched a little of the action from this spot …
… and then stood at the railing on the Monster for a bit, where I could look right down to see Durham left fielder Joe McCarthy:
Between innings, I snapped this shot of myself with the bull:
I spent a couple of innings in that spot and then decided to go find another vantage point from which to watch. The sky beyond the right field corner had turned a nice shade of blue-orange-purple, so I opted for a seat down the third base line where I could enjoy this amazing view:
About half an inning after taking the photo above, I stood up to stretch between innings and noticed an equally appealing sky over my left shoulder. Check out this shot:
That’s the Lucky Strike water tower rising above the American Tobacco district, and the area in the bottom right is a pop-up mini golf course that many fans were playing before, during and after the game.
I watched the remainder of the game from this vantage point, and then made the easy walk back to my hotel through the balmy Durham night after the game concluded. The appeal of the area around the ballpark made me want to stay out and explore more, but after a long travel day and about 16,000 steps, I was ready to get off my feet and call it a night. My plan to explore Durham wouldn’t have to wait long, however — I had an exciting walking tour planned for the following afternoon.
One of the best things about my visit to El Paso and the three Chihuahuas games that I attended was how different each day was. When you’re attending games over three straight days at a single ballpark, there’s always a chance that things will be a little repetitive — but I’m happy that wasn’t the case here.
Day one was all about presenting the team with a plaque for winning my Best View in the Minors competition.
Day two was a chance to tour the ballpark and enjoy the game (and the food) like I normally do.
What was on the agenda for day three?
I’m glad you asked.
My last Chihuahuas game of this trip was all about spreading the word about the Best View competition, my website, blog and baseball travels in general, and I had a number of people who graciously helped me in that regard. I ended up booking a trio of interviews, all of which took place on May 6 in a true back-to-back-to-back fashion.
Before the interviews began, however, I needed to spend a little time on the hotel pool deck enjoying the view. Doing so was a popular pastime on this trip, as it was impossible to tire of looking at beautiful Southwest University Park while hanging out in the equally beautiful El Paso weather. Here’s a shot that my wife snapped of me mid-morning:
You might notice that I’m wearing my Stars and Stripes road trip tee, which you can buy here.
After a bit of relaxing at the hotel and a bit of tourist stuff, the baseball portion of my day started with a 4 p.m. visit to the ESPN El Paso studio, located about 12 minutes from Southwest University Park. Steve Kaplowitz, host of the afternoon drive show, had agreed to have me on to talk about the Best View competition, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. I’ve been fortunate to do a ton of interviews on various teams’ game broadcasts overs the years, but this was the first time that I’d ever visited a radio stadium studio to sit in with the host. And that definitely had me dealing with a case of the nerves.
Anyway, I met Steve shortly before 4 p.m., and he decided that instead of leading the show off with my interview, he’d do a segment talking about the Kentucky Derby controversy from two days earlier. That suited me just fine, because I got to hang out in the studio and watch Steve go to work. I was absolutely in awe about what a professional he was. We were shooting the breeze about baseball just seconds before the show began, and he seamlessly switched into his radio voice and began the show by talking about horse racing. Absolutely amazing. It was a thrill to sit across the desk from him and listen to his Derby discussion while being simultaneously excited and nervous for my segment to begin.
After the first commercial break, he introduced me and we were off and running. I’m happy to say that my nerves only lasted a couple of minutes, and I soon felt a lot more at ease because of Steve’s easygoing demeanor. I’d initially figured that I’d be on the air with him for maybe five or 10 minutes, but Steve graciously had me on for two segments — maybe about 20 or so minutes altogether. And if it weren’t for me having to run off to my next interview, he’d actually hoped to keep me on until the top of the hour! We covered a host of topics, including Best View, my thoughts on El Paso and Southwest University Park, baseball road trips in general, ballpark food — and I even took some listener questions. At one point, I mentioned that my wife and I were enjoying the sightseeing around El Paso, and Steve asked, “You didn’t leave her sitting in the lobby, did you?” I gulped and admitted that she was actually sitting in the car in the parking lot. Steve quickly told his producer Adrian to go summon my wife to the studio, so off Adrian went while Steve and I continued talking baseball. A few minutes later, there was a commotion at the door and Adrian told Steve that he’d brought my wife in, but that she didn’t want to enter the studio for fear of making me nervous. By now, I was over my case of the nerves, but my wife had seen me fretting on the way to the studio and I guess she didn’t want to throw me off. Anyway, there was a hilarious back-and-forth exchange — all of it on the air — and she decided to hang out in the lobby while we finished our segment. The time with Steve flew past, and I’m really thankful to him for having me on.
During the commercial break, Steve snapped this shot of me …
… and then a staffer brought my wife in, and she took this shot of Steve and me:
Steve had to obviously get ready for returning after the commercial break, so after another brief moment of conversation, my wife and I headed out of the studio, where I got this photo taken:
Then, it was straight into the car and back on the road toward the ballpark for my next interview. Interview #2 was with longtime Chihuahuas broadcaster Tim Hagerty. Instead of having me on that evening’s game broadcast, Tim decided to interview me off the air with the plan of using our conversation as filler material when needed throughout the season. He noted that he’d always looking for fillers for rain delays, and that my interview might air multiple times over the course of the season. That sounded perfect to me, so I met Tim in the lobby of the ballpark and we headed up to the radio booth to get underway.
Tim and I talked for probably 10 minutes about a wide range of baseball and ballpark topics, and the time together just flew past. Understandably, he soon needed to get back to prepping for the game, so I got this quick photo with him …
… and then it was time to meet up with Nathan Nunez. He works in the team’s broadcast and media relations department and hosts the Fear the Ears podcast. Nathan and I found a quiet place to sit and talk on the suite level, and chatted about — you guessed it — Best View, ballparks and baseball trips for more than 10 minutes. If you’re interested in hearing that podcast episode, you can check it out here.
Nathan and I grabbed this photo before we said our goodbyes …
… and then for the first time in almost an hour and a half, I had time to relax for a minute.
Of course, that didn’t mean that I chose to grab one of the comfy chairs in the air conditioned suite level. Nope, I was ready to walk around the concourse in search of my next adventure. First, though, I met up with my wife, who’d been chilling at our hotel since we got back from the radio station and had since walked over to the ballpark. I should divulge that she’s not a baseball fan, and when we travel, she’ll normally go to one game with me and find other things to do on the other days that I’m at the ballpark. She’d admitted to me a day earlier, however, that after spending the night at Southwest University Park on May 4, so could, “Sort of see” what I like about visiting ballparks. To my surprise, she opted to hang out at the park with me on this night. As such, my goal for this ballpark visit was simply to enjoy the game and the atmosphere — and maybe point out a few things that might increase her enjoyment of baseball. Each of my two previous games had been busy in their own ways, so I thought that a low-key evening would be a fun way to wrap up this visit.
We headed to some seats in the shade in the upper deck for part of the pregame, and enjoyed this view as the grounds crew prepared the field and the players got warmed up:
Then, we went up to the suite level to enjoy the view from behind home plate — which, after all, was the reason for our six-day trip to El Paso:
After enjoying that view for a few minutes, we went back out to the second deck, where I noticed Tim on the video board talking about the upcoming game:
We grabbed some seats in the left field corner for the anthem, watching this impressively large flag on display in center field …
… and then enjoyed the first couple innings of action from that spot. It turned out to be a good place to be. The slugging Chihuahuas were putting on a hitting clinic. They launched six home runs en route to a 15-0 victory, but some of the round trippers were absolute bombs. See the word “Shamaley” on the bottom of the video board?
Austin Allen hit one ball off the bricks directly below it. Not long afterward, Josh Naylor smoked a ball through the structure above and onto North Santa Fe Street outside of Southwest University Park.
One player on Salt Lake who I was excited to see was Ty Kelly, whose name you might recognize from stints with the Mets and Phillies. I’ve been following his career since 2012, when he and my buddy Jeremy Nowak were teammates on the Frederick Keys. They were both Carolina League all-stars that season, and Kelly moved up through the minor leagues and made his MLB debut with the Mets in 2016. I don’t believe that I’d seen him play in person since 2012, so I was excited to see him again. We were sitting fairly far away for each of his at-bats, so here’s a picture of him on the video board:
After taking a lap around the concourse and checking out the team shop for a bit, I decided to grab something to eat in the second half of the game. I wanted to find something unique, and one particular item at one of the home plate concession stands jumped out at me — Churwaffles and Chicken. This dish consisted of four mini cinnamon sugar waffles alongside a couple of chicken tenders, with the whole thing topped with maple butter sauce:
The chicken was excellent, but the waffles weren’t my thing. I think of waffles as fluffy, and these were definitely not that. It’d probably not a meal that I’d be in a hurry to order again, but I’m glad I checked out something different. I washed it down with a horchata, which Nathan had enthusiastically recommended to me earlier. This was the first time that I’d ever had this drink — which is made with rice milk and has flavors of vanilla and cinnamon — and, to my surprise, it was served in a vessel the size of a yogurt tub:
It was really tasty, albeit very sweet, and there was no way I could get through all of it. This was definitely a beverage that I’d order again, though — although I wouldn’t mind if it were available in a smaller serving. (For the record, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever made that statement about ballpark fare.)
We’d hung out at field level in the right field corner while I ate, and I wanted to close out our Southwest University Park experience by watching the remainder of the game from a new vantage point. Earlier in the evening, I’d seen that the Big Dog House high above right field wasn’t very crowded, given that it was a Monday night, and wanted to check it out. This spot had been renovated since my visit three years earlier, and it looks really swanky. We were escorted up by a super-friendly staffer named Tony who handed me a batting practice baseball, which I somehow neglected to photograph. He gave us a nice tour of the space, which looked like this …
… and then we grabbed a spot on the couch where we enjoyed this view:
Given how the balls were flying on these evening, I had big aspirations to snag a home run in this spot, but that didn’t happen. (We did see a couple more long balls hit, though.)
And that’s how our last Chihuahuas game ended — enjoying this beautiful park from one of the poshest seating sections that I’ve ever encountered in the minor leagues.
The entire visit to El Paso was absolutely outstanding, and I’m so appreciative of everyone who played a part. Thanks so much to the Chihuahuas — especially Angela, Brad, Tim and Nathan — as well as Veronica and Maegan at Visit El Paso, who were super at helping to set up this trip, and Steve and Adrian at ESPN El Paso. Each of you augmented my trip in your own way, and I’m very grateful.
Given that I live 2,300 miles from El Paso, I don’t know when I’ll be back to the Sun City.
One thing’s for certain, though — I’m already looking forward to returning.
When I think about all of the experiences that I’ve had at more than 200 baseball games at 70+ ballparks, it’s hard not to consider the Best View in the Minors plaque presentation on the field on May 4 in El Paso to be the most memorable. A chance to walk on the field between innings in front of a Saturday night sellout crowd is an experience that I’ll never forget.
You might think that this meant my subsequent games at Southwest University Park would be a letdown, but I’m happy to report that wasn’t the case — not by a long shot. On May 5, I had plenty of reasons to be excited about returning to this beautiful ballpark. First and foremost, this would be my first Copa de la Diversión game experience. If you aren’t familiar with the Copa series, it’s a huge promotion in the minor leagues that has 72 teams involved this year. Translated as “Fun Cup,” the Copa promotion is an opportunity to celebrate Hispanic culture — and it’d be an understatement to say that I was pumped about being in El Paso on Cinco de Mayo for the first Copa day of the 2019 season.
The game was scheduled for a 1:05 p.m. start, the weather was absolutely perfect and, at about 10:30 a.m., I set out from my hotel to take a walk around Southwest University Park before entering — something that I hadn’t done a day earlier. I started by walking down North Santa Fe Street, which is only a handful of blocks in length but is home to a variety of attractions, including the ballpark. Here’s the view from the sidewalk with the ballpark on my right:
I continued down the street and turned around at the far end of the ballpark to snap this photo of its Wall of Champions:
Most teams display their successes inside of the park — and, for the record, there’s another similar display on the outfield fence — but I think it’s a neat idea to tout the team’s prowess in a spot that passing motorists and pedestrians can see. As you can see in the image above, the Chihuahuas have had a lot of success. They’re only in their sixth season, but already have a Pacific Coast League championship, a pair of conference titles and four division crowns.
One thing that I frequently enjoy during my ballpark visits is checking out ballparks from unusual angles outside. Sure, it’s always cool to snap a photo or a panorama from outside of the main gates, but I also think it’s interesting to find a bizarre angle from which to shoot. One noteworthy thing about this ballpark is that while it’s surrounded on three sides by streets, the fourth side is comprised of a railway line. (Several times throughout the game, trains will go past. And, sometimes, foul balls will leave the stadium and land on the train tracks.) Anyway, there’s a walkway along the rail line, so I followed it and snapped this shot of the ballpark — complete with a freight train rumbling past at the time:
After a full lap around the outside of the park, I entered via the Durango Street office entrance — pausing to snap this photo of the Best View plaque already on display beside the reception desk:
I was thrilled to see it there, and happy that it wouldn’t be gathering dust on some bookshelf or filing cabinet inside the administrative offices where fans wouldn’t be able to see it. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t return to this area a few additional times over the course of my visit just to see it there.
Once I’d checked out the plaque for a moment, I went up to the quiet concourse and headed toward the outfield. A day earlier, I hadn’t done my usual amount of pregame touring, so I definitely wanted to take advantage of that on this day. Players from both teams were playing catch down the lines as I made my way around to center field to capture Southwest University Park from this angle:
I enjoyed this view for a few minutes, and then continued on my lap around the concourse until I got to the right field corner. This part of the park is really enticing, and it also plays a key role in the view that fans get from home plate. This area is home to a pair of structures — one with four levels and another with three levels — that are connected by a pair of walkways. The second and third levels are known as the City Hall Grill and Sun Kings Saloon, respectively. Both are eateries with a variety of drink and food items and good views of the ballpark. The fourth level, the Big Dog House, is absolutely one of the most impressive seating areas in all of the minor leagues. I’d had a chance to tour these areas when I visited El Paso three years earlier, and was eager to check them out again — especially since the Big Dog House had since gone through a major renovation. I made my way up to the Sun Kings Saloon and sat in the shade for a few minutes with this view in front of me:
This area was completely quiet because the gates hadn’t yet opened, and while it was tempting to remain there for a while longer, I soon decided to continue my walk around the ballpark — opting to visit the Big Dog House a day later. The next spot that I headed — another place that I’d neglected to check out a day earlier — was directly behind home plate, down at field level:
From here, you can clearly see the right field structure that I’d visited a few minutes earlier, as well as my hotel in left-center. As impressive as the view was, I was equally impressed by the seating immediately to my left. Check out this area, known as the Dugout Club, that offers fans a suite-style experience just inches from the field of play and the home dugout:
In the image above, you might have noticed a number of staff members in red shirts — 11 of them, to be precise. The gates were about to open, and they were meticulously wiping down each of the seats. That’s the norm at a lot of ballparks, but I was impressed at just how carefully they were working. I even watched one staffer patiently wiping up and down each of the rungs in the railings between sections. I’ve been to my share of MiLB ballparks that don’t get this TLC, and it shows. It’s this largely behind-the-scenes work that easily makes Southwest University Park one of the cleanest parks, MLB or MiLB, that I’ve ever visited.
Soon enough, the gates opened and the players returned to the field — this time, wearing their El Paso Margarita uniforms. I made a beeline toward the home bullpen in foul territory to snap some pictures of what one might reasonably call the loudest uniforms in the history of baseball. Here are catcher Austin Allen, pitcher Dillon Overton and bullpen coach Akinori Otsuka:
You’ll notice that Otsuka was wearing a Margaritas umbrella hat, which was the day’s stadium giveaway. For the record, he wore it for much of the pregame warm-ups, and only swapped it for his regular cap when the anthem was played. (By the way, if his name sounds familiar, he’s the former MLBer who saved 32 games for the Texas Rangers in 2006.)
It’s always fun watching players get warmed up, and the scene in front of me seemed even more lively because it was easy to tell that the players were having a blast in their bright uniforms. There were a lot of smiles as they got together, stretched and began to play catch — and definitely some laughs as they spotted Otsuka in his umbrella hat. As Overton and Allen began to throw, I positioned myself behind the catcher and took shots like this one:
I watched the players for a few more minutes, and then decided to go grab some food. As you might remember, I hadn’t eaten a ballpark meal the night before, so I was determined to make up for it during this visit. I’d been impressed with Southwest University Park’s menu when I visited three years ago, and while it’s always tempting to try items that I’ve previously enjoyed, I generally like to mix things up. El Paso might not be known for its pizza, but as silly as it may sound, I’d spotted a Peter Piper Pizza billboard a day earlier and had been thinking of pizza on and off ever since. I decided that my first meal of the game would be a pepperoni slice, which you can see here:
I was absolutely blown away by how good this pizza was. It was piping hot with a nice, thin crust, and there was a generous helping of cheese. It was difficult not to go back for another slice immediately. Of course, I needed something to wash the pizza down, and opted for a cold drink that worked well with the Copa theme. The team was selling margaritas for $2. The city of El Paso lays claim to inventing this drink, so I felt that it was an appropriate beverage on this hot, sunny day:
If you find the image above to look tantalizing, here’s another shot that is a bit more … amateurish. As I held the cup and moved it to get a good angle for some photos, I failed to initially realize that I’d tipped the cup too far forward and was pouring the drink on the concourse in front of me. Oops:
I wrapped up my meal just before the national anthem was about to begin, and went back over to the bullpen area to watch the players. While there, I noticed that El Paso’s Sammy Solis was also wearing his own umbrella hat. I was curious to see what he’d do with it when the music started to play. Here’s your answer:
When the game began, I spent the first few innings doing what I love best — checking out the ballpark and the action on the field from different vantage points and just generally soaking up the atmosphere. Eventually, I made my way to the upper deck down the first base line, where I was able to keep my eye on Chihuahuas’ right fielder Josh Naylor:
Because I always have my eye out for Canadian-born players, I’ve enjoyed following his career since he was drafted by Miami in the first round of the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft. (And I even got a chance to hold one of his bats before it was sent to him back when I toured the Sam Bat factory.) Anyway, Naylor has been a wrecking ball for the Chihuahuas this season — and has since been called up to San Diego. Before the call-up, he hit .299 with 10 home runs and 35 RBI in 45 games. And he’s only 21 years old.
After watching the game from the upper deck for about an inning, I set off to find something else to eat. I didn’t really feel like a hot dog, so I browsed the multiple concession stands around the concourse to look for something that caught my eye. On unique item that sounded appealing was called Diablo Fries, named after the El Paso Diablos franchises that played at various times for nearly 100 years in El Paso. This dish consisted of a serving of fries topped with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, diced jalapenos and nacho cheese — although the latter was more like queso, which was definitely a good thing, given how I generally feel about nacho cheese. Here’s the meal:
I have to say that it was pretty darned tasty. I’m not the biggest fry lover, but these were crisp and seasoned well, and the Cheetos and jalapenos provided some nice spice without being so hot that they melted my face. It’s definitely a meal that I’d recommend for fans who are visiting Southwest University Park.
Of course, I needed something cool and refreshing to drink with a spicy meal, so I grabbed a green apple slushie from the Slush’ae concession stand on the first base side. I’d had a couple of slushies from that stand during my last trip, and they were perfect. The green apple flavor, I’m pleased to say, was just as good as the lemonade and mango varieties that I’d previously had:
Once I’d eaten, I knew that I needed to get out of the sun for a bit. El Paso averages more than 300 days of sun per year, which is absolutely incredible. Where I live, we had snow up until about three weeks before I left for this trip, so I wanted to avoid getting a sunburn. There are plenty of spots around the ballpark in which you’re in the full sun, but there are also fortunately a number of other places where you can catch some shade. I went back down to the concourse and browsed in the team shop for a bit, and then went and found a shady spot down the third base line where I watched a bit more of the game out of the sun.
As the game progressed, I decided to once again head back to the upper deck on the first base side, and not only because it provided a good view of the action. Since I’d finished my slushie, it had been on my mind to the point that I wanted to try another. Perhaps not the best dietary choice, but the sweet, fruity flavor and the chill of this beverage made it a perfect companion during this ballpark visit. This time, I opted for the cherry flavor, and it was also delicious:
I polished this drink off shortly before the game concluded, and spent the rest of the time until the final out on the outfield concourse where I could watch the game and keep an eye on the action in the visitors bullpen. This spot also allowed me to leave the park quickly so that I could get back to my hotel, pick up my wife and head off for some more sightseeing and dinner.
After dinner, we returned to the hotel and immediately went out to the pool deck and hung out with this view of the ballpark:
Over time, the scene changed to look like this …
… and, eventually, this is what we were looking at:
After two excellent yet dramatically different days at Southwest University Park, I was already looking forward to the excitement that the next day would bring.
At the conclusion of the fourth inning of the May 4 game between the host El Paso Chihuahuas and visiting Salt Lake Bees, I left where I’d been sitting, wove my way through the crowded concourse and took the elevator down to the clubhouse level.
Checking out the various areas of a ballpark while the game is going on is nothing new to me. Going down to the clubhouse level, however, is something that I rarely do — especially once the game has begun. But this wasn’t any old game. Two days earlier, I’d traveled 12 hours and nearly 2,300 miles to El Paso — a city with warm weather and warmer people — for a big reason. The reason for my visit to this West Texas city was to present its Triple-A team with a plaque for winning the Best View in the Minors competition that I ran last year. If you’re new to this blog or perhaps didn’t hear about the competition, here’s a quick rundown.
When I visit different ballparks, I like to watch the game from as many vantage points as possible — and that usually includes spending an inning in the seats behind home plate. When I sit in this spot in any park, I always make a point of appreciating the view. To me, the view isn’t just about watching the game itself. Rather, it’s about taking in what sights are within view in the distance. In downtown ballparks, the city’s skyline is often visible. At other parks, you can see forests, mountains, bodies of water and more. I’ve always found that the right view from home plate can augment my ballpark visit, and I know many of you feel the same way. And that was the impetus behind the Best View competition. It gave you, the fans, a chance to decide which MiLB park offers the best view from home plate — and you overwhelmingly chose El Paso’s Southwest University Park. As part of the competition, I’d promised to visit the winning city to present the team with a plaque this season.
Back to the night in question. After taking the elevator down to the clubhouse level, I walked through the tunnel toward the home dugout and stopped just short of entering it. The field of play was just a few yards in front of me, roughly at waist level, and the familiar sounds of a professional dugout was nearby — the semi-muffled sounds of the stadium PA in the distance. The shouts of encouragement and claps from the dugout. The click-clack of metal cleats on cement. The dull thud of baseball bats being placed in their holders.
Here’s a quick peek at how things looked in front of me:
I hadn’t made the journey through this tunnel merely to enjoy the sounds, though. Rather, I was alongside Angela Olivas, the Chihuahuas’ senior director of marketing and communications and Brad Taylor, the team’s general manager, both of whom played a major role in my visit to El Paso. Angela, who was outstanding in coordinating a number of elements related to my visit and the presentation, had arranged for me to present the Best View plaque to Brad on the field during at the start of the sixth inning. I was also joined by my wife, who was attending this game to capture the presentation on video.
Our meetup just behind the home dugout at the end of the fourth inning meant that we had a whole inning until our moment on the field — and that was a major thrill for me, as I got to enjoy this time in this behind-the-scenes location. As I chatted with Angela, Brad and, eventually, the team’s on-field host Andy Imfield, I also noticed that my pregame jitters about going onto the field were quickly dissipating.
It turns out that the fifth inning was a bit of a marathon. Sixteen batters, seven runs scored and three mound visits meant that the inning took a long time to complete; I’d guess it was close to half an hour. That suited me just fine, because it lengthened our time spent in this area. I was constantly enjoying the sights and sounds, but was especially excited to see that the tunnel in which we stood was steadily busy, too. Left-hander Sammy Solis, who has pitched in nearly 150 games in the big leagues, went back and forth a few times in anticipation of entering the game in the sixth inning. Catcher Austin Allen, who was DHing for the Chihuahuas, made a few trips past us — presumably to get some swings in at the batting cage just a handful of yards behind where we stood. Outfielder Boog Powell, midway through his three-hit game, chatted with Brad for a moment.
Eventually, when the fifth inning came to an end, someone said, “We’re up,” and our contingent went up the dugout steps, turned left and walked along the warning track in front of the Chihuahuas dugout. As Brad and I positioned ourselves on the grass, facing the crowd, I heard the PA announcer say my name and explain the reason for my visit. The in-stadium video camera operator positioned himself in front of us, and Andy gave me a cue to wave once I was on the video board in right-center field. The whole time, team photographer Jorge Salgado snapped photos; those that you see here are courtesy of him.
Here’s Brad and me while the competition was being announced …
… and here’s me waving once I was on the video board:
On cue, I presented the plaque to Brad …
… and we then posed for another picture before heading off the field in time for the inning to begin:
(By the way, you might have noticed that I was wearing one of my new The World Needs More Baseball T-shirts. If you want to buy one of my shirts, you can click here.)
Thanks to my wife, I’m excited to be able to show you the presentation as a video. Check it out here:
My visit to Southwest University Park on May 4 hadn’t begun with my walk through the clubhouse-level tunnel, of course. Nope, I’d arrived at the park several hours prior with the goal of enjoying the environment in anticipation of the plaque presentation that would happen later on. After arriving in El Paso late on the night of May 2, and spending all of May 3 doing touristy things, I was more than ready to attend a ballgame. That’s partly because this ballpark wasn’t just in my mind for much of my stay in El Paso — it was also within sight. We were fortunate to stay at the Courtyard El Paso Downtown, a new hotel that is across the street from the ballpark. Not only were we able to see Southwest University Park from our room’s window, but the hotel also has a pool deck on the fifth floor that offers this view of the park:
Absolutely perfect, right?
If you were to make a guess at how much of my trip I spent standing on the pool deck and admiring the scenery, the correct answer would be, “A lot.”
Fortunately, by the time 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 4 rolled around, I no longer had to just look at the park from afar. It was time to make the short walk over. First pitch wouldn’t be taking place for another 2.5 hours, but I wanted to get into the park good and early and enjoy its environment. Plus, I was feeling a little anxious about presenting the plaque, and figured that if I wandered around the ballpark for a while, it’d help to relax me a bit.
Of course, relaxing in the beautiful Southwest University Park was as easy as it gets. After a slow walk around the concourse, I went to the outfield grass berm and snapped this photo …
… and then hung out in this spot for a few minutes:
Neither team was hitting, which was a bit of a surprise to me. Part of the reason I’d gone to the park so early was to watch batting practice, but with little happening on the field beyond the usual pregame field prep, the park was still quiet. That was fine with me, as it gave me a chance to just enjoy the environment; my first two ballpark visits of the season, as you might recall, didn’t exactly offer favorable weather.
While I was in the outfield, I took some time to photograph the plaque before I presented it. Here’s one of those shots:
After taking the above shot, I carefully packed up the plaque in its bubble wrap-lined box and secured it in my backpack again. I’d been careful while traveling with it two days earlier, and the last thing I wanted was to chip it in the couple of hours that remained until I was due to turn it over. Upon doing so, I snapped this shot of myself with the video board — which was incidentally showing the live broadcast of the Kentucky Derby — in the background …
… and then continued to explore the park a bit more. On the upper level, I noticed an addition since my last visit — the Section 211 Patio Suite. It was added two seasons ago, and offers a private experience for groups. Check out the cool faux-foliage surroundings:
This suite has three different types of seating — stadium seats, tall chairs and, my personal favorite, this comfy sectional:
As much as I’m not a “suite guy,” because I prefer wandering around ballparks rather than remaining in one specific area, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm too hard to have me watch a ballgame in this cool spot.
Once I’d checked out the suite, I went down to the main concourse to meet up with Angela, who gave me a rundown on how the plaque presentation would go. I’d meet her at the end of the fourth inning, we’d go down below the ballpark and meet up with GM Brad behind the home dugout, and then go out onto the field between innings. Sounds just about perfect, right?
By now, the ballpark’s gates had opened, so I met up with my wife who was playing the role of photographer/videographer for this ballpark visit.
The evening’s promotion was First Responders Night, so we went over to the plaza in the right field corner to check out some of the sights. There were police motorcycles and a police car, but the big attraction for me was an FBI SWAT team’s armored vehicle. I had the opportunity to not only climb inside of the vehicle, but to also hold one of the SWAT team’s shields — which I can attest was much heavier than expected:
Soon after I decided that I probably wouldn’t cut it as a SWAT officer, we set out in search of something to eat. I made the uncharacteristic move of declining dinner on this evening. Sorry, folks. I was a little anxious about the upcoming plaque presentation, and didn’t want to put anything in my stomach. My wife, non-queasy about said presentation, was hungry and asked me for a food recommendation. During my visit three years ago, I’d been really impressed with the Juarez Dogs concession stand on the first base side, so that’s where we headed. She opted for an impressive hot dog called the Memphis Meets Mexico Dog. It consisted of an all-beef hot dog wrapped in bacon, topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce, coleslaw, pickles and pork rinds. Any time you can have pork three ways in a meal, it’s a good day, right? Here’s how this hot dog looked:
Even though I’d decided not to eat a proper meal — something that I’d make up for in my subsequent visit to Southwest University Park — I knew I needed to celebrate the plaque presentation after it was done. At several points throughout the game, my wife and I had spotted other fans walking around with a drink that caught our attention, and we knew we had to seek one out to buy. Shortly after we returned to the concourse following the presentation, we made our way to the Frutas Locas concession stand on the first base side and bought a drink known as a pinas locas. Behold:
It consisted of an entire pineapple filled with pineapple juice and fresh pineapple rings. The red sauce is called chamoy, which is a Mexican condiment that is both salty and spicy. And the straw that you see is wrapped in dried fruit and rolled in chili powder, making for even more spice with the drink. I wasn’t sure about all of the spice at first, but it quickly grew on me and I appreciated the contrast that it provided to the sweetness of the fruit. If you’re ever in El Paso, you might decide to order this drink for its Instagram appeal — but I bet that you’ll enjoy the taste, too.
It was fitting to wrap up this ballpark visit with an enormous, novelty pineapple drink, because this was a day that was sweet in a lot of ways.
I’ve got so many people with the Chihuahuas to thank:
- Angela for so skillfully organizing the event, as well as fielding what probably felt like a million questions from me leading up to it;
- Brad for receiving the award;
- Andy for giving me the cue to wave and for writing the script that was read over the PA;
- Jorge for snapping the awesome photos that you see here; and
- The Chihuahuas fans who voted, shared and otherwise supported the Best View competition last season — and who made me feel exceedingly welcome in their city.
About 12 hours after this game ended, I’d be back at Southwest University Park for the team’s first Copa de la Diversión day, in which the Chihuahuas would suit up as the Margaritas in what are probably that loudest uniforms I’ve ever seen. A big blog post all about that experience will be coming very soon.
What had 700 miles of driving, three scheduled games and only two actual innings of baseball?
My first road trip of 2019, that’s what!
If you follow my adventures on my various social media channels, you’ll know that the 2019 season didn’t exactly get off to a baseball-filled start for me. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a good time in Buffalo in my quest to see some baseball at the newly named Sahlen Field.
April road trips — in the northeast, anyway — can be really hit or miss. This is the fourth time I’ve taken a trip in April, and each one has involved frigid cold, rain, snow or a combination thereof. My visit to Buffalo didn’t involve snow, but it was extremely heavy on the cold and the rain.
I left my house early on the rainy morning of April 19 with the plan to get into Buffalo around lunchtime, do some sightseeing, check into my hotel and then head over to Sahlen Field before batting practice began. Those plans changed dramatically when I got to Niagara Falls, Ontario, and was stuck in one of the worst traffic jams I’ve ever encountered. How bad? Well, it took me about two hours to cover a distance of one mile as I approached the Rainbow Bridge from Ontario to New York. It sounds implausible, I realize, but I can assure you that it’s true — after all, I had little to occupy me during this time other than watch the changing anticipated arrival time on my GPS.
Frustrations about traffic aside, I was glad to finally cross the border, make the short drive to my hotel and check in. There wasn’t any time to unpack or get settled, though. After I took this photo of a nice pond outside of my window …
… I headed back to the parking lot and hopped back into my car to make the short drive to Sahlen Field.
It’d been raining virtually the entire day, and I was pretty sure that the Bisons game that evening against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders would be rained out. Nevertheless, the Bisons Twitter account made a few tweets that suggested the team was still hopeful to play.
I pulled into the ballpark’s parking lot a couple of minutes after 4 p.m. under drizzly conditions, and made my way through the lot toward the security gate to pick up my pass. From the parking lot, I had my first glimpse of the field …
… and it was no surprise that the tarp was on and not a player was in sight.
Still, I was excited to get my first ballpark visit of what is going to be a very exciting 2019 season underway — and to also check out this ballpark for the first time since 2012.
After picking up my pass, I walked through the tunnel beneath the stadium, rode the elevator up to the concourse and immediately went to the upper deck to snap this bird’s-eye view of Sahlen Field:
By now, as you might have noticed in the image above, the RailRiders pitchers were playing catch in left field. That didn’t mean that the conditions were dry, though. I was surprised to see the group of them out there, given that the rain was falling steadily. I watched the action for a few minutes under the overhang of the roof above the top rows of the upper deck, and then descended to the main concourse to have a look around. The gates were still about 45 minutes from opening, which meant that things were pretty quiet. This is how the concourse on the first base side looked:
And how did things look on the third base side, you might wonder? Good news! I’ve got a picture for you:
I wandered around the lower and upper concourses for a bit, which was fine, but I really wanted to be out near the field. Unfortunately, the rain was still coming down, and while I’m not made of sugar, I’m also not a huge proponent of standing in the rain. Taking photos is difficult because of how quickly raindrops get on the camera lens — which was definitely an issue because of how hard the wind was blowing — and I hate having raindrops on my glasses.
After another lap of the concourse, I went back out to the covered area in the upper deck to check how hard it was raining. The verdict? It was still raining hard, as evidenced by this photo:
I’ve been around baseball long enough to know that this game was not going to be played, despite my hopes to the contrary. That said, I figured that if I was at the ballpark, I might as well have something to eat. If the name Sahlen Field isn’t familiar to you, you might know this ballpark by its former name, Coca-Cola Field. Or the name before that, Dunn Tire Park. Or North AmeriCare Park. Or Pilot Field. Yep, it’s had a few names over the years. In any case, the park was renamed this past off-season, with the naming rights bought for 10 years by the Sahlen Packing Company — a meat processing company based in Buffalo that has been around for 140 years. As you might expect, the Sahlen name means that the ballpark’s concession stands sell Sahlen hot dogs — which seemed like a fitting first meal of the season for me. I grabbed a hot dog, topped it with mustard and went out to the covered seats on the third base side to snap this photo:
It was a tasty meal, and its warmth was highly welcome on this chilly day.
After eating, I went back up to the upper deck and stood behind home plate to snap this panorama of the scene:
I took the photo above at 5:41 p.m., which meant that the game’s scheduled start time of 6:05 p.m. was obviously not going to happen. The Bisons had made a Twitter announcement saying that the start time would be pushed back, but that they still hoped to play.
It’d already been a long day for me, and I would’ve wagered a heck of a lot that not a single pitch would been thrown that night. So, I made the executive decision to call it an evening. After one more lap through the park, I returned to the parking lot and headed back to my hotel. Not a characteristic move for me, I realize, but the idea of standing in the cold, wet and rainy conditions for much longer without any baseball to watch had lost its appeal. Shortly after I got back to the hotel, I checked Twitter and, as expected, the game had been postponed.
I spent my evening watching some baseball on TV and got to bed early in anticipation of a long day of baseball the following day, as the Bisons and RailRiders had a doubleheader scheduled.
Saturday, April 20:
The first thing that I did when I woke up on Saturday morning was lift the blind of my hotel room window to check the conditions outside. To my dismay, it was still raining, albeit lightly. This wasn’t much of a surprise, given that the forecast was calling for rain all day Friday and Saturday, but I was hopeful things would look a little drier. It was one thing to lose the first game of my road trip to rain, but I definitely didn’t want the doubleheader to be a wash.
Feeling a little discouraged by the crummy weather, but still eager to get back to Sahlen Field, I once again made the short drive downtown and parked my car in the lot behind the outfield fence a little after 10 a.m. The doubleheader was scheduled to start at 1:05 p.m., and while I knew there wouldn’t likely be any batting practice, I wanted to be at the ballpark just in case anything exciting happened.
Since I hadn’t done so a day earlier, I decided to take a full walk around the exterior of Sahlen Field. There was some sporadic drizzle at times, but the conditions at this point were mostly dry — although the 42-degree temperature and heavy winds made for less-than-ideal conditions. Determined to make the most of my visit, I walked across the parking lot and followed this path behind the outfield fence:
Before I ascended the stairs that you see in the image above, I peeked through a chain-link fence that was a few yards behind the outfield fence:
Once I got to street level, I started up the third base side where I stopped to take this panorama …
… and then continued a little farther before stopping to snap the ballpark from this angle:
After a full lap, I looked through to the field and saw that the tarp was still in place and that no one was around, so I decided to take advantage of the quiet morning by walking a few blocks to KeyBank Center, home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. My mission was twofold. I’d never previously checked out the arena, so I was interested in seeing it. And, if the team shop just happened to be open, I knew I could browse through it for a few minutes to warm up. I’m happy to report that I had success on both fronts. After snapping this photo of Alumni Plaza …
… I entered and spent about 10 minutes getting warm inside of the team shop.
Soon enough, it was time to brave the elements once again, so I made the short walk back to Sahlen Field, pausing to snap this cold-looking photo before I went in:
As I’d done a day earlier, I entered via the security gate adjacent to the parking lot, made my way through the tunnel and went up to the concourse. Then, I went straight out to the cross-aisle behind home plate and took this photo:
Beyond my chilly face, you’ll see a positive sight — the tarp was off! The rain had fully let up by this point, and the grounds crew was starting to prepare the infield.
A minute or so after I snapped the image above, I took this panorama and couldn’t help but smile. I had a pretty good feeling that there’d be some baseball coming up:
You might’ve noticed in the panorama above that the Bisons had come out and were playing catch in right field. The players were thoroughly bundled up due to the cold, but I decided to go get a closer look to see who I could recognize. I made my way along the wet cross-aisle to the party deck in right field, where I snapped this panorama …
… and then went down to the front row to watch the action for a few minutes.
Since it wasn’t currently raining, I decided to take some time to exploring the open parts of the ballpark that I’d neglected to see a day earlier because of the wet conditions. There are some International League facilities at which fans’ ability to spend time beyond the outfield fence is limited, but that certainly isn’t the case at Sahlen Field. In addition to the party deck that I’d visited a moment earlier, there’s a huge picnic area, a grass berm, concessions, bathrooms and a lot of walking space. Granted, there wasn’t much going on in these areas during my visit, but I know that when the weather is good during the summertime, this area is packed with fans and has a lively vibe. Here’s how the view looked from the area a handful of yards behind the fence:
After spending a bit of time walking around behind the fence, I made my way back to the seating bowl. One of the cool Sahlen Field features (which actually reminds me of Frontier Field in nearby Rochester) is that there’s a pedestrian bridge between the seating bowl and the party deck beyond the right field foul pole. It provides a nifty vantage point of the stadium, and that’s where I stood to take this next shot:
I took another lap around the concourse, mainly in an effort to get out of the wind for a few minutes, and then went down to field level in advance of the dog parade that was scheduled for 12:20 p.m. as part of the team’s Bark in the Park promotion. Normally, I have zero interest in such things, but I’d learned that my friend and fellow blogger Rox-Anne and her husband Adam were planning to be in attendance at the game, and I wanted to snap some pictures of them on the field. I wasn’t sure how easy it’d be to spot them, but the miserable weather meant that the turnout of dogs and owners was fairly low, and I quickly identified them and shot some photos like this one:
Shortly after the dog parade ended, the players began filtering back onto the field, so I went down to the front row on the Bisons’ side.
I wasn’t the only one.
While the weather kept the Sahlen Field crowd small, a considerable percentage of those in attendance were gathered down the first base line in anticipation of seeing #1 prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. take the field. I’d be lying if I wasn’t pumped to see him, too. In fact, Guerrero and the other young Bisons’ prospects — namely Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio — were a big part of the reason for my first trip of the season. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to see a number of future MLB stars in the minors — Bryce Harper, Christian Yelich, Billy Hamilton and a whole bunch more — but I’d never actually seen a #1-ranked prospect at the minor league level. (When I saw Harper in 2011, he was actually ranked #2; some guy named Mike Trout was #1.) I was fortunate to see Guerrero Jr. in a Spring Training game in Montreal last season, but there’s nothing like seeing top prospects in the minor leagues — and I was eager to see him emerge from the dugout.
Before that happened, however, there were plenty of other Bisons to see up close. When I was last at a Bisons game, they were affiliated with the New York Mets. The Toronto Blue Jays became the parent club in 2013, and while I’d seen the Bisons on the road since that change, the lifelong Blue Jays fan in me was especially excited to see them at home. David Paulino was scheduled to pitch for Buffalo, so he and catching prospect Reese McGuire were the first players to make their way down the line. Here’s McGuire after he finished stretching …
… and here he is standing directly below me:
A moment later, some familiar-looking players caught my eye as they posed for some photos behind home plate. I was obviously a couple hundred feet away, but managed to snap this photo:
Before long, pitcher Danny Barnes made his way to the bullpen bench. I was excited to see him not only because he’s played more than 100 games in the big leagues, but also because I got his autograph all the way back in 2011 when he was with the Lansing Lugnuts. Anyway, Barnes was tightly gripping a cup of coffee, which I’m imagining provided a little warmth against the chilly winds, as he sat down right below me:
The other relievers soon made their way to the bullpen area, and I watched the goings-on below me while keeping an eye trained toward the Bisons’ dugout.
During this time, I casually watched an interaction between a player and a couple of young fans that I think bears sharing. The player, who I’m not mentioning by name, was chewing tobacco while he warmed up. Smokeless tobacco is banned in the minor leagues, but that doesn’t mean that a lot of players don’t do it. Anyway, when the two young fans called out to the player, he raised his glove to his face, removed the dip, discreetly dropped it on the warning track and ground it into the clay with his cleat — and then made his way over to engage with the two youngsters. In an age in which we’re very quick to take to social media to speak poorly about professional athletes, I was impressed with how this particular player obviously wanted to portray a positive image before he approached the kids.
Soon enough, Bichette was the first of the future superstars to emerge, running onto the grass behind the infield to begin the process of warming up:
It wasn’t long before the man who’s made countless headlines in recent weeks — he made his major league debut last Friday in Toronto — ran onto the field to considerable applause:
For the next 10 or so minutes, I had a blast watching the Guerrero, Bichette and their teammates getting loose not far from where I stood:
I continued to snap some photos during the anthems, including this one of Bichette, Guerrero and Roemon Fields:
I took some post-anthem photos, too, capturing this one of Bichette playing catch …
… and this one of Guerrero Jr. telling what appeared to be a humorous story to teammate Richard Ureña, who was just out of frame to the right:
As first pitch approached, a lot of the fans who’d flocked to the front row to watch the warm-ups went back to their ticketed seats, and I moved in to get a better view of the action. It wasn’t long before Bisons hitting coach Devon White took his spot in the first base coach’s box, and I was excited to snap some photos like this one:
White, of course, was someone I closely followed as a kid. He patrolled center field at SkyDome for the Blue Jays from 1991 to 1995, winning five Gold Gloves and two World Series titles in that span.
When I visit a ballpark, I’m normally more interested in the ballpark than the game, and am happy for the game to be somewhat of an afterthought as I explore the facility. On this visit, though, I was eager to watch the Bisons’ top prospects get their first at-bats, especially since the game a day earlier had been postponed and I was a little concerned about how the weather might jeopardize game two of the doubleheader. I settled into a spot behind the end of the dugout and watched Bichette lead off the bottom of the first:
A couple of batters later, it was Guerrero Jr.’s chance to step to the plate …
… and he drew a walk:
While Biggio batted, I kept an eye of Guerrero Jr. as he took his lead off first base:
Did you notice anything in the background? More rain!
It had started to drizzle again, and the sky was dark in places. Not a good sign of things to come.
At the end of the first, I set off in search of something to eat. The Bisons have dramatically improved the concession options since I was last in town, and I was eager to try something new. I opted for an order of Pizza Logs, which consist of cheese, pepperoni and pizza sauce inside of a wonton-like wrapper:
The Pizza Log company is based just outside of Buffalo, and I always like to try local fare when I’m able. They were better than I’d expected, and way better than a pizza pocket if you’re making that comparison.
The rain wasn’t appearing to lighten up, so I moved to a covered area behind home plate after I ate:
You might be thinking, “Hey, I don’t see any rain in the image above.” If so, I can assure you that it was indeed drizzling, although the sky had lightened up a little.
I decided to run up to the upper deck for the third inning, and here’s how things looked once that inning began:
To quote Carl Lewis when he botched the national anthem back in the day: Uh-oh.
The sky completely opened up, sending the teams scrambling for their dugouts — and prompting the video board to change to a message that could aptly sum up my weekend in Buffalo:
Again, the team indicated on Twitter that it had hopes of resuming play, but the forecast told a different story. I decided that I’d make the most of the rain delay by exploring Sahlen Field a little. I started by going back down to the tunnel under the concourse, where I saw the Bisons’ clubhouse …
… and the batting cages, which were understandably quiet at this point:
I hung out around the cages for a bit, chatting with one of the security guards and secretly feeling hopeful that some players would show up to hit. That didn’t happen, so I went all the way up to Consumer’s Pub at the Park, which is a full-service restaurant on the ballpark’s mezzanine level. As you might expect, given the shelter and warmth that it provided, it was absolutely packed. I checked out the view of the field from this area, which was impressive, and kicked myself for not visiting earlier in the day.
As was the case a day earlier, I faced a decision. The team was suggesting that more baseball might be played later on, but my Spidey-sense was telling me otherwise. And when I noticed about half a dozen Bisons staff members heading to the parking lot, I knew that the probability of one more pitch being thrown was extremely low. By this time, I’d been out in the cold for more than four hours, and had pretty much had my fill of being frozen and wet. As I’d done a day earlier, I took a gamble that there’d be nothing more to see during this visit, and headed out of Sahlen Field. As I left via the right field corner, I turned back once more to take a last look at the rainy park:
Indeed, I was right. As had happened a day earlier, the Bisons officially called the game shortly after I left. I hadn’t expected this day to wrap up so early; with a doubleheader scheduled, I was originally counting on being at the ballpark from about 10 a.m. until probably 6 p.m., and that left me with a big block of time to fill. I gave some thought to doing some sightseeing around town, but most of the attractions I’d earmarked before my trip were outdoors, and the idea of spending more time outside was unappealing. I decided to grab some food and head back to my hotel to hang out for the rest of the evening. That proved to be a good decision, because my hotel was a fun place to be. I’d booked this stay at the Hyatt Place Buffalo/Amherst, and chose it because of my familiarity with the Hyatt Place brand — a brand I’ve visited in several different major league and minor league cities. Here’s the hotel from the outside:
Each of the guestrooms at this hotel is divided into a sleeping area and a living space, and I knew that with a lot of time to kill, I wouldn’t feel cramped in my room. Check out the large sitting area, complete with this L-shaped couch that was perfect for reclining on while I watched an afternoon baseball game on TV:
This hotel is located about 15 minutes from Sahlen Field, in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst. It gives you the best of both worlds — you can make the short, easy drive downtown, but not have to deal with the inconveniences of staying downtown. In addition to its huge rooms and convenient location, it offers a stylish lounge with an impressive 24/7 menu, an extensive breakfast area, an outdoor fire pit, a clean and modern athletic center and a lot more. The Hyatt Place Buffalo/Amherst was a good choice for a baseball road tripper like me, and definitely the place I’ll choose when I next set my sights on Buffalo. If you’re planning to see the Bisons in action this season, I’d highly recommend this hotel as the place to stay.