Category: Uncategorized

Atlanta Braves – August 31, 2018

Day one of my visit to Atlanta was so memorable that there was a part of me that worried about the second day being a letdown.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I realized that wouldn’t be the case.

The Braves were hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates in an evening game, and I was excited to head over to the ballpark in the early afternoon, where I planned to take in The Battery for a few hours, and then experience SunTrust Park for a second straight night.

Before I walked to the park, I decided to grab lunch and take it back to my hotel. As I rode in my hotel elevator, another guest got on. He looked at my shirt — which you might be surprised to know wasn’t one of my shirts, but was just a generic Under Armour baseball shirt — and asked, “Are you here for baseball?” I told him that I was, and asked if he was, too. He indeed was, and he soon introduced himself as Wesley Wright, a former major leaguer. I recognized his name, but I don’t think I’d have recognized him, so I’m glad he introduced himself. We talked about some of the different ballparks we had in common — me visiting as a fan, and him playing in — and chatted the rest of the elevator ride, through the hotel lobby and out to the parking lot, where we took this photo:

I did some research on him afterward, and he played eight seasons in the big leagues with the Astros, Rays, Angels, Cubs and Orioles. His best season came in 2012 with the Astros, when he made 77 appearances and struck out 54 batters in 52.1 innings, all while posting a tidy 3.27 ERA. He last played professional baseball in 2017, making 30 appearances for the Triple-A Round Rock Express, and is now an MLB scout for the Twins. If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that I love when I have interactions with professional baseball players, so meeting one in my hotel was a definite highlight that got this day off to a good start.

After eating lunch, I got packed up and took the short walk over to the ballpark. I was insanely early, getting to the area something like four hours before the gates were scheduled to open. But, if you read my post about my first day in town, you’ll understand my excitement about the area known as The Battery, and I was eager to experience it again.

Being so close to the ballpark made for a nice, easy walk — and I also appreciated not having to pay for parking at any of the games. The walk took about 15 minutes, and I spent part of that time dawdling and enjoying the scenery. Here’s how things looked a few minutes after I set out from my hotel …

… and it wasn’t long before I could see SunTrust Park poking through the trees:

I talked in my previous blog post about just how easy it was to get to the ballpark on foot, thanks to a network of sidewalks, pathways and pedestrian bridges. I took so many photos as I approached the ballpark that I could probably produce a coffee table book entitled, “Views of SunTrust Park From the Sidewalk,” but instead of sharing all of them here, I thought I’d just share a few. Here’s the view from the bridge over the interstate. You can see the walkway and pedestrian bridge that will take you from this spot right up to the ballpark:

And here’s another view of the park from the mouth of the bridge:

What could this scene possibly look like as a panorama, you might ask? You’re in luck — I’ve got just the picture for you:

When I got closer to the park, I took a moment to check out the Phil Niekro statue, which was something that I don’t even recall seeing a day earlier because I was in such a hurry to get to the Chop House Gate:

I love statues like this, especially when they’re placed around the perimeter of ballparks. The Braves have done a really good job in this regard at SunTrust.

As you might know, Delta Air Lines is from Georgia, and has traditionally had a visible advertising presence at the different ballparks that the Braves have called home. This is true inside of SunTrust Park, but there’s also a cool Delta display outside of the third base gate — check out this actual vertical stabilizer off a Delta airplane:

Definitely a cool spot for a photo, right?

After walking around the third base gate for a bit, and headed toward The Battery, just as I did a day earlier. Today, though, I’d given myself more time to wander, so I had fun taking in the sights as I walked. Take a look at how beautiful this scene is:

I snapped that shot on my walk, and I was impressed at how clean and tidy everything around SunTrust Park was. I know it’s a new park, but I also know that things can quickly get messy unless there’s a top-notch maintenance crew working on the site, and that’s obviously the case here.

If you noticed the Bobby Cox statue in the image above, you’ve got a good eye. Here’s a better view of it:

This is one of the more unique ballpark statues that I’ve seen because of the use of the dugout wall and steps that the sculptor incorporated. (Of course, I might’ve preferred seeing a Bobby Cox ejection pose statue.)

Since there was no traffic, I went over to the roadway and walked down the center of it for a minute or so to capture this view of the area …

… and then took this shot of the exterior of Live! at the Battery Atlanta, which is an enormous restaurant and entertainment venue that even offers mechanical bull riding on select nights:

I then crossed back to the opposite side of the street and took this photo of the plaza that divides SunTrust Park, on the left, and the start of The Battery, on the right:

I spent the next little while slowly browsing through the Mizuno and the Baseballism stores, each of which I’d visited a day earlier but definitely wanted to see again. Then, it was time to head back over to the Chipper Jones Road to the Hall Pop-Up Experience and explore it a little more thoroughly. I’d been impressed with the selection of artifacts when I’d stopped in briefly a day earlier, but now I had the chance to finally check out one of the space’s prime attractions — the actual Braves dugout bench from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which Jones and the Braves used from 1993 through 1996. Even better than seeing it was the chance to sit on it, which is exactly what I did:

Eventually, I made my way back toward the Chop House Gate, which was still pretty quiet. I snapped this photo of the big Atlanta Braves sign that stretches overhead …

… and then set out to find a way to get up there. I wasn’t sure if this bridge was open to fans or only to authorized personnel, but I figured that I’d do my best to see if I could get up there. There’s a restaurant at each end of the bridge, so I started by going into the one at the left of the bridge in the photo above. The restaurant wasn’t busy because it was the middle of the afternoon, so I just sort of walked with a purpose until I found a set of stairs, went up it and discovered a second-level patio that was empty. I made my way through it until I was standing here:

Success!

I have no idea whether I was supposed to be up there or not, so I quickly got busy enjoying the 360-degree view around me, as well as snapping a bunch of photos. Here’s a view of the Chop House Gate, the First & Third restaurant, the Omni Hotel and the Georgia Power Pavilion from above:

And here’s a look at The Battery, including a bunch of the residences, from my elevated position:

I spent a few more minutes in that spot, enjoying the surroundings, before retracing my steps back to ground level and continuing to wander around. After taking several steps away from the bridge that I’d just been on, I took this panorama that shows the scene:

Pretty soon, there was a live band — Summer Brooke and the Mountain Faith Band — starting to get ready to play on the pavilion stage, so I walked over there, found a place to sit in the shade, and watched it for a little bit:

After a couple of songs, and feeling refreshed from the shade, I headed back to The Battery to check out the sights. It starting to fill up now as game time got closer, and that brought out more attractions. Chief among them was this street performer, who was hugely entertaining to watch:

His ability to not only stay still for long stretches at a time, but the comic relief that he’d provide by moving just as an unsuspecting passerby thought he was a statue, was highly entertaining, and a large crowd was soon gathered around him. I watched for a few minutes, and then browsed through a few of the shops to not only get more of the area’s experience, but to also enjoy some A/C.  The cool air in the shops was refreshing, but I soon headed off to find a cold drink, and spontaneously bought a margarita from a restaurant in The Battery called Goldbergs:

It’s actually a bagel restaurant, but they were inexplicably selling margaritas and other cold drinks from a cart on the sidewalk, and I couldn’t resist. It felt very resort-like to walk around the area and sip on this drink — but the knowledge that SunTrust Park’s gates would soon be opening quickly snapped me out of any all-inclusive resort daydreams I might have been experiencing.

After I finished my cold drink, I headed back toward the gates, which were much more active by this time. The live music had ended, but there was a big game of Wiffle ball taking place on the pavilion turf, and jugglers and other performers were also making the rounds. I enjoyed the scene from a few vantage points, and then took a spot near the head of the line.

As soon as the gates opened, I went straight to the seats in center field, where I checked out the pond/fountain display and the batter’s eye beyond it:

It very much reminded me of the display at Coors Field in Denver, which I visited a few seasons ago.

Next, I followed the concourse around to the area behind the visitors dugout on the first base side, where I enjoyed the scene for a brief period …

… before finding the netting annoying and deciding to seek another vantage point.

As always, there’s a part of me that can understand the reason for the netting … but I absolutely loathe it.

My next view of SunTrust Park was thankfully unobstructed. I’d climbed all the way up to the upper deck and, unlike a day earlier when I’d spent a lot of time down the third base line, I went straight to the seats behind home plate. From here, I had this outstanding view of this beautiful park:

I was in no hurry to escape this view, so I grabbed a seat and just sat and enjoyed for a few minutes, occasionally checking my Twitter account.

Then, I decided to do a little exploring of the upper deck. One of the unique things I noticed in this area was the walkways behind the seating sections. There’s a normal upper-level concourse that you can walk along, but in several spots, you climb up and walk across these areas to get into the seating bowl:

If you were to glance at the scene above, you might think that I was in a prohibited area, but that wasn’t the case. It’s definitely a unique way of reaching your seat in the upper deck.

I next checked out the ballpark from the first base side of home plate, which provided this view:

After taking this photo, I decided to set off in search of something to eat. One thing had caught my eye at a nearby concession stand earlier, and while there were still lots of worthy choices around the ballpark, I made a bit of an impulse purchase with this meal. It was called the Spec-Tator:

Here’s a breakdown:

  • Smoked jumbo potato, wrapped in bacon
  • Jalapeno cheddar sausage, stuffed inside of said potato
  • Topped with cheese, sour cream and green onions

Sounds ridiculously awesome, right?

Awesome, it was not.

In fact, I think I can safely put this meal at the very top of the “Worst Thing I’ve Ever Eaten at a Ballpark” list. Don’t get me wrong — the idea of the Spec-Tator was cool, but the execution was incredibly flawed. For starters, the potato wasn’t remotely cooked through, so much of it was inedibly hard. Speaking of uncooked, a lot of the bacon that wrapped around it was barely cooked and had a slimy consistency. The sausage inside of the potato was also underdone, and had a terrible gelatinous texture. And, to add insult to injury, the cheese in this dish was actually a ladle of oily nacho “cheese,” which is one of my top ballpark nemeses. In fairness, the sour cream and green onions were fine — but it’s hard to get them wrong, right?

Know what wasn’t fine, though? Spending $15 for this, taking two bites and then tossing the entire thing in the nearest trash can. I perhaps could’ve returned to the concession stand to explain the situation and get my meal replaced, but after just a couple of bites, I wasn’t in the mood for eating another Spec-Tator in this lifetime.

As a lover of ballpark food, it’s always disappointing when I eat something that doesn’t deliver — and it’s also disappointing not to be able to share my excitement about the meal with you. Fortunately, more ballpark meals are good than awful, but it’s a letdown when I run into something that sits firmly in the “awful” category.

Fortunately, even a bad meal wasn’t going to leave a bad taste in my mouth about SunTrust Park. I put the Spec-Tator firmly out of my mind and continued to explore the upper deck. My next stop was high above the right field foul pole, where I could clearly see the pool deck at the nearby Omni Hotel — including some guests who were wearing Braves gear and would undoubtedly be watching the game from the deck once it got underway:

From here, I also took took this shot of me with the field in the background — and with my red road trip shirt, which you might recognize from this visit to Target Field a season earlier:

By this time, the grounds crew had just about finished getting the field ready for play, so I went back down to the main concourse and watched the scene from an outfield seat for a few minutes. Then, I headed past the Sandlot kids’ play area, snapping this shot to show the hotel’s pool deck and some assembled fans from a different angle:

I watched the first inning from an outfield seat, and then went up to the upper deck on the third base side to watch the next couple of innings, where I had this amazing view as the sun set to my right:

 

It was fun to watch a bit of the action, but I was soon anxious to continue to exploring the park. I went back down to the concourse and checked out the team shop. Immediately outside of the shop, I paused to snap this impressive sight:

This is a Braves tomahawk that is made out of 17,257 Lego bricks, made by a Lego enthusiast from nearby Alpharetta named Jason Williams.

Next, I headed straight toward Monument Garden, which I’d visited a couple of times a day earlier but was eager to check out again. Here’s another neat display that you’ll find in this spot — a staggering 755 bats positioned to recognize Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs:

I probably spent about an inning in Monument Garden, and then took another big lap around the concourse before heading back to the seating bowl to check in on the game. And that’s how I spent the remainder of this game — a bit of time in the seating bowl, and then a bit of time walking around the concourse.

As I’d done a day earlier, I left SunTrust Park promptly after the last out, and was back in my hotel about 10 minutes later — ready to crash after a long, outstanding day in and around this tremendous National League ballpark.

Advertisements

Atlanta Braves – August 30, 2018

After three outstanding days watching the Knights in Charlotte, I got up early on the morning of August 30, took the bus to from uptown Charlotte to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and boarded a Delta flight to Atlanta a couple of hours later.

The flight from Charlotte to Atlanta was just 70 minutes, and I was standing in the terminal of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the world, a few minutes after noon — or, more importantly, about 7.5 hours before the Braves would host the Chicago Cubs at SunTrust Park.

SunTrust Park opened at the start of the 2017 season, and I’d originally planned to visit later that year. Those plans didn’t pan out, though, and I knew that getting to Atlanta in 2018 would be a priority of mine. The park has earned rave reviews from a lot of people, so I was eager for the opportunity to see it a few times on this visit.

The ballpark, located in Cobb County, rather than in Atlanta itself, is about a 30-minute drive north of the airport. As soon as I picked up my rental car (a Jeep Cherokee for this trip, which I was definitely loving), I drove straight to Cobb County. Before I checked into my hotel, I hit a nearby Target to grab some snacks for the next three days, and also picked up lunch, which I ate in the parking lot of my hotel because I had arrived well before check-in time. About 2 p.m., I decided to see if my room was open, and I was happy to learn that it was. My hotel was so close to the ballpark that I was hoping I could see it from my window, so as soon as I got into my room, I went straight to the window and looked out. Unfortunately, I was situated on the other side of the building, which meant no ballpark view. And, while my view of I-75 wasn’t exactly thrilling …

… I was pleased at how bright the sky was and how perfect the day appeared to be for baseball.

I didn’t spend long in my room, though. As soon as I’d made a couple of trips from my vehicle to my room to get everything unloaded, I changed shirts (into this one) and began the walk over to the park.

My hotel was just one mile from SunTrust Park, which made for an easy walk — although it also made for a very hot one, as I was quickly learning that the Georgia heat was stifling. To get to SunTrust, I walked up a street called Interstate North Parkway, and then turned right onto Windy Ridge Parkway Southeast, which spans across I-75. I mention these roads because of the many ways to get to this ballpark on foot, I think that this way is one of the best. As you walk across I-75, SunTrust Park comes into full sight ahead of you, and it’s an anticipatory and exciting scene that looked like this after I crossed over the bridge:

See the pedestrian bridge on the right side of the photo? I crossed over just a moment after I took the above photo, and was soon standing near the third base gate and looking up at the sunny SunTrust Park sign:

While I was tempted to start exploring the immediate area, I knew that I’d have plenty of time to do so over the coming few days. My priority was to get over to the Chop House Gate, which is the place to be at SunTrust Park. This gate appears at one end of an area called The Battery which, with no hyperbole, is probably the coolest spot that I’ve seen in all my travels.

The first photo that I took in this area was of the enormous Atlanta Braves lettering, which is mounted to a footbridge that extends between the end of The Battery and SunTrust Park itself:

I also grabbed a quick shot of myself in this spot, in which I’m wearing my stars and stripes shirt:

As you can see, this area was pretty quiet at the time — but that’s only because I was mega early. I’d soon find out just how popular and festive this spot would be. I also couldn’t resist getting a photo of one of the wooden Chop On signs, which appear in a few locations around the ballpark and make for cool photo ops. Being alone during this visit, and with no one close enough to take my photo, I had to settle for a photo of the sign by itself:

Here’s another shot that I took a few minutes later:

The buildings here are the Omni Hotel, barely visible at the left, and the Comcast building. The turfed area is known as the Georgia Power Pavilion, and it’s a really popular spot for fans. During my various visits to SunTrust Park, I saw this space being used for Wiffle ball, a live concert and flag football.

This next photo is of the hotel, which definitely provides one of the most impressive hotel/baseball experiences that I’ve ever seen. In addition to being ultra fancy and new, it has an elevated pool deck from which you can see into SunTrust Park. Many of the hotel’s balconies face the field, too, and I saw a ton of fans hanging out on the pool deck and on their balconies to watch the game:

Pretty soon, I met up with Caroline Burleson, the Braves corporate communications manager, for a private tour through SunTrust Park before the gates opened. It was something that I’d been eagerly anticipating in the weeks leading up to my trip, and I can certainly tell you that it was a major highlight for me. We met at the Chop House Gate and entered the ballpark a couple of hours before the gates were set to open, and then spent the next hour or so checking out a bunch of the highlights.

The first place we visited was the kids’ play area known as the Sandlot, which is located just to the right of the Chop House Gate once you enter. It’s got a really impressive selection of carnival-style games, a climbing wall and more, but the biggest attraction is an actual zip line for kids — definitely the first one that I’ve ever seen inside of a ballpark. In the photo below, the carnival games are located in the red brick structure running down the left side, while the zip line platform is elevated on the right in the distance:

We next went out to the seats in left-center, where Caroline pointed out the Coors Light Chop House in right field, which has climate-controlled seating indoors and bar-style seating outdoors:

Did you notice the opening in the right field fence? That’s an area known as Below the Chop, which is a private group area that puts you not only at field level, but also just a handful of feet behind the right fielder.

While we stood in the outfield seats, I couldn’t resist snapping this photo of the quiet ballpark:

As you can see, the batting cage was set up, but none of the screens had yet been moved into position, so it was neat to see SunTrust Park at such a dormant time. It was also exciting to see all of the different levels of seating and know that I’d be doing some serious exploring over the next few days.

We continued our tour by walking through the concourse behind the left field seats …

… stopping at various points so that Caroline could point out the different features along the way. One neat thing that we soon came across was the Mizuno Glove Experience, which was yet another thing that I’d never seen elsewhere before my visit to SunTrust Park:

There are two Mizuno booths at the ballpark, and they’re both there to give you a chance to borrow a baseball glove for your visit. To do so, you authorize a small hold on your credit card, which is reversed when you return the glove at the end of the game, and you can choose anything from a youth glove to a Chipper Jones signature glove. You can then use the glove during BP and the game in an attempt to snag a ball. I can see this idea being really appealing. Although I usually enjoy taking my glove to the ballpark, I don’t travel with it when I fly to games. I don’t check my luggage, so when it comes to devoting carry-on bag space to my glove versus some extra clothing, I have to opt for the latter. Having a kiosk like this is thus a perfect idea for people in a similar position to me.

Our next stop was one of the places in SunTrust Park that you could easily spend a lot of time browsing, and I was super fortunate to get to check it before there were any crowds competing for space. It’s called Monument Garden, and gives you a chance to walk through the team’s history with plenty of interesting artifacts displayed in a really picturesque way. The area also features the Braves Hall of Fame, so there are a ton of plaques and other displays that are worth reading. Here’s how it looks from the front:

And here’s a look back at Monument Garden after we’d finished walking through it:

There are too many highlights in this area to list and depict, so I’ll encourage you to devote some time to this space whenever you visit SunTrust Park. I will, however, share a few of my favorite sights.

Seeing the Braves 1995 World Series trophy was definitely a highlight …

… as was browsing this display that showed how the team’s uniforms have changed over the years:

There was also a display that recognized the multiple MVPs, Cy Young Award winners, Silver Slugger Award winners, Rawlings Gold Glove Award winners and Rookie of the Year Award winners from throughout the team’s history:

I’m sure that I could’ve spent an hour in Monument Garden — and I definitely returned during my subsequent visits to SunTrust Park — but there were more things to see and do, so Caroline soon led me up to the second level, where we went out to the seats for a moment to check out the view:

From here, I could clearly see a number of cool seating areas that the ballpark offers, starting with the Coca-Cola Corner up top, which we’d soon be visiting, and the Hank Aaron Terrace. I could also see a pair of Cubs playing catch on the field below, which is the type of sight that always makes me excited to be at a ballpark.

Our next stop was the upscale Infiniti Club on the terrace level, which was definitely an area that I’d have been unable to visit without Caroline’s help. It’s holds the ballpark’s suites and has an amazing common area with plenty of pictures of players and managers from throughout the team’s history. Here’s a look at the bar/dining area of the club:

We then went over to the Hank Aaron Terrace, which had some display pieces that rivaled Monument Garden, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not the best photo because the lighting was pretty challenging, but how’s this for a sight?

This is the bat that Aaron used to hit his 715th home run, as well as the ball that he hit. Truly hall of fame-worthy stuff, right?

The Hank Aaron Terrace was ultra swanky with a variety of seating options including these that faced the field. What a view!

As I mentioned a bit ago, we then made our way up — way, way up — to the Coca-Cola Corner, which is high above left field. It was one of my favorite places to visit for several reasons. Here’s the scene from one end:

I absolutely love how the ground is covered in turf. It makes this spot seem field-like and special, and I love the bright red accents throughout. There were lots of photo-worthy scenes in this area, including an enormous chair that I had to sit in for a moment:

Our last stop in SunTrust Park was the Xfinity Rooftop, located high in the right field corner, essentially across the field from the Coca-Cola Corner. It’s a group area that offers a fantastic view of the field, as you can see here:

In addition to upscale amenities, such as bar seating, couches, big TVs, and more, this area has table tennis, foosball and cornhole games, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t notice that there was a Waffle House concession stand just a few steps away.

Our time in SunTrust Park drawing to a close, but that didn’t mean that my tour was over just yet. Next up, we spent some time walking through The Battery, making a stop at the Chipper Jones — Road to the Hall Pop-Up Experience. The Battery has an empty storefront that is used for rotating exhibits, and that’s exactly what the Jones experience was. The longtime Braves third baseman (and occasional outfielder) was inducted in the hall of fame last season, and this pop-up museum was all about celebrating Jones’ career. There were a bunch of Jones-related artifacts throughout the exhibit, including the actual sign that hung at Turner Field after the Braves retired Jones’ #10:

There were also several life-size Jones cutouts, including this one …

… and a selection of mannequins wearing Jones’ various Braves uniforms:

After the pop-up experience, Caroline left me to explore The Battery on my own, but I’ve got to give her a huge thank you for sharing her time and expertise with me. Truly an outstanding experience and one that I won’t forget!

SunTrust Park’s gates hadn’t yet opened, and that suited me just fine because I was really eager to explore The Battery. If this is the first you’ve heard of this area, let me take a moment to explain it a little before I take you on my walk around it.

Picture an upscale pedestrian neighborhood. Restaurants and shops line the picturesque streets, and SunTrust Park is never more than a few minutes’ walk away. I can safely say that this area is the best space around a ballpark that I’ve ever encountered, and while I haven’t been to every stadium yet, I have a hard time picturing anything that could top The Battery. One thing that continuously struck me was how neat and tidy everything was — it was as though I was walking through the photos in the pages of some sort of a Utopian tourism magazine.

Here’s a look down the length of one of the sections:

Check out just how gorgeous everything looks. And did you see the residences on the second level of the building on the left? I can’t imagine how amazing it would be to live in this area. Here’s another look at the same block, but from the other direction. You can see the residences more easily from this angle, and that’s SunTrust Park’s light posts poking over the top of the trees:

The selection of restaurants in The Battery was truly outstanding. You could grab some fast food — pizza, burgers, fried chicken and more — or you could sit down for a meal at any number of high-end eateries — steak, seafood and so on. The shopping options were amazing, too. Two of my favorites were the Baseballism store and a Mizuno retailer that had a huge selection of gloves, cleats and bats. Because SunTrust Park is new, so too is The Battery — and it’s always adding new things. New restaurants, an escape room, a hotel and more are slated to be added to this area soon.

Here’s a shot of one of the streets that runs through The Battery, although I should note that the streets are closed off prior to games, so fans can walk anywhere with ease:

The ballpark’s gates were going to be opening shortly, so I wrapped up my walk through The Battery and made my way over to the Chop House Gate. Normally, I like to be among the first fans in line, but since I’d already had a tour through the park and was so thoroughly enjoying my visit to The Battery, I got to the gate and lined up about 30 fans back. It wasn’t too long before the gates opened, and as soon as I got inside, I went down to the seats in left-center to watch BP for a few minutes:

I didn’t spend long in this spot, though, and headed over to the Braves Authentics Store, which carries a wide selection of game-used products. As much as I love team shops at MLB stadiums, I always love when a team has a game-used shop or kiosk, and get a kick out of browsing the various items. As always, I was tempted to add a game-used base to my collection …

… but knew that it wouldn’t remotely fit in my carry-on bag, so I’d have to pass. One day, I tell you, I’ll own an MLB base!

By now, I’d been walking for several hours, between my walk to the ballpark, my tour, my trip through The Battery, and more, and I was in need of something to cool down. Refreshment came in the form of a frozen lemonade, which is always one of my favorite ballpark treats. I took it all the way up to the upper deck to enjoy some shade, and ate/drank it with this view:

After this snack, I went back down to the main concourse, and as amazed at how many Cubs fans there were. I’d seen hundreds of people in Cubs shirts, jerseys and caps when I’d been in The Battery before the game, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest there were more fans with Cubs apparel than with Braves apparel. There was quite a crowd around the zip line, so I took a walk over there and watched a handful of kids trying it out, including this young man:

I spent the rest of the time up until first pitch walking around the main concourse, stopping here and there to check out the sights and just generally loving this ballpark. At one point, I went out to the outfield seats in right-center to shoot this panorama:

Then, once the game began, I set off in search of some dinner. I’d been scouring the SunTrust Park concession stands since I got in, and I have to say that I was thoroughly impressed with many of the offerings. That said, I kept it simple for this game with a visit to one of the Waffle House stands. I’d never previously been to a Waffle House in my life, and the idea of visiting one in a ballpark was appealing. Plus, Waffle House is originally from Georgia.

The SunTrust Park Waffle House concessions don’t have full menus, obviously, but they do have a handful of items that people will likely find appealing. I bought a cheesesteak melt hash brown bowl. It may sound excessive, and I can assure you that it absolutely was:

You’re looking at a heap of hash browns and onions, topped with minced steak and cheese. It was actually pretty tasty, although I feel as though I could’ve flown all the way home by flapping my arms and still not burned off this dish’s calories. Still, I’m glad to have finally have some Waffle House food, and it seemed fitting to do in Georgia.

Instead of heading off in search of some new adventure after I’d finished eating, I stayed in that spot to just enjoy the view for a couple of innings. Then, I went to find something sweet to counteract the saltiness of my dinner, and found it in the form of a peach milkshake from the Chick-Fil-A — another Georgia company — concession stand:

I’d never had a Chick-Fil-A milkshake in the past, and have to admit that it was very good. And my choice of peach was intentional, given that Georgia is, of course, the Peach State.

After I’d had my milkshake, I spent a bit of time on the first base side, and then went back over to the upper deck in left field where I’d eaten dinner. I’d noticed a cool visual effect in this area that I’d missed earlier, and wanted to check it out. I find that the upper decks of some MLB stadiums can be really dark at night, which some fans may not find inviting. The upper deck overhang at SunTrust Park has a neat glow emanating from it, which really boosts the visual appeal of this area:

I remained in the upper deck for a little bit longer, and then went back down to take a tour of the main concourse, stopping again at the authentics store, the main team shop and Monument Garden. About halfway through the game, I went back to the seating bowl, found a spot in the upper deck and remained there for the duration.

I left SunTrust Park pretty promptly after the game’s final out, stopping to snap this photo on the walk back to my hotel:

And as always, I was anxious to get back to the ballpark the next day.

Charlotte Knights – August 29, 2018

My third day in Charlotte included another evening Knights game at BB&T BallPark, but before I headed to the ballpark, I had another sports facility to visit. A day after using some spare time to visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame, I made the short walk over to Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers. It’s only a block away from the ballpark, and offers daily tours. The tour that I took was only $6, and was very extensive — including a visit to field level, the visiting locker room, several luxury suites and more locations around the stadium.

After the tour, I grabbed a sub on the short walk back to my hotel and took it up to my room to eat. In my previous posts, I noted how conveniently located the Hilton Charlotte Center City was to not only the ballpark, but also to the other sports venues that I wanted to see. This is definitely the hotel that I recommend when you visit Charlotte on a baseball trip, and not only for its location. For more on the hotel, check out the bottom of this post.

As I did a day earlier, I walked over to BB&T BallPark between two and two-and-a-half hours before first pitch, which would once again give me plenty of time to explore. Even though I was eager to get inside, I spent a few minutes walking around the park’s exterior and looking at it from different angles. I took a handful of shots, but I’ll share just this one — this image of the main gates from across South Mint Street, which separates the ballpark from the picturesque Romare Bearden Park:

A moment after taking this photo, I entered the park and decided to go right up to the home run porch in right field — a place that I’d visited a day earlier, but in which I wanted to spend a little more time. In this spot, I snapped this shot:

You can see a bit of Romare Bearden Park behind me and, of course, some of the city skyline that never gets old. You might’ve also noticed that I’m wearing one of my stars and stripes road trip T-shirts shirts — the first time I’d worn it, actually — which you can buy here if you’re interested.

Batting practice hadn’t taken place during either of my first two visits to BB&T BallPark, so when the players emerged onto the field and started to gather around the cage, I left the home run porch and walked over to a spot just above the first base dugout, where I had this view:

I didn’t do much walking around during BP. Instead, I mostly hung out in various spots behind home plate and just enjoyed the scene in front of me. Shortly before the gates were due to open, I made my way over to the area immediately inside of the main gates. The Knights were welcoming longtime MLB pitcher Steve Avery for an autograph signing, and I wanted to see him up close for a few minutes. You probably know Avery’s name — he was a key member of the talented Atlanta Braves pitching staff of the early 1990s — and while he didn’t get the same acclaim as teammates Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, Avery ended up winning 96 ballgames in his career and was a part of Atlanta’s 1995 World Series-winning team.

Avery spent the last few minutes before the gates opened chatting with Knights staffers and even signing a few autographs for them …

… and as soon as fans entered the stadium, they quickly lined up next to him. I’m not sure how long he spent signing, but it had to be at least half an hour, and I’m sure that a few hundred fans left BB&T BallPark that night as happy owners of Avery’s autograph.

While Avery signed, and the grounds crew prepared the field after the completion of BP, I set off in search of something to eat. I always find that it can sometimes be difficult to choose my meal during my last visit to a ballpark. Even after visiting the previous two days, there were still a lot of menu items that sounded appealing — and that meant that the pressure was on to find something good. After excellent cheesesteak nachos during my first visit and an interesting but awkward hot dog on Day #2, I went in a different direction and bought a hamburger. This wasn’t any ol’ burger, though. It was called the Dragon’s Breath Burger (I’m assuming to pay homage to the enormous dragon near the batter’s eye) and it promised to be spicy.

The spice came in the form of habanero pepper relish and jalapeno pimento cheese. I decided to go grab a quiet seat in the outfield to tackle this burger, and I’m glad I did — it would’ve been awkward for any fans in busier sections of the ballpark to witness my tears.

This was easily the hottest freaking thing I’ve ever eaten at a ballpark, and probably one of the hottest things I’ve ever had in my life. The jalapeno pimento cheese wasn’t noticeable because of the heat of the habanero relish, which seemed to essentially just be a generous spoonful of finely diced habanero peppers. You can see plenty of the relish (in orange) in this image:

So, how hot is a habanero? I actually grow them in our garden, and know that a fraction of one pepper will nicely spice an entire pot of chili, for instance. It felt as though there was at least one full pepper on this burger, which put it well past the point of being “nicely spiced.” In terms of metrics, a jalapeno pepper can register as high as 10,000 units on the Scoville scale, but a habanero can get as high as 350,000 units. It’s about as hot a hot pepper you can find before you get into the “ridiculous” range with ghost peppers, Carolina reapers, etc. All of this meant that even a valiant effort from me wasn’t enough to finish this burger. After just a couple of bites, I was sweating, hiccuping, my eyes were watering and my nose was running.

I regretted not being able to finish the burger, but each bite was agony. I generally like spicy foods, but this meal was just too much for me.

After unfortunately tossing the rest of the burger, I blew my nose several times as though I was in the midst of a mid-January head cold — which might’ve seemed bizarre to any onlookers, given the pleasant August weather. Then, I walked over to the Charlotte bullpen area to watch the Knights get ready. As you can see here, they were wearing their throwback uniforms, which are clearly inspired by the old unis of their parent club, the Chicago White Sox:

I watched the warm-ups from field level, and then headed over to the team shop — known as “The Knights Armor Shoppe” — to browse for a bit before first pitch:

I was actually inside of the shop when the game began, but soon went back out to the concourse and once again made my way around to the third base side for the first couple innings of action. Here was my view in the bottom of the second:

For the rest of the game, I spent time in a bunch of places — an inning in the outfield, an inning on the home run porch, an inning on the grass berm, and so on — and, of course, I closed out the game by hanging out on the third base side of home plate where I could take in the view as the evening turned to night, wrapping up three outstanding days in Charlotte.

As I noted, the three days in Charlotte were really augmented by the caliber of my hotel. I always love choosing the hotels that I’ll visit on my baseball trips, and I’m glad I chose this one. From the moment I checked in to the time that I left, I enjoyed everything about this hotel — even though I was on the go so much that it didn’t feel as though I spent a lot of time there. Take a look at the image of the check-in area …

… and here’s a shot of a guest room identical to mine; I used a photo from the hotel’s website because it looked better than the ones I took:

The room was absolutely perfect. A really comfortable bed, free Wi-Fi that was really fast, free bottled water, a mini fridge and more, with everything spotlessly clean, were all things that I appreciated about my room at the Hilton. Every day of my trip was long and full, so it was always nice to have a comfortable hotel room with all the amenities I’d ever need to return to each night. It will definitely be the hotel I choose whenever I get back to Charlotte.

The end of my visit to Charlotte wasn’t the end of this trip, fortunately. About 12 hours after leaving BB&T BallPark, I’d be waiting in line at Charlotte Douglas International Airport to catch a flight to my next destination.

Charlotte Knights – August 28, 2018

My first day in Charlotte gave me a chance to thoroughly explore the beautiful BB&T BallPark, and from the moment I walked out the gates that evening, I felt eager to get back to the park a day later. Fortunately, I didn’t have to sit around twiddling my thumbs. I spent much of the morning of Day #2 in Charlotte at the outstanding NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is just over half a mile from the ballpark. Afterward, I grabbed a late lunch at Five Guys, returned to my hotel for a few hours until it was time to head over to the ballpark.

My hotel, the Hilton Charlotte Center City, was one that I’d been eyeing up well in advance of booking the trip to Charlotte. The pictures on the hotel’s website impressed me, as did its central location to everything that I planned to see and do during my visit. Part of the way I spent my time between the hall of fame visit and leaving for the ballpark was wandering around the hotel, which offers a lot to see and do. There’s a huge atrium with a gift shop that I browsed for a bit, and the hotel is also connected to a state-of-the-art YMCA, which I visited, too. One of my favorite features was the plaza outside of the main entrance, which you can see in the photo that I shot through one of the hotel’s windows:

This was a popular spot for guests to sit outside and eat, and the numerous fountains and water features looked cool both during the day and at night.

I really enjoyed staying so close to the ballpark that I was able to walk to it from my hotel. I find that when you’re driving to a game, you’re busy watching traffic, following your GPS and looking for places to park — and that isn’t exactly conducive to enjoying the environment or the overall experience. Making the short walk from the Hilton Charlotte Center City to BB&T BallPark each day gave me the ability to really take in the sights of the city, and something that might sound so simple really boosted my overall enjoyment of my visit to Charlotte.

On my way to the ballpark, I cut through Romare Bearden Park — a five-acre park directly across the street from BB&T. It’s a beautiful space with lots of places to sit, as well as an awesome view of the city’s skyline, and the expansive lawn would make a perfect spot to play catch before heading to the ballgame. Here’s part of the park’s lawn with the ballpark situated just a handful of steps away:

I entered the ballpark about two hours before first pitch, which would once again give me ample time to explore and take in the park’s many features before the gates opened. During my visit a day earlier, I’d been so enthralled with the view that I think I was a little distracted when it came to noting some of the park’s other features. I was determined to change that during my second visit. I began by talking a slow walk around the concourse, which was gloriously empty and looked like this at the time:

As you can see, BB&T BallPark uses an open concourse that is pretty much the norm for newer minor league parks. It’s a design feature that is absolutely integral to the fan experience, in my mind. Wherever you’re walking, you can keep an eye on the field. Even if you have to wait in line at a concession stand for several minutes, you can always see the action on the field. This is such a positive upgrade over the 1980s- and 1990s-era ballparks and their enclosed concourses that cause fans to be oblivious to the action when they’re anywhere but in their seats.

You might have also noticed the standing room spots with the attached bar-style structure along the edge of the concourse — another key design feature at BB&T. A lot of parks only have railings in this area, and while these places are fine to stand, it’s nice to have the bar to hold your food, purse, souvenirs or whatever you’re carrying. I also like that the bar and railing is several feet back from the seats in this area, because no one likes sitting with a fan standing immediately above him or her.

The next place I checked out was the bleacher area in left field. I’d spent a bit of time there a day earlier, but wanted to visit again. There’s no debating that the best seats in the house at BB&T BallPark are behind home plate and on the third base side, but another nice place to watch the game is this bleacher section. You’re nice and close to the field, of course, and when you turn to your left, you’ve got a perfect view of the Charlotte skyline. If you’re visiting with kids, this spot is also a good one because it’s only a short walk over to the kids’ play area, which is located just to the left of the batter’s eye:

From where I stood in the left field seats, I had a good view of the seating situation in right field. It’s another good attribute at BB&T BallPark. I love the small seating sections on the concourse level and the home run porch section, both of which you can see in this photo:

Home run porches are pretty common at MLB parks, but any time that an MiLB team makes a point of including one, I’m always excited to see it. The porch at BB&T is an intimate space, with just a single row of seats and some standing room immediately to the rear of the seats.

After staring at the home run porch from afar for a moment, I decided to make it my next stop. Here’s an image that shows the view of the field from the front row …

… and here’s a shot that I took after turning to my right:

Here, you can see the five rows of outfield seating, which I love. More and more new MiLB parks are making a point of having small outfield seating sections, and I think that it works well. The size of these sections means that they’re more crowded (compared to a larger section having the same number of fans dispersed throughout it) and that creates a fun energy, especially when the team is playing well.

I spent a few minutes on the home run porch, mainly just enjoying the view. I’d stand at the railing and look at the empty field in front of me, and then turn and marvel at the city skyline behind me. When I decided to continue on my journey, I descended to the main concourse and wandered over to the dugout suites. They’re located on the first base side of home plate — if you look carefully, you can see them in the second-last photo — and are comprised of stadium seating, bistro tables, lots of standing room and a pair of indoor suites:

I snapped this shot of myself …

… while I stood next to the dugout suites and watched the grounds crew get the field ready. Then, I moved around the dugout suites until I was immediately behind home plate, about 10 rows from the field. From that spot, I took this panorama of the scene in front of me:

There was no batting practice on this day, but that didn’t mean that things would stay quiet for long. After a few minutes, the visiting Durham Bulls came onto the field and some began to stretch and play catch, while a pair of pitchers took the bullpen mound and threw side sessions. I made my way through the seats in the lower bowl over to where they were throwing, and watched for several minutes:

After a while, I felt a little conspicuous watching the bullpen sessions. The gates hadn’t yet opened, so the seats were completely empty — except for me standing just a few rows from the field. No one was paying me any mind, but I soon decided to continue on my way. I took one more slow walk around the concourse and, once the gates opened, went to the berm in left field. As you can see in the photo below, the picnic area was now occupied:

The grass berm is a neat spot to hang out, and is easily one of the largest seating sections of this type that I’ve ever encountered in all my travels. The odd thing about it is that the view of the field from this area is really obstructed. While you can position yourself to peek through the picnic section and see most of the game, doing so is more than a little awkward. My assumption is that the berm is more of a place to go to hang out than it is to follow the game.

As I did a day earlier, I decided to grab dinner before first pitch. I normally wait until the game gets going, but I was hungry enough and tantalized by the BB&T BallPark menu. This time, I went to one of the hot dog stands, where I grabbed Homer’s Citrus Dog:

It consisted of an all-beef hot dog topped with beef brisket, orange soda coleslaw, grilled green onions and horseradish. Each of the individual components tasted good on its own, but that was the problem — this hot dog was so huge that it was impossible to bite everything at once. I’d nibble some of the coleslaw off the top, pick up the loose brisket pieces and eat them and then eventually take a bite of the hot dog and bun. Don’t get me wrong — everything was tasty, but the need to eat the individual components on their own made this a hot dog that wasn’t memorable for the right reasons. I’ve had a few ballpark meals like this over the years. In an effort to be as creative as possible, a team’s culinary staff comes up with an impressive concept — but one that is very difficult to eat, and that makes it fall a little short, unfortunately.

I spent the first inning and a half of the game standing on the concourse on the third base side. As I’d discovered a day earlier, this spot provides arguably a better view of the city skyline than a spot behind home plate, so I wanted to make sure to enjoy some time there before it got dark:

If you read my post about my first game at BB&T BallPark, you might remember that I’d unsuccessfully tried to flag down Knights outfield Ryan Cordell to say hello. He was the college roommate of my buddy Danny Grauer, so I wanted to surprise him by telling him this news. I once again missed him before the game so, like a day earlier, I positioned myself in the center field seats after leaving the third base side in the hopes of somehow getting his attention between innings. Again, I came up short, but I was able to snap some photos of him, at least:

Speaking of photos, here’s one that you might enjoy. It’s a shot of the picnic area and, most importantly, part of the city skyline as the sun was setting:

I don’t mean to go on and on about the skyline view at BB&T, but it’s such an impressive sight that I needs to be enthusiastically mentioned.

Since I’d been walking or standing almost exclusively since I entered the ballpark more than two hours prior, I decided to grab a seat for a bit. I scanned the park to find somewhere new, and opted for a seat down the first base line:

It didn’t offer a city skyline view, but it gave a good view of the action and put me in a position where I thought there might be a chance of snagging a foul ball. Maybe an inning after I took this spot, I noticed a fan nearby make eye contact with me and approach. It turns out that he recognized me by my shirt, and he took a seat next to me. His name was Greg, and he’s a big baseball fan. We talked about BB&T as well as some other ballparks over the course of about an inning, and then snapped this photo before he departed:

It’s always nice to meet fellow baseball fans during my trips, and an unexpected and deeply humbling thrill when someone recognizes me from social media or elsewhere online. If you notice me at any game, please make a point of coming up and saying hello.

After Greg and I parted ways, I took another lap of the concourse and spent some time in the team shop. Its air conditioning provided a reprieve from the heat, which I appreciated. In addition to a handful of reasonably priced game-used bats — which I didn’t buy only because it’d be a hassle to take on the airplane with me — I also noticed a bin of game-used balls:

This type of souvenir is a fixture at MLB parks, but I don’t often see it in the minors and am always glad when I do.

Later on, I returned to a seat near where I’d been sitting when Greg had approached me …

… and once again had hopes of snagging a foul ball. Just a few batters after I sat down, a player hit a curving foul that ricocheted off a seat about 10 seats to my left, but bounced completely away from me before I could grab it. Lack of a foul ball aside, I really enjoyed this spot and remained there until the end of the game. Then, less than 10 minutes later, I was back in my hotel room and already anticipating my next day in Charlotte.

NASCAR Hall of Fame – August 28, 2018

The primary purpose of my visit to Charlotte, North Carolina was to take in three Knights games at the outstanding BB&T BallPark, but with each of the three games taking place in the evenings, I had plenty of time to see and do other things — namely, I wanted to experience some of the city’s sports-focused attractions. The top item on my list was the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is located about two blocks from the Hilton Charlotte Center City, where I stayed during this visit.

I’ve gone through phases of my life where I’ve been a huge NASCAR fan and other phases where I’ve been fairly indifferent to the sport. My interest in stock car racing has been climbing over the last year or so, partly because I’ve stopped watching the NFL, so I was eager to check out the hall. It opened in 2010, and I’ve seen several photos and videos of it online, all of which have looked thoroughly impressive. I expected it to offer a lot for even a casual fan, but I was blown away by how much fun I had visiting. I decided that the morning of my second day in town would be a perfect time to visit the hall for a few hours, and then I’d head over to the ballpark later in the day.

I made the short walk over to the hall just after 10 a.m., stopping to snap this photo of the plaza outside of the main entrance:

The giant glass wall on the left side of the building surrounds the hall’s crown jewel — the so-called “Glory Road,” which is a banked track that holds 18 cars from throughout the history of the sport. The track increases its banking up to 36 degrees, which is the same banking at Talladega Superspeedway — the fastest circuit on the NASCAR schedule. For each of the cars positioned around Glory Road, there’s a display that discusses the car in question and its role in NASCAR history. This is what it looks like inside from just inside the entrance:

I began by reading the displays on the left side, and then moving to the edge of the track to check out the cars. Here’s a 1964 Plymouth Belvedere that NASCAR legend Richard Petty drove to win his first of seven Cup championships:

And here’s Darrell Waltrip’s 1976 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, with a Gatorade paint scheme that the hall of famer used from 1976 to 1980, winning 25 races in the process:

Moving forward a few years, here’s the late Davey Allison’s 1987 Ford Thunderbird, a car in which he won rookie of the year honors that season:

Partway along the track, I stopped to grab this shot that shows me with the late Dale Earnhardt’s #3 Wrangler car, Jeff Gordon’s #24 DuPont car, Jimmie Johnson’s #48 Lowe’s car and Kyle Busch’s #18 M&M’s car:

It was interesting to watch the track’s banking increase the farther I walked. Want to know what 36 degrees looks like? Take a look at this next image:

Along the way, there were little openings that allowed you to stop up onto the track in an enclosed space. It’s no exaggeration to say that standing on anything above 30 degrees of banking is extremely difficult.

I enjoyed Glory Road enough that upon walking its entire length, I turned around, went back to the start and walked through it again. The crowd of visitors was extremely light during my visit, which gave me all the time I wanted to read the displays, snap photos and lean in to check out the different cars.

After my two trips through Glory Road, I went up to the Hall of Honor on the third floor of the building. This is the “hall” part of the hall of fame — a circular room with the plaques of the enshrinees positioned around the exterior. Below each plaque was a screen that played highlights specific to that person, and there was a biographical plaque below:

The next spot I visited, also on the third floor, was the Race Week Experience exhibit. It was highly interactive and would likely be the top attraction for any family visiting with children. There were cars, including this one in the foreground that was cut away to show the roll cage …

… as well as trailers, engines, and all sorts of things to see and touch. Want to experience what a race shop looks like? You might enjoy the following photo:

Or, maybe you’re curious about stepping foot in one of the race haulers? You can do that, too:

One of the interactive displays involved lifting a regulation gas can, which you’ll watch the crew members do with ease on TV. You might be surprised to know that when it’s full, it weighs 86 pounds. I may have been making a neutral facial expression in the following photo, but I was in a little duress — after all, I was holding the heavy gas can with one arm so that I could hold my camera with the other hand:

The coolest interactive display in the area, albeit one that wasn’t really photogenic, was getting to run a NASCAR engine. It was located behind thick Plexiglas, but you could throttle it up and hear it roar. Plexiglas aside, I could easily feel my body shaking as I stood a few feet away from it.

My next stop on my tour was the iRacing racing simulators — a definite thing to check out if you’re of the mindset that stock car racers “just turn left.” The experience began with a qualifying session on a small simulator. Every participant had a chance to get familiar with the controls while running a few laps, and it was roughly a gazillion times harder than I thought it would be. (I later learned that the simulations are the types that the drivers actually train on, so this wasn’t really like a conventional video game.)

If you’re wondering how I did qualifying, I’ll begrudgingly tell you that I didn’t complete a lap. I blew up my motor on my first attempt, and then spun out on attempts two and three. The blow-up part was especially embarrassing — a loud bang, followed by a lack of engine noise told me that I’d done something wrong.

“Um, I think I blew up my car,” I told the hall of fame employee who was overseeing the qualifying sessions. “I’m not sure how I did that.”

He had a theory that he offered: “Did you downshift while accelerating through a corner?”

“Yeah, I think so,” I replied. “Is that bad?”

With my fruitless qualifying session behind me, I made my way over to the “track.” This was an area with a handful of full-sized cars set up with simulators inside them. As I waited in line with about 10 other participants, we each got to choose which car we’d race as. I was eyeing up Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s #88 Nationwide car, and was able to claim it:

This is how the car looked a moment before I climbed in …

… but I’ll warn you that my race experience was about as successful as my qualifying experience. We were racing at Richmond International Raceway, because that’s where the NASCAR Cup series was racing the following weekend. It’s known as one of the toughest tracks on the circuit, and after spinning out during qualifying, I decided to take a gentler approach to the race. I was starting toward the back of the pack, and figured that when the green flag waved, everyone would accelerate so aggressively that they’d spin out in the first corner. I figured that if I was a little gentler with the throttle, I could cruise past them and build a commanding lead before eventually cruising to victory.

Feeling confident with this strategy, I dug into my seat, listened to the commands of my crew chief in my ear, and gripped the steering wheel. Nice and easy, nice and easy, I told myself.

When the green flag dropped, I got caught up in the moment and punched the gas pedal like a madman — and promptly spun out. As I was facing backward, I caught a glimpse of the pack in my rear-view mirror, quickly getting smaller and smaller until disappearing.

That inauspicious start was pretty much consistent with the entire race experience for me. I’d get straightened out, hammer the gas too hard, spin and watch cars lapping me. It was clear that “professional racer” isn’t going to be a qualification that I add to my resume anytime soon, but I can attest that the iRacing experience was an absolute blast — and definitely something that is worth checking out when you visit the hall of fame.

I wrapped up my visit with a lengthy browse through the fourth floor’s Heritage Speedway exhibit. It’s an enormous collection of artifacts from throughout the sport’s history. Trophies, helmets and all sorts of other displays were interesting to see, although not ideal for photographs because virtually everything was behind glass. Here’s one cool image, though — a multilevel display featuring drivers’ race-used fire suits and a handful of race trophies:

My favorite attraction in the Heritage Speedway section was seeing the actual car that Earnhardt, Jr. raced in the final Cup race of his career. Note the damage on the side and the front quarter panel:

This visit definitely helped to make my visit to Charlotte enjoyable, and I think it has also  fueled my interest in following NASCAR a little more closely once again. If you’re visiting Charlotte for a baseball trip, but you’re looking for a fun way to spend a few hours during the daytime, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Charlotte Knights – August 27, 2018

The alarm on my iPod rang at precisely 3:30 a.m. on August 27, signifying the start of a day that would take me from Ottawa, Canada, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to kick off a six-day baseball trip. I’d traveled to Ottawa the afternoon before and booked a hotel next to Ottawa International Airport to make the start of my first day of travel a little easier. Normally, I have to get up mega early to travel to the airport for early morning flights, so waking up at 3:30 a.m. actually represented a chance to sleep in a little. I caught the shuttle to the airport outside of my hotel about 30 minutes after my alarm went off, and cleared customs to begin waiting for my first flight of the day just a short while later.

The first leg of my trip was a 6:05 a.m. flight to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, which is an airport that I first visited back in 2015 when I spent more than seven hours there after missing a flight to Texas. Killing seven-plus hours in any airport is a drag, but I actually enjoyed the time that I spent at the Detroit airport enough that I always transfer through there when there’s a chance. Since I’d had an early start to the day, I was ravenous when I got off the plane in the Motor City at 7:44 a.m., and made a beeline to a Chick-Fil-A where I grabbed a chicken biscuit with two hot sauces and a lemonade for breakfast. My layover was a little more than two hours (much better than seven, right?) so after eating, I went to find a quiet gate and grabbed a seat to wait for my flight to Charlotte:

Boarding that flight proved to be a bit of an adventure. I was in the final boarding group and had a terrible seat in the back row of the airplane. When I finally boarded and got all the way to my spot, it was clear that all of the overhead bins were full, meaning that there wasn’t any room for my carry-on bag. This meant that I had to fight my way back up to the front of the plane through an aisle that was filled with people, and embarrassingly ask for my bag to be gate checked.

“Didn’t fit, huh?” asked the Delta gate attendant who’d earlier commented on my Tabasco T-shirt and told me I was “hot stuff.”

“Nope,” I replied, “and I got all the way to the back of the plane before I realized there wasn’t any room. Not my lucky day, I guess.”

She responded with a sympathetic smile and told me that she’d give me some good news. I watched as she tapped her keyboard a few times, printed a new boarding pass and handed it to me with a wink. When I got back onto the plane and headed for my new seat assignment, I quickly realized that she’d moved me into a seat that had an empty seat beside it — the only one on the plane, other than the one next to my recently vacated back row seat. Things were looking up.

My flight touched down in Charlotte just before noon, and I made my way to the bus station outside of the airport. I often rent cars when I travel, but a little research led me to learn that public transit would be smarter for this visit. There’s a bus route between the airport and the Charlotte Transportation Center, which is only a couple of blocks from the hotel I’d booked, so forgetting about a rental car seemed to make the most sense.

The hotel that I’d booked for this stay, the Hilton Charlotte Center City, proved to be a perfect hotel for the baseball traveler. In addition to being so close to the city’s major transportation hub, it was also within walking distance of BB&T BallPark — as well as a number of other cool tourist attractions that I’d visit over the course of my stay. I was thankfully able to check into my room well in advance of the regular check-in time, and when I got to my room and looked out the window, I could actually see the transportation center. It’s the turquoise-roofed structure:

After checking into my room, I walked just a few minutes to a Panera Bread to buy a salad for lunch. Veggies aren’t in huge supply on my baseball trips, so I figured I’d get a few greens into me while I had the chance. I took the salad back to my room, ate it and relaxed for a couple of hours, and was soon back outside and headed toward the ballpark. Less than half a mile separates the hotel and the ballpark, so it was a short walk but one that gave me an opportunity to see a few sights around the downtown area.

BB&T BallPark opened in 2014 and has frequently made headlines for not only the exceptional city view that it offers fans, but also its overall beauty — and I couldn’t wait to check it out. I arrived a couple of hours before the gates opened, and before I went in, I took a few shots from the exterior. This is the main gate, and I think you’ll agree that it looks pretty awesome:

I took a partial walk around the ballpark, noting the banners that recognize past Knights stars …

… before entering and going up to the press box, where I met with Tommy Viola, the team’s V.P. of communications. He gave me a quick overview of the park before getting back to his pregame duties, and that left me free to begin wandering around. As I mentioned earlier, the crown jewel of BB&T BallPark is its view. I have to admit that when I launched the Best View in the Minors competition last season, I was pretty sure that this ballpark would win. It didn’t, but there’s no knocking the fabulous view that Knights fans get to enjoy all summer. All that said, I wanted to get out to the seating bowl right away to take in the view, so that’s what I did:

It’s funny, because as impressive as the view looks in this photo, it’s far better in person. Standing behind home plate and looking out at the city skyline — much of it new and resplendent — almost seemed to take my breath away. That might sound like a dramatic reaction, but I can tell you that it was a truly dramatic scene.

There was a big part of me that was eager to begin checking out the ballpark from top to bottom, but another part of me wanted to just stand there and take in that view. And with three days in Charlotte, I knew that I’d have plenty of time to explore BB&T BallPark, so I hung out behind home plate for about 10 quiet minutes, just enjoying what I was seeing.

Soon enough, the allure of taking a lap around the concourse was too strong to ignore, so I set out toward the left field foul pole to begin a full lap. I was pleased to see how the concourse wrapped around the entire park. It’s something that is more and more common with newer parks these days and, in my mind, it’s integral to a 10/10 ballpark experience. While I was on the outfield concourse, I snapped this photo of Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, poking over the upper edge of the ballpark:

I love when different sporting venues are close together, and these two venues are just a block apart. (I’m not much of a football fan, but I took an outstanding stadium tour later during my stay, so look for a blog post about that sometime in the future.)

Before I left the center field area, I went down to the front row of the outfield seats to take this photo:

A lot of MiLB parks have traditional aluminum bleachers in the outfield, but I like what the Knights have done here. These aren’t typical stadium box seats, of course, but they’re a nice upgrade over bleachers, don’t you think?

I stopped walking for a moment again when I got all the way over to the right field foul pole, turning back toward center field to take the following photo:

And here’s a shot of the still-quiet home plate area shortly before batting practice began:

When BP got underway, I went down to the front row behind home plate to snap this photo:

Then, I went up to the concourse on the third base side, which gave me this view of the city’s skyline:

If you’re visiting BB&T BallPark next season and are trying to decide where to buy tickets, I definitely recommend sitting on the third base side. The view from behind home plate is outstanding, but even more buildings are visible when you’re on the third base side. Tickets anywhere in this area give you one of the best views in all of baseball — and that includes the big leagues — as far as I’m concerned.

Speaking of being concerned, see that gray cloud in the image above? It soon moved over the ballpark and started to sprinkle, so the grounds crew hustled to tarp the field. I moved up to the edge of the concourse to get some shelter, and stood there until the rain passed. You’ve got to admit that even with a tarp covering the infield, the view was pretty darned good:

I’m happy to report that the rain cleared just as quickly as it had arrived, so it wasn’t long before the tarp was gone, the sky was blue and the gates were open. I took another walk through the park about 15 minutes after the gates opened and noticed a pair of baseballs in the seats down the third base line. One was an MLB ball in decent shape, and the other was an International League ball that had definitely seen better days:

Soon afterward, I decided that it was time to grab some dinner. The airport breakfast and the Panera Bread salad were the only things that I’d eaten all day, and I’d scouted out the BB&T BallPark concession lists online before my visit and knew there were lots of tantalizing choices. I started with order of Philly cheesesteak nachos, which were a new menu item at the start of the season:

For $8.50, I was hugely impressed with the amount of steak piled up on the chips. The volume of steak isn’t necessarily apparent in the photo above, but I can assure you that there was a lot of meat. And the cheese was a cut above what I’d expected, too. It was more like proper cheesesteak cheese than nacho cheese, which helped make this meal a winner and one of the better things I ate all season.

After eating — and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t able to finish the nachos — I wandered over to the grass berm behind the Piedmont Natural Gas Picnic Area in left field. From there, I snapped this panorama:

This is an interesting feature at BB&T BallPark. It’s fairly far back from the field, and the view from this area is partially obstructed, but it’s a cool place to hang out. It was pretty quiet when I took the above photo, but the crowds picked up throughout the evening. It was a Bark in the Park night, so there were tons of dogs with their owners, as well as people on blankets and kids rolling down the hill.

By the time I’d finished wandering around the berm for a bit, the game was about to begin. I took another lap of the concourse so that I could stand behind home plate for the national anthem, and then snapped this shot during the first at-bat of the game:

I’d snapped the following photo of the left field bleachers just before the anthem, and noticed that they were still this sparsely populated midway through the first inning:

I thought I might stand a reasonable chance of snagging a home run baseball if one came my way, so I hurried out and grabbed a front row seat for an inning. No home run balls were hit, so I moved toward center field a bit to give myself a good view of Knights outfielder Ryan Cordell. Before the game, my buddy Danny Grauer (you might remember me meeting him at an Ottawa Champions game a couple of seasons ago and taking in a Norfolk Tides game with him earlier in 2018) had sent me a message to let me know that he and Cordell were college roommates at Liberty University. I’d hoped to catch Cordell during BP to say hello, but wasn’t able to do so. So, the best I could do was watch from afar and hope that he’d maybe come over to the warning track while playing catch between innings, thus giving me the chance to yell down to him.

That didn’t happen, unfortunately, so after an inning or so in that spot, I was on the move again. I caught a little bit of the action from the third base concourse where I had this gorgeous view …

… and then watched a fun between-innings promotion on the video board from across the field. As part of the Bark in the Park festivities that were going on, staffers speared blobs of peanut butter on opposite sides of a large piece of glass, and then a pair of dogs raced to lick it off:

Midway through the game, I grabbed a large unsweet tea from the McAlister’s Deli concession stand, which really hit the spot on a hot evening:

Then, in the bottom of the sixth inning, I grabbed a seat on the third base side of home plate where I could watch the rest of the action with this outstanding view:

As always, the first day of my trip was a long one, but one that offered plenty of excitement. And a lot of that excitement was knowing that I’d be back at BB&T BallPark twice more before leaving town.

Rochester Red Wings – July 18, 2018

If someone were to ask me where he or she could enjoy the best scenery in Rochester, I’d likely respond by saying to visit Frontier Field.

Then again, I’m a bit of a baseball nerd.

Another answer might be to take a stroll across the bridge that spans the Genessee River and High Falls — which, conveniently, is within walking distance of the ballpark. It was also within walking distance of where I was staying, the Holiday Inn Rochester Downtown, so I set out for a short walk early in the afternoon to check out the falls. This is a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Rochester, and it’s a spot that I’ve visited the last couple of times I’ve been in town.

High Falls itself is 96 feet tall, and the Pont De Rennes bridge, which stretches nearly 900 feet from one side of the Genessee River to the other, serves as a perfect viewing point for locals and visitors alike who are eager to enjoy this natural spectacle. Check out how beautiful this spot is:

I walked all the way across the bridge and stood for a couple of minutes here and there at different points along the railing, thoroughly enjoying the view around me.

After a bit, I began the short walk back to my hotel. As I walked, I got an idea — I could see Frontier Field in the distance, and there was a multilevel parking garage directly on my route. I figured that if I went up to the top of the garage, I’d be able to see and photograph the ballpark from a unique vantage point. I ran up the several flights of stairs and made it to the roof, approaching the railing to check the view. Capturing the following photo involved leaning out over the edge a little, and while I’d have liked to have reached out even farther, doing so was a little scary. Anyway, here’s how Frontier Field looked from an angle at which I’d never seen it before:

After happily backing away from the edge, I descended back to the sidewalk and returned to my hotel, where I hung out for a couple of hours and then headed out to Frontier Field for the third and final time on this road trip.

There hadn’t been any batting practice during either of my first two visits to Frontier Field. Rain on the Monday had canceled it, and the players weren’t going to hit before Tuesday’s 11 a.m. start. I was hopeful that I’d see the cage on the field once I cut through the concourse and went out to the cross-aisle, so this scene was music to my ears:

I couldn’t resist grabbing a seat and watching a few minutes of BP. Exploring the stadium could wait for a bit, as there’s nothing quite like sitting and watching the players take batting practice. I watched maybe 15 minutes or so from a seat with this view …

… and then took a walk down to the tented picnic area to watch a little more:

My decision to watch from the picnic area was strategic — the sun was very bright, and unless I was paying full attention at all times, it’d be difficult to pick up every ball. Being under a covered area gave me protection, as well as the opportunity to enjoy BP from a new angle.

I watched the action for several minutes from that spot, and then followed the cross-aisle back around home plate, walked down the first base side, and cut through the outfield until I was in this area:

This is an exclusive “best seats in the house” area that not only features the upscale chairs that you see, but also has a couch that was behind me when I took this photo. I think that it’s one of the cooler places to a snag a home run ball that I’ve come across in all my travels.

My next stop was a seat on the third base side of home, where I snapped this photo:

See the Minnesota Twins cap I’m wearing? I’d bought it a day earlier in the Frontier Field team shop for just $15. Other than the favorable price, I bought it not only because it tied in with my awesome Rochester visit (the Red Wings are the Triple-A affiliate of the Twins) but also because I had three outstanding days visiting the Twins last fall.

I stayed in that seat until BP wrapped up and the gates opened, and then immediately went to grab something to eat. It was $1 Dog Day, and while hot dogs aren’t normally my first choice as ballpark fare — especially when I’m visiting somewhere with such wonderfully varied food options as Frontier Field — I couldn’t resist the good deal:

Other fans were obviously feeling the same way, because there was a steady stream of people hitting the concession stands immediately upon arriving. After I ate, I decided to wander around a little more, and set out along the first base side to go check out the home bullpen. When I got to the grassy area near the bullpen, I baseball caught my eye. It’d obviously been hit during BP, but obviously missed by the ushers when they’d walked around picking up balls before the gates opened. Since the gates were indeed open and other fans were in the area, the ball was fair game — and I was glad to find my first ball of this visit to Rochester:

As first pitch approached, I decided to grab some more food. This might seem like an insane decision, given that I’d just eaten two large hot dogs but, hey, do it for the story, as I always say. Knowing that this would be my last Frontier Field meal of this visit, I knew I had to make a good choice — and was feeling the pressure of knowing there were tons of good things that I’d yet to eat. I couldn’t resist a visit to the Say Cheese concession stand, which is also home to one of my favorite ballpark meals ever — the buffalo chicken mac and cheese. I’ve had it twice, so I wanted to change things up a little. There are several different mac and cheese configurations, and I went with one that sounded straightforward but delicious:

You’re looking at an order of Three Cheese mac, which had cheddar, ricotta and mozzarella. As expected, it was mighty cheesy, and while I didn’t like it was much as the buffalo chicken variation, it was still a good dish.

I’d taken my mac and cheese down to the grass berm in the right field corner, and this is where I was when the game began. I watched the first inning from this spot, and then went to a spot behind home plate for the second inning:

After that, it was time to meet up against with my buddy Mark Firkins. If you read my post about visiting Batavia’s Dwyer Stadium, you might remember his name. If not, he’s a Rochester-area baseball fan I met randomly back in 2015 when we were both selected to watch a Cleveland Indians game from the #TribeLive suite at Progressive Field. We’ve kept in touch on Twitter ever since, and Mark made plans, along with his son Travis, to visit Dwyer Stadium at the same time as me. We had such a good time together that the idea of hanging out for another game was appealing, so we decided to meet up at Frontier Field on this night, too. Here’s a picture of Mark and me:

I spent the rest of the game following the pattern of enjoying an inning or so with Mark and Travis, and then heading off to wander around to explore Frontier Field a little more. As the game went on, I enjoyed half an inning in the picnic area that I’d previously visited during BP:

And, in the seventh and eighth innings, went back up to sit with Mark and Travis, where we had this view:

I parted ways with them after the eighth, and spent the ninth doing what I enjoy best — walking around, taking in the atmosphere and enjoying several different vantage points.

It’s always sad to leave a ballpark at the end of a road trip, but my three days spent in Rochester during this visit were so jam packed with good times that this was a visit that I won’t soon forget.

I’m already looking forward to my next visit, whenever that might be.

A big thank you to the good people at Visit Rochester for their assistance with my visit to Rochester. If you’re planning to see Frontier Field for a baseball road trip, be sure to check out Visit Rochester’s website for all the planning information you need.