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.

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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.

Rochester Red Wings – July 17, 2018

Day games after night games have a reputation for not being too popular among players, and I imagine that’s especially true when the day game starts before noon, rather than after it.

For me, this type of scheduling scenario is a treat. While I’ll admit that having fewer than 12 hours elapse between leaving the ballpark after a night game and returning before the next day’s game is a little exhausting, it’s always a situation I enjoy on my road trips.

After a full — and filling — first day at Rochester’s Frontier Field, I crashed in my hotel less than a half mile away, but was up bright and early on the morning of July 17 for some day baseball. The Red Wings were playing at 11 a.m. to accommodate a bunch of summer camps that would be in attendance, so I was expecting a boisterous atmosphere.

I got to Frontier Field a little before 9 a.m. and took a walk around its exterior before going inside. I’ve often expressed how much I love being inside this ballpark, but I find that the outside is pretty appealing, too. In particular, the design is impressive. For a ’90s-era facility, I find that the exterior has a lot of character. Take a look at this panorama that I shot from across Morrie Silver way, which runs roughly parallel to the third base line:

After snapping that photo, I continued along the street until I got to Plymouth Avenue, which runs beyond the outfield fence. I crossed the street and stood at the edge of a parking lot to snap this shot:

That’s the back of the video board on the left, a group picnic area under the white tent and a cool historic building on the far right, which is immediately adjacent to the park’s Gate 5. Want a closer look at the historic building? I thought so:

If the building looks like a historic firehouse, you’re absolutely right. Home to “Hose Co. No. 3,” this building opened in 1934. I think it’s outstanding that it was not only kept during the construction of Frontier Field six decades later, but also included in the design.

It’s not possible to complete a full lap of Frontier Field from the exterior, so I soon retraced my steps and went back to the main gates to enter park. Unlike a day earlier, when rain had kept me hiding in the concourse for the first part of my visit, I went straight out to the cross aisle and snapped this photo:

Then, it was time to explore the outfield area a bit. Because batting practice wasn’t taking place, I didn’t have to worry about any long home run balls smacking me in the head, and that suited me just fine. I headed to a spot just to the center field side of the visitors bullpen and took this panorama …

… and then cut across the grass berm behind the fence and looked back toward the batter’s eye:

I spent the next maybe 15 or so minutes just wandering around the cross-aisle, taking a lap through the concourse and stopping by the team shop. When the gates opened, I decided that since probably more than 1,000 summer campers would soon be descending on Frontier Field, I’d better grab something to eat before the lineups potentially got long. I had my mind set on a prime rib sandwich from the Red Osier concession stand. It’s something I’ve had before, and it’s easily one of my favorite ballpark foods ever, so I grabbed one and hustled over to the seats on the first base side to eat it:

While there are certainly flashier concession items both at Frontier Field and ballparks across the minor leagues, I love this sandwich because it’s exactly what you want it to be — a fresh kimmelweck roll topped with caraway seeds and kosher salt, a heaping pile of thinly sliced prime rib and plenty of au jus. In fact, you can see the latter floating in the tinfoil below the sandwich. I always add some horseradish to my sandwich, which adds another flavor dimension that I like. As always, the sandwich was outstanding. It’s a must-have item for anyone visiting Frontier Field. I always wish I could buy 10 of them and jam them in my suitcase to take home with me.

The park was filling up quickly, and as first pitch approached, I decided to go down to the railing above the grass berm on the first base side. It’s not far from the small bridge that I’d visited a day earlier, and provides a similar view:

For the record, the park looks fairly empty in the image above. What you’re not seeing, however, is that the stands just out of sight to the left were absolutely packed. Because of the overhang providing shade, most of the camp groups bought tickets in those sections, so the upper deck on the first base side was definitely a lively place to be all game.

As you might’ve been able to tell in the image above, it was a perfect day for baseball. Very few clouds in the sky and the sun directly overhead meant that I didn’t need to worry about rain, but it was getting pretty hot. Normally, I’d have gone to find a place to sit in the shade, but since the shady seats were packed, I decided on the next best thing — a cool drink. As you’ve probably seen in my various blog posts over the years, I’m a sucker for frozen lemonade, so I grabbed one from a concession stand behind home plate and took a seat in the sun on the third base side:

The next place I chose to sit was just to the visitors side of home plate. It’s a spot that provides a really nice backdrop beyond the outfield, as well as a perfect view of the game:

I sat there for a couple of innings, and then really needed to find some shade. I’d picked up a pretty solid sunburn two days earlier in Batavia, and didn’t want to be feeling even more burnt by the end of this game. I saw that the group that had been occupying the picnic area beyond left field had started to filter out, which meant that the gameday staff weren’t restricting other fans from entering this area. Given that it’s a covered space, I hustled over there and sat at a picnic table where I had a good view of the field, but also of the Louisville bullpen. I remained in that spot until some of the camp groups in the shaded seats on the first base side began to leave, too, and then went over there to grab a seat in the full shade with this view:

I ended up spending the remainder of the game in that spot. I didn’t have any desire to be in the sun any longer, and with another visit to Frontier Field coming up in a little more than 24 hours, it was time to just kick back and enjoy the ballgame.

Unlike a day earlier, I wasn’t in a rush to get out of the ballpark, and that meant that by the time I got to my car, there were a handful of cars in front of me. Happy to blast the A/C and wait my turn, I had a classic “only in the minors moment.” While I sat in the line, I saw a Red Wings pitcher Gabriel Moya walk through the parking lot and get into his vehicle — a white Range Rover Velar, if you’re wondering. I normally have trouble identifying minor leaguers when they’re not in uniform, but I’d watched him throw in the bullpen a day earlier and found that he was easy to recognize. The left-hander, who has since been called up to Minnesota, sat in his car like any other Frontier Field visitor, eager to get moving. As I inched closer, I was eager for the opportunity to wave him forward, but the driver immediately ahead of me must’ve had the same idea. He motioned for the Range Rover to proceed, and Moya slid into place and disappeared into the traffic a couple of minutes later.

For me, meanwhile, it was another short jaunt back to my hotel room for some much-needed air conditioning, then a quick jaunt out for a steak for dinner, and then back to my hotel to watch the MLB All-Star Game on TV.

Rochester Red Wings – July 16, 2018

Every baseball road tripper has a list of ballparks that he or she visits once and can’t wait to visit again. Even though the overall goal might be to get to as many different parks as possible, there’s always an appeal to get back to a park on your shortlist.

For me, Rochester’s Frontier Field is definitely on that list.

There are several things that make this International League facility in Western New York enticing to me. It’s the first ballpark I visited in 2010 when I decided to start The Ballpark Guide, so the park holds a strong nostalgic connection for me. There’s also the fact that the food selection and quality, the ballpark’s design and atmosphere, the view from home plate and the consistent friendliness of the Red Wings staff are top of the line.

All of these traits mean that you don’t have to twist my arm to get me to travel to Rochester, so when I had a chance to visit for three days last month, I jumped at it. It’s hard to believe that, prior to this visit, I hadn’t been at Frontier Field since 2014. Given that lengthy stretch, a 2018 visit was a must.

Rochester is only about 4.5 hours from home, but I left early on July 16 with the plan to get to the city by around noon. Even though my focus on this trip was baseball, as always, I wanted to do a bit of sightseeing when I was able. Getting to town early gave me a couple of hours to visit Towers Field, home of the University of Rochester baseball team, the site of the old Silver Stadium, where the Red Wings played before Frontier Field was built and, finally, Mount Hope Cemetery, an enormous cemetery that is the final resting spot for a number of historic figures, including Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. If you’re looking for other things to do during your next visit to Rochester, whether it’s museums, historic attractions or more, make sure that you browse Visit Rochester’s website for a comprehensive list of suggestions that will fill your itinerary.

After I saw the sights that I wanted to see, I checked into my hotel, the Holiday Inn Rochester Downtown. It’s not a place at which I’d previously stayed during any of my visits to Rochester, but its amenities and location — less than half a mile from Frontier Field — made it a perfect choice and one that I’d happily choose again.

After a bit of time exploring my hotel, I headed over to Frontier Field about three hours before first pitch. My plan was to enjoy the park for an hour on my own, and then meet up with three members of the Red Wings food & beverage staff for a very exciting food-focused tour. The weather was perfect when I left my hotel, started to drizzle while I was in the administrative office to pick up my media credential and was a complete downpour by the time I got to the concourse.

Argh.

Frontier Field’s concourse is enclosed beneath the seating bowl, which was the standard for minor league parks in 1996 when it opened. I’m not normally keen on this type of design, but was appreciating it during this visit. It rained so hard for the next 45 minutes that I didn’t dare venture out to the cross-aisle, so the concourse kept me mostly dry. When I’d get brave enough, I’d go to the end of the concourse along the third base side, where I’d peek out and see that the weather was still miserable:

The sky wasn’t completely dark, though. You might’ve noticed a small patch of brightness beyond the buildings in straightaway center, so I had hope that the weather picture would change as the afternoon turned to evening. The weather quickly became an afterthought for me as I met up with director of catering and events Courtney Trawitz, GM of food & beverage Jeff Dodge and concessions manager Jeff DeSantis for a culinary adventure that I won’t soon forget.

I’ve often raved about the food at Frontier Field, and these three people are instrumental in making it happen. They’re behind not only my go-to concession fare during each visit, but also the noteworthy new items that often turn heads on social media — and we were going to dive into the latter right away.

Courtney and the two Jeffs led me to a concession stand on the third base side, and Jeff DeSantis asked a food services employee to build me a trash can and a garbage plate. If you’re from Western New York, you’ll certainly know the term “garbage plate,” but if you’re reading this from elsewhere in the country, you might be raising an eyebrow. The garbage plate is Rochester’s specialty dish, and many restaurants around the city serve it. The dish originates from a Rochester restaurant called Nick Tahou Hots, and the traditional garbage plate consists of home fries, baked beans and macaroni salad, along with your choice of hamburger patties or hot dogs, and topped with onions and hot sauce. The noteworthy feature that gives this dish its name is that all of this food is piled in a heap on a plate. Anyway, the Red Wings have been selling garbage plates for years, and recently introduced the “trash can” — essentially, a garbage plate in an easy-to-carry format.

A few minutes after Jeff DeSantis placed the order, I was handed a trash can and a garbage plate with two cheeseburgers, and we moved over to a bar area in the concourse so that I could begin eating. First, though, I had to document this culinary decadence with some photos. Here’s the trash can in its ultra-cool collectible can which, as you might notice, even has dents:

The food itself cleverly sits in a beer cup that slides inside the can, so when you’re done eating, you can chuck the beer cup and your can will be clean to take home. Here’s what the food looks like with the outer can removed:

As you might be able to tell, the trash can’s ingredients are layered. From the bottom up, you’re looking at home fries, macaroni salad, more home fries, hot sauce, chili and onions. Courtney snapped my photo, in which I’m clearly sporting the sunburn that I picked up a day earlier in Batavia

… and then I dug in, wondering how I’d fare against what was easily a couple pounds of food in front of me. (By the way — like my shirt? You can buy one here.)

I have to say that the trash can was really tasty. I had no idea what to expect, but these ingredients worked well together. The crispy outer layer of the home fries was a nice contrast to the soft texture of the macaroni salad, and the chili had a combination of spices that made it a winner. The hot sauce thankfully didn’t blow smoke out my ears and the raw onions weren’t too harsh, so they both complemented the dish (can?) well. I was happy to tell my new friends that I was loving the trash can, and actually found it a little difficult to put down — despite knowing that I had a lot more eating to do.

About two-thirds of the way through it, I tapped out — only for Jeff DeSantis to slide the garbage plate in front of me with a smile. It consisted of all of the ingredients that went into the trash can, plus a pair of one-third pound hamburgers (with cheese, of course):

I think I might’ve liked the plate even more than the can, thanks to the addition of the two cheeseburgers. I find that ballpark burgers can be hit or miss, but those at Frontier Field, not surprisingly, were excellent. While I ate, Courtney, the two Jeffs and I chatted about not only the food at Frontier Field, but ballpark food in general, and I even got a chance to tell them a bit about some of the noteworthy things I’ve eaten on my adventures.

About halfway into the garbage plate, I once again called it quits, and my group led me along the concourse not for the marathon session on an elliptical machine that I needed, but to — you guessed it — eat some more. We stopped at the Nacho Everyday Nacho concession stand so that I could try an order of loaded nachos. For the record, I’m not normally a fan of ballpark nachos. I love homemade and restaurant nachos, but I find that topping some chips with that horrendous orange goo cheese and calling the dish ballpark nachos is a colossal letdown. As soon as the food services team began to build my nachos, however, I could tell that these would be no ordinary ballpark nachos. The chips were topped with beef and chicken, rice, black beans, shredded lettuce, salsa, shredded cheddar cheese, jalapenos, salsa verde and sour cream, and looked like this:

As you might suspect from the image above, it was delicious. A complete departure from conventional ballpark nachos, and even a source of some veggies at the ballpark — something that, um, doesn’t always happen for me.

My ability to move was limited after eating about half of the nachos, but I somehow followed Jeff Dodge and Courtney for a behind-the-scenes look at the Frontier Field kitchen. Jeff DeSantis understandably had to get back to his pregame duties after spending more than an hour with me — thanks, Jeff! I didn’t take much in the way of photos in the kitchen, partly because it was extremely crowded and I didn’t want to interfere with the staff members doing their job. I was hugely impressed with the organization and execution that went on wherever I turned, as well as the sheer volume of some things. As I watched a cook stir an enormous vat of chili, Jeff told me that the vat holds about 35 gallons!

I can’t say how much I appreciate the food experience that the Red Wings provided me, and really want to send my thanks to Courtney, Jeff and Jeff for not only being so generous with their time and expertise, but also so much fun to hang out with. Remember how I said earlier that one of the reasons I love returning to Rochester is the friendliness of the staff? I can definitely add this experience to that list.

The gates had opened by the time my food experience and tour wrapped up, and the rain had also quit. I was eager to get out to the seating bowl for the first time to view the field and begin to explore, so that’s what I did immediately upon saying goodbye to Courtney, Jeff and Jeff. Instead of going straight down to field level, I climbed up to the top row of the section behind home plate and snapped this panorama:

Then, I stood in that spot for a few minutes and enjoyed the view. Frontier Field provides one of my favorite views from home plate in all of baseball, and while it didn’t make my recent top-five list, I had to think long and hard to keep it off. I love the city’s skyline beyond right-center, and the Kodak building that towers beyond the left field corner is majestic. I also love the memories that quickly come back to me as I look at the image above:

  • I can recall standing around the bullpen in right field to watch a number of MLB hall of famers get warmed up during the Pepsi Max Field of Dreams game in 2013
  • I can remember exactly where I was sitting — in one of the covered sections down the right field line — when I took my first ballpark food photo way back in 2010
  • I can picture exactly where I was standing when I talked to MLBer Radhames Liz, took photos of him and even handed him my camera so that he could view the shots in 2014

And so, so many more memories.

Like I said, Frontier Field is a special place for me.

After my trip down memory lane, I took a lap around the concourse and ended up down the first base line, which is the spot in the park that provides the best view of the city’s iconic Kodak building:

I then continued over the small bridge that connects the concourse to the area behind the outfield fence, and settled into a standing-room spot beside the Rochester bullpen. I watched the starting pitcher go through his warmup and ended up spending the first inning in this spot.

This would normally be a time that I’d head off in search of a meal to eat, but in spite of all of the good food options surrounding me, I was absolutely stuffed. I was, however, craving something sweet and, while I don’t normally buy desserts at the ballpark, I decided that I needed something. I didn’t want anything that was insanely heavy, so I grabbed a root beer float. It was made with soft serve ice cream and it really hit the spot:

Once I’d slurped my dessert down, I snapped this panorama from where I sat …

… and then went back to the cross-aisle and walked all the way around to the left field foul pole. Yeah, I’d eaten a lot before the game started, but I was certainly getting my exercise now. There’s a large grass berm in this area, but it was a little wet from the rain earlier on, so it wasn’t as populated as it would’ve normally been. That meant that this area was pretty quiet as I grabbed a spot against the rail and watched an inning with this vantage point:

My next stop was the bridge that I mentioned earlier. It’s always one of my favorite places at Frontier Field to hang out. Not only does it provide a good view of the field, but you can also look into the home bullpen nearby. Here was my view from that spot:

Between innings, I took a walk through the outfield and behind a couple of group seating areas. The concourse doesn’t wrap all the way around the field, so I couldn’t continue — but here’s how the area immediately behind center field appears:

I then returned to the bridge to watch more of the action, and noticed this funny sign painted on the wall below me — helpful for those who might otherwise be confused, I’m guessing?

See the flag on the inside of the gate? It reads “Thursdays are for the Plates,” which pays tribute to the garbage plate. On Thursday home games throughout the seasons, the Red Wings have been donning special Rochester Plates uniforms. See? The garbage plate really is that big in Rochester!

Later in the game, I went outside to the plaza in front of the main gates to snap this panorama:

I love the look of the ticket office at night, don’t you? To me, it looks like a ticket office at a historic movie theater.

Then, I went back inside, took another lap of the concourse — stopping here and there to enjoy the action — and then settled into a seat behind home plate to watch the remainder of the game:

This spot also gave me an opportunity to exit quickly so that I could get out of the parking lot with ease and be back in my hotel room just a handful of minutes after the final out.

As always, it was an awesome day at Frontier Field — and a perfect way to start my three day-visit to Rochester. A day later, the Red Wings were playing a matinee game, so I’d be back at the ballpark in time for breakfast.