Minnesota Twins – September 15, 2017

Since I first saw it on TV back in 2010, I’ve considered Target Field to be one of the best-looking ballparks in baseball. Of course, it’s difficult to authoritatively make that call without a thorough fact-finding mission, right?

Time to make that happen.

Midway through last summer, I decided that I wanted to take another September baseball trip. I’d done it a year earlier, spending three days at Coors Field in Denver, and the idea of fall baseball once again beckoned. This time, I set my sights on the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul for a trio of Twins games on September 15 through 17, plus an awesome day of sightseeing planned for September 18.

The morning of September 15 began early, as the first days of my trips frequently do. I was up about 3:30 a.m. for an early-morning flight to Toronto, fanny pack at the ready as always. I landed about 6:30 a.m. and snapped this shot of my plane midway through my two-hour layover:

Soon enough, I was back in the air and on the way to Minneapolis, where I touched down just before 10 a.m. — gaining an hour because of the time zone difference.

I was fortunate to get a hotel just a few blocks from Target Field, but the fact that the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport is about 15 miles outside of the downtown area compelled me to plan to rent a car for my visit. Fortunately, the good people at Meet Minneapolis, who were super helpful with my trip planning, talked me out of doing so — they stressed that Minneapolis is extremely public transit friendly, and assured me that I’d be better off getting from the airport to downtown on the city’s light rail system. I’m pretty much a public transit novice. Growing up in a rural area meant that I drove everywhere, and it wasn’t until I was in university that I set foot on my first subway. In fact, I’m midway through my 30s and have still never taken a city bus. All this to say that I was a little tentative about getting around the city via light rail, but I was up to the challenge. It turns out, it wasn’t a challenge at all — Minneapolis’ light rail system was an absolutely breeze to navigate, and I used it several times during my visit.

Several minutes after stepping off my flight and into the airport terminal, I’d found my way down to the light rail station below the airport:

A few minutes later, I was comfortably seated on a Metro Blue Line light rail car and on my way downtown. The ride, which took about half an hour, was really pleasant. I love driving through new cities, but you don’t really get a full appreciation for the sights when you’re carefully watching the GPS screen as much as you’re looking through the windshield. On the train, with my route map in hand, I could take in all of the sights and get a real feel for the different parts of the city. One highlight that was impossible to miss was the enormous U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the NFL’s Vikings and the host stadium of Super Bowl LII. Seeing it, however briefly, was a pleasant tease — I’d be getting a private tour of it on the last day of my visit to Minneapolis!

I hopped off my train at the Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue station and had about a block to walk to get to my hotel — can’t get much better than that. I arrived at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Minneapolis Downtown shortly before 11 a.m., fully expecting that I’d have to hang out in the lobby and scroll through Twitter for a couple hours, given that I’d arrived well in advance of the hotel’s 4 p.m. check-in time. I’ve learned over the course of my many travels, however, that it’s never a bad idea to let the front desk know that you’ve arrived, even if check-in isn’t for a few hours. I did, and was delighted to learn that my room was ready for me — welcome news after so much traveling. I quickly checked in, grabbed a burger from a restaurant a block or so away, and then headed to a nearby Target to pick up some snacks for my trip.

As I proceeded toward the checkout, I caught a familiar-looking person out of the corner of my eye. Longtime MLB veteran and 1992 World Series winner Pat Tabler, now a color commentator for Toronto’s TV broadcasts on Rogers Sportsnet, headed past me while walking toward the rear of the store. This is a guy I grew up watching, and now see on Jays broadcasts, so I couldn’t resist chasing him down. Lugging my overloaded shopping basket, I caught up to him a moment later and asked if I could take a picture with him:

We talked for a minute or two afterward; I told him that I was from Ontario and grew up watching him, and he told me that made him feel old. He also jokingly chastised me for busting him in the cookie aisle. “Not to worry,” I told him, “I was in the same aisle a few minutes ago, too.”

Highly content with how my visit to Minneapolis had been so far, I walked back to my hotel, unpacked my shopping bags, and relaxed in my room until it was time to make the short walk over to Target Field. I got there just after 3 p.m., which is pretty darned early for a 7 p.m. game, you might think. The Twins were hooking me up with media credentials for all three games, though, which meant that I could get in well before the gates opened — and if you know me, you know I was more than a little excited by this prospect.

I arrived at Target Field through what’s known as Twins Plaza outside Gate 34, which is the gate that you frequently see on TV broadcasts. I was immediately impressed with the look of the entire area. I was early enough that it was still pretty quiet, and that suited me just fine because I could take this photo that shows the scene without a throng of people:

Twins Plaza is definitely a place that you want to visit when you go to Target Field. It’s notable for being home to several statues, including the famous one that depicts hall of famer Kirby Puckett rounding the bases and pumping his fist after hitting his iconic home run in the 1991 World Series. Of course, I had to get a photo in front of it:

Normally, I take at least one lap around the outside of every ballpark I visit, so that would’ve come next. Knowing that I had three days to thoroughly take in all the sights in and outside of Target Field, I decided to put the perimeter tour on hold until a day later so that I could get inside as quickly as possible. I entered via the press entrance, which put me in the open concourse close to where you’d be upon walking through Gate 34. I immediately rushed to the front row of the right field seats to take a look at the field for the first time, and was amused to see the players playing catch with a football — a sure sign of autumn, I guess:

Next, I wandered over to right-center to take this panorama, which shows just how beautiful Target Field truly is:

When I get inside a ballpark for the first time, there’s a temptation to run helter-skelter around and try to take in all the sights at once. It can be tough to tell myself, “OK, you’ve got three days here. Take a nice, slow lap around the concourse for starters to get your bearings.” Fortunately, that little voice in my head won out, so I continued wandering through the outfield seats and all the way past the left field foul pole, where I stopped to snap this picture of myself:

(As you might’ve noticed, I’m wearing one of my custom T-shirts. Want your own? Click here.)

See the players on the field behind me? The Jays pitchers were playing catch, and I watched them from this vantage point for a moment before heading down to field level. You might be wondering about me seeing Toronto on the road: Even though the Jays are my favorite team, seeing them on this trip was pure luck — I only had a couple scheduling opportunities for visiting Minneapolis in September, and the Jays were in town for one of them. Couldn’t pass up that chance. For all the times that I’ve seen Toronto in action, this was only the second series that I’d seen them on the road, funny enough.

Down at field level, I found a spot behind third base, where I simply hung out and enjoyed the scene. It was fun, as always, to watch the players up close, but my attention was more drawn to the beautiful ballpark landscape around me:

Soon enough, the enormous video board began to show different clips and information. At one point, there was live footage of the field. I quickly snapped the following photo because I could see myself (or, more aptly, the few pixels that I knew were me) and I thought it would be fun to share:

As I stood there, players and staff passed back and forth in front of me, going to and from the dugout. Longtime trainer George Poulis, who has since become the head trainer for the Braves, said hello to me as he walked past, while reliever Danny Barnes, who I met way back in 2011 when he was with the Lansing Lugnuts, nodded as he passed me. One player I was keeping my eye (and camera) on was closer Roberto Osuna, and I’m glad that I did. Just a moment after I took this photo …

… he finished playing catch. Instead of carrying his warmup ball to the dugout with him or tossing it into the ball bag, he turned and fired it all the way into the upper deck — like it was no big deal, I might add. I don’t know if he was aiming for this opening — I suspect he was — but his throw sailed through the opening to Section 329, which you’ll see at the bottom left of the deck:

As I watched the ball disappear, I thought, “That’ll make a cool souvenir for someone,” and then thought, “Hey, what about me?” Being at the edge of the infield, I was extremely far away from the upper deck, of course. Getting there would require running back up to the concourse, along the concourse to the foul pole, and up several flights of stairs — and then hoping that a staff member hadn’t scooped up the ball. If you know me, though, you know that I’m always up for a baseball challenge, so I took off in the direction of where I hoped the ball would be.

And found nothing.

I searched, searched, and searched some more, and the ball wasn’t anywhere. There were a couple concessions employees preparing their stand nearby, so I figured that one of them had grabbed it. I figured that at least I got a little exercise out of the quest, and turned to head back down the stairs toward the concourse. Midway down, I stopped and thought about the situation. I couldn’t imagine concession staff caring about errant baseballs, so I figured the ball still had to be there. I ran back up, searched for a few more minutes — including getting down on my hands and knees, and came up with this gem:

I have to admit that I was pretty satisfied with myself as I retraced my steps back down the stairs, along the concourse, and back down to field level. I might’ve even been grinning like a fool.

There were still a few Jays leaving the field when I returned, and I happily stood there and snapped pictures of several of them. Most ignored me, but starter/reliever Joe Biagini looked right at me as I was taking his picture …

… and asked, “How do I look? Good?” I told him that he indeed did look good, and he nodded and continued to the dugout.

As the Jays left the field, the Twins made their way toward home plate to take batting practice. I snapped this shot from a spot above the visitors dugout …

… and then just stood there and watched the action. When the gates opened, I went back to left field to try to snag a home run ball. The lower deck had a moderate number of people trying to snag baseballs, so I went all the way back to the upper deck, where there were just a couple other fans. Of course, upper deck shots are relatively rare, even in BP, but I figured that I’d hang out in this spot for a few minutes to see if anything came my way. It wasn’t long before someone on the Twins — I’m not sure who, unfortunately — blasted a moonshot that landed a few rows in front of me, and I had no trouble dashing down and grabbing it:

I’m always happy to snag a ball during BP, so I dropped the ball in my backpack and headed off to further explore Target Field. My first stop was the press box (no photos there — sorry) to pick up some lineup sheets. I saw Tabler again, and nearly collided with his TV broadcast partner and longtime MLBer Buck Martinez, who hurried out of the broadcast booth and almost walked straight into me. I also saw Twins legend and HOFer Bert Blyleven, who did not circle me.

Speaking of circles, I headed straight for the iconic “Welcome to Target Field” sign below the press box next. Target Field’s press box location is unique in the big leagues. Instead of being on the suite level, it’s immediately above the 200 Level, and there’s a cross-aisle directly below it. One of my pre-visit goals was to get a picture of myself with the Target logo on the wall below the press box, and here’s that effort:

I stood with my back to the Target sign for a few minutes to enjoy the view. From that spot, I could hear the broadcasters in their various booths talking, which provided a nice soundtrack as I took in the perfect scene in front of me:

As I posted on Instagram later on my visit, Pittsburgh’s PNC Park often has a much-deserved reputation as offering the best view from home plate in the majors, but I think that the view at Target Field is certainly no slouch. What do you think?

Next, I went back to the concourse and began a slow walk to take in the sights. Remember the Puckett statue from outside Gate 34 recognizing his game six home run? Well, on the concourse, there was a display featuring the seat in which the home run ball landed:

Returning to the outfield seats at the end of my walk through the concourse, I enjoyed this cool view of the Budweiser Roof Deck above the left field foul pole:

I love how you can see the top of the Ford Center and its water tower just beyond the roof deck. Today, the building provides office space, but it was once one of the locations where Model T Fords were assembled.

As the time ticked down toward first pitch, I spent a few minutes standing in a variety of spots to enjoy the view and atmosphere at the ballpark — high above the field in the seats in right-center, in the area inside Gate 34 and down toward field level in the right field corner, to name a few. Just before first pitch, I grabbed some food and took a seat in the upper deck in left-center. What did I eat, you might ask? Well, I’ll be glad to tell you.

I present to you deep-fried, beer-battered cheese curds:

They were pretty darned good. I’d have liked them to be a little more gooey — the cheese basically still held its shape as I bit into them — but I was glad to add another unique type of ballpark fare to my ever-expanding repertoire.

After eating, I headed to the team shop for the first time, and was immediately blown away by its size and some of its unique features. Case in point, this Twins suit, which could be yours for the low-low price of $740:

Later in the game, I took a seat in the upper deck in right field, stopping to snap this panorama of the area inside Gate 34:

I watched a couple innings of the game from that spot, in part because the view of the field was perfect, and in part because I needed to get off my feet. I hadn’t sat for four or five hours by that point, and was ready to give my feet a little break.

Midway through the game, I grabbed a spot here, where I enjoyed this outstanding view:

I spent the game’s latter innings watching the action from several spots, while also enjoying a few more laps around the concourse to take in all the sights. As soon as the ninth inning drew to a close, I made the short walk back to my hotel, majorly in need of sleep after such a long day:

I crashed pretty soon after getting back to my room, pumped to have finally made it to Minneapolis and excited for the next day’s visit to beautiful Target Field.

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Hartford Yard Goats – August 29

The fact that I’d driven about eight hours a day earlier to get to Hartford meant that by the time I’d parked a block away from Dunkin’ Donuts Park, it was time to hustle inside and check out the newest ballpark in the Eastern League.

On my second day in Hartford, however, I had just a 10-minute drive to the ballpark from my hotel — giving me plenty of time to arrive early and check out the surrounding area. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, there are several parking lots around Dunkin’ Donuts Park. That meant that the surrounding area wasn’t exactly thrilling, although I’m optimistic that more things to see and do will be built up in the years ahead. Still, there were a few things that I was eager to explore, starting with a small park area behind the batter’s eye:

There were still several hours before first pitch, which meant that the streets around the ballpark were pretty quiet, as you can see here:

A lap around Dunkin’ Donuts Park proved to be fun, but pretty uneventful. My favorite part was snapping some photographs and panoramas across the street from the ballpark’s front gate, and trying not to get squashed by a car in the process. Here’s one panorama that I particularly like:

As you might have noticed if you looked closely, the traffic light had already turned green by the time I took the above shot, so I had to dart back to the safety of the curb.

Given that there wasn’t much else to see outside, I went inside to begin my second visit to Dunkin’ Donuts Park. As I had a day before, I used the admin entrance, which put me in the concourse behind home plate. I’m sharing the following photo not only to show how the park looked as soon as I got inside, but also to show the impressive video board and the enormous Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup atop it — two very cool features of this ballpark:

At the moment, the visiting Portland Sea Dogs were on the field but weren’t yet hitting. I decided to spend a few minutes down at field level on the third base side, where I snapped this panorama …

… and then hung out in this cool spot once batting practice began:

If you look at this next photo, I was standing roughly behind the first “B” in “BBQ” for the start of batting practice, and it proved to be one of the more unique spots I’ve found to watch BP:

No balls came directly my way, but there were lots that were clanking off the seats below me — and from where I stood, I could even see some of them with my camera’s zoom lens:

Although I was enjoying just hanging out and watching BP, I was also eager to continue to explore the ballpark. After a few minutes of standing still, I was once again on the move. My first stop was behind the visitor’s bullpen in left field, where I watched BP for a minute or two with this view:

Then, I headed to close straightaway center, which offered this view:

My next stop was the deck high above the right field corner:

I spent the rest of BP taking in the action from a handful of different spots, and as the gates were set to open, went down to the main concourse to begin my quest for something to eat. First, I noticed a cool “eat local” initiative sponsored by Connecticut farmers — there were several bushels of apples and peaches, and they looked delicious:

Admittedly, I didn’t take any of the fruit, although something that wasn’t deep-fried would’ve probably done me some good, especially given what I’d eaten a day before — and, let’s be honest, what I would soon be eating.

Before I found my dinner and shortly before the gates opened, I had a chance to go down to the Dugout Suite section that I marveled at a day earlier, but that I hadn’t actually gone down to see up close. This spot looked cool from afar, but I have to admit that I was downright giddy when I got next to it and realized just how awesome this spot would be to sit for a game:

Imagine a whole nine innings in one of these seats with the warning track just a few feet away and, more importantly, the dugout immediately beside you? If you’re the type of fan who dreams of being a fly on the wall of a professional dugout during a game, this is about as close as you’re going to get. Dunkin’ Donuts Park is the 52nd different Minor League Baseball facility that I’ve visited, and I have to say that the Dugout Suite seats are right up at the top of my list of coolest/most unique seating sections in the minors.

As I did a day earlier, I set my sights on finding food right after the gates opened, with the idea that the food would be fresh and the lineups wouldn’t be too long. There were a lot of interesting items that I was curious to try, but I wanted to again go with a dish that was unique and that tied into the company for which the park is named — and that came in the form of something called Dunkin’ & Chicken Skewers:

You’re looking at six boneless BBQ wings and six Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins, placed onto a pair of wooden skewers. This meal was definitely, uh, filling, as you might have guessed from the photo. Actually, it was pretty tasty, although I found the BBQ sauce to be a little sweet — and when it combined with the sweetness of the Munchkins, it was a bit of sugar overload. I’d have preferred a spicier sauce on the boneless wings to provide a little more contrast, and I think staggering them on the skewers would’ve worked better, too. Still, it was tasty and unique, and that’s what I’m always going for at the ballpark.

My dinner was filling, but not so much that I had to get some post-eating recovery, so as soon as I wiped my mouth after swallowing the last bite, I was on the move again.

After another quick lap of the concourse, I returned to the visitor’s dugout area in time to see Matt Barnes warming up. He was pitching for the Sea Dogs in a rehab start, which always draws a big crowd of fans — but, the fact that he’s a Connecticut native and went to the University of Connecticut meant that there was a sizable contingent of fans there to see him. You don’t normally see a pitcher conversing with fans before a start, but Barnes took a few minutes to chat with a couple of people he obviously knew before beginning to toss. And I was close enough that I could eavesdrop get pictures like this one:

When he did finally toe the bullpen rubber, I moved over to get a better look:

Barnes ended up pitching just one inning in his rehab effort , and it interestingly ended up being the only inning he pitched in the minors all season. I guess his need for some rehab time was pretty minimal.

I watched the national anthem and the top of the first inning from this cool vantage point just to the left field side of straightaway center:

This next part is a little out of sequence, so bear with me. Before I left the bullpen area after watching Barnes warming up, I ended up finding a baseball that was sitting below one of the seats. I’m guessing that it had been there since batting practice, but I’m absolutely shocked that no one had noticed it because the gates had been open for an hour and, as I said, the area around the visitor’s bullpen was very crowded. For whatever reason, I neglected to photograph the ball immediately upon picking it up, and didn’t remember to do so until a couple innings into the game, when I’d taken a bar-style seat in right-center. So, that said, here’s the ball:

I watched the first inning from the above spot, meandered around for about another inning or two, and then took one of the seats behind home plate for a bit:

I spent the remainder of the game as I often do in the later innings of my second day in a given city — watching the game from different vantage points and just generally enjoying being at the ballpark. By this point, I’ve often put my camera away and am just enjoying being a fan, and that was the case during this part of the evening, too.

After the game, I exited via the main gates and crossed the street so that I could snap my last look at Dunkin’ Donuts Park:

By the way, how fun is the “No Goats, No Glory” slogan on the sign above the team shop?

I was happy once again to have just a short drive back to my hotel, the Hyatt House Hartford North/Windsor. And, like a day earlier, my post-game evening basically consisted of lounging in the living room of my suite-style room, watching some baseball for a bit, and then heading to bed. The next morning, with another eight-hour drive on the agenda, I took a bit of time to walk around the area with the intention of getting a bit of exercise before sitting for the bulk of the day. I included a few laps of the hotel grounds on my walk, and was intrigued to notice this cool patio area outside the swimming pool. It wasn’t occupied at this early hour, but I can see it being a popular spot for guests — especially with the barbecue available for guests, too:

After my walk, I went back up to my room, packed things up, and then sat and ate some breakfast on the couch while I watched the morning SportsCenter. Speaking of food, I wanted to share this picture of the kitchen in my room, which was one of the coolest features. I didn’t do any cooking during my stay — my ballpark fare definitely kept me feeling full — but I think this big kitchen would be a helpful feature for many guests:

Normally, a late-August road trip would wrap up the live baseball season for me, and I’d be a little glum on my drive home. This time, I was heading home with lots of feelings of excitement. In just a couple weeks, I’d be heading to the airport for another baseball adventure.

Hartford Yard Goats – August 28

Just one week after wrapping up an enjoyable two-day visit to Troy, New York to see the Tri-City ValleyCats, I was back on the road early on the morning of August 28 and heading down I-90 again. My route took me along a route rich with baseball history — through Syracuse, home of the Chiefs; Utica, former home of the Blue Sox; the Tri-City area, home of the ValleyCats; Springfield, former home of the Giants; and, finally, into Hartford, home of the Yard Goats.

The Hartford Yard Goats are an Eastern League team that is affiliated with the Colorado Rockies, and despite the team joining the Double-A ranks in 2016, this past season was its first in Hartford. That’s because Dunkin’ Donuts Park, the team’s ballpark, wasn’t ready for opening day of 2016, nor was it ready at any point during that season. That meant that the Yard Goats spent their entire inaugural campaign as a road team. I’d hoped to visit Dunkin’ Donuts Park in 2016, but since that obviously wasn’t possible, getting to Hartford in 2017 was a big priority on my to-do list.

I’d scheduled back-to-back games at the Eastern League’s newest ballpark, anxious to see all that it had to offer — and, boy, I wasn’t disappointed.

It took me more than eight hours to drive to Hartford, which meant that I was in a hurry as I checked into my hotel north of the city (more on it later) a little after 3 p.m., dropped off my luggage, and then took the 10-minute drive into downtown Hartford. Just after 3:30 p.m., I parked my car in a $5 lot a block away from the ballpark, and was excited to realize that I could see the park immediately upon climbing out of my car:

The walk to the ballpark was super quick, so just a few minutes after parking, I was standing at the corner of Main and Pleasant streets to capture this shot of the ticket office and front gates:

I spent the next little bit walking around the park’s exterior. There’s not a lot to see immediately adjacent to the ballpark, and I’m assuming that’s because it’s so new. In fact, parking lots pretty much dominate the landscape. I find that this situation is common with newer parks, so it’ll be cool to see what developments pop up in the coming years to give fans more things to see and do before the gates open. That said, the downtown location of the park is excellent, and there are lots of restaurants and other things to check out just a few blocks away. The XL Center, a multipurpose arena shared by the University of Connecticut Huskies and the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack, is about a five-minute walk from Dunkin’ Donuts Park, so that’s something that sports fans might want to check out while visiting.

Shortly before I excitedly headed into the ballpark for the first time, I noticed that a coach bus had pulled up on Pleasant Street outside the park’s admin offices. Curious, I walked toward it and as I got to the tail of the bus, the front door opened and the visiting Portland Sea Dogs piled out and walked hurriedly into the park:

The team had been in Binghamton a day earlier to play the Rumble Ponies, and was obviously cutting things a bit close in terms of the arrival time. (Although, I think it’s a bit of a testament to my baseball nerdery that this wasn’t the first time that I’d beaten a team to the ballpark!) Anyway, the players were entering the ballpark via the admin entrance, and that’s where I was going, too. So, I waited for a gap in the line of Sea Dogs and headed that way. There were a bunch of autograph collectors standing along the sidewalk who were flagging down different players to have them sign — you may not be surprised to know that no one misidentified me as a ballplayer and asked for a signature.

Once I picked up my pass, I went through the admin area to get to the concourse, and felt my excitement ramping up a notch as I heard the stadium music and the bats cracking down on the field during batting practice. I made my way across the concourse to the top of the seating bowl, and here’s what I saw:

Not only was it a thrill to be in a brand new ballpark, but this was a bit of a personal milestone for me, too — Dunkin’ Donuts Park is the 65th different ballpark I’ve visited since 2010. (You can click here to see my entire ballpark list.)

I spent about 10 minutes in the top of the seats behind home plate just enjoying the scene. On top of watching batting practice, there was just so much to take in about the new park, and it was exciting to think that I’d be exploring it in its entirety over the next two days. With so many exploratory options in front of me, I decided to return to the concourse and walk down toward the left field foul pole. Check out how empty things still were at this point:

I walked most of the way along the concourse, and then turned right and went down to the front row of the seats to check out the view from there. It was sunny enough that I had trouble picking up balls as they were hit, so I decided to head back to a safer part of the park instead of risk spending my visit to Hartford in the emergency room after taking a line drive in the head. First, though, I noticed this nicely worn Eastern League baseball, so I picked it up, photographed it and tossed it to a Yard Goats outfielder who walked past a moment later:

After walking around an elevated concession stand in the left field corner called Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ, I made it to the left field seats to check out how they looked. I was highly impressed with the layout of this area. Instead of just a standard seating section, there were a few interesting things going on:

First, you’ve got the visitor’s bullpen, and I love just how close fans can get to it. Next, you’ll see multiple rows of bar-style seating. Even though I never sit in one area for too long during my ballpark visits, this style of seating is always something that I love. If I were buying season tickets to a team with a ballpark that offered this feature, this is the type of ticket I’d probably buy.

Before I left this area, I looked over toward right field and was impressed with what I saw:

I’m a sucker for ballparks with eye-catching backdrops behind them, and the buildings in the background on the right field side of Dunkin’ Donuts Park really add to the scene. This is a ballpark that is jammed into the city center, so the office buildings that overlook the park make for a cool feature. I was also impressed with the seats themselves. The upper seats remind me of the right field seats at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, and although there’s no river flowing past these seats, the concourse behind them is a popular hangout spot that was packed with fans during both games I attended.

My next stop during this initial exploration of Dunkin’ Donuts Park was the lower level of seating in the image above. If you notice the white “Right at Home” signage in the above photo, this next photo was taken just above and to the left of it:

This is definitely a unique vantage point for watching a game. You’ve got the home bullpen down to your left, and the deck above you and the small amount of seats in this area give it an intimate feel. This is also an example of a rare time that you’ll see protective netting in front of a section of seats in the outfield; I’m not personally a big fan of protective netting except for immediately behind home plate, but if you’re visiting with children and you want to feel safer, I can definitely understand the netting’s value — even about 400 feet from home plate. And, hey, if it helps to make baseball fans feel safer when they visit the ballpark, that totally makes sense.

I watched BP from this area for a moment, and then returned to the small concourse behind the lower-deck seats in right field, pausing to check out the city scene over the railing to my left …

… and then went all the way to the upper deck, where I finally got my first bird’s-eye view of Dunkin’ Donuts Park:

A unique feature that I spotted from this angle was the somewhat unusual position of the press boxes. At most MiLB parks, the press area is positioned on the suite level (or sometimes on the concourse level) directly behind home plate. Here, though, there are two press boxes on the concourse level — one on the first base side and the other on the third base side. See the gray structure with the tall and narrow windows across it? That’s the third base-side press box. While I can’t speak to how the broadcasters feel about not being directly behind home plate, the press box’s position is pretty fan friendly — if you’re walking around the concourse, you have the ability to stand on the concourse directly behind home plate and watch the game, which isn’t possible at parks that have the press area in this location.

From here, I snapped this shot of myself at ballpark #65:

(As always, I’m wearing one of my T-shirts, which you can buy at this link.)

While I was still in the right field corner, I looked back at the seating situation and took this shot to illustrate it:

See the Budweiser sign above the batter’s eye? That’s a party deck that was absolutely hopping during both games I attended. I don’t think it’s a stretch, based on what I saw, to label this area the most popular spot in the ballpark. In terms of other neat things in this photo, I really like the small seating sections. Small sections, of course, are nothing new at some MiLB parks, but they really work well. Hartford did remarkably well with attendance in its inaugural season, but at larger parks, bigger seating sections that are sparsely populated don’t look very good from afar and can lack the atmosphere that many fans want. When you build a park with smaller sections, they naturally get filled up and have lots of energy. And that was definitely what I found during this visit.

I understandably wanted to see Dunkin’ Donuts Park from the upper level behind home plate, so I continued on my walk. Partway toward home plate, I turned back to snap this shot that shows the bridge-style concourse and the bar-style seating — two noteworthy features on the park’s upper level:

And here’s how things looked from behind home plate:

You’ll notice sections of bar-style seating in the immediate foreground, which was another feature that I really liked. It reminded me a bit of Columbus’ Huntington Park, which also has this type of seating behind home plate. As many of you probably know, I love standing behind home plate at different parks and taking in the view. One day, I’m sure I’ll compile and blog about my rankings of the parks that offer the best view from this area. When evaluating views of this nature, it’s important to not only look at the park itself, but also what’s beyond it. (PNC Park, for example, is often cited as having the best view from home plate in baseball, but much of the beauty that fans get to enjoy comes from the city’s downtown skyline in the distance, rather than from the park itself.) Anyway, this leads me into my one small knock on Dunkin’ Donuts Park, which is the concrete building to the right of the video board. I find that it looks old and stale, and it would be awesome to see some snazzy condos or a building with a little more character there in the future.

If you’re interested in how the suite level looks, I’ve got good news — the next couple photos illustrate this beauty of this area. Here’s a shot that shows more bar-style seating, including rows with stadium seats and rows with bistro-style chairs, which I thought were a nice touch:

And, immediately behind the glass on the right side of the above photo, there’s an enormous dining/hangout area for those with suite access:

This is another spot that was popular during both games — fans were hanging out at the tables and enjoying drinks from the bar, all while being able to keep an eye on the game through the windows.

While I was in this spot, I noticed that the Sea Dogs had come onto the field. Hartford’s BP had since wrapped up, and I wanted to go watch the visiting club get warmed up. I retraced the steps I’d taken just a handful of minutes earlier to end up back in the right field corner, where I had this view:

I watched the players stretch and play catch for a few minutes, and then took the opportunity to explore the upper level of the seats in right field. Here’s how things looked from the end of the concourse behind the seats:

Notice the netting on the right? That’s because there’s a sidewalk and street directly below this area.

Next, I walked toward home plate, stopping midway down the line to take this panorama:

Portland wasn’t hitting, so I watched the warmups for a few minutes longer, and then headed back toward home plate. This time, I went down to the lower seating bowl, where I encountered another cool feature that Dunkin’ Donuts Park offers. Check out this area, dubbed the “Dugout Suite,” and its counterpart on the other side of the field:

This is prime territory at any ballpark, so I’m sure the decision to provide exclusive seating wasn’t a decision that the team and ballpark designer took lightly. After all, there could definitely be dozens of additional seats squeezed into these spots, but the open design really looks awesome, in my books, and gives fans who enjoy suite-style seating but want to be close to the field a perfect spot from which to enjoy the game.

Next, I cut through the seats behind home plate and went down to field level on the third base side. The Sea Dogs were still warming up across the field, but the home side of Dunkin’ Donuts Park was quiet, and that suited me just fine as I enjoyed hanging out and taking in the scene. I also noticed a few balls from BP, including this one …

… and gathered them up and then tossed them onto the warning track in front of the dugout.

If it sounds like I was all over the place during my first visit to Dunkin’ Donuts Park, that’s because I was. Just a few minutes later, I went up to the concourse on the third base side, turning briefly to snap this shot of the right field corner:

I said earlier that I wasn’t a fan of the gray building beyond the outfield, but I absolutely love the look of the right field corner. The buildings add a perfect backdrop, don’t you think?

After enjoying that scene for a few minutes, I continued along the concourse as the gates opened up and fans began to pour in. The fan support for the Yard Goats has been incredible — and considering I was at a late-August weekday game for a team that finished the season 29.5 games out of first place in the Eastern League’s Eastern Division, I was hugely impressed at the turnout and passion of the fan base. Check out how the gates looked as they opened. You’ll admit that this isn’t always a scene that you see in the minor leagues, especially given the above circumstances:

Even though I was excited to continue exploring the ballpark, I figured that it was a good time to eat. I was hungry from my long day, and wanted to eat before lineups formed at the concession stands. For those who might be wondering, there is indeed a Dunkin’ Donuts concession stand inside the park:

But, that wasn’t where I was headed. Instead, I was looking for one of the ballpark’s most notable concession items, which I found at the Dark Blues Diner stand. (The “Dark Blues” name pays tribute to the historic Hartford team of the same name that was actually a member of the National League in 1876 and 1877.)

Ready for this?

I present to you the Dunkin’ Donuts Park BLT, which consists of bacon, lettuce and a slice of tomato with maple mayo, all sandwiched between two DD glazed donuts:

Hashtag cardiology.

While the concept of a sandwich made with donut buns might be nothing new to some, this was the first time I’d ever eaten something like this. I was hugely surprised when the concession worker handed it to me, mainly because I expected to see one donut sliced through the middle to make the two “buns.” This one, however, actually had a full donut as the top bun and a full donut as the bottom bun. It’s a mouthful to eat a pair of donuts at the best of times, but when you add the significant amount of bacon that was on this BLT, it definitely made for a heavy, filling sandwich. I was expecting maybe two small slices of bacon, but the mound on this sandwich was very generous.

Here’s how this bad boy looked when put together:

The good news? I really liked it.

The bad news? I really liked it.

Part of me wondered if this sandwich, which was one of those things that you pick up and have to hang onto until you’re done eating it, would be more novelty than tasty. I was thus surprised at how delicious it was — the sweetness of the donuts, the saltiness of the bacon and (thank goodness) a few plant products really made this a good sandwich. That’s why I say the fact that I liked it was both good and bad news. I was glad I got my money’s worth, as this bad boy was $10, but I’m tempted to try to make one at home myself, which is probably not a good idea.

I ate the BLT at one of the bar-style seats down the first base line, and there were more than a few fans who were rubbernecking as they filed past me. This was the type of ballpark fare that required a few minutes of recovery after eating, so I sat for a short stint after finishing it. When I got up again, I decided to take another lap of the ballpark to encourage a little digestion, and my next stop was over at the visitor’s bullpen just as the starter had completed his warmup:

I watched first pitch and spent the entire first inning in that area, before heading to a seat in right-center for the second inning:

Later on, I enjoyed some of the game from this vantage point …

… and then watched the last few innings of the game from here:

Less than five minutes after the final out, I was back in my car and headed toward my hotel, the Hyatt House Hartford North/Windsor:

Located about 10 minutes from Dunkin’ Donuts Park, the hotel’s prime attraction, for me, is its suite-style rooms. I hadn’t previously stayed in a Hyatt House in the past, but have often stayed at Hyatt Place properties, which feature similar suite-style rooms. It’s nice to be in a room that is larger than a standard-sized room, but is still affordable — and that’s definitely the case with Hyatt House. My room had a full kitchen and living room, in addition to a king-sized bed and a large bathroom area. Other features that guests can enjoy? Free parking and Wi-Fi and a really impressive gym and indoor swimming pool.

By the time I got settled in my room, I didn’t have anything on the agenda other than relaxing. As always, it’d been a long first day of traveling, and I was exhausted. I flopped down on this sofa with a bag of popcorn and a bottle of Snapple (but, alas, no donut BLTs to eat), flipped on the TV and watched some — what else? — baseball:

When it was time for bed, I spun the TV 180 degrees so that it was now facing the bedroom part of my room, hopped into bed and fell asleep watching SportsCenter — anxious to spend another day in Hartford and enjoy another visit to Dunkin’ Donuts Park.

Tri-City ValleyCats – August 21

Five hours after shutting off my hotel room light to end a memorable first day in Troy, N.Y., I was up again and eager to get my second day underway. I had a bit of sightseeing and shopping planned before I got over to Joseph L. Bruno Stadium for that evening’s Tri-City ValleyCats game.

After breakfast, I set out to make the short drive to the Albany airport area, where my mission was to hunt down the remnants of a ballpark that was torn down several years prior. Heritage Park, which opened in 1982, closed in 2002 and was demolished in 2009, was the home of the Albany-Colonie A’s between 1982 and 1984 and the Albany-Colonie Yankees from ’85 to ’94. Many future major leaguers played at Heritage Park during its time hosting affiliated ball. Notable Yankees included Derek Jeter, who hit .377 for the Albany-Colonie squad in 1994 at the age of 20; two seasons later, he had his first World Series ring as a member of the Bronx Bombers. The three other members of the Yankees Core Four, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera all played for Albany-Colonie, as did scores of other future MLBers.

To get to the Heritage Park site, I drove down a dead-end road …

… and parked on a patch of gravel that I assume was once part of the area in front of the ballpark’s main gates. In walking around the area for a bit, it was obvious that something used to be here, but there were no clues about what it might have been. A sunken field area sloped away from the road but, by now, the entire area was thoroughly overgrown. There were a handful of metal posts that I assume were once part of a chain-link fence around the ballpark’s perimeter:

And some red posts like this one, which I think were around the main gates:

I spent about 15 minutes exploring, and while it was neat to think about what used to stand here, it was a little disappointing to not see as many signs of the old ballpark as I’d hoped.

I wrapped up my tour by opting not to check out the spooky abandoned house at the end of the road. Instead, I returned to my hotel and relaxed for a bit by watching some Little League World Series action — a favorite pastime whenever I travel in August. I also joined many staff and guests in the parking lot midway through the afternoon when the solar eclipse took place, although without any eclipse glasses, I basically just stood around and tried to resist the urge to stare at what was happening overhead.

About 3:30 p.m., I drove over to Joseph L. Bruno Stadium, a.k.a. “The Joe” with the intention of getting inside nice and early to enjoy the ballpark experience. After snapping this photo …

… I heard a familiar “click-clack” sound and turned to my left to watch the Hudson Valley Community College football team about to pass between the stadium and me on its way to the nearby football stadium. The Joe is located on the HVCC campus, and while I’d briefly checked out the football stadium a day earlier, I was curious to watch a little of the football practice. That desire grew when I peeked inside the ballpark and saw that batting practice wasn’t taking place. That meant that was I pretty early to sit in a virtually empty stadium by myself, so I changed up my plans a little and followed the football team over to its practice. For about 45 minutes, I leaned against the grandstands and watched scenes like this:

No one paid me any mind, so I guess it wasn’t assumed that I was a spy from Alabama or Texas. Other than a few players silently nodding to me as they walked past, the only interaction I had was when an agitated linebacker groaned at me, “Where the water at, man?” Apparently, the water machine had yet to arrive, and I had the appearance of the water boy.

After a while, I headed back to The Joe and there still wasn’t much going on. The field was set up, but there weren’t yet any players on it. Instead of walking around, I just grabbed a seat at the end of the concourse behind home plate, where I sat in the quiet and enjoyed the view in front of me.

Perhaps 15 minutes later, as a few players played catch down the right field line, I walked down the concourse on the third base side, went up on the hill above left field, and then took a pass directly behind the outfield fence:

It’s an area that is technically closed off, but no one was around and I wanted to see the park from a new vantage point. (Also, the fact that BP wasn’t taking place, which meant that no home runs balls would be landing on my head, was rather appealing.) When I emerged from behind the fence, I climbed up to the top of the berm in the right field corner and took this shot:

This area is one of my favorite places to hang out at The Joe, although it’s tough to narrow down all the great spots down to a short list. I love the view that this berm provides of the field, as well as the visitor’s bullpen, and I like the visual effect of the tall grass that separates the berm from the seats.

After watching the visiting Brooklyn Cyclones play catch for a bit, I set out to find something to eat. As much as it was tempting to go with another pizza from the wood-burning oven, I was eager to try something different. As I lined up at a concession stand on the first base side, I saw a great “you know you’re in the minors” scene — a pair of the visiting Cyclones buying dinner ahead of me. (Chicken fingers and fries, for the record.)

As for me, I went with something a little less conventional: BBQ in a Bag:

This meal consists of a bag of Fritos topped with smoked pulled pork, baked beans, coleslaw and bacon. It was the ValleyCats’ entry for the MiLB Food Fight promotion that takes place each season, and it was tasty — perhaps the only knock on it was the fact that when you get down toward the bottom of the bag, Fritos are a little tough to eat with a plastic fork. It’s definitely something I’d try again, if given the chance, but that probably won’t be the case. Teams switch up their Food Fight entries annually, so unless the team decides to bring this dish (bag?) back, I don’t expect you’ll see it on the menu next season.

Once I’d eaten, I went down to field level on the first base side to watch the Cyclones warming up. I was particularly drawn to their uniforms, which I thought looked super sharp:

It’s sort of hard to tell in these pictures, but the material had a heather-like appearance to it, which gave the whole ensemble a real throwback look. It’s one of the nicest uniforms I’ve seen in the minors in some time.

Here’s shortstop Dylan Snypes playing catch:

And here’s a closer look at the Cyclones uniform, thanks to third baseman Carl Stajduhar:

As I did a day earlier, I spent the first part of the game in a seat directly behind home plate, shooting action photos like this one:

Then, I went down to the ramp in the left field corner to enjoy the action from that spot. While there, an interesting event caught my eye. Remember how I took a walk behind the outfield fence before the game? It turns out that I’m not the only user of that route. There was a member of the Brooklyn bullpen staff standing behind the ValleyCats bullpen, talking with someone he obviously knew. Perhaps as a peace offering, the ValleyCats reliever tossed some bubble gum over the fence …

… and then the Brooklyn player disappeared behind the fence again on his way back over to the visitor’s bullpen.

Want to hear about a ridiculous dessert?

I don’t normally eat dessert at ballparks, but I was keen on munching on something else in the game’s middle innings. Dessert on this night came in the form of a deep-fried Twinkie sundae. Why have a deep-fried Twinkie on its own when you can have it as a sundae? is the age-old question mankind has always pondered. As the friendly server built it for me, she asked, Do you want all the toppings? I’ll give you one guess as to my answer.

Check this out:

You’re looking at one deep-fried Twinkie, chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, sprinkles and a cherry, and everything was pretty good. I can’t recall ever eating a Twinkie, let alone a deep-fried one. The middle was nice and gooey, and the crispy exterior was a nice contrast to the softness of the other ingredients. Definitely a winner, although something your arteries might not want you to eat each game.

With the game winding down, I grabbed a spot on the concourse behind home plate and snapped this panorama:

I really like how this one turned out, and I hope it gives you a good idea of just how beautiful this ballpark is.

Even though my second game wrapped up soon enough, my road trip wasn’t over just yet. I still got to hang out at my hotel, which was hugely enjoyable. In case you missed yesterday’s post, I was staying at the Hilton Garden Inn Troy, and the hotel had upgraded me to the presidential suite. After the game, I made the 10-minute drive back to the hotel, had a swim in the indoor pool and then watched SportsCenter in the living room, which looks like this:

In my previous post, I talked about the suite I was in, but there are lots of reasons that this hotel is ideal for baseball roadtrippers beyond its guest rooms and location. For starters, there’s a sports bar, Recovery Sports Grill, on the ground floor. I didn’t have a meal there, but I stuck my head in and it’s the perfect place to watch the some sports on TV with some refreshments after you’ve come back from The Joe. And that’s not the only on-site eatery; there’s also The Garden Grille & Bar, which serves breakfast and lunch. Free Internet and parking and a good-sized pool and fitness center all combine to make this hotel a great one for baseball travelers — and it’s definitely the spot I’ll be visiting whenever I’m in Troy again.

The next morning, I took a short walk around the area, stopping to snap this shot of the hotel from the outside:

Then, it was time to check out, load up the car and head home — with my next baseball road trip less than a week away.

Tri-City ValleyCats – August 20

I pulled onto the campus of Hudson Valley Community College shortly after 3 p.m. on August 20, noticing small groups of first-year students and their parents checking out the school in advance of moving in. It wasn’t the campus that I was interested in seeing, though — my sights were focused on the building at the rear of the campus.

That’s where Joseph L. Bruno Stadium, home of the Tri-City ValleyCats, stands. It’s one of my favorite stops in the Short-Season A New York-Penn League, and a place that I visited way back in 2010 and again in 2012. If you’re thinking that another visit was overdue, I totally agree with you — and that’s why I had two ValleyCats games scheduled on this short road trip.

The ‘Cats were hosting the Brooklyn Cyclones, who were amusingly the team that I’d seen play Tri-City in each of my previous two visits, and by the time I got to the front gate of the ballpark affectionately known as “The Joe,” there was already a sizable crowd waiting to get in:

Although I was anxious to get inside, I also knew that I’d have more than enough time to enjoy the ballpark over the course of two days. So, I took a bit of time to make a lap of the park’s perimeter and check it out from a few angles.

Seeing the field for the first time, a peek through the chain-link fence atop the grass berm in the right field corner, instantly brought back fond memories of my two previous visits — a championship series game in September of 2010 and the first day of a road trip that took me through New England in 2012:

Given The Joe’s location on the HVCC campus, there are some cool sights to see around the ballpark — namely, a football stadium and a softball field, as well as a ropes course beyond the left field corner of the ballpark. But I was here to see the baseball field, and enjoyed looking through the trees that line the hill beyond the outfield fence to catch glimpses of it. Here’s a shot of the ballpark from the back side of the “hit it here” sign in right-center:

After a full circuit, I headed into The Joe through the main gates, which put me on the concourse directly behind home plate. As I often do, I snapped a photo of the field from this angle …

… and then walked down to field level to just enjoy the sights in front of me.

Fortunately, I’d be standing on the field before too long. The ValleyCats were hosting a “play catch on the field” promotion before the game, and even though I was traveling solo and didn’t have a catch partner, I took advantage of the opportunity to walk around the outfield, trying to dodge errant throws from the scores of kids playing catch. Here’s a panorama that I snapped from the left field corner a moment after nearly getting hit with a football, funny enough:

And here’s how the scene looked from straightaway center:

The drive from my home to Troy, New York (the Tri-City ValleyCats name represents the Tri-City area of Albany, Troy and Schenectady, the latter of which I impressively spelled correctly on my first attempt) took a little under five hours, and I didn’t make a stop for food. That meant that getting something to eat was pretty high up on my list of priorities. Last visit, I had an order of delicious salt potatoes, but I was looking to try something different this time. After a quick circuit of the concourse to evaluate the options, I was drawn to the pizza concession stand on the third base side. But this wasn’t any old ballpark pizza. Rather, this stand was serving made-to-order pizzas in a wood-burning oven:

I knew I had to try one. I ordered a pepperoni and cheese pizza, and hustled to a picnic table above left field once I had the hot box in my hands. I was impressed with the look of the pizza as soon as I lifted the lid, and even more impressed once I bit into the first slice. This pizza was absolutely delicious, and gets the nod as the best ballpark pizza I’ve ever eaten:

I finished the pizza about the time that the teams wrapped up their pregame warmups, so I walked back down the length of the concourse and grabbed a seat behind home plate for the first inning. Even though I had the netting to contend with, I had fun taking some action shots, like this one of ValleyCats starter Alex House:

And this one of Cyclones catcher Scott Manea picking up his first of two hits of the game:

Next, I took another couple laps around the concourse, enjoying the sights and keeping an eye on the action. The Joe is absolutely beautiful, but perhaps the lone knock on it is that the concourse doesn’t wrap around the entire field. Maybe it’s just a matter of personal preference, but I love parks that have this feature, as it’s enjoyable to take entire circuits of the field instead of have to walk back and forth from foul pole to foul pole. On my walk, I had to chuckle when I saw this banner:

What do you think? Agree or disagree?

After I watched a ball that landed in the outfield roll under the gate beside the left field foul pole for a ground rule double, I wanted to spend some time in this area. I figured that not only could there be a chance of snagging a home run, but grabbing a ground rule double ball would make for an interesting story. I snapped this panorama of this pristine-looking ballpark on my walk to the left field corner …

… and then hung out for an inning and a half just a few steps away from the base of the foul pole. While there, I snapped this shot of myself — of course, I’m wearing one of my T-shirts:

Interested in buying one for your own baseball road trips? Here’s the link.

No baseballs came my way, but that was all right. I was still having a blast, and especially excited that I had two days in Troy on this visit. Once I abandoned the idea of getting a baseball, I went behind the home bullpen for a few minutes:

One of the things that I love about the minor leagues is just how close you can get to the bullpens. While this is occasionally the case in the big leagues, there are also several MLB parks at which close access to the bullpen is impossible. It’s fun to watch the players hanging out, getting loose and, of course, warming up for action.

Speaking of the bullpen, there were a few interesting things that I noticed. We’ve probably all seen a player go to stand next to the plate to mimic the batter while a pitcher is warming up, right? Well, at The Joe, the ValleyCats had a pair of wooden batter-shaped models that could be used instead of actual players. I’ve seen some of these in the past, but they’re still fairly rare. You can see a couple of them below, “standing” next to the bench:

Even more interesting were a couple things that I hadn’t noticed at other parks. If you look carefully in the image above, you’ll see a series of strings that run across the bullpen. These represent the top and bottom edges of the strike zone for pitchers who are warming up. Has anyone else noticed these at other parks? I’m wondering if it’s something that’s exclusively done in the lower levels of the minors. Also, you’ll notice a large target that is laying against the fence. It’s divided into four quadrants with clock-style numbers around the perimeter. I’m guessing it’s a teaching tool and may even be something that pitchers use when practicing on their own. This is the first time that I can remember seeing such a thing.

The game itself was bonkers. Tri-City won 13-10 despite being outhit 17-11. Sounds like an offensive juggernaut, right? Yes, but the teams also combined for 20 strikeouts in a game that took 3:41 to play.

About 10 minutes after the final out, I was pulling into my hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn Troy:

I’ve stayed at Hilton Garden Inns many, many times over the years, and this hotel was easily among the most impressive I’ve visited. As with many hotel chains, HGIs have a lot of common features that are similar from property to property, so I was sort of expecting the standard king room that I usually get at this brand of hotel. I was shocked, however, to learn that the hotel had upgraded me to the presidential suite — something I didn’t expect or even imagine might be possible. I’ve since learned that when suites are available (the HGI Troy has 15 suites, including the presidential suite I was lucky to stay in) guests will sometimes get surprised with upgrades. So, if you book a room at this hotel when you’re traveling to Troy for some ValleyCats baseball, you never know which room you may end up in.

This suite was hands down the biggest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in, and featured a list of amenities that was hugely impressive. Standout features included a full kitchen and bar, living room with leather furniture and a fireplace, three TVs and a separate bedroom with a king bed at the end of the long hallway. There was even a full-sized dining room. Honestly, the photos of this suite fail to do it justice, but here’s a look at part of the scene in panorama format:

Above, you’re looking at the living room, with the dining room and kitchen beyond it. The bedroom is down a hall between the dining room and kitchen.

Since you’re probably wondering:

Yes, I used all three TVs during my visit.

And, yes, I put the fireplace on when I sat in the living room.

The full kitchen was another feature that I really appreciated:

While simply having a bar fridge is usually enough for me, it was great to have a full-sized fridge and freezer so that I could stock up on some snacks and drinks for my two-day stay. And, hey, if a fella’s gonna eat some Häagen-Dazs out of the tub in bed while watching SportsCenter, the freezer means that he can ration it out instead of eat it all in one serving. Theoretically.

The location of the hotel was also perfect for me as a baseball traveler. Just a short and easy drive to The Joe, the hotel was an even shorter drive to grocery stores and walking distance to several fast-food restaurants.

My intention of going to bed in decent time was zapped when I got into bed, flipped on the TV and found that it had on-demand programming. As I tweeted out at the time, Showtime boxing captured my attention, and I watched a couple hours of fights before shutting off the lights, anxious for my second day in Troy to begin.

Can-Am League/American Association All-Star Game – July 25

I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy some pretty cool experiences since I began traveling for The Ballpark Guide in 2010, but one thing that has always eluded me was an all-star game. Fortunately, that drought came to an end late in July, when I had the fortune of visiting Ottawa for the all-star game between the best of the Can-Am League and American Association.

Unlike most all-star events that pit the best players in an individual league against each other, this game was unique in that it consisted of all-stars from a pair of independent leagues — the six-team Can-Am League and the 12-team American Association — competing against each other. I’d actually planned to take in the home run derby and skills competition a day earlier, too, but daylong rain meant those activities were a wash. That was unfortunate, but the bright skies on July 25 meant that the all-star game thankfully wouldn’t be threatened by Mother Nature.

My ballpark visits normally revolve around exploring the ballpark, sitting in a bunch of different spots and trying to come up with some unique adventures, but the priority on this night was simply to take in my first all-star game. Don’t get me wrong — there was still some exploring and a chance to do something I’d never done before on the agenda.

I got to Ottawa’s Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park about 3 p.m. and went down to the field a little before the Can-Am League all-stars began hitting. Since I’d missed out on seeing long bombs due to the derby cancellation a day earlier, I was excited to see the league’s top home run hitters pounding balls over the fences at RCGT Park. One such slugger was Rockland Boulders first baseman/outfield Joe Maloney, who was a 10th round pick of Texas and also played as high as Double-A in Minnesota’s system:

Judging by the season he had with Rockland, you have to wonder if he’ll be back in affiliated ball again. He slugged 35 home runs, drove in 101, batted .282 and had an OPS of .997. And, lest you think that his offensive game is one dimensional, he also contributed with 18 stolen bases.

Another hitter I was anxious to see was Quebec Capitales outfielder Kalian Sams, who played affiliated ball in the Seattle, Texas and San Diego systems between 2007 and 2013:

His numbers this season were also impressive, especially considering that he only played in 72 games — 23 home runs, 70 RBIs, a .291 batting average and an OPS of .943.

Maloney and Sams lived up to their billing, as did many of the other Can-Am League hitters, including Ottawa’s own catcher Danny Grauer. Ottawa isn’t a hitter-friendly park, but it was impressive to see balls sailing well over the fence, including some moon shots that landed on Coventry Road beyond left field.

The American Association players soon took the field, and while I must admit that I didn’t recognize many of their names, one player I did know was starting pitcher Mark Hamburger. If you don’t know his story, it’s an interesting one. He’s certainly one of the more colorful characters in independent baseball, as you might get the sense from this photo:

After the Can-Am League batting practice ended but before the American Association guys began to hit, I zipped up to the press box to catch the scene from a bird’s-eye view:

Then, I headed back down to the field and just enjoyed watching the various players go in and out of the cage to my right. One player I spoke to was Martin Medina, a former White Sox and Blue Jays farmhand who currently catches for the Wichita Wingnuts:

I asked him about his perspectives on visiting Ottawa for the first time, and he admitted that many of the AA all-stars had arrived so late that they’d come straight to the ballpark. In fact, the American Association roster was a little short due to some players’ travel issues — so short that Ottawa Champions infielder Daniel Bick got called in to suit up for the American Association.

After BP, I joined my brother and nephew down the third base line. They’d decided to take in the event with me, and my nephew was just a tad excited:

OK, so maybe he was excited about the prospect of trying to get a baseball and chowing down on hot dogs and ice cream, but you get my point.

Our seats adjacent to the home bullpen meant that we got a chance to see the familiar faces of the Ottawa guys and a bunch of other Can-Am League all-stars. Here’s New Jersey Jackals outfielder Johnny Bladel, who had a spectacular year at the plate, hitting .345:

And the aforementioned Grauer, who was recently named the team’s most valuable player:

Grauer wasn’t the only all-star starter from Ottawa. Former big leaguer Phillippe Aumont, who I saw throw a no-hitter earlier in the season, was starting on the mound for the Can-Am side:

Speaking of Aumont, I went to the cross-aisle behind home plate to watch the game’s first pitch:

It was a little disappointing to see so many empty seats. I mean, there was still a decent crowd on hand, but for the caliber of baseball being showcased that night, as well as the rarity of the occasion (the first baseball all-star game ever hosted in the city) it’s regrettable that more Ottawa residents didn’t attend. The Champions did an exemplary job of putting on the entire all-star event, and it would’ve been nice if more baseball fans had come out to enjoy the evening.

I wanted to watch some of the game from a different vantage point, so I went out through the front gates and walked around the perimeter of the park until I arrived in the driveway behind the visitor’s bullpen and the batting cages. This is where the visiting team’s bus parks, and it’s somewhere I hadn’t really explored in the past. The view of the game from this spot isn’t great — and that’s fine, because there aren’t any seats there, anyway — but it was neat to actually be behind the bullpen:

While I was standing in this area, Hamburger (who’d since finished his work for the evening) took a walk down to the ‘pen and mugged for the fans sitting nearby. What a character:

I watched an inning from this spot, partially hoping that one of the right fielders would make a play along the fence or that a foul ball would come my way. Neither happened, but something better took place — I was speaking for a few minutes with a member of the RCGT Park grounds crew, and he casually asked if I wanted to go up to the roof. It obviously didn’t take me long to ponder that offer or give him my answer, so we made plans to meet at the end of the sixth inning so that I could check out this uncharted territory.

That gave me a bit of time to continue checking out the game from various angles, while also occasionally dropping in on my brother and nephew. The next spot I visited was the camera platform in straightaway center field. I’d previously checked out this spot before the Champions game against Cuba, but never during a game itself. I was surprised to run into a security guard standing in front of the ramp to the game — but kind of glad, too, because I’ve occasionally seen freeloaders sneak onto the RCGT Park property and watch the game from this spot without buying a ticket. He was cool with me taking a few photos, so I took shots like this one …

… and majorly hoped for a home run ball to come my way. That didn’t happen, but by the time I made it over to visit with my brother and nephew again, four-year-old Ben had himself a nice baseball. And, as you can tell from this photo, he was pretty stoked:

Champions pitcher Daniel Cordero handed it to him, thus keeping Ben’s streak alive — he’s gotten at least one baseball at every game he’s been to. (And the streak has continued in the games he’s attended since the all-star game, for the record.)

I still had a bit of time until my rooftop adventure, so I grabbed a Fan Club Burger from the home plate concession stand and sat in the upper seats on the third base side to enjoy it:

This was the second time I’d eaten that burger at RCGT Park, and it was just as outstanding as the first time. A huge thumbs up to the Champions and their food services team for producing a burger this delicious.

After the last bite of the burger, I went down to the grounds crew’s office to meet up with my new friend/tour guide.

I’ve only ever been on the roof of a ballpark once. That was back in 2014 when I attended the last game in Jamestown Jammers history. That rooftop experience was cool, but the Jammers played in a small park, so I was basically just going up onto a platform atop the tiny press box. This would be different — RCGT Park is an actual stadium with a legitimate roof, so I knew I’d be in a for a treat. We rode the elevator up to the press level, then took a set of stairs up to the roof. The first thing I did was go right up to the edge and shoot this photo:

It felt a little weird being up so high, but there was a comforting lip around the front edge of the roof that kept me from dropping in on the fans below. I watched a couple minutes of the game from this spot, and then looked around the roof a little. It was wide, with HVAC stuff running down the middle and several banks of speakers along the front edge. Here was the view to my right:

And here’s how things looked over to my left:

That’s the press level immediately under the Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton sign. I was hoping to catch the attention of the broadcasters so that I could wave at them, but they were understandably focused on the game.

Two people who did notice my location were my brother and nephew. They’d been keeping an eye out for me, and when I appeared at the edge of the roof, my nephew was waving like crazy. (Later, he asked me, “How did you get up there?”)

After snapping the scene in panoramic form …

… my mission was to find a foul ball. I’ve been to enough Champions games to know that foul balls land on the roof. A lot. I was surprised that the roof wasn’t littered with baseballs, which indicates that someone from the gameday staff or grounds crew likely visits the roof regularly to collect them. I told my tour guide that I wanted to take a couple minutes to hunt for a baseball, and he obliged. Unfortunately, that tour yielded nothing. As I expressed disappointment, my new friend smiled and handed me a ball that he’d found:

I’ve managed to collect a bunch of baseballs over the years, but it’s hard to beat the cool location of this one!

Our rooftop visit wrapped up soon afterward, and I need to give a big thank you to my rooftop tour guide for making it happen.

Afterward, I rejoined my brother and nephew and we moved to this spot behind home plate …

… where we remained until the final out.

I’m pleased to say that my first all-star game experience was a thrill, and I commend the Champions organization for doing such a great job of putting on the spectacle for baseball fans.

Ottawa Champions – July 12

Another post about visiting Ottawa, you ask?

To that I say, yes.

While it’s my mission to see games in as many ballparks as I can, I can’t resist the opportunity to see baseball wherever it’s played and, this season, that has frequently come in the form of Ottawa Champions games at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park. I’ve got some great trips in the works for the remainder of the summer and into the fall, so you can count on a lot of blogging before the final pitch of the season is thrown. In the meantime, when I’m able to get to Ottawa — the closest city to where I live that has a professional team — I’m going to take it.

I’ve been having a blast at RCGT Park so far. You’ve perhaps read about me seeing the Cuban and Dominican Republic national teams, but for this visit in the second week of July, there wasn’t any international action scheduled. Rather, the Sussex County Miners were in town for a critical series; after a slow start, the Champions have been playing some excellent baseball, and the Miners were holding the final Can-Am League playoff spot at the time of my visit with the Champions right on their heels.

Although I’m trying to mix up my ballpark experience to give you something unique each visit, one thing won’t change — how early I get to the ballpark. As always, I arrived around the start of batting practice, and went right down to the field. One of my favorite things during BP is watching infield practice. Although the action in the cage is perhaps the prime attraction, it’s always impressive to watch the sure hands of the infielders as they go about their drills. Infield practice began soon after I arrived, so I stood in front of the Ottawa dugout on the third base side and watched as players like Ricky Oropesa took grounders at shortstop:

Oropesa, a third-round draft pick of San Francisco in 2011 who made it as high as the Triple-A level, is a first baseman. As such, I was surprised to see him on the left side of the infield. I quickly looked up his career fielding record on Baseball-Reference, however, and learned that he played a handful of games at third base in 2014 while playing Double-A. And, judging by his adeptness with short hops and his cannon of an arm, it was clear that he was more than comfortable out of his regular position.

After watching infield practice for a bit, I walked over behind the cage and watched a couple groups of the Champions hit. Then, when the Miners took the field, I took a leisurely walk from one end of the cross-aisle to the other, keeping my eye on the action on the field as I walked. At one point, as I was on my way back from the left field corner toward home plate, I noticed someone in a Champions uniform leaning on the railing and watching Sussex County. He’s barely visible in this photo, but that’s Champions manager Hal Lanier, who earned National League manager of the year honors with the Houston Astros in 1986:

The Sussex County BP was largely uneventful for me. I hung out on the field for a bit, in the stands for a bit, and did some wandering around, too. When the field was empty after BP, I took a seat on the third base side and scrolled through Twitter for a bit, before moving down the line a little as the players took the field a while later. I can never resist standing next to the bullpen as a player is warming up. At RCGT Park, the bullpens are so close to the front row of seats that it’s a real thrill to stand there and hear the ball go past you. Right-hander Steve Borkowski, who played rookie ball in the Atlanta Braves system two seasons ago, soon took the mound — and I was right there to watch:

As he threw, he had a pair of talented starters standing behind him. That’s Daniel Cordero and Phillippe Aumont from left to right. They’ve both been named as starters at the upcoming Can-Am League vs. American Association all-star game, and you might recall from my last blog post that Aumont threw a no-hitter this season. Regarding Cordero, you could make a strong case that he’s been Ottawa’s best overall starter through the first half of the season. He leads the team with six wins, has a pair of complete games, an ERA of 3.39 and 55 strikeouts in 69 innings.

After Borkowski finished tossing, he spoke briefly with all-star catcher Danny Grauer …

… and then the players headed to the dugout. That meant that it was time for me to head away to find a spot to sit for the game’s opening innings. In my previous visits to RCGT Park this season, I moved around so much that I didn’t do much action photography. I wanted to change that for this game, so I grabbed a spot in the front row behind the visitor’s dugout so that I could watch the action. Even though my camera and lenses aren’t very expensive, I love shooting baseball. It’s a fun challenge and a never-ending quest to get a photo at just the right moment. From my spot, I had a great view of home plate, so I snapped shots of shortstop Daniel Bick …

… and second baseman Steve Nyisztor:

Beyond having a clear view to home plate, one of the coolest things about sitting behind the dugout is just watching the goings-on. You can easily hear that the players are saying, as well as see subtle things that you might not catch if you were watching on TV. One such thing — and arguably something I’ve never seen before — was Sussex County pitcher Kris Regas recording a video of the Ottawa hitters. It makes me wonder if he’s friends with someone on Ottawa or he’s just doing a little scouting for himself:

In the top of the second inning, I had a great view of Miners right fielder Rubi Silva as he smoked a ball over the fence for a home run — and celebrated after crossing the plate:

After snapping the above photo, I made the quick decision to run after the ball. I was extremely far away from where it left the field, but I figured that I might as well make an attempt and see what might happen. I quickly ran up the steps of the seating bowl, navigated my way through the concourse and headed out of the stadium. Snagging balls at RCGT Park isn’t easy. The area immediately behind the outfield fence is a deep ravine-like area and is extremely thick with brush that isn’t easy to navigate. You’ve got to accept that you’re going to get muddy and scratched by thorn bushes if you have a hope of finding a ball. Here’s how the area looks:

I pushed my way down the muddy slope and through the bushes, looked for several minutes and found Silva’s ball after maybe three or four minutes of looking:

See that big green stain on the ball? It was left there in an interesting way. Silva’s blast was just barely long enough to leave the yard. In fact, it landed with a thud on the top of the outfield fence and then rolled over to end up on the muddy slope. There were a number of tree branches extending over the top of the fence, so I’m certain that the green was left after the ball squashed some leaves between it and the top of the fence.

I immediately checked to see if the home run ball would have any significance to Silva. I didn’t know of him before the game, so I had no idea whether this was his first professional home run or would otherwise be noteworthy. As you might know if you’ve followed me for a while, I’m always up for returning a home run ball to the player who hit it if the ball is noteworthy. That didn’t appear to be the case here — the baseball in my hand was his second dinger of the season and 52nd of his career between the minor leagues and independent baseball.

Here’s another number for you — this is the fourth home run ball in my collection!

I was thrilled to be holding it as I returned to the stadium, took a seat on the third base side and sent out this Instagram post:

All the running around and excitement had worked up an appetite, so I headed to the main concession area behind home plate to look for dinner. I’ve had really good luck with the food at RCGT Park dating back a few years — and while it’s tempting to stick with a proven winner, I want to continue to try new things. Dinner on this night came in the form of General Tao chicken. In the past, I’ve eaten it on poutine, but this was a plain order served on noodles that came with chopsticks:

It was absolutely delicious and actually gave me a source of vegetables at the ballpark — a rarity, to be sure. In fact, I was so excited to have a veggie at a baseball game that I felt compelled to snap this silly photo:

Once I’d eaten, I went back down to the front row to resume taking action shots. Here’s one of Grauer about to make contact for a single:

Once the inning was over, I went up to the press box for a few minutes, snapping this photo during my brief stay there:

Then, it was time to check out an absolutely awesome vantage point for photos. I’d visited this spot briefly with team president and minority owner David Gourlay during my previous visit to RCGT Park, and wanted to be sure to return in the future. The spot in question was the end of the umpires’ tunnel, directly behind home plate. It’s an amazing place to watch the game, but the ability to shoot photos from this spot was a real thrill. Here’s how the view looked from a wide angle:

Pretty cool, right? Yes, but when I zoomed in, I was able to get shots like this one of Borkowski dealing to Jarred Mederos:

And here’s one of Bick squaring to bunt as a pitch from Sussex County starter Gianni Zayas is on its way:

Since I mentioned Ottawa all-stars Aumont, Cordero and Grauer earlier, I can’t leave out Sebastien Boucher, who is the team’s fourth and final all-star selection:

I stayed in this spot for a couple innings, and while I feel like I could share dozens of photos that I took, that might be a little boring for you. So, here’s one last one from this spot — a look at outfielder Steve Brown’s big follow-through on a foul ball:

Once the Champions finished hitting, I went back up to the cross-aisle to watch the remainder of the game — including when it began to sprinkle rain a little:

As soon as the game wrapped up, I was back in my car and headed home — but very much looking forward to my next trip to RCGT Park.