Best View in the Minors Competition

Yesterday, I launched my biggest undertaking yet — a competition in which fans can vote to choose the ballpark that provides the best view from home plate. I’m absolutely thrilled with the amazing response that the Best View in the Minors competition has received so far.

Thanks to a lot of social media shares across multiple platforms, I’m thrilled with how many people are checking out the page and casting their votes. Evaluating the views at 160 minor league ballparks isn’t a small task, but I hope that you’ll take some time to visit the page and cast a vote. And if you already have, thank you!

I spent much of yesterday afternoon talking to fellow baseball fans on Twitter and hearing their responses, as well as tracking the votes as they poured in, and it’s been a thrill to see how people are voting. All of this talk makes me want to chime in with my own favorites, which hasn’t been an easy list to compile. I’ve *only* been to 54 minor league ballparks, so in the name of fairness, I’ll only be sharing my favorites from the parks that I’ve visited. I also want to be clear that I’ve selected the following parks based exclusively on how I like the view from behind home plate — I’m not considering any of the other myriad factors that make up a ballpark experience, so this isn’t a list of my overall favorite parks.

Here are my top five ballpark views, with a pair of honorable mentions:

Honorable Mention 1: PNC Field, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

PNC Park in Pittsburgh arguably gives fans the best view from home plate in the major leagues, but don’t sleep on the minor league park with the similar name. PNC Field, which went through an extensive renovation in time for the 2013 International League season, offers one of the best views that I’ve encountered on all my travels. Photos hardly do it justice, but there’s a tall rock wall covered with trees that juts up beyond the outfield fence, grass berm and outfield concourse, almost giving you the feeling that you’re in a canyon devoted to baseball.

Honorable Mention 2: Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, State College Spikes

There are a few MiLB ballparks that you could argue have more impressive mountain views than State College’s Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, but I’ve yet to visit them. So, this New York-Penn League ballpark and its fantastic view of Mount Nittany gets an honorable mention on my list. The 2,000-foot mountain looms in the distance beyond straightaway center, and makes for one of the best backdrops I’ve seen on my travels.

5: Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, New Hampshire Fisher Cats

If I disregard the fact that Northeast Delta Dental Stadium is one of my favorite places to visit for a long list of reasons, it’s still a ballpark with an outstanding view. There’s not a lot happening on the right field side of this Eastern League park, but the left field view is hugely enticing. The key attraction there is the Hilton Garden Inn hotel, which isn’t technically part of the ballpark, but is close enough that it might as well be. There are a handful of minor league parks with field-facing hotels, but I don’t know if any is closer than this one. The hotel has a patio immediately behind the left field fence where people can eat, drink and enjoy the game, and all of this is visible from the ballpark itself.

4: Southwest University Park, El Paso Chihuahuas

Full disclosure: I’ve got a thing for field-facing hotels. If you’ve read my blog for a long time, you likely know this about me. But the Doubletree by Hilton hotel that makes up part of the view at El Paso’s Southwest University Field is just one element that makes this ballpark’s view rank third on my list. The neat-looking building that you see beyond left field is the El Paso Scottish Rite Temple, a theater and museum housed in a building that dates back to 1921. Don’t forget the Franklin Mountains rising in the distance, which are nicely visible during both day and night games.

3: Harbor Park, Norfolk Tides

Harbor Park is the only entry on this list that I’ve visited this season, and I can honestly say that part of the reason I chose to travel to Norfolk was for the view that the park provides. It’s a view that looks enticing in photos, but is even more impressive in person. The Elizabeth River flows just beyond the ballpark’s outfield fence and is visible behind the video board, and a pair of elevated railway bridges span across this body of water. They point skyward by default, but are lowered and raised multiple times per game to allow trains to pass.

2: Peoples Natural Gas Field, Altoona Curve

I’ve only been to Peoples Natural Gas Field once — a short visit back in 2012 — but it didn’t take long to be wowed by this Eastern League ballpark’s view. The prime attraction, of course, is the roller coaster that towers above the right field fence. The roller coaster is part of the Lakemont Park, an amusement park that opened way back in 1894. It’s called the Skyliner, and has been a fixture at the amusement park since 1987. The irony here is that I get violently ill on any ride that moves faster than a teeter-totter, but as long as I can enjoy the view at this ballpark and not have to ride the Skyliner, it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.

1: Whataburger Field, Corpus Christi Hooks

My favorite view that I’ve encountered so far belongs to Whataburger Field, home of the Corpus Christi Hooks. This Texas League ballpark’s view is all about the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge, which is beyond the fence in right field. The bridge, which is nearly 250 feet tall and lights up at night in a number of color schemes, spans over a ship channel that opens into Corpus Christi Bay, which then joins the Gulf of Mexico. Throughout the game, you can see freighters pass under the bridge in both directions as they pick up and drop off loads along various points along the Port of Corpus Christi.

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Batavia Muckdogs – July 15, 2018

Despite being only 4.5 hours from my front door, Dwyer Stadium, home of the Batavia Muckdogs, isn’t a place that I’d previously managed to visit since I launched The Ballpark Guide in 2010. And while I’d visited Rochester’s Frontier Field — just 45 minutes from Batavia — five separate times and zipped along I-90 past Batavia more times than I can count, this New York-Penn League team had never made it onto my road trip schedule.

Half of the issue has been scheduling. Often, when I’d plan to be near Batavia or would be driving past it, the Muckdogs weren’t at home. The other half of the issue was the fact that the team has essentially been on life support for the last several years. If you follow the NYPL, you’ll be no stranger to the talk about the Muckdogs leaving town. Many recent seasons have seemed like they’d be the team’s last, but the ‘Dogs continue to survive their standing eight-count and hang on.

Given the team’s relatively close proximity to where I live, as well as knowing that I’d regret not seeing the Muckdogs if they ended up departing, I knew that 2018 had to be the season that I finally visited Dwyer Stadium — and I’m happy that I made it happen.

I don’t normally schedule afternoon games on the first day of road trips, but this was the plan to start the trip that I’m currently on:

  • Wake up at 4 a.m.
  • Leave the house at 5 a.m.
  • Arrive in Batavia at 10 a.m.
  • See the Muckdogs host the Lowell Spinners at 1 p.m.

I completed the first two items on that list with no problem, and after several hours of driving, found myself pulling into the quiet parking lot at Dwyer Stadium just a few minutes after 10 a.m. — hopefully earning a Guinness record for “Earliest Arrival to a New York-Penn League Game.”

Dwyer Stadium opened in 1996, replacing the team’s former ballpark that was built on the same site in 1939. It’s nestled into a residential community, greatly reminiscent of Falcon Park in Auburn. Nearby residents can easily hear the ballpark PA announcer’s words and foul balls can make their way out of the park and onto neighborhood lawns. There’s a Little League facility beyond the left field fence and when there’s a lull in the action at Dwyer Stadium, fans can easily hear the kids’ game taking place just out of sight.

These are things that give Dwyer Stadium an appealing quality, and one that is increasingly rare as ballparks get bigger and fancier. It’s also the type of thing that makes me hope that the Muckdogs are able to stay in Batavia for many more years.

Since the parking lot was almost empty when I arrived, I had my pick of the spots — and chose one far enough away that my vehicle would be safe from foul balls. Before I got out of the car, I watched a coach bus pull up and knew that it carried the Spinners, which made me a combination of amused/proud/embarrassed to know that I’d beaten the visiting team to the ballpark yet again. I watched the Spinners climb out of the bus and walk into the visitors clubhouse, which is situated in the right field corner, and then I, too, left my vehicle to begin walking around the park.

The following image shows how Dwyer Stadium appears from the parking lot:

The pointed structure on the left houses the team’s offices and concession stand, while you can also see the sloped grandstands above the green walls and the covered grandstand behind home plate.

I walked around to the front of the ballpark and snapped this panorama:

To take it, I had to stand in the middle of the road — not something that you can do around most parks, but the quiet neighborhood around Dwyer Stadium made it easy.

The residential location of Dwyer Stadium isn’t the only thing that makes it reminiscent of Auburn’s Falcon Park. Although the latter opened a season earlier, the two ballparks are virtually identical, and it was fun to see so many familiar sights as I walked around.

I made my way down the sidewalk outside of the stadium and turned to walk behind the outfield fence. From there, I could see the batting cages and although I couldn’t hear anyone hitting, a Muckdogs cap and baseball bat were a sure sign that a member of the home team was about to start:

The space beyond the outfield fence has a unique combination of things to see. The impressiveness of the neatly manicured Little League park provides a contrast to rundown and vandalized structures such as this one:

This is how the backside of the outfield fence looks from where I stood behind the mound of a small children’s baseball diamond:

After making a complete lap around the facility, I figured that I’d pick up my media pass and go inside, but then I heard the Muckdogs taking batting practice. Doing so before a 1 p.m. game is rare, so I quickly ran back behind the outfield fence in the hopes of snagging a home run ball. Luck wasn’t in my favor — the fence is taller than most, and given that players at this level are still developing (and often using wooden bats for the first time) it’s definitely not a home run league. After a few minutes of not seeing a single ball leave the yard, I decided to head inside.

Here’s a look at the space immediately inside the main gates, which includes a beer concession stand, a bunch of picnic tables and some open space:

And this is the view that fans get upon entering and turning to the left:

The main concession stand is just out of the frame to the left, and the structure that you see is the backside of the team’s offices. The grandstand, of course, is on the right, and the gray wall in the middle of it is the back of the press box.

When I visit ballparks like Dwyer Stadium, I often think about what the experience might be for players. The Muckdogs are affiliated with the Marlins, and I can’t help but suspect that the gap between Batavia and Miami feels bigger than the 1,450 miles it actually is. The big leagues have to feel like a long shot when you’re in Batavia, but your motivation is never too far away. Behind the grandstand, there’s a huge wall display that recognizes the big leaguers who began their pro careers in Batavia. It’s an impressive list, too, with names such as Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Marlon Byrd, JA Happ, Carlos Carrasco, Lance Lynn, Matt Carpenter and many more.

After reading the alumni display and browsing some historical plaques mounted in the same area, I walked from the main plaza area down the third base concourse, which looks like this:

Down the third base line, there’s a large tent for groups, and I enjoyed a couple minutes of reprieve from the sun while watching BP:

One interesting thing that I noticed in this spot is that the Muckdogs were using a pitching machine for batting practice. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that in all of the ballparks I’ve visited.

My next stop was the cross-aisle behind home plate, which looks like this:

This area is essentially the heart of Dwyer Stadium, perhaps thanks in part to the shelter from the sun that fans can enjoy here. After enjoying a few minutes of shade, I then stood directly behind home plate and watched some BP with this view:

Next, I continued my self-guided tour of Dwyer Stadium by walking along the cross-aisle down the first base line to a party deck at the end of the seating bowl:

The party deck has a small number of seats and a bar, and I later noticed that it was packed from first pitch through the ninth inning.

The next place I visited was the front row on the third base side, where I checked out the seating situation in detail. I love the cozy vibe that small ballparks like Dwyer Stadium provide fans. If you take a look at the following photo …

… you’ll notice that there are only five rows of seats below the cross-aisle. I especially love how the front row allows you to look right into the dugout, which is one of the ways that fans can get outstanding access to players at this level. You may have also noticed that Dwyer Stadium doesn’t yet have its dugout netting up, which I was happy to see.

As the gates opened and fans began to trickle into the park, I took a walk down the first base side toward the visitors clubhouse. Just before you reach the clubhouse, there’s an open area that I figured would be a good spot to stand in the hopes of snagging a foul ball:

And speaking of balls, you can’t really see it in the above photo, but there was a BP ball stuck between the rolled-up tarp and the fence. I noticed it as I got closer and grabbed it:

As I walked back toward the seating bowl, I saw a man leaning over the fence in front of the visitors dugout. I figured he was a reporter waiting for a player, but then saw that he appeared to be conversing with whoever was in the dugout. Curious, I walked over to the far side of the park so that I could see who he was talking to, and saw that it was a large contingent of Spinners. I quickly realized that he was a minister who was holding a church service for the players, given that it was a Sunday:

A while later, both teams came out to get warmed up, and in a true “you know you’re at a minor league game” moment, I watched two members of the home side playing catch with a pair of fans who were standing on the grass next to the picnic area down the third base line. It wasn’t just a couple of tosses, either — they were consistently playing catch for several minutes.

As I watched, I saw my buddy Mark Firkins waving at me from halfway across the ballpark. He’s someone I met when I was in the Cleveland Indians #TribeLive suite three season ago, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. He lives close to Batavia, so he and his son Travis made plans to be at this game. It was great to get caught up with him. He’s an Indians fan who attends a lot of games in Cleveland each season, which is a heck of a feat, given that it’s about a four-hour drive each way.

Mark and Travis joined me up in the shade to the left side of home plate, where we had this view as the game began:

Although the shade in this area was a welcome relief, we soon decided that we wanted to get closer to the action. Mark suggested going down to the front row behind the visitors dugout, and that was a perfect idea for me — the rare absence of netting meant that I was excited to snap some action photos over the next few innings. Before we settled into our new seats, Travis snapped this shot of Mark and me:

We also decided to grab some food. I’d spent some time perusing the Dwyer Stadium concessions before the gates opened, and there wasn’t anything overly noteworthy on the menu. Don’t get me wrong — this ballpark has all of the standard fare that you might want, but nothing out of the ordinary. I figured that when all else fails, you can’t go wrong with a hot dog, and I was surprised at the size of the one I was given:

Mark quickly explained that this is a Zweigle’s hot dog, which is thicker and shorter than a standard hot dog. Zweigle’s is based in Rochester and dates back to 1880. (The company is known for its white hots, which I ate in Rochester several years ago.)

As soon as I finished eating, I began to shoot some action shots. Here’s Spinners outfielder Dylan Hardy fouling a ball off:

And here’s Spinners first baseman Devlin Granberg striding to touch the bag after fielding a ground ball:

After a couple of innings, I took a wander around the park to see more of the sights. Check out how empty the field-level seats were at this point:

As I noted earlier, it was very hot and sunny, so the bulk of the fans were seated in the shade behind home plate or up on the bleachers with umbrellas.

Next, I went back to the grassy area adjacent to the visitors clubhouse. Shortly after I was there last, the grounds crew had wheeled the batting cage into this spot:

At most of the parks I’ve been to, even those in the lower levels of the minors, the batting cage is kept in a spot away from the fans. I couldn’t resist thoroughly checking it out and, of course, standing in it for a few minutes.

My next stop was the top row of the bleachers on the first base side, which gave me this awesome view of the field:

In a sense, it’s too bad that I’d decided to attend an afternoon game instead of an evening one. Mark told me that the sunset views from this spot in the stadium are outstanding, and that would’ve been nice to see.

I spent about an inning wandering, and then rejoined Mark and Travis and continued to snap some action shots. Here’s Granberg after his next at-bat — I wish I could say that I’d captured a post-home run bat flip, but alas this was only a post-walk bat flip:

One of the many things that I enjoy the most about watching games in the lower levels of the minors is the things that you pick up that you might not notice at larger ballparks. From where we sat, we could easily hear home plate umpire Dylan Bradley and one of the Spinners coaches going back and forth about, of all things, some batting gloves that a player had in his back pocket. Bradley ended the exchange by yelling, “Enough, enough!” at the Lowell dugout, but we had the feeling that things weren’t over yet. True enough, an inning or two later, first base umpire Thomas Fornarola ejected Spinners hitting coach Nate Spears, and we could hear the entire exchange. Spears, who apparently thought that the ejection was iffy, challenged Fornarola: “I’d like to see how you write this one up.” The umpire had a quick response — “Easy!” I didn’t get a photo of the ejection itself, but here’s a shot of a displeased Spears gesturing at the umpire on his way off the field:

In the seventh inning, Batavia reliever C.J. Carter came on to pitch, and we noticed something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before — the right-handed pitcher threw sidearm to lefties and had a traditional windup and delivery when he faced righties. Here’s his funky sidearm delivery:

Mark, Travis and I said our goodbyes as soon as the game wrapped up. My initial thought was to go check out some Little League action for a while, but the sunburn on my arms, knees and face told me that getting into some air conditioning would be a better idea. I hopped in my car, drove less than five minutes to my hotel, and soon was enjoying the shade and the cool — and thinking about taking a short drive to Rochester in the morning.

Ottawa Champions – June 8, 2018

The Can-Am League’s Ottawa Champions have been a fixture in my blog dating back to 2015. While I don’t make independent baseball my primary focus, I can’t resist checking out this team and have done so one or more times every season since then.

This blog post is about my visit on June 8, but I’d actually been to Ottawa’s Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park once earlier in the season. That visit took place back on May 22, and between a delayed start due to a rain and my early departure because I had a busy schedule the next day, there wasn’t a ton of blog-worthy content.

There was, however, one exciting thing that transpired and that would factor into my June visit to Ottawa. During that May game, Ottawa first baseman Vincent Guglietti blasted his first home run of the season over the right field fence, and I managed to track the ball down later on. Guglietti is in his first year with the Champions, so I knew that the home run was a bit of a milestone for him. The next day, I caught up with him on Twitter and asked if he wanted the ball back. He told me that he’d appreciate giving it to his parents, who collect his baseball memorabilia, and I made plans to hand it over the next time I was in Ottawa.

Fast forward to June 8, and I was once again on my way to Canada’s capital city with his home run ball safely tucked in my backpack. The ball, which I’d photographed earlier …

… would be the second home run that I’d be returning to the player who hit it. (If you’ve followed my blog for a long time, you’ll know that my first foray into the ball-returning game turned out well.)

I pulled into RCGT Park’s parking lot as the Champions were taking batting practice, as I’d planned to meet up with Guglietti at the end of BP. When I walked into the stadium, I was pleased to see bright skies overhead and the home team hitting — two things that weren’t a part of my visit a few weeks earlier. Here’s my first view of the field:

I hung out in the stands and watched Ottawa hit and then, just as we’d planned, met up with Guglietti as soon as BP wrapped up. He was super friendly and seemed happy to get the ball back, and I was certainly happy to give it to him. We chatted a bit about how he was liking Ottawa and how the season was going so far, but I completely missed an opportunity to get a photo with him. I intended to, but was enjoying our brief conversation and sort of felt weird about blurting out a photo request. Boo to me.

Soon enough, he said goodbye and headed into the Ottawa clubhouse, and decided to wander around for a bit. I’ve been to RCGT Park enough times that there isn’t much exploring to do, but I always enjoy moving around the stadium and taking in the sights. By now, the sights included the visiting Salina Stockade, who were just starting to take BP. The Kansas-based Stockade is a traveling team in 2018 that played in the American Association last season and the Pecos League in 2016. (The franchise has also been called the “worst pro baseball team of 2017” in an entertaining article in The Ringer.)

Bad team or not, I was interested to see the Stockade for the first time as I watched the first few minutes of its BP session from the grass berm/picnic area down the third base line:

After the Stockade finished hitting, I decided to grab a few minutes of shade by climbing to the upper row of the seats behind home plate, which are shaded by the press box and suites. As I looked above me, I saw the familiar face of Mike Nellis, the Champions’ lead broadcaster and director of communications, in the press box. He’s a guy I’ve gotten to know over the past few seasons, and I always enjoy talking baseball with him. We caught up for a few minutes, and then he got back to preparing for the game and I got back to, well, enjoying the shade.

Pretty soon, the Champions made their way out onto the field, and I headed down to the third base side to watch them warm up. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t aware of the presence of their all-star catcher, Danny Grauer, who is at home rehabbing off-season surgery. He’s a player I met early last season and became friendly with, often talking with him for a few minutes before each game. We kept in touch through the off-season, and I even caught a Norfolk Tides game with him back in May. So, yeah, it was weird not seeing Danny there and talking to him, and I was definitely missing seeing him.

I was snapped back into reality when I noticed a player waving at me from the field — it was Guglietti, and it was cool to see him again. I snapped this shot of him after he began stretching:

As more and more players filtered out onto the field, I began to see a bunch of familiar faces and lots of new ones. There’s a significant amount of turnover in independent baseball, as you might guess, so I needed to figure out who was who. Here’s infield Steve Nyisztor, a former Arizona Diamondbacks farmhand who is in his second season with Ottawa:

And here’s a new addition to Ottawa’s roster in 2018 — outfielder Coco Johnson, who played in the Miami Marlins system in 2013 and 2014:

He comes to Ottawa from the Windy City ThunderBolts of the independent Frontier League, where he swiped 57 bases in 96 games last year and 48 in 93 a season earlier.

I watched Ottawa for a few minutes, and then went over to the first base side to watch Salina. Here’s one player warming up …

… unfortunately, I have no idea who he is. He wore #5 and there’s currently no #5 on the team’s roster, according to its website. There are four #24s, though! And, for what it’s worth, Salina’s manager was also wearing #5.

Uniform numbers aside, there were a couple of interesting things that I noticed about the team’s jerseys. As you can see here, some players were wearing mesh-style jerseys, while others were made of solid fabric:

And here’s something that I found amusing — one player safety pinning sleeves on his teammate’s jersey, which appeared to be one of those sleeveless types:

I took a spot behind the visitors dugout on the first base side for the start of the game and watched the action from there. The view was definitely different — alongside other parks around baseball, RCGT Park installed protective netting over the dugouts prior to the season starting. I get what the netting is there for, but I’m not the biggest fan of looking through it. So, after the inning wrapped up, I was on the move again. Before I found another place to sit, I decided to grab some dinner. Ottawa’s selection of food over the last few seasons has really impressed me. If you’ve seen some of my posts about visiting RCGT Park, which you can check out here, here and here, you’ll see some images of tasty fare that you might not expect in independent baseball. Although I was tempted to go for one of my tried-and-tested meals (General Tao poutine, I’m looking at you) I wanted to try something different. This quest sent me over to a concession stand in the left field picnic area, which I’d walked past a million times over the years but had never bought anything from. I grabbed an order of chicken wings and took them up to a seat on the third base side to eat. Here’s how they looked:

Not a sight that has your mouth watering, is it? This surprised me, because lots of people were buying wings in line ahead of me. It sure looked as those these had been sitting around for some time. Fortunately, they tasted much better than they looked. They weren’t very meaty, but the chicken didn’t taste as dry as I’d feared and the hot sauce they came with was a good addition. In fact, it was blazing hot, so as soon as I finished eating dinner, I set off to find something for dessert to cool down my mouth. Dessert came in the form of a bowl of root beer ice cream, which I bought at a concession stand just a few paces away from where I’d bought the wings:

This is the second time I’ve had root beer ice cream in my life, and both times have been at a ballpark. (My first root beer ice cream experience was last season at a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders game.)

Happily full, it was time to snap some action photos. I didn’t want to contend with the netting, so I went to a perfect spot that I first encountered last season — the umpires’ door right behind home plate. Here’s one of the first shots that I took, which shows Ottawa’s Johnson a split-second after laying down a bunt:

And here’s Ottawa outfielder Steve Brown waiting for a pitch:

I ended up spending several innings in this spot. It’s such a thrilling place to watch the game, and Ottawa’s official photographer Marc Lemieux soon arrived, so I had fun talking baseball and photography with him.

I spent the last three innings rotating between seats on the first and third base sides, and enjoyed the rest of the game. Salina, for all of its uniform issues, looked solid, beating Ottawa 8-6. The Champions got revenge a day later, though, trouncing the road team 13-0. It was an entertaining visit to RCGT Park, as always. I don’t know when my next visit will be, but I’ll definitely be back there again this season.

Norfolk Tides – May 29, 2018

I woke up in Norfolk, VA, on the morning of Tuesday, May 29 to the sound of heavy rain.

It wasn’t really a surprise.

Since I’d arrived in Norfolk the previous afternoon, it had rained without reprieve, and I’d be lying if I said I was concerned that I might not get to see a single Norfolk Tides game on this trip. The plan for this trip was to get to Norfolk on Monday, attend the Tides games on Tuesday and Wednesday, and cram in whatever sightseeing I could manage when I wasn’t at the ballpark.

Of course, Mother Nature seemed to have different plans, dropping more than three inches of rain on the city on Monday night. It actually rained so hard at times that I couldn’t get any TV reception in my hotel room, which was definitely a first for me.

By 10 a.m. on Tuesday, though, the rain had stopped and the forecast seemed to improve — making me cautiously optimistic that I’d actually get a chance to see some baseball on this trip.

After some really good sightseeing around the city, I got to Harbor Park around 3:30 p.m., roughly three hours before first pitch. By now, the conditions were dry and the forecast looked fine, and I was very relieved.

Harbor Park is the 67th professional/affiliated ballpark that I’ve visited since 2010 and the 53rd different Minor League Baseball park that I’ve been to. It’s also, for those keeping score, the 10th different International League park at which I’ve seen at least one game. It’s always exciting to visit a ballpark for the first time, and this visit was no exception. I was immediately impressed with the look of Harbor Park from the outside — and I think the following photo does a good job of showing the eye-catching design from just outside the front gates:

As you might’ve noticed in the above photo, there wasn’t much going on outside due to my early arrival time. That was just fine with me — I was just thankful that the rain hadn’t interfered with this ballpark visit. I decided to walk through the parking lot to the right of the main gates, and soon made it to a large plaza area outside the first base entrance:

Did you catch the propeller statue? It’s just one of many nautical-themed sights in and around Harbor Park. The Elizabeth River is immediately beyond the outfield fence at this ballpark, and Norfolk is just a short drive from Virginia Beach. So, yeah, lots of nautical stuff to see.

While still in this area, I snapped the following photo of the gates and the ramp that led up to the concourse level:

My favorite thing in that image? The small ticket office nestled below the ramp. As is the norm, there was a large ticket office beside the main gates, but I thought the inclusion of this other office was a cool touch.

The river was just over my right shoulder as I took the above photo, and I wanted to get a little closer to check it out. Norfolk and the entire Hampton Roads area is dominated by shipbuilding/repairing/naval industry, and that was evident within sight of where I stood outside Harbor Park. This next photo shows an enormous dry dock that belongs to Colonna’s Shipyard. There’s a huge boat from New York City being repaired in it:

Unfortunately, that was as close as I could get to the water. The space behind Harbor Park was completely fenced off, so I gave up on further explorations in that area and took the long walk around the front of the stadium toward the third base entrance and left field corner. Before I got there, I came across another cool sight — a light rail system with a stop adjacent to the Harbor Park parking lot. The train, known as “The Tide,” travels to several areas through Norfolk, but I think it’s awesome that it stops next to the ballpark. It wasn’t long ago that I was in Minneapolis, marveling at the light rail system that carries fans to Target Field, but I think this might be the first time I’ve encountered the opportunity to travel to a minor league ballpark by train:

I continued on my walk across the parking lot until the elevated railway bridges that I believe give Harbor Park one of the most iconic views in the minor leagues came into view. If you’ve seen any picture of Harbor Park over the years, you’ve almost certainly noticed the pair of bridges that point skyward beyond the outfield fence. From where I stood at the far edge of the parking lot, I could see them clearly:

Curious to see how close I could get to them, I headed to my left to a small railway platform that serves Amtrak’s Norfolk Station (which is separate from the light rail station I showed you earlier). I walked the length of the platform toward the bridges before being thwarted by a sign, but I still had a nice view of this iconic Norfolk sight:

Speaking of other Norfolk sights, it was time to get inside Harbor Park to officially be able to cross ballpark #67 off my list. I entered via the main gates, which open into a lobby that houses the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame. I took a couple minutes to browse the many plaques recognizing people from all different sports, and then eagerly climbed a set of stairs to the concourse, hurried across it and snapped this shot:

How’s that for a view? Sure, the clouds weren’t looking all that friendly, but I was thrilled to be inside the stadium and excited to start checking out all of the sights.

I started by going up to the press level, which offered a similarly impressive view. I then descended back to the concourse and began to walk around — starting with a walk down the third base side. I was relieved to quickly identify the Hot Dog Nation concession stand, which I’d read about in advance of my trip and wanted to visit once the gates opened up. After perusing the menu for a moment, I continued all the way down the concourse to the group party deck known as The Virginian-Pilot Picnic Area. It’s new for this season, and I noticed the mild smell of new paint in the air — a definite sign of just how fresh this area is. This is how the picnic area, which can accommodate up to 500 people, looks from the edge of the cross-aisle:

And here’s the view from the edge of this section:

As is always the case with group areas at minor league ballparks, you can’t buy tickets in this section unless you’re buying as a group. But, I later learned, when there’s no group that has booked the section for any given game, it’s open to all fans — and that’s definitely a fan-friendly feature.

I spent a few minutes wandering around the picnic area, in part because it offered a nice view of the field, and in part because it provided me with some much-needed shade. Even though the sky was overcast, the humidity this close to the ocean was tangible, and cooling off under the roof of the picnic zone soon had me feeling refreshed and ready to continue exploring. Instead of retracing my steps along the concourse, I took the opportunity to get closer to the field by walking along the cross-aisle. I think the following photo gives you a good idea of the seating setup at Harbor Park — essentially, two different levels of seating on the lower section, a suite level above, and an upper deck down the lines.

I followed the cross-aisle all the way around the park until I ended up in the party deck immediately behind the right field foul pole. This one contained a bar and a bunch of bar-style seating, and provided this view of the field:

From there, I could also see the railway bridges and the river, as well as the remnants of a dock that once held a popular Norfolk concert venue that was demolished in 2011 after being severely damaged during Hurricane Isabel:

I realize that this area might not look that hot, but I liked it because it was neat to think about a who’s who of popular music playing just behind the ballpark over the years. I also appreciated the rugged appearance of the area, although I can imagine that the Tides management would love an opportunity to develop this area into usable space at some point in the future.

Speaking of management, my next stop was back in the press box where I met up with Ian Locke, the team’s longtime director of media relations. He offered me a tour of the ballpark, and you know I wasn’t about to turn it down. Even though I’d been to several spots around the park over the last hour or so, hearing Ian’s inside information and insight on these areas really augmented the visit for me — thanks again, Ian!

We began our tour immediately outside of the press area, which provided this view of downtown Norfolk. As you can see, the ballpark is conveniently located to the major arteries running through the city, and the view of the city’s skyline — including the Ferris wheel in the distance — was perfect from this spot:

Next, we headed somewhere that I’d hadn’t previously been — one of the team’s suites. This one is the swankiest in the ballpark, and even featured a vaulted ceiling:

As you might expect, it provided an excellent view of the field, including the railway bridges — one of which was currently descending as we stood in the suite:

Before my visit, I’d strangely always assumed that the bridges remained up. I had some idea in my head that they were historic bridges that were no longer used and were set to the upper position to create a cool backdrop behind Norfolk Park, but Ian assured me that they were fully functional. (And I definitely saw them go up and down multiple times over my two visits the ballpark.) I’m not really sure how I came to my erroneous conclusion, other than the fact that the bridges were always pointing skyward in any photo I’d ever seen of Norfolk Park.

We next visited another suite on the opposite side of the park, taking a few minutes to step out into the seats on the balcony in front of it:

This is the setup that many MiLB suites offer, and it’s a cool design. You can enjoy some food and A/C indoors, while also watching the game’s broadcast on TV. And, when desired, you can grab a seat outside to really get the traditional ballpark experience. Talk about the best of both worlds.

Ian took me through the left field picnic area I’d visited earlier and then all the way over to Hits at the Park, a buffet-style restaurant in an enclosed area in the right field corner. It seats 225 people, has a nice-looking bar with multiple TVs and gives fans a pretty extensive buffet — all for less than $20 for adults. Most notably, this is where fans can take the Salute to Pork Challenge, one of the most notable eating challenges in the minor leagues. What does this eating challenge feature, you might ask?

  • Four pulled pork BBQ sliders
  • Four four-ounce Cajun-smoked sausages
  • A dozen pork wings
  • Bacon and chili cheese tots

The whole thing weighs about five pounds, and if you can successfully conquer it in an hour, you win tickets to a future Tides game and get your photo on a wall of fame inside the restaurant. Should you fail, your photo goes on the wall of shame. There were far, far more photos on the latter, thus convincing me that I didn’t need to partake in any pork-fueled eating challenges on this visit.

The last stop on our tour was probably my favorite. Ian took me out to the roof to the left field side of the press box, which provided an awesome view of the field and everything beyond it (including the slightly foreboding skies — yikes):

I’ve been fortunate to be able to get up to the roofs of several ballparks over the years, and it’s always a thrill. And Ian told me to feel free to visit the roof as much as I wanted throughout the game, so that’s definitely something I made a mental note to do.

After Ian and I said our goodbyes, I went back down to the concourse level to grab dinner. As I mentioned earlier, the Hot Dog Nation concession stand was on my radar, and one of the noteworthy dogs in particular had my eye. I ordered the Oriole Dog, which pays homage to the Tides’ MLB parent club and one of the popular food choices in Baltimore. It consisted of a hot dog topped with macaroni and cheese and crab meat. I’ve had mac and cheese on hot dogs on a few occasions, but never with crab, too. This was definitely one that I was excited check out:

I definitely give the Tides food services team credit for a cool idea, but it felt a little flat for me. The hot dog itself had a squishy texture instead of the snap that I look for. The mac and cheese was tasty, but the crab was cold — and I got a big piece of shell in my first bite. I think that a few minor tweaks, like heating the crab and maybe seasoning it with Old Bay, would make this hot dog a definite winner.

I’d taken the hot dog to the upper deck, and as soon as finished eating, I went back down to the concourse and made a beeline over to the Tides bullpen in the right field corner. The party deck is directly above the ‘pen, so it provides a perfect spot for watching the Tides pitchers warming up. I spent several minutes watching starter Tim Melville:

And then, once the game began, I spent the first inning in the picnic area in left field in the hopes of snagging a home run ball — something that didn’t happen. There weren’t any fans in the area, so I could’ve theoretically hung out there for a long time in the hopes of getting a baseball, but you know me — I’ve always gotta be on the move. I decided that I’d take Ian up on his offer to visit the roof, so I took the stairs back up to the press level and walked out on the roof on the third base side. Here’s how it looked as I got there …

… and here’s the view of the field from the edge:

Simply outstanding!

I snapped off a handful of photos, and then was content to just hang out in the unique spot and enjoy the game. I ended up staying on the roof for an entire inning, and then went back down to the concourse to visit the team shop — and enjoy a bit of the air conditioning to cool off from all the walking I’d been doing.

After another lap of the concourse, stopping here and there to watch the game from different angles, I went back up to the press level and went to check out the roof on the first base side. From here, I was enjoying looking into the visitors dugout, and there are a couple of things worth pointing out:

For starters, check out the length of the dugout. Harbor Park’s dugouts are longer than average, and Ian told me why. When the park was being built, the team discussed where fans like to sit at games. The consensus was that many fans enjoy sitting behind the dugout, so why not make them longer than they’d otherwise be? It’s a win-win for the fans and for the players. The other noteworthy thing is that there isn’t any netting over the dugouts here. (Woo hoo!) I asked Ian about it, since netting has become the norm in baseball, and he said the nets will be up before much longer. I think it’s cool that I got to experience Harbor Park before that.

After watching a bit more of the game, I snapped this picture …

… and soon afterward, noticed a baseball that had obviously been fouled back onto the roof, and was happy to grab it:

I love the black smudge where it smacked the roof.

A moment after stuffing the ball into my backpack, I headed to the door that led off the roof, turned the knob, and … nothing. It was locked.

I assessed the situation. There wasn’t another way off the roof that I was aware of, at least without acting like Spider-Man. Hmmm. I knocked on the door — normally at first and then loudly, but I knew it was largely futile. On the other side of the door, there was a long hallway with a bend in it, and that meant that no one would likely be within earshot. Plus, anyone who might’ve heard the knocking would’ve been working — the radio/TV rooms and stadium operation rooms were not too far away, but their doors were shut and their staffs were busy. I walked back out the roof to think about my choices. All things considered, at least I was trapped in a good spot to watch the game. But, I legitimately needed to figure out a way off the roof. Thankfully, I thought to send an email to Ian. The Wi-Fi was spotty in this part of the park, so it probably took me 10 minutes to get a connection and actually send the email — but I eventually did … and a short while later, my knight in shining armor Ian showed up and rescued me.

The rooftop misadventure had worked up an appetite, so I headed along the concourse in search of something else to eat. I don’t always eat two meals at ballparks, but given that I was concerned about a rainout the following day, I wanted to sample another concession stand. There’s a barbecue stand down the third base side that I’d checked out earlier, and it looked promising. I arrived in maybe the fifth inning, and was told that the stand was just about to close. Fortunately, I was able to order a brisket platter, which I took over to one of the picnic tables on the concourse:

The platter consisted of a good helping of brisket, along with two sides and coleslaw. The only sides still available when I placed my order were baked beans and green beans, so I narrowly missed the opportunity to have my second serving of mac and cheese of the day. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very impressed with this meal. The baked beans were fine, the green beans were very soggy — which I can chalk up to the stand about to close, I guess — and the brisket contained far too much fat for my liking.

Underwhelming barbecue did little to dampen my enjoyment of the evening, though, and I soon found myself back on the roof — the third base side, with the unlocked door, for those keeping score — where I took this photo during the game’s late innings:

After a bit of time up top, I watched the last bit of the game from the seats behind home plate, where I had this view:

Just minutes after the final out, I hopped into my rental car and headed back to my hotel. On the drive, I figured that if the next day’s game ended up being a rainout (spoiler alert — it wasn’t) I’d crammed an awful lot into my first Harbor Park visit, and I was thrilled with the overall experience.

Syracuse Chiefs – April 18, 2018

A little more than 12 hours after I’d thawed out following a frigid but fun visit to NBT Bank Stadium in Syracuse, I was back at the International League ballpark for a doubleheader that was set to begin at 10:30 a.m. The previous day’s wintry weather had canceled the second game of a scheduled doubleheader, so the teams tacked that game onto the end of the matinee game on this day, and I was thrilled to be able to take in both contests before driving home.

As is often the case with April matinee games, it was Education Day at the ballpark — and that meant that a lot of students would be in attendance. I planned to get to the park well in advance of the gates opening up and the students arriving so that I could enjoy the quiet scene for a bit. As soon as I got in, I went straight to the upper deck in the left field corner. A couple Chiefs pitchers were throwing bullpen sessions, and while I always enjoy watching such moments, I didn’t want to awkwardly stand right at field level. From my spot in the front row of the upper deck, I could not only enjoy watching the action in the Syracuse bullpen below me, but also take in the great view of the park that the upper deck provides:

I watched the scene from this area for a while, and then made my way over to the visitors side of the field to watch the Indianapolis Indians after they’d taken the field. A day earlier, it’d been funny to watch the players warming up in the cold and snow flurries. Today, the flurries were gone but the cold remained — as you can probably tell by the hat choice of Indians pitcher Clay Holmes:

And, while his teammates might not have been quite as cold as they were the last time I watched them, many of them were still wearing assorted pieces of extra clothing to keep the chills at bay:

My next stop was back over to the Syracuse side. By now, starting pitcher Austin Voth had taken the bullpen mound to begin to warm up, so I grabbed a spot in the front row and snapped a bunch of pictures of him, including this one:

I knew there’d be a chance that once the students in attendance decided it was time to eat, there could be some lineups at the concession stands, so I headed to the concourse to get my first meal of the day shortly before first pitch. A handful of concession stands had been closed a day earlier because of the weather, but I’m happy to report that everything was open on this day — and that meant that I could get an item I’d been reading about in advance of this visit. The Chiefs introduced three new hot dogs for the 2018 season, and the one that caught my eye was the salt potato hot dog. Salt potatoes are a big thing in Syracuse and other spots in New York (I ate them years ago at a Tri-City ValleyCats game, actually). The hot dog in question was pretty simple — a regular hot dog loaded with salt potatoes:

The Hofmann hot dogs served at NBT Bank Stadium are probably my favorite dogs of any ballpark, so the idea of adding potatoes with butter, salt and pepper was a winner. I will say, though, that I think this hot dog could’ve used a little something else in the flavor department. Of course, I could’ve added a flavorful condiment such as mustard, but it felt as though it was a little more bland than I’d have liked. Still, it was a good hot dog overall, and the unique topping of the salt potatoes made it fun to eat.

During my visit to NBT Bank Stadium a day earlier, I hadn’t spent any time sitting behind home plate, so doing so was definitely a priority for the doubleheader. I spent the first couple innings on the Jim Beam Party Deck in right field, but then went and grabbed a spot in the front row. It’s always a fun challenge to shoot action photos from this spot, and the action doesn’t necessarily have to be a hitter making contact with the ball — here’s a shot I snapped of Indianapolis infielder Kevin Kramer at the point of being hit by a pitch thrown by David Goforth:

Later in that inning, I got this shot of Indians outfielder Jordan Luplow taking a hack:

As you might know, I’m always on the lookout for unusual sights at the ballpark, including those related to players’ uniforms. I’ve had my pictures included in ESPN’s Uni Watch blog a number of times, so finding subtle and bizarre uniform-related minutiae is always something I enjoy. Case in point, here’s a picture of Chiefs catcher Tuffy Gosewisch walking toward the home dugout:

Notice anything unique about him?

You might have seen that he’s wearing Seattle Mariners pants, as evidenced by the colors of the MLB logo on the belt tunnel. I’ve noticed that a lot of guys who’ve bounced between Triple-A and the big leagues wear their big league pants with their Triple-A jerseys, but I think this is the first time that I’ve seen a mismatch in organizations — the Chiefs are affiliated with the Washington Nationals, not the Mariners. Gosewisch, though, played 11 games for Seattle last season, which explains the pants.

In the fifth inning of the game, I noticed that Syracuse had a no-hitter going. It may seem funny, but I tend not to notice such accomplishments as quickly as you might think. I’m normally so focused on exploring the ballpark, taking photos — and, yes, sometimes eating — that I’m not usually watching the scoreboard. As soon as I saw the goose eggs, though, I was fixated on the action. I decided that if the Chiefs were able to toss a no-no, I’d want to get some pictures from above. I headed to the upper deck and, after Austin Adams got Erich Weiss to strike out to end the game, I snapped this shot of the initial celebration:

I should note, of course, that there are a couple unique points about this no-hitter. Four Chiefs pitchers shared it, and it only went seven innings, given that MiLB doubleheader games are this length. Still, an impressive accomplishment, especially given the chilly conditions. This is actually the second no-hitter I’ve seen in two seasons. Last summer, at an independent game in Ottawa, Canada, I watched former MLBer Phillippe Aumont toss a no-no against the Dominican Republic National Team.)

Here’s the video board showing the score after the final out:

I got some reprieve from the cold conditions by hanging out in the Hank Sauer Room between games of the doubleheader. As had been the case a day earlier, the Chiefs had opened up this room for fans looking for a little warmth, and it was nice to be able to warm up a little as I waited for the second game of the twin bill to begin.

Like I’d done earlier in the day, I grabbed some food right before first pitch. For my second meal of the day, I opted for an order of spicy fried cheese curds, which came with some ranch dipping sauce:

I actually had fried cheese curds at Target Field last fall, and while they were good, I’d give the nod to those I ate in Syracuse. The NBT Bank Stadium curds were more gooey, which was a big plus, and the spiciness was a nice addition, too.

As you might’ve noticed, I ate the curds in the upper deck above the first base side, which was a spot in which I’d snagged a pair of foul balls a day earlier. Not long after I finished my meal, another ball came soaring my way. This one was off the bat of Indians pitcher Casey Sadler, and it marked the fourth and final foul ball I’d gotten on this trip. And, for the record, the first foul ball in my collection hit by a pitcher, as far as I can recall:

From a similar vantage point in the upper deck, I noticed for the first time that my hotel for this visit, Embassy Suites by Hilton Syracuse Destiny USA, had an ad on the outfield fence:

 

That’s because this hotel is the official hotel of the Chiefs, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for baseball fans visiting the city. In my last blog post, I mentioned its awesome proximity to both the ballpark and Destiny USA, the sixth-largest mall in the U.S., but it’s worth noting a few other features if you’re thinking about staying in this hotel during your next visit to Syracuse. One of the things I love about the Embassy Suites brand is the complimentary made-to-order breakfasts. A lot of hotels have free breakfasts, but they’re generally pretty basic. At this hotel, I got to enjoy made-to-order omelets each morning, as well as a number of other items that had me feeling full and ready for the cold weather. Another cool food-related note is that there’s a reception for guests each evening with complimentary drinks and appetizers, served around this stylish space:

I can’t say enough good things about the guest rooms, either. Mine was spacious and extremely clean, with a big bathroom and a small kitchen area that definitely came in handy. Here’s the desk that I used for much of the visit:

From here, I could not only work on my blog while watching a wall-mounted TV across the room, but also keep an eye out the window to see what the weather was doing.

This hotel will definitely be my choice when I get back to Syracuse to see the Chiefs in action — and, hopefully, it won’t be that long before that happens.

Syracuse Chiefs – April 17, 2018

It’s impossible for me to understate how much I dislike talking about the weather, hearing about the weather and thinking about the weather.

That said, weather did play a major factor in this week’s trip to Syracuse, so it’s going to come up a time or two in this blog post.

Weather is, of course, the biggest obstacle to face during April baseball road trips. I’ve been rained out, snowed out and shivered for hours in ballparks during games in the first month of the season. It’s probably smartest to wait until May to take a baseball trip, but when you’re eager to get your road tripping season underway, games in April are ever so tempting.

I scheduled three days in Syracuse a few weeks back because the Chiefs schedule was favorable — there were games Monday and Tuesday night, plus a bonus matinee game on Wednesday that I could attend before the three-hour drive home. As the trip approached, though, and winter returned to not only where I live in Canada, but also to New York and several other states, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t concerned about seeing any baseball on this trip.

We got hit with an ice storm on the weekend before I left, which meant that I had plenty of scraping to do before I could even see out my car windows enough to get on the road. The ice had turned to rain by the time I pulled out of my driveway at 9 a.m. on Monday, and I made it all the way to Syracuse without ever turning the windshield wipers off. I checked into my hotel about 2 p.m., and figured that there’d be no way the Chiefs would host the Indianapolis Indians at 6:35 p.m., so I vigilantly checked Twitter for updates on the game’s status. Big kudos to the Chiefs for canceling the game in a timely manner. Even though I love going to any ballpark, the idea of standing around in the rain for an hour or two, only to then hear that the game has been postponed, isn’t that appealing — and this is especially true when it’s 35 degrees!

The postponement meant that the Chiefs and Indians would square off the following afternoon, April 17, and even though snow was in the forecast for that day, I was hopeful I’d get to see at least some baseball.

With game one of the twin bill scheduled for 4 p.m., I pulled into the NBT Bank Stadium parking lot two hours early and parked, and then took a quick and chilly walk around to enjoy the stadium from the exterior. Here’s the first picture I took:

If you think that the conditions look cold in this image, you’re definitely right. The temperatures remained in the 30s and the constant wind made it feel much colder than that. I approached the gates and snapped this shot, which I think looks cool:

I then entered the stadium, went up to the concourse level and was excited to see the field for the first time. I figured that batting practice wouldn’t be taking place, and I was correct. The tarp was on the field and there were flurries in the air, but I was happy to be in the ballpark:

I’ve been to NBT Bank Stadium enough that I didn’t feel a huge need to run around and start taking in all the sights. That said, there were some new additions since I last visited in 2015, so I wanted to check them out. One big and noticeable difference is that five of the seating sections in the upper deck are now tarped off. I’m sure management is never thrilled about having to do this, but I commend the Chiefs on using five different tarp images, including three of the team’s logos. The use of these tarps, rather than just plain ones, add to the look of the park. Here’s a panorama from the corner in left field. You can see three tarps in the foreground and two across the field:

The biggest addition since my last visit — and one I’m sure that management is excited about — is the Jim Beam Party Deck beyond right field. I’ve always felt that the one knock on NBT Bank Stadium has been its lack of outfield seating, which is fairly common among parks of its age. I always love a ballpark that has a concourse that wraps around the entire field, and while that’s not the case in Syracuse, the addition of an expansive party deck that allows you to hang out in the outfield is a big upgrade. Here’s how the deck looks from above:

And here’s how the view from this area looked just a few minutes after the Indians took the field and began to play catch:

The party deck is an appealing hangout. There are picnic tables and bistro tables, as well as a wide railing along the entire front edge of the deck to comfortably hold your food and drink. The deck can accommodate up to 300 people and booking it for your group includes an all-you-can-eat menu. Here’s one more view of the deck:

I watched a few minutes of Indianapolis’ warmup from this area, and then headed back toward home plate when it became evident that the infield tarp was about to be removed — something that is always a welcome sight for baseball fans. After it was gone, I was excited to see the field for the first time:

There were just a few snow flurries in the air before and after the tarp removed, but nothing of concern. The temperature and the wind, however, were bitter. The open concourse at NBT Bank Stadium is perfect because you can always see the field as you’re walking around or waiting in line at the concession stands, but it wasn’t providing much refuge from the wind. Once the gates opened, I hurried into the team shop not just to browse the items, but also to enjoy the warmth — it was definitely the warmest spot in the park. I spent about five minutes in the shop, and then went back outside to brave the elements. In a few minutes, the players would be heading back out to the field, and I wanted to see them come out. As the Indians came out, the flurries started to pick up. The scene felt pretty bizarre, and I could tell that as cold as the players were, they were also a little amused by the weather conditions. Here’s Indians infielder Kevin Newman (who was one of two players who talked to me about my shirt last year in Binghamton) surrounded by flurries as he played catch:

An here’s outfielder Jordan Luplow (who I saw hit a walk-off home run on the last day of the Jamestown Jammers franchise back in 2014) who was wearing ninja-style gear to keep the wind and cold at bay:

By the time starting pitcher Nick Kingham toed the bullpen rubber — after I overhead him joking that his water bottle might freeze — the flurries had intensified:

The increasingly poor weather initially had me concerned about the game getting underway, but as quickly as the snow would worsen, it would then lighten. As first pitch approached, no sort of delay seemed to be imminent. Here’s how the scene looked just four minutes before the game began:

Did you notice the emptiness of the stands? So did I — in fact, I’d never been to a game that was this sparsely attended. Then again, this was the coldest game I’d ever been to, and the only one with snow. I hardly blame Syracuse residents for staying at home on this afternoon. I should note, in fairness, that most of the fans who were at the game were up on the concourse to get shelter from the flurries. That said, I estimate fewer than 100 people were at the game.

As the game began, I headed out to the party deck to enjoy the view of the field from this new vantage point:

Playing right field for the Chiefs was Alejandro De Aza, who’s suited up for more than 800 MLB games in his career. It was clear throughout the contest that he was having a hard time with the snow while he tracked down fly balls. A couple times after making catches, I saw him shaking his head, wiping at his eyes and muttering something in Spanish.

While I was super hopeful of a home run being hit to right field, I also knew that the cold air made that less likely to happen. Being the only fan on the party deck, I would’ve easily been able to track down any balls hit over the fence, but if you know me, you know that I don’t stay put in any given spot for too long. After the top of the first inning, I decided to head back down the concourse and go to the upper deck, where there wasn’t a single other fan. During my 2013 visit, I snagged a pair of foul balls in the upper deck, and I knew I’d have another one without having to wait too long. The second batter for the Chiefs, Adrian Sanchez, hit a foul ball that landed a section away from me, and I was able to easily retrieve it:

You might notice the lack of flurries in the photo above. That’s how the game’s early innings went. There’d be thick flurries, followed by clear conditions — the one constant was the bitter cold.

In the second inning, I took advantage of a brief lull in the flurries to grab dinner. A few of the concession stands at NBT Bank Stadium were closed, likely due to the weather and the small crowds, but that was fine with me. As part of the team’s Taco Tuesday promotion, there was a kiosk in the concourse selling three beef or chicken tacos for $8. I opted for the former, and the staff member told me that I was the first one to buy them on this day — and, by extension, on the season, given that this was the team’s first Taco Tuesday promotion of 2018. The tacos were tasty, and about on par with the soft tacos from Taco Bell. They were definitely something that I’d enjoy ordering again:

While I was eating, another foul flew up toward me. This one was off the bat of outfielder Rafael Bautista, and because I was still the only fan in the upper deck, I was able to walk over and pick up the baseball with tacos in hand:

Shortly after I finished my dinner, the flurries once again picked up. I made my way over to the upper deck on the third base side, where I shot some snowy action pictures, including this one of infielder Kevin Kramer:

During another short lull in the flurries, I headed to the Dunkin’ Donuts concession stand on the third base side — another new addition since my last visit — and bought a hot chocolate, which I enjoyed in the upper deck:

The flurries intensified to the point that there was a 20-minute delay in the game after three innings. The grounds crew covered up home plate and the mound, but didn’t use the big tarp to cover the entire infield — a positive sign, to be sure, that the delay would be short. I spent the delay trying to thaw out in the Hank Sauer Room, a private party room in the right field corner that I’d never previously entered. The Chiefs were gracious enough to open the room for fans looking for some relief from the cold, and there were a handful of fans hanging out in there for some warmth. After the delay, I went back out to the concourse and any warmth that I’d enjoyed in the party room was quickly gone. The temperature was still in the 30s, but the fact that I’d been outside for several hours had finally caught up to me. Although I was wearing warm gloves whenever I could, my hands were bare when I was updating Twitter and taking photos. In fact, my hands got cold enough that typing quickly and accurately were a challenge.

The hot chocolate may have warmed me a little, but I was still freezing when I went out to the party deck at the top of the sixth inning. Luplow, the second batter, blasted a pitch that sailed just a few yards to my left. Off the bat, it looked very much as though it would be a home run, but it ended up hitting the fence a foot or two from the top and caroming back past De Aza. Luplow had himself a triple, De Aza had flurries in his eyes and I just missed out on getting a home run ball. Here’s a shot that I took just before Luplow’s hit; you’ll notice the flurries in the air:

I figured that was as close as I’d come to a home run ball, so I went back down the concourse and watched a half-inning from behind home plate, pressing my body up against one of the pillars in an attempt to keep out of a wind a bit. For the seventh inning, I once again retreated to the shelter of the Hank Sauer Room, where this was the view:

When the first game of the doubleheader wrapped up, I was anticipating waiting 30 or so minutes for the second game to begin — and I planned to stay in the warm spot that I currently occupied for the entirety of the break. Just a few minutes later, however, a staff member arrived to tell me that management had opted to postpone the second game, as the weather was getting colder and the flurries were once again picking up. There was already a 10:30 a.m. game scheduled for the following day, so the postponed game would be tacked onto the end of that game to make another doubleheader. That suited me just fine, but instead of heading straight for the gates, I had one mission to fulfill.

Earlier in the game, I’d seen Indians outfielder Austin Meadows, the top-ranked prospect in Pittsburgh’s system, hit a foul ball into the seats in front of one of the suites on the third base side. I hadn’t seen anyone retrieve it, but I also didn’t want to go into this area if there were people in the suite. As the fans filed out of the stadium, I went up to the upper deck and quickly found the ball:

Afterward, I just stood for a few minutes to enjoy the snowy scene in front of me. I knew that it’ll likely be a long time before I’m at another snow game, so I couldn’t resist just marveling at the unique nature of this day. Here’s how the field looked after the game:

The flurries were still coming down hard when I left NBT Bank Stadium, prompting me to take this shot …

… and I couldn’t resist grabbing this one, too:

Next, I hopped into my car, put the defroster/heater on high, and shivered for a few minutes while the windows defogged. Then, I pulled out of the parking lot and headed toward my hotel. A quick glimpse of the stadium over my shoulder prompted me to pull over and get out to shoot the following photo from afar. Funny enough, the flurries weren’t coming down quite as hard at this moment, and the scene looked peaceful. When I travel to Syracuse for baseball, I always get a thrill turning left off NBT Bank Parkway onto Tex Simone Drive and seeing NBT Bank Stadium through my windshield, and seeing it now with snow on the ground was definitely a scene that I’ll remember for a long time:

As soon as I snapped that photo, I got back into my car and was back to my hotel less than five minutes later. For this trip, I was staying at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Syracuse Destiny USA:

It’s one of the city’s newest hotels and gets its name from being across the street from Destiny USA, the sixth-largest mall in the U.S. A day earlier, when the Chiefs game was rained out, I walked around this expansive mall for about and hour and grabbed some dinner that I took back to the hotel. I did the same on this night, after thawing out for a bit, and ended up visiting the mall four or five separate times during my stay. If you’re headed to Syracuse for a Chiefs game, I can’t recommend this hotel enough. If you’re a big shopper, there’s no better hotel in the city. Or, perhaps you’re a baseball fan and your spouse isn’t — you can head to the game and she could head to the mall.

Another cool point for baseball fans — this hotel is the official hotel of the Chiefs, which means that the visiting team stays there. I picked up on this fact pretty quickly upon my arrival when I saw staff members in Indians gear and players walking around the hotel lobby with Pirates apparel on. Here’s a look at the lobby:

I always get a thrill out of staying at the same hotel as ballplayers, even if I don’t have any interactions with them, and I’m forever scouting out people and trying to assess whether they’re players or not.

My snowy day at the ballpark was certainly memorable, even if I was uncomfortably cold for most of it. The cold didn’t deter me from heading back bright and early the following morning for a doubleheader, albeit one without fluffy white flakes.

Toronto Blue Jays – March 27, 2018

I was excited to wake up on the second day of my Montreal trip, knowing that I’d have a full day to see sights around the city before heading back to the bizarre Olympic Stadium for more Blue Jays baseball. My day began with a short subway ride and a long walk up Mont Royal, a tall hill from which the city takes its name. There are plenty of reasons to climb up Mont Royal, but the most popular is to get a breathtaking view of the city from a large observation area.

Admittedly, the walk was a little arduous — I’d logged more than 22,000 steps a day earlier, and the fact that I was ascending for maybe 20 or more minutes straight on terrain that was mostly either snowy or icy was a real calf burner. The view, however, made the walk worth it. For several minutes, I stood on the deck and enjoyed this sight:

The walk back down was quicker than the climb up, but I managed to slip on the ice and end up with a wet backside that I embarrassing had to hope people weren’t noticing while it dried. The next stop I made was the site of the old Montreal Forum, the longtime home of the NHL’s Canadiens. I was a huge Canadiens fan growing up, and was lucky to visit this arena twice for games with my dad when I was a kid. The Habs moved out in 1996, but the building still stands and now holds a gym, a movie theater and a bunch of other things of that nature. The center ice spot is marked a similar way to how it was when the venue hosted hockey, though, and that’s what I was there to see:

There were a number of hockey-related displays throughout the building, as well as plenty of old arena seats — including some that people were occupying to eat lunch, which I thought was cool.

Following a short visit to the Bell Centre, where the team now plays, I grabbed lunch — a huge take-out container of smoked meat poutine that was delicious — and headed back to my hotel for a couple hours. Soon enough, I took the short walk to the nearest subway station and rode the train for less than 10 minutes to Olympic Stadium. I was curious to see if the security checkpoints were different for the second game of this series. If you read my previous post, you’ll remember that while there were metal detectors for fans coming into the stadium from the street and from the parking garage, there was no security between the subway station and main gates, which was very weird. Sure enough, things were the exact same as they’d been a day earlier.

This is what I saw as I emerged up the ramp from the subway station:

See the metal detectors in the distance on the left? Those provided access from the parking garage. But, as you can see, there was nothing directly between where I stood and the gates.

I decided to skip going outside and walking around the stadium as I’d done a day earlier. I’d arrived early enough that I was only about six people back from the head of the line, and I didn’t want to give up that position — plus, there wasn’t going to be anything different about the exterior on this day. I waited in line for a little more than an hour, and when the gates opened and I went in, I quickly passed the fans ahead of me and was the first fan into the seating area and the first who went down to field level. I took a spot directly above the dugout, where I enjoyed this yellowy view:

(For what it’s worth, I wanted to leave the colors in the pictures of Olympic Stadium exactly how they look in real life. I’ll often lighten or otherwise adjust images to improve their appearance before posting them, but this stadium’s yellow-green glow is somewhat iconic — and I feel as though it’d be disingenuous to Photoshop it out.)

There wasn’t much going on at this point. The St. Louis Cardinals were between BP sessions, so I snapped this quick shot …

… and then realized that I’d made a blunder. I’d planned to get a close-up view of some of the Jays when they emerged from the dugout, so I’d automatically gone to the third base side because that’s where the Jays dugout is at Rogers Centre. At Olympic Stadium, however, the Jays use the dugout on the first base side, and as soon as I realized the error I’d made, I hustled back up to the cross-aisle and over to the other dugout. Fortunately, there were only a handful of fans hanging out in that area, so I was able to easily get a spot in the front row just a few feet from the home plate end. I was in a perfect position and eagerly anticipating the emergence of the first Blue Jays onto the field … and then the lights went out:

At 5:34 p.m., the stadium lights went completely dark, which definitely had my chuckling a little to myself. Olympic Stadium has so many issues that make the chance of MLB returning to the stadium very small in my mind, and it was somehow sort of fitting that the stadium would be plunged into darkness as a sign of it not nearly being ready to host a big league club on a permanent basis.

The stadium remained as dark as you see in the image above for nine minutes, and then some of the lights came back on so that the scene appeared this way:

It took about 15 more minutes until the stadium returned to full illumination. Unfortunately, the darkness meant that the remainder of the Cardinals batting practice was scrapped, and the field went completely dead. I stood in this spot for nearly an hour and other than Jays reliever Joe Biagini and coaches DeMarlo Hale and Pete Walker, no one in a Toronto uniform came out of the dugout. Not wanting to waste more time essentially just standing there and doing nothing, I headed off in search of places that I hadn’t been a day earlier.

The idea of finding new nooks and crannies in a stadium I’d walked around for more than four hours might seem improbable, but anything is possible with Olympic Stadium. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I somehow discovered several sections that I’d missed a day earlier. The first spot I visited would definitely fall into the “obstructed view” category:

I spent a few minutes in a couple sections similar to the one from the photo above, before continuing to wander around and take in the sights. I know I’ve been poking fun at the Big O, but there were a number of cool structural things to see, too. Check out how the ceiling looked as I walked along one of the concourses:

The overall architecture, while thoroughly ugly, was also pretty impressive and enjoyable to look at. I actually walked a fair bit with my eyes trained up just to take in the scenes above me.

The letdown of my meal a day earlier meant that I wasn’t too eager to eat at Olympic Stadium again, so I decided to occupy some time by seeing how far I could get away from home plate. While it might have been tempting to sneak behind some barriers and get into some off-limits parts of the stadium, I didn’t want to break any rules. Rather, I wanted to walk, walk and walk some more until I found myself in an interesting area. I set off to walk to the very end of one of the concourses that I hadn’t fully traveled down a day earlier, and eventually reached this spot:

I was pretty sure I’d just about arrived at a dead end, but I thought I’d snoop around a little more and see what I could discover. To my amazement, there was actually another full seating section around the corner. I stuck my head past the wall that divided the concourse and the seating section and, to my surprise, there was a security guard standing there — and yet the section was completely empty. I’m talking not a single fan there. I said hello to the guard and, pretty much expecting to be told to go away, asked if I could take a picture from the front row. He said yes, and I frankly think he was happy to see another human being. The section itself was only four rows deep, but the rows were long and I estimated that a couple hundred fans could sit here. Before I took a photo, I asked the guard if the section was technically open, and he said it was — but that none of the ticketholders (if there were any) had been there all game. When you see the view from this section, you might understand why it was so vacant:

This might be my favorite photo that I took at either of the games on this trip. I find it downright hilarious just how far this section is situated from home plate. And yet, the view from this area wasn’t that bad. The outfield seats blocked my view of deep left and deep center, but I was high enough that I could otherwise see the whole field just fine. I was in line with the video board, so I essentially couldn’t see it, but I had a cool vantage point of the bullpens. (At one point, one of the Cardinals relievers followed the green turf path into the maintenance area at the bottom left of the image above and took a leak, because he came back doing up his pants — and probably thought that no one had noticed him.)

After standing in the front row to marvel at the view for a few minutes, I asked the guard if he’d be OK with me hanging out in his section. He said that was fine, so I sat down in a dusty seat in the second row, as it had more legroom than the seats in the first row. This was the view immediately to my right:

Believe it or not, I ended up spending the game’s first three innings here. I was half in awe at just how far away from home plate I was, but I also enjoyed the solitude of this spot. It was sort of a surreal experience — as though I was in a private booth to watch the game. For three innings, not a single other fan even poked his or her head into the section, so other than the security guard, I truly had it to myself. At the end of the third, I figured I’d go do some more exploring, and when I walked out and said goodbye to the guard, he told me to drop by again if I wanted — I definitely think he was bored.

Next, I followed another concourse until I found a spot that overlooked a storage area. Below me, I could see some soccer-related things that I assume are used by the Montreal Impact of the MLS. The team mainly plays at Saputo Stadium, which is immediately outside of Olympic Stadium (I’d walked past it a day earlier) but plays select games at the Big O. In the following photo, you can see a big soccer ball prop, one of those fabric accordion-style tunnels that protects opposing players from fans, and a bunch of road cases, as well as some sponsorship boards:

Afterward, I watched a few batters from this spot in right field …

… and then went down to the cross-aisle to walk its length. At one point, I stopped to take a photo of these two random stadium seats in the cross-aisle. Talk about a weird location, right?

If you’re wondering if I ever returned to my distant/personal section, I definitely did. That’s where I headed next, and I remained there for the rest of the game — a game that culminated with this. You might have heard about.

Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.’s walk-off home run was a pretty special way to wrap up my two days in Montreal. So, was Olympic Stadium better than a year earlier? No — there really were no noticeable differences in the stadium itself. But I’m happy to report that I had a good time, and I’m not quite as determined to never return as I was after last year’s experience. As far as baseball returning to Montreal, I wouldn’t hold your breath. I’m no financial whiz, but if Olympic Stadium were to ever host a team, I’m confident the price tag with getting it ready would be in the hundreds of millions. At this point, given the money pit that the Big O has already been for its entire life, that hardly seems plausible.