Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders – June 20

The last time I visited PNC Field, this happened.

Hard to top, right?

Yes, but as I made the six-hour drive to Scranton on the morning of June 20, I was partly relieved that there was no high-profile MLB rehab scheduled for my visit.

Don’t get me wrong — seeing Derek Jeter from just a few feet away will undoubtedly go down as one of the coolest memories of all my ballpark adventures, but that day was a little crazy. From the focus on Jeter to the enormous crowds, I didn’t have as much of a chance as I’d have liked to explore the then-recently renovated PNC Field.

My latest visit to the International League ballpark, located just outside of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in Moosic, PA, would be my third visit since 2011. The first time I was there, I saw a 1980s-era park in a major need of a facelift. That came in the form of a $40+ million renovation that was extensive enough to cause the team to play on the road for the entirety of the 2012 campaign. The park opened again in 2013, just a few months before I visited, and the transformation was outstanding. Now, I was anxious to return again to see how the changes had held up and what new elements there were.

I normally like to do some sightseeing when I travel, but I was late getting on the road on this day. That meant that when I checked into my hotel at 2:30 p.m., I took just a few minutes to set my suitcase on the floor, throw some food in the fridge and step out onto my balcony to check out the scene. I was thrilled to see the PNC Field lights just peeking through the trees to my left, and even more thrilled to hear some sporadic cracking of baseball bats, indicating that batting practice had begun:

As I did in 2013, I was staying at the Courtyard Scranton Wilkes-Barre, which you’ll read more about later in this post. I’d selected it again not only because I had a great stay last time, but because it’s within walking distance of the ballpark. It’s also within walking distance to a ton of restaurants and stores, and that meant that after parking my car prior to check-in on June 20, I didn’t get behind the wheel again until checking out on the morning of June 22.

The walk from the hotel to PNC Field took seven minutes, which meant that I was standing in front of the park’s main gates well in advance of first pitch — but perhaps not as early as you might think. Instead of preparing for a 7:05 p.m. start, the game was actually slated for 5:05 p.m. The RailRiders were hosting the Syracuse Chiefs in a doubleheader, which always promises to be a good and long day at the ballpark. Despite the beautiful location in which PNC Field is found, there’s not a heck of a lot to see outside the park. While I usually take a pre-entry lap around the ballparks I visit, I simply snapped this shot …

… and then this one of me …

… and then went inside. Having entered through the home plate gates, the concourse was directly in front of me. That meant that after taking just a handful of steps, I was standing at the top edge of the lower seating bowl and surveying the scene as the Chiefs took BP:

Although the 2012 renovation included a long list of changes, my favorite was how the concourse was built to wrap around the entire field, meaning that you can watch the game from beyond the outfield fence. This is one of my favorite features at any park. Above, you can see the elevated walkway above the bullpens in left-center, the grass berm throughout much of the outfield, and the party deck around the right field foul pole. Absolutely perfect.

As you might expect, the allure of taking a long walk around the perimeter of the park was appealing, so I set out by heading down the third base line. I noticed along the way that the RailRiders have signs on the concourse that encourage walking. Apparently — and I would’ve never guessed this — you travel a full mile when you walk around the concourse three times. As I walked, I stopped every few moments to enjoy BP and snap some photos. Here’s one that’s down toward the left field foul pole. You can see the multilevel party deck in the corner, as well as the bullpens beyond the outfield fence, major league style:

When I got close to center field, I stopped again and took this shot, which shows the SWB bullpen in the foreground, as well as a better view of the walkway behind/above it:

It’s always cool to be able to get close to the pitchers warming up in the bullpen, and the unique design of PNC Field means that you can virtually stand atop whoever is throwing — and that gives you a true appreciation for the nastiness of the pitchers at the Triple-A level.

Past the batter’s eye and heading toward left field, you’ll find the HomerZone. This is where the grass berm is the largest, and there are also picnic tables and benches in the area:

My favorite part of this spot is the clump of trees. Not only do they provide some nice shade for fans on the upper part of the grass, but they also tie in well with the natural backdrop behind the field — which you can partly see in this photo that looks more like a community park than a ballpark:

I completed my mile-long lap by making it back to the concourse directly behind home plate, where I spent the next several minutes just enjoying the quiet scene before me and watching the players hit. What did I do next? I took another lap around the field. It might seem a little repetitive, but I prefer walking during ballpark visits over standing around, and another lap meant that I’d have the chance to continue to watch BP, but from myriad angles. Given the heat of the day, I took a break in the aforementioned shade area beneath the trees, which was just perfect. Here’s the view from where I stood:

I also ventured out to the grass berm for a bit just before BP wrapped up, and here’s another view of that great bullpen/walkway area:

The scoreboard clock in the above photo reads 3:58 p.m., which meant that the gates would soon be opening. I hung out on the berm until fans began to appear on the concourse around home plate, and then headed in that direction myself. In the bleachers in the right field corner, I stopped to briefly talk to an usher who was picking up the last few BP baseballs hit into the stands. After we spoke, he headed in the opposite direction. A moment later, I found a ball in the seats. I called over to him and waved the ball as if to indicate that I was going to toss it his way. Instead of preparing to catch it, he walked over and said, “Want to keep it?” I couldn’t resist saying yes, so I had another nicely used International League baseball for my collection:

Because I’d been in such a hurry to get to the Scranton area, I hadn’t even stopped for lunch on my drive. That meant that by 30 or so minutes before the first pitch of game one, I was absolutely ravenous. In my pregame walking, I’d noticed a bunch of enticing-looking food options at PNC Field, and while it was nice to know that I’d have two days to sample several things, the pressure was on to start my culinary experience off right. My first meal of the visit was the Champ Dog, which looked like the most unique hot dog on the menu. The hot dog itself was stuffed with spicy cheese (this was the first stuffed dog I think I’ve ever had) and topped with coleslaw, pulled pork, BBQ sauce and a pickle wedge. This is how it looked:

It was definitely a winner, although admittedly a little challenging to eat because of its size. (Of course, I somehow managed to devour all of it in just a couple minutes, so it wasn’t too difficult to eat.)

First concession item done, I settled into a seat on the first base side to enjoy the first inning. The early start time meant there were weird shadows at play, as you can see in the following shot:

They weren’t interfering with fans’ views or players’ views; they just seemed, well, super noticeable. Another thing that was super noticeable and that irked me more than the slowly moving shadows were the nets over the dugouts. This feature wasn’t present when I last visited PNC Field, but it’s unfortunately starting to crop up around baseball. Look, I’m all for the idea of fan safety, and I hate the thought of someone getting seriously hurt at a ballpark of all places. That said, the seemingly tiny amount of netting has a weird effect of making the action seem dramatically farther away when you’re behind the dugout. One of the great things about baseball is the close connection that you get with the players, which is something you don’t get in many other sports. There’s no real barrier between you and what’s taking place on the field, so whether it’s a pitcher tipping his cap to your applause or an infielder tossing the third out ball into the seats, it almost feels as though you’re part of the game. With the netting up, that’s no longer the case, and I find it sad.

And that’s not a knock on PNC Field — it’s just a comment on dugout netting in general.

After an inning behind the third base dugout and not wanting to stare through the netting any longer, I set out in search of a better view. I found it on the right field side of the berm, which is one of PNC Field’s coolest post-renovation features. The berm wasn’t yet heavily populated — I find that the crowd tends to pick up during the nightcap of doubleheaders — so I figured that if a home run were hit, I’d have a better-than-average chance of snagging it. Here’s the view from the spot I picked:

I wanted to be far enough behind the wall that I could run forward on a short home run, rather than have to backpedal up the hill. I gave this spot two innings — during which time, nothing came remotely close. The decision I faced was to stay in the area longer or continue wandering around the stadium, and the latter prevailed as it always does.

My next stop was a concession stand on the third base concourse for a $2 tallboy of LandShark:

The low price for the beer was part of the team’s Two Dollar Tuesday promotion, and while I rarely drink, it made for a refreshing beverage while I watched the game from the standing-room area above the bullpens in left-center. When I finished the beer half an inning later, I moved just a few paces to my left to watch RailRiders left hander Tyler Webb, who had begun to warm up in the ‘pen. As I said earlier, the walkway above the bullpens gives you an outstanding view of whatever’s going on below you, so I had fun watching him and taking shots like this one:

The lefty’s tossing wasn’t the only thing of interest taking place below me. From my spot, I could see a RailRider in catcher’s gear — I’m guessing he was the bullpen catcher or coach — reviewing scouting reports and heat maps for the Syracuse hitters:

I was able to zoom in with my camera and was impressed with how advanced this stuff was — MLB-caliber scouting reports with all sorts of situational stats and a comprehensive two-page package on each player who stepped to the plate. I’m talking percentage of pitches swung at in the zone, first-pitch swings against right-handers versus left-handers, swings and misses based on different velocities of each pitch type and a whole lot more. Really interesting stuff.

It wasn’t only the RailRiders bullpen that I was enjoying watching. I was also keeping an eye on the Syracuse ‘pen over to my right side — and it was humorously apparent that these two relievers were keeping an eye on me, too:

I moved over to the third base side in time for the bottom half of the seventh inning (MiLB doubleheaders are just two seven-inning games each) and watched Syracuse closer Wander Suero — and his unique prepitch stance — close out the game:

Normally, the last out of any game I attend is a bit of a melancholy affair, but not today. Instead of heading out of the stadium, I got to stick around for the second game of the twin bill.

With a 30-minute break between games, I decided to take another walk around the length of the concourse and then find something else to eat. That exercise was a good idea, too, given that I was headed toward the Ice Cream Sliders concession stand for, you guessed it, an ice cream slider. What is an ice cream slider? Take two cookies of your choice, some ice cream of your choice, make a sandwich out of them and you’ve got the aforementioned dessert. The selection of cookie and ice cream flavors was impressive, and I went with something that you might call unconventional: M&Ms cookies with root beer-flavored ice cream:

Of course, the flavors I selected probably weren’t the best pairing, but the dessert was a winner. I’d never eaten root beer ice cream in the past, but it had an awesome flavor that was virtually identical to its namesake soft drink.

The ice cream and cookies took a while to eat, which meant that it wasn’t long before the players emerged from the dugouts and began to warm up for the doubleheader nightcap. As I was already on the third base side, I went down to field level to see some of the players close up, including outfielder Clint Frazier, who has since been called up to the Yankees for the first time:

Since I’d done so much exploring before and during the first game, I spent more of the second game just watching the action on the field. After an inning or so on the third base side, I returned to the spot above the bullpens for a bit, and and then hung out on the grass berm for a couple more innings. Look how perfect the scene was from this spot:

A little later, I made the short move over to the bar-style seating right behind the right field foul pole, where I had this view:

After another lap around the park, I returned to the above section in the sixth inning. By now, the fans who’d been in this area in the above photo had gone, which meant that I was the only person sitting in the multilevel deck. Ideal for a home run ball, right? Yes, but nothing came my way. That did nothing to dampen a long and awesome day at PNC Field, which had totaled about seven hours.

As the fans filed out of the ballpark’s gates to the parking lot, I quickly cut through the parking lot and took the short walk back to the Courtyard Scranton Wilkes-Barre, grateful for the tiny distance between the hotel and ballpark:

Although I was exhausted, sunburned and full of food (typically, three earmarks of a good day of baseball) I made time for a 20-minute swim in the hotel pool before it closed, and then returned to my room to watch the MLB highlights on TV. As much as the location of this hotel might be the most enticing feature for baseball road trippers, there are a lot of things to like about the Courtyard Scranton Wilkes-Barre. I particularly appreciated the size of my guest room …

… and the balcony, a photo from which you saw earlier in this post. Directly below my balcony, there was a nice outdoor seating area that centered around a fire pit:

(The above two photos were taken in the daylight when I arrived, rather than after the game, as you might’ve guessed.)

After my swim, I sat at my laptop for a while to catch up on some Twitter messages, and then hung out on the balcony for a little while to enjoy the night view — and then it was time for bed in anticipation of another big day in Scranton.


Ottawa Champions – June 16

On June 17 of 2016, I traveled to Ottawa, Canada, for some international baseball action. If you were following my blog back then, you might recall my exciting day seeing the independent Can-Am League’s Ottawa Champions hosting the Cuban National Team. If you don’t recall, this link should jog your memory.

A year minus a day later, I was back in Canada’s capital city for a reunion of sorts — the Champions were once again hosting Cuba, and I’d made plans to be in attendance as soon as the series was announced. My excitement for this game meant I pulled into the lots of Ottawa’s Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park more than three hours before first pitch. I was so early that the parking lot looked like this:

As usual, I took a short walk around the exterior of the ballpark before entering. I won’t post those photos here, though, because they’re virtually identical to some of the pre-entrance shots that I’ve shared in other posts about seeing the Champions. What can I say? I’m a creature of habit sometimes.

Ottawa was on the field hitting, and this is the first view I had after I walked through the main entrance and out to the cross-aisle behind the seating bowl:

I was eager to get down to the field, as that’s always a thrilling experience, but I decided to first do a little wandering around the park to check out the sights. My first stop was the top row of seats on the third base side. Here’s a shot that gives you a good idea of how the interior of RCGT Park looks:

My next stop was the grass berm in the left field corner. There’s a huge picnic area behind it, as well as a couple rows of Adirondack chairs that give fans a unique seating experience — and a cool spot to snag a long foul ball during the game. Here’s how the area looks from roughly the top of the berm:

Speaking of foul balls, a batting practice baseball laying in the grass caught my eye, so I picked it up and photographed it:

It was hugely waterlogged, so I’m assuming it’d been there since the day before.

Next, I headed down to the field, where I chatted for a while with Champions marketing and communications director Craig Richenback. I met Craig for the first time last season, so it was great to catch up with him again and talk baseball. Before long, we were joined by team president and minority owner David Gourlay, who is someone I’ve talked with several times on social media, but was happy to finally meet.

Given the magnitude of the international series, Craig and David were soon back to their pregame tasks. This left me alone watching BP — but only for a minute. Soon enough, Champions catcher and 2013 Cincinnati Reds draft pick Danny Grauer approached me. Why? Because he noticed my shirt and told me it was “awesome.” (By the way, I’m currently doing a prize draw for a free shirt. All the details are on my Facebook page.) If you remember my visit to Binghamton last month, I was approached by two players who also liked my shirt, so it was a thrill for another player to come talk to me because of it.

Danny was super friendly, and we talked for several minutes. Each time it was his turn to hit, he’d go over to the cage and take a bunch of swings — and I’d watch from right behind the cage:

Then, he’d come back around to me and we’d talk more baseball. Danny told me about playing a season of pro baseball in Germany, and I told him about some of the parks I’d visited. I’ve had some cool conversations with players over the years, and this ranks among them. I’ll definitely look forward to talking to him next time I visit RCGT Park.

After Danny headed off to the clubhouse, I spotted team broadcaster Mike Nellis, who I’d also met a year earlier. We’ve stayed in touch on Twitter, so it was great to catch up with him for a bit. By the time he headed off to prepare for the game, the Champions had finished hitting — and that meant I was the only person left standing on the field. I didn’t feel a compulsion to rush off, so I just hung out by myself. Cuba had yet to arrive (the team was late last year, too, and the players came off the bus wearing their uniforms) but I was hopeful that the squad would be here in time to hit. In the meantime, I just wandered around on the field and took shots like this one:

A little while later, the Cuba bus pulled in — late enough that BP wouldn’t be in the cards again. Still, I was excited to see the bus in its Team Cuba colors:

As the players climbed off the bus, they entered RCGT Park and headed toward the visitor’s clubhouse. I knew it’d be a little while before they reappeared and began to warm up, so I took some time to explore beyond the outfield fence. There’s a camera platform in straightaway center that I wanted to snap some photos from, as it provides a unique view of the ballpark. In the following photo, you can see the batter’s eye on the right and the walkway leading to the camera platform in the distance:

And here’s the view from the platform of a quiet — but soon to be lively — RCGT Park:

After snapping this shot of myself on the platform …

… I headed back to the field. The stands were still mostly empty when I noticed this picture of several rows behind the visitor’s dugout that were reserved for supporters of the Cuban squad. I thought it was an interesting sight, so I took a photo and tweeted it out:

Interestingly enough, the Cuban Embassy’s official Twitter account retweeted it and, given that it was the day that President Trump made changes to U.S.-Cuba relations, the embassy’s Twitter timeline comically looked something like this:

Political tweet
Political tweet
Political tweet
Retweet of my photo
Political tweet
Political tweet
Political tweet

A short while later, the Cuban players had emerged and were hurriedly warming up. The right field corner was a beehive of activity — some players stretching and taking grounders on the field, others taking BP in the cage and others hitting off a tee:

It was an interesting spectacle to watch. Warming up to play baseball, I’m sure, is the same in virtually any country in which the sport is played. Yet, the Cuban warmup just felt a little different. I’ve seen players stretch on the field a million times, but the Cuban stretching routine had more of a calisthenic nature to it, I’d say. A big difference was the use of whistles; when it was time for the players to change from one stretch to another, one of the trainers blew a whistle. It hearkened back to high school gym class a little.

One thing that didn’t remind me of gym class was the sudden smell of cigar smoke in the air. Briefly confused, I looked around and noticed that Cuba manager Roger Machado was puffing away at a (presumably Cuban) cigar as he watched his squad go through its paces:

I chuckled thinking of classic MLB managers like Jim Leyland who would clandestinely smoke cigarettes in the dugout, but here was Machado not attempting to hide his cigar at all.

A minute later, a Cuban staffer approached me, saying, “No press, no press.” Of course, I had every right to take photos of the team as it warmed up in a public place surrounded by members of the public, but I didn’t want to create an international incident. I asked him what he was worried about, but the language barrier, unfortunately, was as vast as the distance between Ottawa and Havana, so our conversation didn’t get too far. He wasn’t forceful; his comments were more of a pleading nature and he was perfectly polite, so I was happy to move away so that I wasn’t so close to the team’s warmup.

That seemed to satisfy him, as he gave me a thumbs up when he saw me shooting photos of the team a little while later. I think the big takeaway here is that the “learn Spanish” app that I use from time to time is shockingly not making me fluent. It’s regrettable that I wasn’t able to converse with him in his native tongue and find out what he was worried about.

In any case, after moving to a “safe” area, I continued watching the Cuban team. I was excited to catch a glimpse of Y. Cespedes — not Yoenis, but his half-brother Yoelkis. He was one of 13 players competing against Ottawa who suited up for Cuba in the most recent World Baseball Classic, and it was easy to spot him as he stood around the cage:

An interesting thing I noticed a moment later was that Yoeklis appeared to be wearing Yoenis’ New York Mets wristbands:

As you can see here, they’re orange and marked with the number 52, which is Yoenis’ number. Yoeklis, as you might’ve seen in the previous photo, was wearing jersey number 51. Another tiny bit of uniform nerdery — Yoelkis was also wearing WBC-issued batting gloves, and was the only player I specifically noticed with this garment.

Once I’d watched the Cuban side for a while, I went over to the front row of seats on the third base side to watch Ottawa warm up. I quickly spotted my new BFF Danny, so I snapped this shot of him stretching before he began to play catch:

There were a bunch of other noteworthy Ottawa players I wanted to see. Here’s Canadian Tyson Gillies, who was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2006. He played more than 500 games in the minors, reaching Triple-A with the Philadelphia Phillies system:

Here’s Steve Brown, who played on the Trois-Rivières Aigles in 2013 with my buddy Jeremy Nowak:

And here’s Gustavo Pierre, a former Blue Jays signee who I saw as an 18 year old with Auburn back in 2010 during my very first road trip for my blog and website:

There’s another Ottawa player I saw years ago on a road trip — pitcher (and Champions interim pitching coach) Phillippe Aumont, who is the only current Champions player with MLB experience. I saw him when he pitched for Double-A Reading back in 2011:

When Ottawa starter Daniel Cordero — who pitched four seasons in the Braves system — began to play catch, I found a new spot along the fence and took shots like this one:

Then, as he and Danny headed toward the bullpen, I found a spot where I could take photos like this:

Between warmups and first pitch, I set off in search of something to eat. As much as it was tempting to once again hit the poutine concession stand, I wanted to try something different. I’m happy to say there were a handful of new food choices on the RCGT Park menu, and I was surprised to find a Cuban sandwich. I’m assuming that it’s a specialty selection for the international series but, either way, I couldn’t resist ordering it.

The sandwich that I was handed didn’t remind me of what I was expecting to see — instead of being put into a panini press, the sandwich was served on a bun. (Way better choice in my books.) And, I’m happy to say, it was outstanding. My understanding is that Cuban sandwiches can use a few different types of meats, and this one had something that reminded me of corned beef (or, perhaps the Cuban version of corned beef). Tons of meat complemented with cheese, pickles and a spicy sauce made this sandwich a big-time winner:

I finished my sandwich just in time to catch the Cuban ambassador to Canada throw out the first pitch, listen to the Cuban and Canadian anthems, and then settled into my seat to watch the top half of the first inning from this spot:

Then, I spent the bottom half of the first inning and the first bit of the second inning with this view:

The action on the field was interesting. Given that many of the Cubans were on the WBC roster and Cuba is known for its baseball, one might expect to see the visiting team beat up on an independent ball club — and that’s no disrespect to the Champions, especially given that they’re defending league champs. But that certainly wasn’t the case — Ottawa not only won the game 3-0, but swept Cuba in the three-game series. In fact, Cuba is currently just 4-8 in its 12 games against independent teams on this tour. And that’s one of the great things about baseball — you might have an idea of which team could win on paper, but you’ve got to play the game, as the saying goes.

I mentioned earlier how Cuba’s pregame warmup was different, but it wasn’t the only difference I noticed in how the Cuban squad approached the game. Between innings midway through the contest, the players and coaches gathered in front of the dugout for a pep talk from manager Machado. When’s the last time you’ve seen a scene like this?

(And, yes, I hope you noticed the trombone on the left. There was a large Cuban contingent behind the dugout, and its chanting and music definitely made for a fun vibe.)

I watched the remainder of the game with this view …

… and then snapped this one last shot of the exterior of the ballpark after the game:

I’m not sure when my next Champions game will be, but I’m batting 1.000 in good times at RCGT Park, and I’m sure that streak will continue whenever I return.

Binghamton Rumble Ponies – May 18

Less than 24 hours after leaving Binghamton’s NYSEG Stadium following my first visit since 2011, I was back in the car and pulling into the Eastern League ballpark’s parking lot for some matinee action.

I always find matinee games awesome on my baseball road trips. In some instances, they provide a full nine innings of daylight, which is great for photographs, a quiet evening off and an opportunity to catch up on blogging in my hotel. At other times, they give me a chance to see a stadium for a second time before hitting the road again. This time, I’d be heading home after the game, but was glad for the follow-up opportunity to see the Rumble Ponies again host the Altoona Curve at NYSEG Stadium.

My first game’s experience, which you might have read about here, was excellent. As I said in my last post, the changes that have recently been made to the ballpark made for a much better fan experience than when I last visited six years ago.

A day earlier, I’d enjoyed snagging a couple batting practice home runs in the parking lot. Given the 10:30 a.m. start time on this day, however, I knew that BP wouldn’t be in the cards. Instead of hanging out in the parking lot again, I immediately entered through Gate 1 and headed over to the new picnic area behind the fence in right field. In my previous blog post, I showed you the view from this spot — but not a full shot of how the spot itself looks. Check it out:

I can imagine this being a thrilling place during a home run. The ball would ricochet like crazy on the asphalt and likely bounce off the rounded building, too. If there were a bunch of fans in the area, it’d be fun a scramble to see who could come up with the baseball. (There ended up being one home run ball land in this spot later in the game, but I was unfortunately sitting on the opposite side of the park at the time. It’s too bad, too, because there weren’t any fans using the picnic tables when the home run was hit. A lone fan sauntered over to the area to easily pick up the baseball.)

As I said, batting practice wasn’t taking place, but that didn’t mean that the field was empty. Many players on each team were on their respective sides of the field and and were just starting to warm up, so I began my second day at NYSEG Stadium by standing in the shade under the party deck down the first base line and watching the scene. One funny thing that I noticed was a Rumble Ponies player sitting on one of the field-level seats and impersonating a silly batting stance while a teammate laughed:

Speaking of that party deck, that’s where I headed next. I wanted a bird’s-eye view of the field and the warmups below me, as you’ll see in this shot of the mostly empty ballpark …

… and this one of a Rumble Ponies team meeting taking place:

Next, I headed to the opposite side of the field to check out another new seating area. I hadn’t visited this spot a day earlier, and while it might not have all the bells and whistles of the new party deck I’d just been standing on, it’s an awesome spot to watch a ballgame. This new area consists of tables and chairs that are protected by netting, as well as bar-style seating at field level:

Since I apparently cannot stand still for long when I’m at a ballpark, my next stop was back where I’d been standing earlier. By now, the Binghamton players were playing catch, and I watched the action for a few minutes before noticing a scene that shows just how solitary gameday can be for the starting pitcher. Here’s Rumble Ponies starter PJ Conlon, more than an hour before first pitch, standing by himself against the center field fence and stretching:

Once I’d watched the Binghamton warmups for a few minutes, I once again returned to the visitors’ side to see Altoona. Remember the new seating area from two photos ago? I took a spot at field level, which put me just a few yards from the closest Curve players. Not 30 seconds after arriving, a Curve player walked over toward me and I realized it was outfielder Connor Joe, Pittsburgh’s 30th-ranked prospect and the same player who’d said hello before the game a day earlier. I could tell he was reading the lettering on my new T-shirt and taking it in.

“Cool shirt,” he told me. “What’s The Ballpark Guide?” I was once again a little surprised at being approached by a player, but excited to tell him a little about my site. Seemingly hearing the conversation between his teammate and me, Curve shortstop Kevin Newman, the third-ranked prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, turned around and read my shirt aloud: “Fastballs and walkoffs and hot dogs and road trips.”

As this was happening, I was telling Joe how I’d been to 64 different stadiums, but I suggested that he’d probably played at more throughout all the years of his baseball career, and he laughed. Soon enough, he waved and headed back to the field. The whole exchange lasted less than a minute, but it was pretty cool. I made up my new T-shirts just before this trip with the hope of having them catch peoples’ eyes, and the thought that two players were commenting on the design was an unexpected thrill.

Of course, now I had a pair of new players to add to my “players with whom I’ve had a cool interaction and now I cheer for them” list, so I got busy snapping some shots of both Joe and Newman. Here’s one of Joe that turned out well:

And one of Newman:

Although I was mostly watching Joe and Newman, something unusual caught my eye. Altoona shortstop Pablo Reyes was wearing his Oakley sunglasses upside down on his face. I thought he might’ve just been doing it for a joke, and I’m sure he was to some extent, but they remained in place while he played catch. It was a bizarre sight, but one that definitely made me smile:

In fact, I thought this sight was so bizarre that I submitted it for consideration in ESPN’s Uni Watch blog, and it got included. Here’s the tweet that I sent:

And here’s a screenshot of the part of the Uni Watch blog post that mentions my submission:

By the way, the photo of Reyes may make it appear as though he was just wearing his shades upside down while standing around, but he was actually wearing them that way while playing catch. Here’s proof:

After I’d finished watching the oddity with Reyes, I shifted by attention back to Joe and Newman, who appeared to be having a good time toward the end of warmups:

When warmups wrapped up and first pitch approached, I went back over to the Rumble Ponies side of the field for a few minutes. While there, I snapped this shot during the national anthem …

… and then took a spot in the first row above the Altoona dugout to shoot some action shots of players. Here’s Curve starting pitcher Yeudy Garcia, who’s the #12 prospect in the Pirates system:

Here’s Champ Stuart, who hit the first foul ball I snagged a day earlier, just after laying down a bunt:

And, since we’re talking about those foul balls from my first game in Binghamton, here’s Luis Guillorme, who hit the second one I snagged:

The next inning, Altoona outfielder Jordan Luplow got hit by a pitch, and I snapped this shot just after the ball made contact:

The HBP was sort of interesting, although I’m sure Luplow would beg to differ. He had absolutely crushed a home run the previous night, and while I hadn’t noticed if he’d watched it a little too long or done something else to get under the opposition’s skin, the beanball made it obvious that Binghamton wasn’t pleased. In fact, the intentional nature of the pitch was so evident that one of the Curve coaching staff yelled out a warning to Conlon, “You’ve got to hit, too,” and then may have used two-part curse word.

There’s no way Conlon didn’t hear what was yelled, but he didn’t react. I was ready for some fireworks when he came up to bat, but it wasn’t payback time on this day. Speaking of Conlon, here’s a shot I snapped just after his delivery a few pitches after hitting Luplow:

After watching innings one and two from behind the dugout, I opted for a change of scenery and found it on one of the picnic tables in the right field corner. I was determined to spend some time there in the hopes of snagging another home run ball for my collection. I spent about an inning and a half with this view …

… but nothing came my way.

Eager for a little shade, I decided to take a walk through the covered concourse under the seats to check out some of the historical plaques recognizing those enshrined in Binghamton’s baseball hall of fame. This part of NYSEG Stadium might initially go unnoticed because of its location, but it’s a must-see area. (Although, I’d love to see it somewhere with a little more visibility, given that there are plaques recognizing many all-time greats of the game who have a connection to Binghamton.) One name that I thought was notable was that of Bud Fowler. His name isn’t one that I recognize, but Fowler was the first African-American player to play professional baseball. He suited up for the International Association’s Binghamton Crickets in 1887 and hit .350.

My short walk through Binghamton baseball history lasted about half an inning, although I could’ve spent longer reading all the plaques. I wanted to get back out to the seats to enjoy some more action, and settled into a seat behind home plate, where I had this view:

After an inning in that spot, I took a front-row seat above the Binghamton dugout to shoot a few more action shots. Here’s L.J. Mazzilli, the home run hero from a night earlier, ducking out of the way of a pitch …

… and then making square contact a couple pitches later to hit his first triple of the season:

Later in the inning, Stuart hit a single. Altoona was careful to keep Stuart from getting a big lead, given his speed. The result was a number of pick-off attempts, and I had a great view for them:

The throws must’ve worked; Stuart did indeed try to swipe second base, but was tossed out by Altoona catcher Zane Chavez:

(I like how first baseman Edwin Espinal is making the “out” sign at the same time as the umpire.)

The next inning, I shot this image of Altoona’s Reyes who was batting without his lucky upside-down sunglasses …

… and Rumble Ponies reliever Luis Mateo, looking skyward after coming off the mound following a one-inning outing:

I spent the game’s final innings once again in the right field corner hoping for a home run ball:

Again, though, nothing came my way. That didn’t do anything to dampen an excellent two days in Binghamton. After my disappointment in 2011, I was really hoping that I’d enjoy this visit — but had no idea things would’ve changed for the better to this degree. Now, I’m eagerly looking forward to returning to Binghamton for some Rumble Ponies baseball, whenever that may be. And if you’re remotely in the area, I wholeheartedly recommend that you make a stop at NYSEG Stadium, too.

Binghamton Rumble Ponies – May 17

The last time I visited Binghamton’s NYSEG Stadium was in July of 2011, and the experience wasn’t very memorable. I found the ballpark to be old and a little dreary and, despite my visit taking place on Independence Day, it wasn’t an overly festive time.

As a result, I didn’t made a point of revisiting Binghamton in the years since, despite it being a little over an hour from Syracuse, which is the closest minor league park to where I live and a city I’ve visited repeatedly for ballgames.

A lot has changed in Binghamton over the last couple years. The team was bought in December of 2015 and rebranded as the Rumble Ponies in 2016, and the ballpark has gone through a lot of changes, too. I’d seen some exciting pictures online of the new ballpark elements and they were enough to compel me to book a return trip to Binghamton and attempt to rewrite my experience from 2011.

I’m glad to say it’s been fully rewritten.

The recent additions give this Eastern League ballpark a whole new feel. Not only are there plenty of admirable physical changes, but the rebranding of the team seems to have injected a new enthusiasm into the fan base and overall community, too.

I arrived in Binghamton in the early afternoon of May 17, did a tiny bit of sightseeing and then pulled into the parking lot of NYSEG (New York State Electric and Gas, for those wondering) Stadium about 4 p.m. for that evening’s 6:35 p.m. start. During my last visit, I recalled seeing fans hanging out in the parking lot in the hopes of snagging a batting practice home run ball, so I wanted to give that experience a shot, too.

It didn’t take long — all I had to do was exit my car, walk across the parking lot, and there were a pair of scuffed-up Eastern League balls sitting on the asphalt. I picked this one up and photographed it …

… and an instant after grabbing the second one, which was closer to the street, a resident of one of the houses across the street began shouting at me and waving her hands. I couldn’t tell what she was saying, but it was obvious that she wanted the souvenir. I wasn’t going to hurl the ball 100 feet to someone without a glove, so I jogged over to the sidewalk and tossed it to her.

Then, I returned to the parking lot not necessarily to try to get another ball, but rather to just enjoy the scene. The outfield fence was open in one spot, so I was able to stand back at the edge of the pavement and peek through to the field:

A moment later, I saw a man coming across the parking lot straight toward me. “I wonder what this is about,” I thought. It turns out that the man was John Hughes, the team’s new owner. He asked if I was the baseball blogger visiting town and wanted to welcome me to Binghamton. We talked briefly about some of the changes to the park, which John was eager for me to see once I got inside. This wasn’t my only encounter with the owner — over the two games that I attended, he approached me four separate times to ask how my visits were going.

After speaking to John, the inside of the park was beckoning. I decided to take a quick walk around the exterior and get inside. My first stop was Gate 1 in the right field corner, which has had a huge facelift since my last visit. I think you’ll agree that this is a sharp-looking spot to enter the ballpark:

Next, I headed to the gates behind home plate, where I snapped this shot:

If you take a look at this image from my 2011 visit, you’ll note that this area looks largely the same, with the exception of the color of the NYSEG Stadium sign and, of course, the Rumble Ponies emblem.

I couldn’t resist turning the corner and taking a walk down a side street for a short stretch so that I could once again get a glimpse of the field. From where I stood, I could see players from the visiting Altoona Curve playing catch …

… and this sight was more than enough to draw me into the park. I decided to enter through Gate 1 in the right field corner. That’s where I entered during my last visit, and I was anxious to see the multitude of changes in this area. This is the view I had upon stepping through the gate:

What a great sight, right? There’s a lot going on in this picture. The Roundabout BBQ Pit concession stand on the right side has been hugely improved since 2011, and the benches and wide pavilion area are new, too. In the distance, you’ll see an awesome party deck, which is perhaps the biggest recent addition to the ballpark. Just out of sight to the left is a big children’s play area with inflatable attractions, while this structure stands to the right:

It’s brand new, too, and houses the ballpark’s batting cages. They weren’t currently in use, given the sunny 90-degree weather.

Another awesome new feature in the right field corner is the picnic area directly behind the fence. As you’ll see here, the fence has a chain-link section so that fans sitting in this spot can watch the game:

I used the term “picnic area” because there are picnic tables, but this isn’t a group area that you need to reserve. It’s open to any fan in the stadium, and I enjoyed time in this location during both games I attended. I decided to hang out in this spot for a few minutes to watch BP. Although I was pumped to continue walking around the ballpark and seeing the sights, it’s always a treat to watch BP just a few feet from the field.

A minute or two after I approached the fence, a long fly ball carried an Altoona outfielder over in my direction. He caught the ball, threw it back to the infield and then turned to me and said hello. I was a little surprised, given that I’ve watched BP a million times with very few players actually initiating conversation, but I said hello back and noted that the player was Connor Joe, the 30th-ranked prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates system. I also snapped this shot of Joe as he walked back to his position:

I stood in the area for another minute or two before proceeding to the party deck down the first base line. It’s one of the nicer decks I’ve seen at the Double-A level — half-tables along the fence, two rows of full tables behind, string lighting overhead and Rumble Ponies-themed furniture all combine to make this spot a winner:

With the exception of the game staff, NYSEG Stadium was still virtually empty at this point, so it was fun to just stand on the quiet party deck and enjoy a few minutes of BP. Before long, though, I wanted to check out the home plate area. Altoona was still hitting at this point, so I spent a bit of time standing on the cross-aisle where I had this view:

The ballpark’s seating situation is pretty straightforward. There’s a cross-aisle that separates two levels of seating — the field-level section consists of nine rows throughout most of the park and six rows behind the two dugouts. Behind the field-level seats is the cross-aisle, and then there are 14 rows that make up the upper level of the stadium. Here’s a sense of what this all looks like while empty:

If you’re wondering about the location of the concourse, it’s under the seats. This isn’t a ballpark feature that I particularly like, given that you can’t see the action on the field when you’re getting your food (although I should note that NYSEG Stadium has a number of TVs throughout the concourse that can keep you informed about the game), but it’s a reality of many older stadiums in the minors.

I walked the length of the cross-aisle until I got just past third base, and then took a ramp down to an open area down the third base line. This was a spot I recalled from my last visit, and I wanted to see how it now looked. Unlike the drastic changes to the right field corner, the left field corner was largely the same as in 2011 — and that suited me just fine. As you’ll see from this next photo, this spot is a prime area for snagging long foul balls, so I made a mental note to spend at least an inning or two in this area once the game began:

I watched BP for a couple minutes from this spot before electing to search for some shade. If you look at the above photo, you’ll see several rows of shaded seats at the top of the seating area, so that’s where I headed next. After about an hour out in the sun, the shade was a welcome relief. I would’ve been happy to just sit and enjoy the breeze, but given that BP was still taking place, I could get some shade while also enjoying this view:

Just about perfect, right?

I spent long enough in the shade to cool down a little, but wanted to check out the new kids area before the gates opened. I knew that once fans were inside the park, this spot would be a popular attraction, so I wanted to snap a shot of the new attractions while the area was still quiet. This is how the kids area looks:

Three fun inflatable attractions for the youngsters, and cool Rumble Ponies-themed benches for their parents:

Shortly after I took the above photos, the gates opened and fans began to head inside. BP was now done, but I sat at one of the picnic tables in the right field corner to just soak up the scene. The grounds crew was preparing the field, families were starting to congregate around the kids area and the smells wafting through the air from the nearby Roundabout BBQ Pit concession stand were starting to get me hungry. Before I ate, I wanted to see if I’d be able to find a baseball that was hit during BP. A quick look around the right field corner turned up nothing, so I made the walk over to the left field corner in hopes of changing my fortune. As I arrived, a staffer was busily picking up a couple balls that were sitting on the asphalt and tossing them into the bullpen. After he left, I decided that I’d take a look under some of the picnic tables in the area to see if anything was missed — and it wasn’t long before I found this beauty:

Balls in the minor leagues aren’t often marked, so it was cool to see this one doctored up with a “B” for Binghamton.

(Off the top of my head, the only other marked MiLB baseball that I’ve come across over the years was from the Staten Island Yankees. Interestingly enough, I snagged that ball in June of 2011 on the same trip that I first visited Binghamton, and you can see a photo of that ball and read about how I got it here.)

My next priority was to grab something for dinner before the game. My pregame tour of the concession stands showed lots of interesting food choices and a better selection than my last visit, and I was drawn to the BBQ concession in the right field corner. I wanted to try a chicken spiedie, which is a sandwich that is popular in Binghamton and throughout Central New York. The chicken is marinated, grilled over charcoal and served on a roll. Among other things, the concession stand sold a chicken spiedie and a chicken spiedie deluxe.

I’ll give you one guess which one I went for.

The deluxe version came with your choice of toppings, and I opted for bacon relish and jalapeno spread. I took my food all the way back over to the quiet left field corner, where I snapped this photo …

… and sat down to eat at one of the picnic tables. The chicken’s flavor was delicious, thanks to the tasty marinade and the cooking method. I found it just a little dry, though, and the toppings were a little on the sparse side, giving the overall sandwich a dry consistency. I would order the sandwich again, but I’d keep my fingers crossed that it’d be a little juicier. Either way, it’s always fun to try a local specialty at the ballpark, especially when it’s something I haven’t previously eaten.

Since I was in the area, I decided to see if I might be able to find another baseball. A quick glimpse under each of the picnic tables and the hilly area beyond turned up nothing, so I shifted my attention to a small hut behind the corner of the bullpen. The area was a little difficult to access, but it wasn’t roped off, so I reached behind the hut and discovered this:

Here’s the neat thing about this baseball — I think it might be a home run ball from an actual game. As you can likely tell from the photo, it’s in way better condition than an average minor league BP ball. It’s been mud rubbed and doesn’t have much wear, leading me to believe that it was hit during a game. And, because it was behind the bullpen in fair territory, I think that it’s a home run. Of course, there’s no way to tell for sure — and there’s no way to know who might’ve hit it.

But, before my visit, the last home run hit to left field at NYSEG Stadium was back on May 2 — a first-inning shot by Akron RubberDucks infielder Todd Hankins in a 5-4 Binghamton win. I’d expect that a ball sitting out for nearly two weeks would’ve been waterlogged, but this one wasn’t. Then again, the ball was up against the shed and likely protected from the rain.

We’ll chalk it up to a ballpark mystery, I guess.

There was nothing mysterious about what happened next — the players took the field for their pregame warmups, and I went over to the fence to watch. One player who caught my eye was Altoona shortstop Kevin Newman. While his teammates were stretching, he held a bat and posed for some photos for an on-field photographer:

I watched the Altoona guys for a few minutes and then decided to head over to left field to watch the Rumble Ponies. It’s always fun watching warmups from field level. The players are just a handful of feet away at times, which is conducive to taking photos. Here’s Binghamton outfield Champ Stewart, who’d play a role in my ballpark experience later on:

As the warmups went on, I made a quick stop at the Dippin’ Dots stand on the first base concourse. I’d noticed it earlier and, given the heat of the evening, I was eager for a cool snack. Plus, you could buy Dippin’ Dots in Rumble Ponies colors — blue and red — so that was hard to pass up:

Incidentally, I tweeted the above photo with a crack about Sean Spicer and his apparent disdain for Dippin’ Dots, and the ice cream company retweeted me and started following me on Twitter.

I finished my dessert after the top half of the first inning, and then went down to the paved area in left field. As I noted earlier, this spot felt like foul ball heaven, and I thought I’d stand a good chance to snagging one if I was patient.

Patience, it turned out, wasn’t necessary.

I arrived in the spot as Stewart, the Rumble Ponies leadoff hitter, was digging in. On the second pitch he faced, he launched a long fly ball in my direction. It sailed well over my head, clanged off the picnic area and I snatched it up quickly:

Hmm, that was easy.

The next batter, infielder Luis Guillorme, made contact with the first pitch he saw and the ball had a nearly identical trajectory to Stewart’s foul — over my head, off the picnic area and into my waiting hands:

This all happened in the span of little more than a minute, which was enough to attract the attention of the Altoona bullpen, whose players jokingly heckled me. I remember clearly thinking that with two foul balls in the first inning, it might be possible to snag five, six or even 10 fouls by the end of the game. I can’t help but admit that I thought about the notoriety this feat might gain on Twitter — but then I snapped back to reality when another fan approached me because he recognized my T-shirt, which I’d posted on Facebook before my trip. One of the things that I really enjoy about my baseball road trips is meeting other fans, especially those who have traveled extensively, too. This particular fan, PJ Harmer, has been to a ton of stadiums, including many that I’ve visited. We had a great time over the next three innings comparing notes on places we’ve been and talking baseball.

I should also note that not another single foul ball came remotely near where we were standing. PJ suggested that he might’ve been a bad luck charm, but whatever the cause, it was odd to have such a foul ball drought after snagging two from back-to-back batters in the first inning.

After PJ and I said farewell, I headed straight for the gate and exited NYSEG Stadium — not to leave for good, but rather to snap this shot of the stadium’s exterior:

Then, I went back inside to grab a seat up high down the first base line. It was a cool spot, giving me a nice view of not only the action as the sun set …

… but also of the new party deck that now had the overhead lights on:

I didn’t end up sitting in the spot for long. The sunset was extremely bright, and while it made for a nice backdrop to the ballgame, it washed out the field a little (and definitely made photography a challenge). I decided to relocate to a spot behind home plate, where I enjoyed this perfect view:

At the start of the seventh inning, I moved into a seat in the first row behind home plate, where I got to watch Binghamton infielder L.J. Mazzilli, son of longtime MLBer Lee Mazzilli, hit a two-run home run:

For the eighth inning, I sat in one of the bar seats in left field, and took a spot in the seats behind third base for the ninth inning:

After the game, I was glad that I didn’t have far to travel to get to my hotel. I’d been at the ballpark for more than five hours and I’d spent about five hours driving to Binghamton, so I was more than ready to relax. My lodging for the night was the Holiday Inn Binghamton, which is less than a mile from NYSEG Stadium. That meant that just a few minutes after pulling out of the ballpark parking lot, I was standing in the hotel’s parking lot:

The hotel is located in the heart of the downtown, directly across the street from the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena, home of the American Hockey League’s Binghamton Devils, just a short walk from a number of eateries, and on the banks of the Chenango River. In fact, I could see the river from my room:

Speaking of my room, it was perfect — a big two-room suite with a king-sized bed, living room, fridge and microwave and two TVs. The hotel also offers free parking, which I find to be a rarity with downtown hotels, and free Wi-Fi. Here’s a shot of the bedroom …

… and one of the living room area:

Another cool thing about this hotel? It’s the official host hotel of the Rumble Ponies, which means that rehabbing Mets players stay there and the team in town to play Binghamton also stays there. The next morning, I saw a handful of Altoona players in the lobby just before they boarded the bus for the short ride over to the ballpark. The hotel offers baseball packages for fans — you can book a package that includes accommodation, tickets to the game, free breakfast and a baseball-themed gift upon checking in. This is definitely the spot that I recommend when you visit Binghamton on a baseball trip, and it’s the spot I’ll be staying whenever I visit again.

I was in bed before midnight — a rarity on my baseball trips — and not just because it’d been a long day. The Rumble Ponies were hosting the Curve in a 10:30 a.m. matinee the next day, and I’d be in attendance before I headed back home.

Sam Bat Factory Tour #2 – April 28

If you’re a longtime reader of my blog, you might recall when I had the opportunity back in 2012 to tour the Sam Bat factory just outside of Ottawa, Canada. It was undoubtedly one of the coolest experiences I’ve had since starting The Ballpark Guide, and that particular blog post ranks second in terms of traffic of the 225+ posts I’ve written.

So, when I had another opportunity to tour the factory and check out the company’s brand-new facilities, I jumped all over it like a hanging curve ball.

Sam Bat is a bat company headquartered in the small town of Carleton Place in Eastern Ontario, Canada, and the company is currently celebrating its 20th year in business. You might already know Sam Bat’s story — if not, it’s a company that completely revolutionized professional baseball by introducing maple bats. Prior to Sam Bat’s maple bats being used in the big leagues, bats were all made of ash. Now, more than 75 percent of bats used in the pros are made of maple due to this wood’s hardness and durability. You can read more about the company here.

Barry Bonds swung a Sam Bat during his record-breaking 73 home run season. More recently, Miguel Cabrera used this company’s bats during his 2012 Triple Crown season, and still uses them. A long list of players, including Ryan Braun, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Melky Cabrera, are current Sam Bat users. Even Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista used a Sam Bat during his 54 home run season in 2010.

On the afternoon of April 28, I met up with Kevin Rathwell, who handles the company’s Canadian sales. We met in the company’s head office, which I’d visited last time, and soon headed over to the new showroom building that wasn’t in use during my last visit. The lobby of the new building was baseball heaven, and it was hard not to want to just stand with my mouth open and stare at everything. I recognized a few of the display pieces from my last visit, including the framed Bonds piece on the wall, but there were a ton of other interesting things, like a Miguel Cabrera bat laying on the counter, a Jose Canseco signed bat, and more:

Although we’d be checking out the factory soon enough, Kevin wanted to show me a short video on how the bats are made. It’s a standard tour stop, and an easy way to get an overview of the creation process. The video room not only has a bunch of photos of bats in various stages of being built, but also one of Sam’s old lathes:

After the video, Kevin had another cool thing for me to see — the use of Sam Bat products in MLB 15 The Show for PlayStation. Sam Bat is one of just a handful of bat manufacturers licensed for use in this video game. Kevin loaded a game between the Tigers and Brewers and, sure enough, there was Cabrera with the gold bat logo clearly visible on his lumber:

Next, we stepped into a large showroom where, to my surprise, there were a few dozen bats made by different manufacturers hanging overhead:

Perhaps sensing my upcoming question, Kevin quickly explained why competitors’ bats were on display at Sam Bat. When a player is interested in having a custom bat made for him by Sam Bat, he will sometimes send the company one of his current bats — there’s no copyrighting bat shape, which means that Sam Bat (or any company, really) can then make a custom bat for the player with the same shape and to the same specs as another company’s bat. In the above photo, there are bats from a number of past and current MLB stars, including Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, Ryan Zimmerman, Jason Heyward, Troy Tulowitzki and B.J. Upton.

Below the hanging bats, Kevin pointed out a display that showed all of the bat colors that are approved by Major League Baseball. It wasn’t something that I’d previously thought about, but players obviously don’t step up to the plate with wacky-colored bats. That’s because, as you might expect, MLB meticulously defines which colors are appropriate, as you’ll see on the lower half of this photo:

Another awesome sight in the showroom was the use of Fathead wall decals featuring the Sam Bat brand. As it turns out, the Sam Bat logo is visible in a number of Fatheads, including Cabrera …

… and slugger Giancarlo Stanton:

Now, Stanton isn’t a regular Sam Bat user, but he swung one in the 2016 All-Star Game Home Run Derby, crushing 61 total bombs and the 10 longest home runs of the night to win the event. Interestingly, the bat that Stanton was swinging wasn’t made for him. It belonged to teammate Marcell Ozuna. Mired in a pre-break slump, Stanton tried out one of Ozuna’s bats and did well with it. So well, in fact, that Sam Bat hurriedly made some bats for Stanton, but he continued to rely on Ozuna’s lumber. And, when the derby came around, it was a Ozuna’s Sam Bat in Stanton’s hands.

Here’s another quick anecdote that I found interesting: Ozuna himself began using Sam Bat’s products after then-Marlins hitting coach Barry Bonds recommended the company. Facing a slump of his own in May, Ozuna tried out one of Bonds’ bats and began to hit with it. He liked the bat so much that he got Sam Bat to make some custom bats for him, and cruised to his first all-star berth.

I loved hearing stories like these. As a baseball fan, you watch the game on TV carefully, but these sorts of stories show that you really don’t have a complete idea of what’s going on, so it was awesome to get some behind-the-scenes details.

But don’t get me wrong — my visit to Sam Bat wasn’t just about learning. I also had a chance to act goofy, as evidenced here:

As you might guess, this is me holding an enormous novelty bat. Sam Bat doesn’t produce bats of this size; rather, an employee whose family member came across the bat took it into the shop, where it was painted up and adorned with the company’s logo. It’s a cool piece, but you’d need arms bigger than mine to swing it. Just for good measure, here’s another shot that shows you just how big this bat is:

Our next stop on the tour was the other side of the showroom, which featured a number of interesting products for sale. Obviously, you’d expect to see all sorts of bat- and baseball-related items, but there were maple candlesticks, baseball holders and even Sam Bat-branded maple syrup:

Next, it was time to visit the factory itself, which I knew would be exciting. During my last tour, it was fascinating to watch bats being made by hand in front of me, and I knew I’d be in for more of the same. Perhaps the coolest thing about the manufacturing process at Sam Bat is just how hands-on it is. People are making the bats one by one and putting them through a series of important steps. By the time a bat is packaged up and shipped out, it’s been handled by eight or nine different employees. I toured the Louisville Slugger factory back in 2013, and while it was cool in its own right, the high degree of automation from such a large company doesn’t give you that hands-on feel that was obvious at Sam Bat.

When we walked into the factory, this rack is the first thing I noticed:

Lots of partially finished bats awaiting completion, right? Well, yes and no. This is a pile of bats that have been rejected for reasons such as knots. They won’t be finished and sold for use, but many will be finished and painted to be used as trophy bats — in other words, display pieces that aren’t swung in games.

Next, I checked out an enormous rack of maple blanks, which are also known as billets:

These are the rounded pieces of maple (essentially enormous dowels) that will be turned into bats. They’re weighed carefully to three decimal points and then the number is written by hand. So, if you see the blank in the middle with “5132” written on it, that number means that it’s 5.132 pounds. When an employee is building a bat, he obviously needs to have an end product of an exact weight — especially if it’s a bat being built for a professional. This means that he’ll need to choose his blank carefully, as a certain amount of wood (and weight) comes off as the bat is turned and sanded.

Once the blank is selected, it’s not simply inserted into a machine and turned into a bat within seconds. Whereas some companies use fancy equipment that stores specific bat shapes, Sam Bat uses more of a hands-on approach. The blank is placed in the lathe, while a sample bat is placed in a separate part of the lathe. The bottom bat is then traced by the lathe, which meticulously recreates its shape on the blank. This means, of course, that each player who uses or has used the company’s bats has a sample bat that is needed each time more bats are made. There’s an enormous rack of samples that covers much of an entire wall, and each player’s name is written on the sample barrel in Sharpie. Take a look at this photo of Kipnis’ samples:

This means that one of these sample bats is put into the tracing part of the lathe each time new bats are made for the Cleveland Indians all-star second baseman. Super cool.

Here are some of Melky Cabrera’s samples — and a mysterious sample labeled with “Melky” and “Bautista,” perhaps from when the two players were teammates in Toronto:

So, what does this setup on the lathe look like? You’ll be happy to know that I have pictures. As Kevin was showing me the samples, Al Maione came in to make some bats. He’s the company’s director of pro production, which means that he oversees bats made for big leaguers. Last time I visited, Al was making some bats for Andre Ethier. This time, he’d just received an order from Kipnis and was about to get started on turning some bats that would soon be on their way to the Progressive Field clubhouse. Take a look at the following shot:

Kipnis’ sample bat is at the bottom of the image, after being set in place to be traced. The blank, meanwhile, is above. As Al turned on the machine, the sample was traced, as you can see here …

… and the blank was turned into a bat to match the sample:

It’s obviously a highly precise process, which is why Kevin and Al were amused to show me a bat that had been recently sent to Sam Bat with a note attached from a 12-time all-star and nine-time Silver Slugger:

In what might be argued as another case of Manny being Manny, Ramirez had apparently taken a sharp implement and shaved down the handle of one of his Sam Bats, as you can see here, and was requesting that the company make him some bats with this handle profile:

The only problem is that because the work was done by hand, the handle was now wildly uneven. It might be hard to see in the above photo, but there’s a decent-sized indentation made in one section of the wood that isn’t repeated elsewhere — and you can imagine that Sam Bat isn’t too keen on producing a bat with such a glaring issue.

After checking out where the bats are sanded and buffed, we moved to the paint room. To me, it’s absolutely fascinating that a company that produces bats for major leaguers actually paints them by hand, but that’s exactly what happens here. After multiple coats of paint are applied, the bats are dried. Then, the barrel is laser etched (last time I visited, the wording was stamped on) and the bat sticker is put in place. Here’s a shot that shows a bunch of bats waiting to be shipped out:

There’s an interesting cross section of bats in the above photo. Those on the right side of the photo, including the stubby one, were ordered for an upcoming wedding to give as gifts to the groomsmen. The bat in the front middle is for Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Domingo Santana, while those to the left side of the image are for Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jose Osuna. The bats on the left side with the black handles and light-colored barrels are for Miami’s Ozuna. If you look carefully, you’ll see some pink barrels in the background — those are special bats for Mother’s Day.

On our way out of the factory, we passed a series of racks where boxed bats were awaiting shipment. The name on this box caught my eye:

Because the box had yet to be sealed, Kevin actually let me pull out one of the bats and, seconds later, I was standing with a brand new bat that would soon be in the hands of Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado:

It’s not every day that you get to hold a bat that will eventually (and perhaps has already by now) been swung by a potential future hall of famer, right?

I also got the chance to hold a bat that was about to be shipped out to Josh Naylor:

He was a first-round pick of the Marlins in the 2015 draft and was traded to San Diego in the Andrew Cashner deal. He’s a Canadian, so he’s someone I’ve followed over the years. Less than two weeks after I checked out his bats, Naylor tweeted this:

Awesome, huh?

Although I could’ve hung out and played with Machado’s and Naylor’s bats for a while, there were other bats to hold. The final stop on our tour was the batting cage area, which is a new addition since my last visit. The angle of this photo makes the area look pretty standard …

… but this one, which shows the backdrop of thousands of bats and blanks, definitely makes this spot unique:

As you might expect, there was a chance to use some Sam Bat products in the cages. There were several five-gallon pails full of bats, and I had the choice of which lumber I wanted to try. Kevin snapped this shot of me looking very excited on my way to the cage:

It’s been a long time since I hit in a batting cage — likely 15 years or more — so I didn’t know what to expect. The machine was set to an average velocity, but because it was closer than the usual 60 feet, 6 inches away, it took me a little time to get my timing right. I opted to let the first pitch go to assess the speed, swung and missed on the second, fouled off the third and connected solidly on the fourth. All told, I hit for 10 to 15 minutes and had a blast. Plenty of embarrassing swings and misses, but lots of square contact that made me feel good. Here’s a shot of me preparing for a pitch …

… and one of me beginning my swing:

When you watch professionals take BP, they only take a handful of swings in a session — 10, maybe — before rotating out for a short break while a teammate hits. I didn’t have anyone else hitting with me, and a span of 10 to 15 minutes swinging maybe every 15 seconds is exhausting. I couldn’t resist snapping this shot of how sweaty I was after I stepped out of the cage, which was moderately embarrassing when we returned to the office to say hello to company president Arlene Anderson and I was wiping my face like I was in the Sahara:

Kevin ended up spending more than 90 minutes with me, and I can’t say how much I appreciate the entire experience. My thanks to Kevin, Arlene and Sam Bat for making this happen.

Toronto Blue Jays – March 31

Since March of 2014, the Toronto Blue Jays have played the final two games of their Spring Training at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Although I’ve been a die-hard Jays fan all of my life, and live closer to Montreal than to Toronto, I didn’t really consider hitting up the series in 2014, 2015 or 2016.

Lately, though, as I get some travel plans figured out for this season, I’ve had baseball travel on the brain — and that led me to make a late decision to attend the March 31 Blue Jays game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. I had a busy day planned for April 1, which meant that I’d need to drive to Montreal in the afternoon, take in the game, and then drive home immediately afterward — getting in at around 2 a.m. Not an ideal scenario, I know, but baseball is baseball. And March baseball is definitely a welcome sight, even if the forecast was calling for six inches of snow that day.

I didn’t have to twist my brother’s arm too hard to get him to accompany me, so I made plans to meet him in Ottawa shortly before noon and make the two-hour drive together. If you’ve read this blog for some time, you might recall that Phil and I have attended games together a handful of times over the years. The most memorable was two summers ago, when we took his three-year-old son to his first baseball game in Ottawa. Phil has also traveled to Cleveland with me in 2011 and Toronto in 2012.

A few days before the game, we bought a pair of tickets in the front row of the upper deck on the third base side for $24, which is expensive enough for the upper deck, but affordable for the rarity of the occasion. As our trip approached, I found myself getting increasingly pumped to see “The Big O,” which would become my 13th different major league stadium and my 64th different stadium in total. I was exciting to thoroughly evaluate Olympic Stadium. As you probably know, there’s a push in Montreal for MLB baseball to return to the city, and I was interested in seeing what shape the stadium would be in.

When we got to Montreal, our first stop was Schwartz’s, which is arguably the city’s most famous smoked meat deli. It’s the type of place that routinely has people lined up down the street at peak times, but we when arrived a little before 3 p.m., we had no trouble getting a seat at the bar. Schwartz’s is truly an old-school eatery — it’s been around since 1928 and it doesn’t look as though the interior has changed much over the years. It’s got a bar running down the right side of the restaurant and tables are crammed along the left side. It’s the sort of place that you have to turn sideways when walking down the row between the bar and tables.

I’d done some advance research about what to order, and the common recommendation I read online was a smoked meat sandwich, fries, dill pickle and a cherry soda, so that’s what we each ordered. You’ll also see a couple hot banana peppers, because why not?

The entire meal was certainly impressive, but not cheap. With a tip, lunch for the two of us was a couple bucks short of $50, which is a little much for a sandwich lunch. That said, the smoked meat was as good as I’ve ever eaten, so I’d advise checking out Schwartz’s if you’re ever visiting Montreal.

After lunch, we made the short drive over to Olympic Stadium, where we opted to park under the stadium for $20. I find that when I’m visiting a stadium for the first time, even things like the parking are a thrill — it’s fun to anticipate the stadium as you make your way from the parking lot to the gates, and that was definitely my mindset here.

Unfortunately, before we reached the gates, we went through the first of several major disappointments that contributed to making my Olympic Stadium experience a real letdown. I’ll say, for starters, that I don’t have an emotional attachment to Olympic Stadium. I wasn’t an Expos fan growing up and I never visited the Big O prior to this trip. I can understand that Expos fans might be sentimental about visiting this stadium and view it differently than me, but I’m simply reporting my observations as a first-time visitor. And, frankly, I wanted to like it. I wanted to tell you that the Big O seemed ready for an MLB club. That it’d be a prime attraction for baseball fans from Canada and the U.S. But I can’t, because that wouldn’t be true.

The first of those disappointments hit me like a slap in the face as we exited the parking garage. It was a sign telling me not only that backpacks were prohibited, but also that cameras weren’t allowed into the stadium. I wish this were a joke. In all my travels, I’ve never encountered problems taking my backpack into a stadium, and certainly have never come across a no-camera rule. Then again, what kind of madman shows up at a sporting event and wants to snap a few photos?

The rule might seem like no big deal, but for what I do, this was majorly bad news. I carry a DSLR camera, two lenses, and a whole host of GoPro equipment with me to capture the scene at each stadium I visit, and this would be the first time I’d ever step foot in a stadium without at least a camera. Thankfully, I was carrying my iPod with me, which means that all of the photos you’ll see throughout this post are from it.

Even though I was hopping mad, I was able to find the humor in this sign, which told me that I’d be in the clear if I were only wearing a “sac banane:”

Unfortunately, though, my fanny pack was tucked away safely at home in anticipation of my next trip by air.

The walkway from the parking garage to the stadium opened into a large room that was absolutely packed with people, as the gates to the actual stadium hadn’t opened yet. I wanted to take a walk around outside for a bit, so we fought our way through the throng of people and out into the chilly Montreal air.

There’s little doubt that the Big O is the most unique-looking stadium I’ve ever seen, so I needed a shot of myself in front of this alien spacecraft structure:

I normally like to spend a long time outside each stadium when I visit, but the combination of snow flurries in the air, challenging sightlines for photos and still being supremely miffed about the asinine backpack/camera rule, we wrapped up our outside tour and headed inside — but not before a weird trip through the security queue.

I was surprised to see no metal detectors in use at Olympic Stadium, given that they’re mandatory in the major leagues and many minor league parks use them now, too. Instead, we just walked past a table, where a guard gave people the stink eye and made them stop if he didn’t like of their jib. Fortunately, our jibs must’ve been all right, because we breezed through the “checkpoint,” got our tickets scanned and made a beeline for the seating bowl:

Despite my earlier annoyances, I was glad to be there and anxious to check out the stadium — and its weird yellowish hue that I remember from Expos TV broadcasts. We snapped a quick photo from the above spot …

… before making a plan to head back to the concourse to walk around for a bit. First, though, I had to take this photo to show you the bizarre shape of the seats:

That’s right — just one armrest per person. Although, I must admit that despite their weird shape, they were comfier than expected.

From the concourse, we were able to see part of the old Olympic park from the ’76 games. In the following shot, you can see a bunch of flags and the Olympic rings over on the left side:

(Of course, it would’ve been nice to take the above photo with my DLSR so that I could zoom in a bit. I’d say that I’m not bitter, but I clearly am.)

The walk around the concourse was interesting, let’s just say. Near home plate, the crowds were thick, but the farther away we got, the concourse was completely empty. See what I mean?

This next photo makes it look as though we’d sneaked somewhere off limits, but I can assure you that wasn’t the case:

After we’d walked through the deserted concourse for a bit, we set our course toward the left field seats. My brother had never snagged a ball at a baseball game, so we thought it’d be fun to hang out for a bit of batting practice, despite leaving our gloves in the car because of the no-backpack rule. The Pirates were hitting plenty of balls into the left field seats, but few that were super close to us. I would’ve potentially had a play on one line drive home run had I been wearing my glove, but I wasn’t going to reach out and risk a broken finger. My brother meanwhile, was showcasing a casual approach to baseball snagging with his hands in his pockets:

In about 10 minutes, we’d failed to snag anything, so we decided to continue our tour. When we left the outfield seats, we got a view that you don’t characteristically see at stadiums — we were way behind the outfield seats, but not anywhere off-limits:

Weird and cool, huh?

Next, we rode an escalator up to the upper deck, where we checked out our seats for the game. They offered this view:

Since batting practice was still on, and my brother was still interested in trying for a ball, we elected to visit the right field seats. They weren’t as full as those in left field, and we’d noticed a fair number of balls being hit that way earlier. So, after a quick stop behind home plate to take this panorama …

… we made our way through yet another deserted concourse toward the right field corner. I should note that the game wasn’t sparsely attended. The game had a posted attendance of 43,180 — it’s just that Olympic Stadium has such a unique layout, and it’s so huge, that you can walk stretches of the concourse without running into anyone — or seeing anyone, for that matter. Here’s how the concourse looked in the upper deck on our way to right field:

When we made it to the seats, I estimated that BP was nearly done. My brother quickly headed to a spot along the fence, while I stood in the aisle about half a dozen rows back and, again, just missed a ball that I would’ve tried for had I been wearing a glove. A moment later, I caught my brother waving at a player and then, to my delight, I saw him adjusting his body for an incoming ball. There were plenty of fans around, but he’s 6’2″ and I knew he’d be able to snag whatever was tossed close. Sure enough, he snatched a toss-up from a Pirates pitcher to snag his first ball:

I had to borrow it for a second, of course, to snap this photo — and you’ll notice that it’s an official 2017 Spring Training ball, complete with the Florida logo:

A moment later, my brother was snapping his own photo to share via text with his wife:

Sure enough, BP concluded about three minutes later, but not before my brother checked which player tossed him the ball. The player turned out to be right-handed pitcher Montana DuRapau, who has since been assigned to Double-A Altoona. (I visited Altoona back in 2012, and you can read about that visit here.) I recognized DuRapau’s name from a few years back. I’d seen him pitch in 2014 when when he was a member of the Short-Season A Jamestown Jammers. I was at the Jammers’ last game in history — the team relocated that off-season — and I included a photo of DuRapau in my blog post about that visit.

Before we left the right field seats, I couldn’t help notice how filthy things were. Look how gross the seats were:

I mean, I don’t need to be able to eat off stadium seats, but I also expect some degree of cleanliness. From the lowest levels of the minor leagues up to the major leagues, you’ll always see ushers feverishly wiping down seats with rags, but that obviously hadn’t happened here in a long, long time. It doesn’t exactly send a message of a stadium being ready to host an MLB team, does it?

Shortly before first pitch, we grabbed a pair of seats behind the right field foul pole to watch the pregame festivities. A number of old Montreal Expos were being honored, highlighted by an appearance from recent hall of fame inductee Tim Raines, who was driven around the field in a cart. This is the best picture I could get:

We watched the first inning from the outfield, and then decided to head up to the upper deck to grab some food and take our seats. Sounds simple, right? Well, apparently not.

First of all, the food prices were ridiculous. Plain, run-of-the-mill hot dogs were $6.25. That would make a hot dog at the Big O the most expensive of any park in the big leagues, and nearly $2 higher than the MLB average price of $4.50. There were no price breaks if you bought combination meals, either — a hot dog, fries and a bottled drink would ring up to $16.25, which was the cost of the three items bought separately. A 355 mL can of Corona? A whopping $11.75! There’s no better way to welcome baseball back to Montreal than by gouging fans at the concessions.

I skipped dinner out of principle; I certainly don’t mind paying high prices if the food seems worth it, but the food quality wasn’t exactly enticing. Around the hot dog stands, there was an off-putting smell of old grease in the air. My brother and I grabbed a couple bottled soft drinks as a dinner substitute and headed to the stands — and were quickly barred from entering because we were carrying bottles. You know, the ones we’d just paid $10 for a the concession stand 10 feet away:

Turns out that you can’t take bottles into the seats, but there weren’t any signs to this effect. Another stadium first for me. Normally, if stadiums are worried about fans throwing bottles, concession workers remove the cap when you buy a bottled drink. You’re then free to carry the bottle wherever you want. Or, you can simply get your soda in a cup.

A semi-apologetic guard sent us back out to the concourse and pointed us in the direction of a concession stand from which we could get cups, fill them with our drinks and go to our seats.

Soft drinks in cups = OK.

Soft drinks in bottles = not OK.

We explained our predicament to the concession employee who conveniently forgot how to speak English. And, when we attempt to break it down to him again, he turned his back and walked away. Awesome.

So, we did what anyone should do when confronted with a stupid rule — we broke it. We jammed our bottles in our pockets and took our seats, where we took clandestine sips like teens sneaking around a bottle of rum at a high school prom.

Having to sneak our sips of soda might seem silly, but it was pretty tame compared to other things we encountered in the upper deck.

  • A “fan” one section to our right was holding up a homemade sign that simply featured the F-word.
  • Fans in front of us were sharing the contents of a whiskey bottle in plain sight of security.
  • There was so much cigarette smoke wafting through the upper deck that I had a sore throat by the time we left. And, yes, Olympic Stadium is a non-smoking venue.

It was a bit like the wild west up there. And, hilariously, security was all over us for our bottles, but apparently had no problem with the above issues.

Still, all these issues didn’t prevent us from enjoying watching the actual game. Our seats gave us a nice view of the field, which you can see here in panoramic form:

We also had a good view of the interesting setup beyond the left field fence:

Those are the stands that we’d previously visited, but you’ll also notice the two teams’ bullpens surrounded by some makeshift light stands. The batting cages were positioned behind the batter’s eye — you’ll see a small opening through which you can see some turf, a home plate and the batter’s boxes.

We spent most of the game in our seats and switched to a higher, emptier row midway through just for a little more leg room. The game ended in a tie — another ballpark first for me — and we joined the other 40,000+ fans exiting the stadium through a congested area that looked like this:

That hallway was more congested than Fenway Park when I visited, for the record.

So, to summarize:

  • A ridiculous no camera and no bag policy.
  • Filthy seats.
  • Overpriced, low-quality food.
  • Inability to take bottled drinks into the stands.
  • No enforcement of rules in the upper deck.

Any one of these issues on its own might be easy to shrug off, but for a stadium that would supposedly want to do its best to look impressive in order to drum up interest in baseball returning to Montreal, the Big O fell majorly short. It’s like having a job interview scheduled and deciding to show up without showering or combing your hair and wearing a stained shirt.

In any case, if baseball ever returns to Montreal, another few hundred million dollars will need to be sunk into Olympic Stadium to get it up to par — which will help to keep the stadium right near the top of the list of the most expensive stadiums ever built. (There are conflicting reports as to the exact number, but more than $1 billion has been sunk into the Big O between its construction and ongoing maintenance over the years.)

I’m glad I had the opportunity to check out Olympic Stadium, but I’m in no rush to return. I think it’s the first stadium I’ve ever felt this way about, and that’s saying something.

Colorado Rockies – September 21

On my third and final full day in Denver, I was filled with not only excitement about returning to Coors Field for yet another Rockies game, but also some sadness. It’s always a bummer to know that a baseball trip is coming to an end, but I was determined that my last ballgame of 2016 would be a good one.

Unlike my first and second Rockies games, my final visit to Coors Field would be for an afternoon game, which meant that I was once again up before the sun and excited about making the short walk from the Westin Denver Downtown over to the ballpark. My wife decided to do more touristy stuff while I went to the game, so we parted ways outside the front door of our hotel and, 10 minutes later, I was here:

I realize this photo might not be the most exciting, but I’m using it to show just how empty the area outside Coors Field was when I arrived. This doesn’t mean that the game would be poorly attended — it simply means that I was once again mega early, giving me an awesome opportunity to wander around and enjoy the sights.

Eventually, I made my way into the lineup at Gate A, and when the gate opened, I was the first fan inside the ballpark. For this visit, I had my mind set on snagging a baseball. I hadn’t bothered trying during either of my first two games, but I felt that game #3 would be a good opportunity. Of course, the odds of doing so would be better if batting practice were scheduled, but I wasn’t too hopeful because of the early start time. As soon as I got up to the concourse, I ran to the fence to see if, by any chance, BP was on. Here was my answer:

That was OK, though. As much as I love the atmosphere of a ballpark while BP is taking place, there’s something peaceful about walking around when it’s quieter, too. Although the posted attendance for the day ended up being more than 26,000, the park was dead early on — I guess that’s sometimes the deal when you’re there two hours early. In fact, things were so quiet initially that it almost felt as though I had the park to myself, and that suited me just fine.

After I spent a few minutes just hanging out in this amazing area …

… I walked down to field level in the right field corner to watch a pair of Rockies playing catch. There still weren’t many players out on the field yet as I settled in to simply enjoy the scene. The following photo gives you an idea of not only how empty Coors Field still was, but also where I was standing in relation to the two players:

Eventually, they moved away from the foul line as their game picked up intensity, and I hung out and snapped some action photos like this one:

A moment after I took the above photo, the player in the black T-shirt (I’m not sure who it was) completely airmailed his partner and the ball clanged off the seats just three or four seats from where I stood. That was easy, I thought, and bent down to pick up the ball. But, before I could take a photo of it, the player in the purple T-shirt banged his glove at me a couple times, as if to say, “Throw it here.” I figured that throwing the ball back would make for a cooler story that simply snagging it, so I quickly set my backpack down and (thankfully) fired a strike to him. I quickly realized that he was asking for the ball back because he assumed he and his partner were out of balls, but the black-shirted player then produced a ball from his back pocket. Sure enough, the player in the purple T-shirt turned, made eye contact with me and lobbed the ball in my direction.

I caught it easily and took this photo a moment later:

The player who tossed the ball to me, I later learned, was rookie Matt Carasiti. He’s a hard-throwing reliever who’d only been in the big leagues a month at the time of my visit. Carasiti spent the bulk of 2016 pitching with double-A Hartford, where he led the Eastern League with 29 saves. He’s obviously a young talent to watch — and he joins my ever-growing “Players I follow and cheer for because I’ve had a cool interaction with them” list.

When Carasiti and his teammate headed off, I thanked him for the ball and he nodded. With that, I looked up and took this shot of The Rooftop area from a unique vantage point …

… and then went over to the visiting team’s dugout, as the Cardinals had recently made their way onto the field. Here are three young pitchers — Matt Bowman, Mike Mayers and Sam Tuivailala:

I watched a bunch of the Cardinals play catch for a few minutes before noticing pitcher Seung-Hwan Oh make his way to the fence and begin signing:

The Cardinals’ fan base travels well, so within a moment or two, dozens of Cards fans were jockeying for position around the closer, who’d signed with St. Louis before the 2016 season after a sensational career in South Korea and Japan. Oh pitched in the Korean KBO League from 2005 to 2013, where he was a five-time champion, five-time championship series MVP, seven-time all-star, five-time top reliever and rookie of the year. Pretty impressive, right?

Oh signed for quite a while, and despite the language barrier, seemed to be connecting well with his fans. When he wrapped up and began to step back toward the grass with his interpreter, a loudmouthed “lady” with two kids in two started screaming, “No no no no! Not until you sign two more!”and waving her finger in a condescending way. Surprisingly, he stuck around and signed a pair of balls for the kids.

Once the action on the field died out, I began to think about finding something to eat. Given that it was my last game at Coors Field (for 2016, anyway) I wanted to be sure there wasn’t anything noteworthy that I’d missed eating. I tweeted the Rockies and asked what their recommended food item was, and the team tweeted back just a few minutes later. (I should note that I’ve asked questions on Twitter a handful of times, and the team has been super quick to respond. Two thumbs up, Rockies!) Anyway, the team recommended that I try the Chuburger concession stand up on The Rooftop, so that’s where I headed. There was a decent-sized lineup, speaking to the popularity of Chuburger, but it moved along quickly and a moment later, I was holding a cheeseburger:

Maybe I was expecting a life-altering experience, given the recommendation, but it just tasted like an average cheeseburger. Don’t get me wrong — it was perfectly fine, but it didn’t excite me the way the ribs had during my first visit to Coors Field.

(By the way, that’s not a bite out of the top bun, I hope. That’s just how it looked when I got it.)

After I finished eating, I went to the upper deck in the left field corner, which is a spot I hadn’t previously visited. The section was mostly empty, which meant that I could easily grab a good seat, stretch out my legs and wait for the game to start:

And then wait.

And then wait.

And then wait.

As the game’s designated start time came and went, I was initially puzzled as to why nothing was happening — after all, the Rockies had long since taken the field. It took me a moment, but I realized that a pair of players were playing the “see who can stay on the field the longest after the anthem” game. You’ll have to look carefully at the following photo, but you’ll see the infield all ready to go — a Rockies player and a Cardinals player each standing at the edge of the dirt in front of his respective dugout:

For the record, that’s Colorado pitcher Carlos Estevez and St. Louis outfielder Jose Martinez.

Who won? I’ll let this picture do the talking:

Yep, that’s Martinez strutting back to the dugout to the cheers of his teammates, after he stayed on longer than Estevez.

The standoff game wasn’t the most exciting thing I saw from my spot in the upper deck. In the second inning, Colorado’s Nolan Arenado hit a grand slam that was also the 39th home run of his monster 2016 campaign:

I figured the best way for me to celebrate was to go buy one of these:

Makes sense, right?

You’re looking at a skewer featuring a combination of strawberries and two-bite brownies, with the whole thing drizzled in milk chocolate and white chocolate. Delicious, and multifaceted — you could theoretically use the skewer to kebab anyone on the concourse who might try to steal your dessert from you.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and I was able to enjoy my dessert without incident. Once I’d finished eating, I went back down to the main concourse. By now, the game was halfway over, and I wanted to enjoy the rest of my Coors Field experience by just walking around and taking in the sights. As I said in my post about my first game in Denver, Coors Field wasn’t a park with which I was very familiar. I’ll say now that I’m very glad I was able to visit for three games. This ballpark doesn’t often get mentioned when people talk about the most beautiful parks in baseball, but I can definitely tell you that it should be in the discussion. Its features and amenities make it as enticing as any MLB park I’ve visited, and the view of the mountains in the distance is one of the best views you’ll find in baseball. If you’re planning to take a trip somewhere this season, might I suggest Coors Field? I can assure you that you’ll be glad to visit.

And if you’re visiting, I’ll wholeheartedly recommend the West Denver Downtown. I couldn’t have been happier about my stay. Not only is the hotel conveniently located to Coors Field and a ton of restaurants and shopping options, but it’s one of the sharpest-looking places I’ve ever stayed. When I returned from the game, I wanted to capture some shots around the hotel. Here’s a look of the exterior of the building:

And here’s my favorite hotel shot that I took during our stay — this is the pool on the roof deck, and there are no filters used or tweaks made in Photoshop. This is simply how beautiful this spot looks:

The pool was great, too. It’s part indoors and part outdoors, so you swim under a glass partition that divides the two — and, obviously, I giddily did so a number of times.

I want to give a shout-out to the Westin’s staff, too. Everyone I encountered was exceedingly friendly, and there was even a baseball-themed welcome package in our room when we arrived, including beer, peanuts and Cracker Jack:

One last shot from the hotel — you saw my photo of our guest room in my previous post, but I feel that it hardly does the room justice. I rarely share photos that aren’t my own, but I wanted to post this professional image of a room with the same layout as ours, courtesy of the hotel’s website, just to show you how cool the room looks:

I don’t know when I’ll return to Denver for some baseball. Hopefully, it won’t take too long to return — but, whenever I do get back, I’ll definitely be booking a room at the Westin Denver Downtown.

After a delicious dinner on the 16th Street Mall downtown, we were in bed early in anticipation of our 3 a.m. alarm to begin our long travel day home. We flew from Denver to Newark and finally home to Canada, and I want to share just a few images from that trip, including this one of the sun rising while we were in the air:

While we were taxiing at Newark Liberty International Airport, I noticed this departure gate:

It’s gate A17, and it’s the one from which United Flight 93 departed on the morning of September 11, 2001. The U.S. flag was mounted afterward, and it was a sobering sight.

When we took to the air on our connecting flight home, I was excited to see New York City out my window — and I was even able to spot Yankee Stadium, although you’ll have to pardon the pixelated photo:

I hope you enjoyed reading about my visit to Denver half as much as I enjoyed visiting.

I’m working on some exciting travel plans for 2017, which I’ll be sharing as soon as things are finalized. If you’re interested in following along, I’d love if you might consider:

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