Tagged: Altoona Curve

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 Stuart, 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 Stuart, 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 Stuart’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.

Media Passes and More

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved collecting ticket stubs from all the various sporting events I’ve attended. Since I started traveling for The Ballpark Guide, I’ve been fortunate to visit more than 40 ballparks. This past off-season, I scanned all my stubs from 2010 and 2011 into a blog post, which you can check out here if you’re interested. (It’s sort of cool to see all the varied designs used by teams.)

This summer, the home teams I’ve seen have been unbelievably hospitable to me and I haven’t had to buy a single ticket. I’ve received media accreditation at every park I’ve visited, which provides such varied benefits as being able to enter early, access the press box, walk on the field and many other great things. An added bonus is that while I don’t get a ticket stub to add to my collection, I get something even cooler – a media pass.

As I continue to plan my next road trip, I thought it’d be fun to take a quick look back at the passes I’ve received thus far, in chronological order.

May 21: Lakewood Blue Claws

This game was rained out, which was a letdown given I’d driven roughly eight hours for it. But even though there was no game to see, I picked up my media pass at the ticket office. It’s simple, but it was exciting because it was my first of the season.

May 22: Lehigh Valley IronPigs

I think I like this media pass best. Perhaps because the IronPigs play at the Triple-A level, the pass is really professional and it also included a nice lanyard from when Coca-Cola Park hosted the Triple-A All-Star Game in 2010.

May 22: Trenton Thunder

Trenton offered up a sharp-looking pass that came with a chain lanyard. As you can see, this one allowed me to access the press box, but not the clubhouse or field.

May 23: Wilmington Blue Rocks

The Blue Rocks’ press pass was simple and not unlike the one from Lakewood. This one gave me access to several areas, including the field. It’s always fun to see my name in print!

May 23: Frederick Keys

There’s no mention of my name or The Ballpark Guide on the laminated pass provided by the Keys, which suddenly makes me wonder if I was supposed to turn it in after the game. Oops.

May 24: Altoona Curve

Altoona’s media pass is really sharp. My information, as you can see, is written in by hand, and I like the retro-style design of this one.

May 24: Buffalo Bisons

I was a little surprised that Buffalo, being a Triple-A team, had a cardboard pass similar to those from Lakewood and Wilmington. I think this is because it’s only a one-day pass, rather than a season’s pass.

July 19: Rochester Red Wings

The Red Wings were the first team this season that didn’t hook me up with a standard media pass, but they essentially gave me the same privileges. The ticket provided access to any section in the park, while the photo pass allowed me to get on the field before the game.

Altoona Curve – May 24

The morning of Thursday, May 24 came very quickly. It was the final day of my road trip, and given that I’d averaged about four hours of sleep per night over the last few days, the 5:30 a.m. alarm was a bit of a jolt. But if there’s one thing that makes me move quickly in the morning, it’s knowing there’s a baseball game to attend.

I was in Frederick for the night after the previous day’s Keys game, and my day would begin with a two-and-a-half hour drive to Altoona. The Curve, who are the Eastern League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, were playing a 10:30 a.m. game, and I’d arranged to have a stadium tour with Mike Passanisi, the Curve’s director of communications. The tour was scheduled for 9 a.m., which meant I wanted to get on the road by 6:15 a.m. or so. The route from Frederick to Altoona includes many small back roads, and the drive was painfully slow. I can tell you I was thrilled when this appeared ahead of me:

Yep, Peoples Natural Gas Field, straight head! I ended up being 10 to 15 minutes late to our tour because of ridiculous traffic, so I parked quickly in the parking garage behind the outfield fence …

… and hustled along the sidewalk to get to the stadium as quickly as I could:

And, ta-da!:

When I picked up my media pass, I went upstairs to the press box, where I had this view while I waited for Mike:

Mike arrived a few minutes later, and despite his busy morning, made time to take me around the stadium and show me all the highlights. We checked out a few of the suites, including this one:

And then went down to the field, which never, ever gets old:

After we were on the field, we went through the tunnel to tour several places most people don’t get to see. But you will now! We went through the batting cage/training area, where a number of Curve players were getting loose:

I took a picture of this funny sign posted outside the room above:

We then went into the press conference room, which definitely has similarities to the rooms in MLB stadiums:

I was tempted to sit at the desk and shout, “No comment!” but decided to repress that urge so the tour could continue.

Next up were the home and visitors’ clubhouses, which were outstanding. Both were full of players, so I obviously didn’t take any photos, but it was definitely a highlight to see. Afterward, we climbed up to the concourse where I documented the team’s 2010 Eastern League championship banner:

A banner with the team’s 2005 opening day roster:

(Sorry, but as a Jays fan, I need to point out Rajai Davis and Jose Bautista.) This banner was part of a series around the concourse of each opening day roster in the Curve’s history. It’s the first type of display I can recall, and I think it’s a great way to pay tribute to past teams and players. Really cool. The concourse is also lined with banners of past stars, including Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen. I love how the banner combines a picture of him then and now — really smart:

The tour zipped right along, but it was great talking about the stadium’s features with Mike. I’ll be highlighting more of them when I write the official fan guide to Peoples Natural Gas Field for my website.

After our tour, I went up to the second deck on the third base side to capture the stadium in panorama form:

If you missed the roller coaster behind the right field fence, look again. It’s not part of the ballpark, but it’s still one of the coolest features you’ll see at any park. The roller coaster is part of Lakemont Park, an amusement park just beyond the ballpark’s fences. The roller coaster you see here …

… is called the Skyliner, and it’s one of four in the park. The park’s crown jewel is the Leap-the-Dips coaster, which opened in 1902 and is the oldest in-use roller coaster in the world.

After being up top, I continued wandering and captured a shot of the sign out front of the park:

Mike said the new logo on the sign was just a week old (Peoples Natural Gas Field was called Blair County Ballpark through last season) and the new sign isn’t completely finished. Soon, bricks will be added to make the sign more in line with the ballpark’s design.

By this time, Mike had re-appeared on the field with a Curve player who was fielding questions from fans over the PA system. It was a neat thing to see — fans asking about his favorite subjects in school, his favorite holiday, etc., certainly improves the player/fan connection. I definitely think more teams should do this:

As I continued walking, I spotted the players’ parking lot behind the first base side of the stadium:

With, of course, a Range Rover:

Range Rovers seem to be the popular choice among ballplayers. In fact, I wrote a blog entry a while back about players’ vehicles, and it’s a fun read.

I then changed direction and headed down the third base concourse, where I stopped to check out the team’s “Road to the Show” alumni board:

Here’s a close-up of a couple years:

I also checked out the Rail Kings party deck in the left field corner, which offers a great view of the park and also includes small TVs built into the fence so that you can watch the game broadcast or check out how the Pirates are doing:

The bleachers in left field also provided a perfect view, and I decided I’d spend a few innings out here once the game started:

The kids’ area at Peoples Natural Gas Field included inflatable games …

… and arcade-style attractions:

I went to check out the team’s store down the third base line:

And as the game began, captured this quick shot of the ballpark’s impressive scoreboard:

All this walking worked up an appetite, so after spending the first inning in the outfield bleachers, where I had a close-up view of the team’s mascot Al Tuna (get it?) …

… I decided to get some breakfast/lunch. Mike had earlier recommended the Curverogie, a new menu item for 2012:

While this sandwich is certainly excessive, it was delicious. It wasn’t skimpy on the ham, and while the perogie sort of got lost, the ham, cheese and onions were tasty:

After eating, I documented my media pass, as I’ve been doing during each stop on this trip:

Then, it was time to find a seat along the third base side so I could capture some of the action on the field. Here’s Altoona starter Shairon Martis, who was solid through six innings and got the win:

And Curve third baseman Jeremy Farrell, who’s the son of Blue Jays manager John Farrell:

Before long, it was time to hit the road. I had to sneak out of this ballgame a little bit early so I could drive the four hours or so north to Buffalo for that night’s Bisons game at Coca-Cola Field. I absolutely hate leaving a game early, but sometimes it’s necessary to fit into my schedule. All in all, it was a great visit to Altoona. The park, built in 1999, is fantastic and is definitely a must visit.

Up next is the story of my visit to Buffalo later on May 24.

Portland Sea Dogs – July 31

The day to visit Portland’s Hadlock Field had finally arrived. I’ve been looking forward to this particular ballpark for roughly a year, since I first started my regular baseball travels.

Hadlock Field is home to the Sea Dogs, who are the Eastern League AA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. There’s a replica Green Monster in the outfield, which is one of the neatest things to see in all the Minor Leagues.

Even better than seeing the Monster, however, was the chance to play catch below it. Yep, the Sea Dogs were giving fans the chance to play catch for an hour prior to the game, so I was pumped for that. And unlike the games in which I travel alone, my wife could be my catch partner this time.

Catch began at 10 a.m and ran for 1:15. The game began at 1 p.m., and unfortunately, fans weren’t allowed to leave the ballpark. Don’t get me wrong — I like getting to the game early, but spending that amount of time before the game was a bit much, especially given the day’s extreme heat and the zero shade throughout the entire seating area.

Anyway, we arrived around 10 a.m. and bought our tickets. Here’s mine:

And here’s both of ours:

Because we didn’t need to play catch the whole time, we took a walk around the outside of the ballpark to look for balls and see the sights. Hadlock Field is directly beside the Portland Exposition Building, which is home to the NBA Developmental League’s Maine Red Claws. I imagine this doesn’t rank too high on the caring meter for most of you, but if you’re into basketball, you might be interested:

The walk around Hadlock Field proved pretty uneventful. The path around the stadium’s left, or third base side is blocked off, while there’s not much to see around the other side, either. From the parking lot, you can look back and see the ballpark’s picnic area and some of the field:

We also found the rear entrance to Portland’s clubhouse:

And one ball:

I didn’t feel the need to add it to my collection, though.

As you can see from the photo below, the area behind the outfield fence is fenced off, so finding batting practice balls is next to impossible here:

With nothing more to see back there, we headed back to the pavilion in front of Hadlock Field where I got my picture taken with a statue of Slugger, the Sea Dogs’ mascot:

Before we went in, I took a photo of the front of the ballpark …

… and a panorama to show the whole front area:

When we got in, we went straight to the field, which we had to access via the left field corner. As always, it was awesome to be on a pro ball field, and there were already a bunch of people playing catch:

Here’s me at the base of the Monster:

From down here, we had a great view of the scoreboard:

And the Citgo logo and Coke bottle, just like Fenway:

I should also mention the Sea Dogs gave the first bunch of fans Sea Dogs balls to play catch with, which was pretty nice:

Here’s a panorama from field level:

Around 11 a.m., we went over to the first base line which had a tiny bit of shade around the picnic area. A couple minutes later, the Altoona Curve (affiliate of the Pirates) players arrived:

Before we left the field, the Sea Dogs came on and started stretching. There were still maybe 100 fans on the field when they came out; definitely something that doesn’t happen every day!

After walking around the concourse for a bit, we decided to grab something to eat. The basic menu at Hadlock Field is below:

Once we ate, we went to the team shop, which is disappointingly the worst I’ve seen at any level. It’s all behind the counter, so you can’t actually touch anything, try anything on or just browse. You stand there like you’re at McDonald’s, and place your order. See the photo below? All that stuff is unreachable. I’m not sure why the Sea Dogs do it this way, but it’s not very fan friendly:

Something that was neat to see, though, was how the Sea Dogs were selling Bryce Harper T-shirts on the concourse outside the team store. If you’re missing something here, don’t worry. There’s no Sea Dogs/Harper connection, but you can’t deny that Harpermania has spread throughout the Minor Leagues:

These prices were good, but nothing could compare to my experience of seeing Harper a month or so ago in Hagerstown. If you haven’t read this post, I can guarantee you’ll enjoy it.

Hadlock Field has a neat feature in the concourse down the first base line; photos of each team’s ballpark in the Eastern League:

This is the first time I’ve seen something like this, and my only knock on it as that it’s hugely outdated — old photos, old logos, etc. Still, though, pretty cool.

Just a little further along is the team’s hall of fame, which includes guys such as Kevin Millar and Mark Kotsay:

After spending some time in the concourse, we went back out toward the field. I’d sort of been avoiding it because it was SO HOT. I’m not normally one to care about the weather either way, but it was brutal.

And a wall covered in current Red Sox jersey graphics:

Off to one side of the press box is the team’s banners:

I then climbed up in front of the press box and took a panorama of the whole ballpark:

(See the lack of shade? For the record, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing … but it’s not ideal on super hot days.)

Anyway, we then went down the third base line to watch Altoona warm up:

Another knock on Hadlock Field? You can’t get close to the area in which the Dogs warm up without having a seat in the picnic area. Lame:

Down the third base line, however, you can stand on a little runway directly above the visitors’ bullpen, which is neat. There’s also a hilarious sign:

I watched Altoona’s starter Aaron Pribanic warming up for a bit:

In case you’re wondering, Portland’s bullpen is up high above the fence in right-center. I’ve never seen anything like it:

As for the game, I was most excited to watch Chih-Hsien Chiang. I saw him a while back when the Sea Dogs were in Binghamton, and he’s incredible. Look at his stats:

(He was since traded to Seattle for Erik Bedard.)

We sat for most of the game up in the bleachers along the third base line, with this view:

And occasionally, we’d go into the concourse for a bit of shade. (Though the temperature was nearly as hot.) There were a number of TV sets there to help you keep an eye on the game, but the picture quality was lacking just a bit:

Here’s an action shot of Chiang I took in around the sixth inning:

Portland led the game 8-3 in the ninth, but Altoona scored two runs to make it a little more interesting. Final score: Portland 8, Altoona 5. The teams also combined for 26 hits, including three Sea Dogs home runs. The game lasted until around 4:20 p.m., so after more than six hours inside Hadlock Field, we left.

On our way back to the parking lot, we saw Altoona’s bus waiting in the team lot behind the first base side:

I should say that I got one pretty cool autograph at this ballpark, which I’ll blog about later this week.

In the meantime, I’m putting the last touches on my next trip of the season, which will begin in a couple weeks. I’ll blog about it soon.