My last day in Milwaukee was a special one, and not just because I had another opportunity to visit Miller Park.
I was also getting a chance to meet up with my longest-standing Twitter friend, Craig Wieczorkiewicz, also known as the Midwest League Traveler. We’ve talked regularly on Twitter dating back to 2011, which is when he started his website and when I was in the second year of The Ballpark Guide. He was among the first 50 people I followed on Twitter and I have the unusual honor of being the first person Craig followed on Twitter outside of each of the MWL teams. (These details are important to know in case they ever come up in a trivia game.) So, yeah, we go back pretty far. But, even through we’d had countless Twitter exchanges, DMs and emails, we’d never had the opportunity to meet up. There were a few times that we tried to sync up trips that never panned out, and in 2014, we were both in Syracuse at the same time but didn’t get a chance to meet.
Craig was the first person I contacted when I planned my trip to Milwaukee, knowing that he lives less than two hours from there, and I was thrilled when he confirmed that he’d be able to take in a Brewers game with me on the last day of my visit.
My first two Miller Park experiences gave me plenty of opportunities to explore the park, which was good because I knew that visiting with Craig would be more of a “find somewhere to sit and blab our faces off” visit than a ballpark exploration one. Our plan was to meet up well before the gates were scheduled to open so that we could get in line to eat at the Friday’s restaurant located inside of the ballpark. I’d purposely avoided checking out this eatery during my two previous visits, and found myself thinking of it several times as game time approached.
The day itself was fairly quiet for me once again. Instead of doing a bunch of touristy things, I mostly stuck around my hotel, the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. As I’d done throughout my visit, I frequently enjoyed looking at Miller Park in the distance. On this day, though, I took out my zoom lens and snapped this photo of the park:
As much as I was enjoying keeping an eye on the ballpark, I was also enjoying the environment immediately around me. This hotel was easily one of the most impressive that I’ve ever had the fortune of visiting, and not only because it’s such a convenient choice for baseball travelers. Beyond its prime location and the numerous on-site amenities that I enjoyed throughout my stay, the room was outstanding. My photos don’t do my room justice, so I’ve decided not to show them here. If you’re curious, though, check out this link to read more about the rooms. Beyond being spacious, having a super-comfy bed and a roomy bathroom, my favorite feature were the window blinds. The entire ballpark-facing side of the room was a window, and drawing the blinds was as easy as pressing a button on the wall to shut out the sun and turn the room dark. (If you’re wondering if I may have possibly overused this fun feature, I plead the fifth.)
Throughout the day as I waited for Craig to arrive, I kept an eye on the Marquette University fields that were visible from my room. They’re quiet here, but there were several times throughout the day that they were in use with school teams practicing lacrosse and soccer on this perfect autumn day:
Eventually, I met Craig in the lobby of the hotel and we drove over to Miller Park together in my rental car. We made a beeline for the Friday’s door as soon as we parked, and despite my worries that we might not be early enough to get a spot toward to the front of the line — I tend to overdo things in the early department sometimes — Craig repeatedly convinced me that we were in more than enough time. Soon enough, we were standing here …
… and, most importantly, there were only a few people in line ahead of us.
Friday’s at Miller Park has ample seating, but the coveted spots are the “outside” tables. Fans who get into the restaurant first generally choose to sit outside, so being too far back in the lineup outside could relegate you to an inside seat at the restaurant — still cool, but not nearly as exciting as an outside spot. When the doors finally opened, we headed inside and there was no problem getting an outside spot. Craig was right all along, and I was relieved. As we were about to sit down, I snapped this panorama to show the view from our table:
The Brewers were taking batting practice when we first arrived at our table, but left the field just a moment later. That was no concern, though. The home team takes BP first, so I knew that the visiting Cincinnati Reds would soon be headed to the cage — and hopefully hitting lots of home run balls our way.
I took advantage of the empty outfield to snap this shot of the view to my left:
Check out how close we were to the field!
Before we ordered, I took this shot of Craig and me …
… and then we got down to business getting acquainted and, of course, talking baseball. It’s tough to think of a better place to finally meet another baseball fan than exactly where we were sitting. Things got even more exciting — and a bit challenging, to be honest — when the Reds began to hit. I hadn’t taken a glove on this trip, simply because it never fits in my carry-on luggage, so I definitely had to be attentive to balls when they were hit. It was a juggling act to have a conversation while also watching the action on the field, and the challenge intensified when our food arrived.
I’d ordered a beef dip sandwich, and was hungry enough (and possibly distracted enough by watching BP) that I took a few bites of it before I realized that I’d failed to snap a photo. A first-world problem, granted, but in all of the 170+ other ballpark food photos that I’ve shared on this blog, I’ve always documented my food with a photo before digging in. The OCD side of me bristles with the idea of having one food photo in which the food is partially eaten, but I’ll share this shot anyway:
I can categorize the meal as “fine.” Nothing to write home about, but not bad, either. What was several steps above “fine,” however was the combination of the view and the company. As an introvert, I can sometimes feel a little anxious about meeting new people, especially if we’ll be spending a few hours together. But I was thrilled at how naturally Craig and I got along — which I suppose makes sense, given the amount of time that we’ve been Twitter friends. We chatted non stop about baseball, blogging and many other things that don’t start with the letter “B.” And, all the while, we were both digging the view. As we talked, I’d occasionally grab my camera and document the view from different vantage points. For instance, when I looked up and to my right, I had an outstanding view of the upper deck and the enormous glass panels:
Early in the BP session, four Reds wandered over and stood on the grass right below us:
This proved to be the biggest source of action we saw the whole time we were at Friday’s, believe it or not. There were a couple of home runs that entered the restaurant several tables to our left, but otherwise, no baseballs came remotely close to us. I was absolutely blown away by the lack of home runs, as I’d figured we’d have no trouble snagging a few balls between the two of us. The lack of baseballs did nothing to dampen the fun, though, and the Friday’s at Miller Park definitely goes down as one of my favorite ballpark eating experiences because of its uniqueness. I definitely recommend that you check it out when you visit this stadium.
Eventually, we wrapped up our meals and headed out to the concourse of Miller Park. The first thing that I wanted to do was take a look at where we’d been sitting from the perspective of the seating bowl, so we went down into the seats in the left field corner where I took this photo:
Our table was directly above the “YS” in Fridays; the person wearing the red T-shirt is a staff member who was preparing our table for the next group.
I knew that we’d be spending more time during the game sitting than walking around like I usually do, so I wanted to continue to check out the ballpark’s sights until we found a place to sit. Before we headed up to the concourse, I took this shot of the seats in right field, which clearly shows the variety of seating options available in that part of the ballpark:
Given that this would be my last visit to Miller Park on this trip, I knew that I once again needed to visit the Brewers Authentics kiosk to investigate more game-used pants options. Craig did a fairly good job of keeping his eye rolls to himself as I hurried us to the display and babbled about the pants that I’d bought two days earlier. I tend to take forever to make decisions involving baseball memorabilia, but didn’t want to make Craig stand idly by while I indecisively browsed others dudes’ drawers. Luckily, I’d scoped out another pair of pants two days earlier and knew that I’d buy them if they were still around during my next visit. Fortunately, they were, and I was soon the proud owner of a pair of Darnell Coles’ pants!
(For the record, that’s probably a line that has never been written in the history of everything.)
There were several reasons that I’d chosen Coles, the team’s hitting coach between 2015 and 2018. (He resigned just over a month after I bought his pants, but my sources say that my purchase of the pants had nothing to do with his decision.) In addition to the pants being of the throwback variety, which made them instantly special, Coles played 14 years in the big leagues — including two seasons with my favorite team, the Blue Jays. I remember watching him as a kid, especially during the 1993 season when the Jays were on their way to their second straight World Series title.
I didn’t take a photo of the pants at the game, but I definitely put them on when I got back to my hotel later that night and snapped this shot, feeling quite delighted that the pants matched my shirt:
(This photo was taken around midnight, or roughly three hours before I had to get up to catch a flight. I definitely wasn’t grinning then, nor was I still wearing these pants.)
Pants safely tucked into my backpack, Craig and I completed our walk around the concourse and then ascended to the upper deck to find a spot from which to watch the game. We chose a spot on the third base side of the upper deck, and in what was apparently a strange case of foreshadowing, I randomly took this photo of Christian Yelich on the video board when he came up to bat in the first inning:
Just a couple of hours later, Yelich hit for the cycle — the second time he’d done so during his 2018 MVP season, and Craig and I were pretty pumped to be there to see it. This was the first time I’d ever seen a player hit for the cycle in the big leagues in person. (I saw Adalberto Mondesi, then known as Raul Mondesi, Jr., hit for the cycle back in May of 2013 while playing for the Lexington Legends. You can read about that visit here, if you’d like.)
Craig and I sat in the upper deck for a few innings, and then moved to a spot in the outfield, where we had this view:
Midway through the game, I bailed on Craig for half an inning to meet Andy and Patrick, a pair of super-friendly baseball fans with whom I’d recently connected on Twitter. They’re Reds fans who were visiting Milwaukee from Indiana — and were impressively making the drive back home after the Brewers game. It’s always a thrill for me to meet people from Twitter at games, and Andy and Patrick are no exception — and I hope our paths will cross again in Indiana or elsewhere.
Then, I returned to the bleachers and met back up with Craig, and we remained in that spot for the rest of the game. Afterward, we drove back to the hotel parking structure and said our goodbyes. Craig began his ride home, and I headed into my hotel and began thinking about my next adventure — one that would begin well before dawn of the next day.
I woke up in Norfolk, VA, on the morning of Tuesday, May 29 to the sound of heavy rain.
It wasn’t really a surprise.
Since I’d arrived in Norfolk the previous afternoon, it had rained without reprieve, and I’d be lying if I said I was concerned that I might not get to see a single Norfolk Tides game on this trip. The plan for this trip was to get to Norfolk on Monday, attend the Tides games on Tuesday and Wednesday, and cram in whatever sightseeing I could manage when I wasn’t at the ballpark.
Of course, Mother Nature seemed to have different plans, dropping more than three inches of rain on the city on Monday night. It actually rained so hard at times that I couldn’t get any TV reception in my hotel room, which was definitely a first for me.
By 10 a.m. on Tuesday, though, the rain had stopped and the forecast seemed to improve — making me cautiously optimistic that I’d actually get a chance to see some baseball on this trip.
After some really good sightseeing around the city, I got to Harbor Park around 3:30 p.m., roughly three hours before first pitch. By now, the conditions were dry and the forecast looked fine, and I was very relieved.
Harbor Park is the 67th professional/affiliated ballpark that I’ve visited since 2010 and the 53rd different Minor League Baseball park that I’ve been to. It’s also, for those keeping score, the 10th different International League park at which I’ve seen at least one game. It’s always exciting to visit a ballpark for the first time, and this visit was no exception. I was immediately impressed with the look of Harbor Park from the outside — and I think the following photo does a good job of showing the eye-catching design from just outside the front gates:
As you might’ve noticed in the above photo, there wasn’t much going on outside due to my early arrival time. That was just fine with me — I was just thankful that the rain hadn’t interfered with this ballpark visit. I decided to walk through the parking lot to the right of the main gates, and soon made it to a large plaza area outside the first base entrance:
Did you catch the propeller statue? It’s just one of many nautical-themed sights in and around Harbor Park. The Elizabeth River is immediately beyond the outfield fence at this ballpark, and Norfolk is just a short drive from Virginia Beach. So, yeah, lots of nautical stuff to see.
While still in this area, I snapped the following photo of the gates and the ramp that led up to the concourse level:
My favorite thing in that image? The small ticket office nestled below the ramp. As is the norm, there was a large ticket office beside the main gates, but I thought the inclusion of this other office was a cool touch.
The river was just over my right shoulder as I took the above photo, and I wanted to get a little closer to check it out. Norfolk and the entire Hampton Roads area is dominated by shipbuilding/repairing/naval industry, and that was evident within sight of where I stood outside Harbor Park. This next photo shows an enormous dry dock that belongs to Colonna’s Shipyard. There’s a huge boat from New York City being repaired in it:
Unfortunately, that was as close as I could get to the water. The space behind Harbor Park was completely fenced off, so I gave up on further explorations in that area and took the long walk around the front of the stadium toward the third base entrance and left field corner. Before I got there, I came across another cool sight — a light rail system with a stop adjacent to the Harbor Park parking lot. The train, known as “The Tide,” travels to several areas through Norfolk, but I think it’s awesome that it stops next to the ballpark. It wasn’t long ago that I was in Minneapolis, marveling at the light rail system that carries fans to Target Field, but I think this might be the first time I’ve encountered the opportunity to travel to a minor league ballpark by train:
I continued on my walk across the parking lot until the elevated railway bridges that I believe give Harbor Park one of the most iconic views in the minor leagues came into view. If you’ve seen any picture of Harbor Park over the years, you’ve almost certainly noticed the pair of bridges that point skyward beyond the outfield fence. From where I stood at the far edge of the parking lot, I could see them clearly:
Curious to see how close I could get to them, I headed to my left to a small railway platform that serves Amtrak’s Norfolk Station (which is separate from the light rail station I showed you earlier). I walked the length of the platform toward the bridges before being thwarted by a sign, but I still had a nice view of this iconic Norfolk sight:
Speaking of other Norfolk sights, it was time to get inside Harbor Park to officially be able to cross ballpark #67 off my list. I entered via the main gates, which open into a lobby that houses the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame. I took a couple minutes to browse the many plaques recognizing people from all different sports, and then eagerly climbed a set of stairs to the concourse, hurried across it and snapped this shot:
How’s that for a view? Sure, the clouds weren’t looking all that friendly, but I was thrilled to be inside the stadium and excited to start checking out all of the sights.
I started by going up to the press level, which offered a similarly impressive view. I then descended back to the concourse and began to walk around — starting with a walk down the third base side. I was relieved to quickly identify the Hot Dog Nation concession stand, which I’d read about in advance of my trip and wanted to visit once the gates opened up. After perusing the menu for a moment, I continued all the way down the concourse to the group party deck known as The Virginian-Pilot Picnic Area. It’s new for this season, and I noticed the mild smell of new paint in the air — a definite sign of just how fresh this area is. This is how the picnic area, which can accommodate up to 500 people, looks from the edge of the cross-aisle:
And here’s the view from the edge of this section:
As is always the case with group areas at minor league ballparks, you can’t buy tickets in this section unless you’re buying as a group. But, I later learned, when there’s no group that has booked the section for any given game, it’s open to all fans — and that’s definitely a fan-friendly feature.
I spent a few minutes wandering around the picnic area, in part because it offered a nice view of the field, and in part because it provided me with some much-needed shade. Even though the sky was overcast, the humidity this close to the ocean was tangible, and cooling off under the roof of the picnic zone soon had me feeling refreshed and ready to continue exploring. Instead of retracing my steps along the concourse, I took the opportunity to get closer to the field by walking along the cross-aisle. I think the following photo gives you a good idea of the seating setup at Harbor Park — essentially, two different levels of seating on the lower section, a suite level above, and an upper deck down the lines.
I followed the cross-aisle all the way around the park until I ended up in the party deck immediately behind the right field foul pole. This one contained a bar and a bunch of bar-style seating, and provided this view of the field:
From there, I could also see the railway bridges and the river, as well as the remnants of a dock that once held a popular Norfolk concert venue that was demolished in 2011 after being severely damaged during Hurricane Isabel:
I realize that this area might not look that hot, but I liked it because it was neat to think about a who’s who of popular music playing just behind the ballpark over the years. I also appreciated the rugged appearance of the area, although I can imagine that the Tides management would love an opportunity to develop this area into usable space at some point in the future.
Speaking of management, my next stop was back in the press box where I met up with Ian Locke, the team’s longtime director of media relations. He offered me a tour of the ballpark, and you know I wasn’t about to turn it down. Even though I’d been to several spots around the park over the last hour or so, hearing Ian’s inside information and insight on these areas really augmented the visit for me — thanks again, Ian!
We began our tour immediately outside of the press area, which provided this view of downtown Norfolk. As you can see, the ballpark is conveniently located to the major arteries running through the city, and the view of the city’s skyline — including the Ferris wheel in the distance — was perfect from this spot:
Next, we headed somewhere that I’d hadn’t previously been — one of the team’s suites. This one is the swankiest in the ballpark, and even featured a vaulted ceiling:
As you might expect, it provided an excellent view of the field, including the railway bridges — one of which was currently descending as we stood in the suite:
Before my visit, I’d strangely always assumed that the bridges remained up. I had some idea in my head that they were historic bridges that were no longer used and were set to the upper position to create a cool backdrop behind Norfolk Park, but Ian assured me that they were fully functional. (And I definitely saw them go up and down multiple times over my two visits the ballpark.) I’m not really sure how I came to my erroneous conclusion, other than the fact that the bridges were always pointing skyward in any photo I’d ever seen of Norfolk Park.
We next visited another suite on the opposite side of the park, taking a few minutes to step out into the seats on the balcony in front of it:
This is the setup that many MiLB suites offer, and it’s a cool design. You can enjoy some food and A/C indoors, while also watching the game’s broadcast on TV. And, when desired, you can grab a seat outside to really get the traditional ballpark experience. Talk about the best of both worlds.
Ian took me through the left field picnic area I’d visited earlier and then all the way over to Hits at the Park, a buffet-style restaurant in an enclosed area in the right field corner. It seats 225 people, has a nice-looking bar with multiple TVs and gives fans a pretty extensive buffet — all for less than $20 for adults. Most notably, this is where fans can take the Salute to Pork Challenge, one of the most notable eating challenges in the minor leagues. What does this eating challenge feature, you might ask?
- Four pulled pork BBQ sliders
- Four four-ounce Cajun-smoked sausages
- A dozen pork wings
- Bacon and chili cheese tots
The whole thing weighs about five pounds, and if you can successfully conquer it in an hour, you win tickets to a future Tides game and get your photo on a wall of fame inside the restaurant. Should you fail, your photo goes on the wall of shame. There were far, far more photos on the latter, thus convincing me that I didn’t need to partake in any pork-fueled eating challenges on this visit.
The last stop on our tour was probably my favorite. Ian took me out to the roof to the left field side of the press box, which provided an awesome view of the field and everything beyond it (including the slightly foreboding skies — yikes):
I’ve been fortunate to be able to get up to the roofs of several ballparks over the years, and it’s always a thrill. And Ian told me to feel free to visit the roof as much as I wanted throughout the game, so that’s definitely something I made a mental note to do.
After Ian and I said our goodbyes, I went back down to the concourse level to grab dinner. As I mentioned earlier, the Hot Dog Nation concession stand was on my radar, and one of the noteworthy dogs in particular had my eye. I ordered the Oriole Dog, which pays homage to the Tides’ MLB parent club and one of the popular food choices in Baltimore. It consisted of a hot dog topped with macaroni and cheese and crab meat. I’ve had mac and cheese on hot dogs on a few occasions, but never with crab, too. This was definitely one that I was excited check out:
I definitely give the Tides food services team credit for a cool idea, but it felt a little flat for me. The hot dog itself had a squishy texture instead of the snap that I look for. The mac and cheese was tasty, but the crab was cold — and I got a big piece of shell in my first bite. I think that a few minor tweaks, like heating the crab and maybe seasoning it with Old Bay, would make this hot dog a definite winner.
I’d taken the hot dog to the upper deck, and as soon as finished eating, I went back down to the concourse and made a beeline over to the Tides bullpen in the right field corner. The party deck is directly above the ‘pen, so it provides a perfect spot for watching the Tides pitchers warming up. I spent several minutes watching starter Tim Melville:
And then, once the game began, I spent the first inning in the picnic area in left field in the hopes of snagging a home run ball — something that didn’t happen. There weren’t any fans in the area, so I could’ve theoretically hung out there for a long time in the hopes of getting a baseball, but you know me — I’ve always gotta be on the move. I decided that I’d take Ian up on his offer to visit the roof, so I took the stairs back up to the press level and walked out on the roof on the third base side. Here’s how it looked as I got there …
… and here’s the view of the field from the edge:
I snapped off a handful of photos, and then was content to just hang out in the unique spot and enjoy the game. I ended up staying on the roof for an entire inning, and then went back down to the concourse to visit the team shop — and enjoy a bit of the air conditioning to cool off from all the walking I’d been doing.
After another lap of the concourse, stopping here and there to watch the game from different angles, I went back up to the press level and went to check out the roof on the first base side. From here, I was enjoying looking into the visitors dugout, and there are a couple of things worth pointing out:
For starters, check out the length of the dugout. Harbor Park’s dugouts are longer than average, and Ian told me why. When the park was being built, the team discussed where fans like to sit at games. The consensus was that many fans enjoy sitting behind the dugout, so why not make them longer than they’d otherwise be? It’s a win-win for the fans and for the players. The other noteworthy thing is that there isn’t any netting over the dugouts here. (Woo hoo!) I asked Ian about it, since netting has become the norm in baseball, and he said the nets will be up before much longer. I think it’s cool that I got to experience Harbor Park before that.
After watching a bit more of the game, I snapped this picture …
… and soon afterward, noticed a baseball that had obviously been fouled back onto the roof, and was happy to grab it:
I love the black smudge where it smacked the roof.
A moment after stuffing the ball into my backpack, I headed to the door that led off the roof, turned the knob, and … nothing. It was locked.
I assessed the situation. There wasn’t another way off the roof that I was aware of, at least without acting like Spider-Man. Hmmm. I knocked on the door — normally at first and then loudly, but I knew it was largely futile. On the other side of the door, there was a long hallway with a bend in it, and that meant that no one would likely be within earshot. Plus, anyone who might’ve heard the knocking would’ve been working — the radio/TV rooms and stadium operation rooms were not too far away, but their doors were shut and their staffs were busy. I walked back out the roof to think about my choices. All things considered, at least I was trapped in a good spot to watch the game. But, I legitimately needed to figure out a way off the roof. Thankfully, I thought to send an email to Ian. The Wi-Fi was spotty in this part of the park, so it probably took me 10 minutes to get a connection and actually send the email — but I eventually did … and a short while later,
my knight in shining armor Ian showed up and rescued me.
The rooftop misadventure had worked up an appetite, so I headed along the concourse in search of something else to eat. I don’t always eat two meals at ballparks, but given that I was concerned about a rainout the following day, I wanted to sample another concession stand. There’s a barbecue stand down the third base side that I’d checked out earlier, and it looked promising. I arrived in maybe the fifth inning, and was told that the stand was just about to close. Fortunately, I was able to order a brisket platter, which I took over to one of the picnic tables on the concourse:
The platter consisted of a good helping of brisket, along with two sides and coleslaw. The only sides still available when I placed my order were baked beans and green beans, so I narrowly missed the opportunity to have my second serving of mac and cheese of the day. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very impressed with this meal. The baked beans were fine, the green beans were very soggy — which I can chalk up to the stand about to close, I guess — and the brisket contained far too much fat for my liking.
Underwhelming barbecue did little to dampen my enjoyment of the evening, though, and I soon found myself back on the roof — the third base side, with the unlocked door, for those keeping score — where I took this photo during the game’s late innings:
After a bit of time up top, I watched the last bit of the game from the seats behind home plate, where I had this view:
Just minutes after the final out, I hopped into my rental car and headed back to my hotel. On the drive, I figured that if the next day’s game ended up being a rainout (spoiler alert — it wasn’t) I’d crammed an awful lot into my first Harbor Park visit, and I was thrilled with the overall experience.
Since I first saw it on TV back in 2010, I’ve considered Target Field to be one of the best-looking ballparks in baseball. Of course, it’s difficult to authoritatively make that call without a thorough fact-finding mission, right?
Time to make that happen.
Midway through last summer, I decided that I wanted to take another September baseball trip. I’d done it a year earlier, spending three days at Coors Field in Denver, and the idea of fall baseball once again beckoned. This time, I set my sights on the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul for a trio of Twins games on September 15 through 17, plus an awesome day of sightseeing planned for September 18.
The morning of September 15 began early, as the first days of my trips frequently do. I was up about 3:30 a.m. for an early-morning flight to Toronto, fanny pack at the ready as always. I landed about 6:30 a.m. and snapped this shot of my plane midway through my two-hour layover:
Soon enough, I was back in the air and on the way to Minneapolis, where I touched down just before 10 a.m. — gaining an hour because of the time zone difference.
I was fortunate to get a hotel just a few blocks from Target Field, but the fact that the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport is about 15 miles outside of the downtown area compelled me to plan to rent a car for my visit. Fortunately, the good people at Meet Minneapolis, who were super helpful with my trip planning, talked me out of doing so — they stressed that Minneapolis is extremely public transit friendly, and assured me that I’d be better off getting from the airport to downtown on the city’s light rail system. I’m pretty much a public transit novice. Growing up in a rural area meant that I drove everywhere, and it wasn’t until I was in university that I set foot on my first subway. In fact, I’m midway through my 30s and have still never taken a city bus. All this to say that I was a little tentative about getting around the city via light rail, but I was up to the challenge. It turns out, it wasn’t a challenge at all — Minneapolis’ light rail system was an absolutely breeze to navigate, and I used it several times during my visit.
Several minutes after stepping off my flight and into the airport terminal, I’d found my way down to the light rail station below the airport:
A few minutes later, I was comfortably seated on a Metro Blue Line light rail car and on my way downtown. The ride, which took about half an hour, was really pleasant. I love driving through new cities, but you don’t really get a full appreciation for the sights when you’re carefully watching the GPS screen as much as you’re looking through the windshield. On the train, with my route map in hand, I could take in all of the sights and get a real feel for the different parts of the city. One highlight that was impossible to miss was the enormous U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the NFL’s Vikings and the host stadium of Super Bowl LII. Seeing it, however briefly, was a pleasant tease — I’d be getting a private tour of it on the last day of my visit to Minneapolis!
I hopped off my train at the Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue station and had about a block to walk to get to my hotel — can’t get much better than that. I arrived at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Minneapolis Downtown shortly before 11 a.m., fully expecting that I’d have to hang out in the lobby and scroll through Twitter for a couple hours, given that I’d arrived well in advance of the hotel’s 4 p.m. check-in time. I’ve learned over the course of my many travels, however, that it’s never a bad idea to let the front desk know that you’ve arrived, even if check-in isn’t for a few hours. I did, and was delighted to learn that my room was ready for me — welcome news after so much traveling. I quickly checked in, grabbed a burger from a restaurant a block or so away, and then headed to a nearby Target to pick up some snacks for my trip.
As I proceeded toward the checkout, I caught a familiar-looking person out of the corner of my eye. Longtime MLB veteran and 1992 World Series winner Pat Tabler, now a color commentator for Toronto’s TV broadcasts on Rogers Sportsnet, headed past me while walking toward the rear of the store. This is a guy I grew up watching, and now see on Jays broadcasts, so I couldn’t resist chasing him down. Lugging my overloaded shopping basket, I caught up to him a moment later and asked if I could take a picture with him:
We talked for a minute or two afterward; I told him that I was from Ontario and grew up watching him, and he told me that made him feel old. He also jokingly chastised me for busting him in the cookie aisle. “Not to worry,” I told him, “I was in the same aisle a few minutes ago, too.”
Highly content with how my visit to Minneapolis had been so far, I walked back to my hotel, unpacked my shopping bags, and relaxed in my room until it was time to make the short walk over to Target Field. I got there just after 3 p.m., which is pretty darned early for a 7 p.m. game, you might think. The Twins were hooking me up with media credentials for all three games, though, which meant that I could get in well before the gates opened — and if you know me, you know I was more than a little excited by this prospect.
I arrived at Target Field through what’s known as Twins Plaza outside Gate 34, which is the gate that you frequently see on TV broadcasts. I was immediately impressed with the look of the entire area. I was early enough that it was still pretty quiet, and that suited me just fine because I could take this photo that shows the scene without a throng of people:
Twins Plaza is definitely a place that you want to visit when you go to Target Field. It’s notable for being home to several statues, including the famous one that depicts hall of famer Kirby Puckett rounding the bases and pumping his fist after hitting his iconic home run in the 1991 World Series. Of course, I had to get a photo in front of it:
Normally, I take at least one lap around the outside of every ballpark I visit, so that would’ve come next. Knowing that I had three days to thoroughly take in all the sights in and outside of Target Field, I decided to put the perimeter tour on hold until a day later so that I could get inside as quickly as possible. I entered via the press entrance, which put me in the open concourse close to where you’d be upon walking through Gate 34. I immediately rushed to the front row of the right field seats to take a look at the field for the first time, and was amused to see the players playing catch with a football — a sure sign of autumn, I guess:
Next, I wandered over to right-center to take this panorama, which shows just how beautiful Target Field truly is:
When I get inside a ballpark for the first time, there’s a temptation to run helter-skelter around and try to take in all the sights at once. It can be tough to tell myself, “OK, you’ve got three days here. Take a nice, slow lap around the concourse for starters to get your bearings.” Fortunately, that little voice in my head won out, so I continued wandering through the outfield seats and all the way past the left field foul pole, where I stopped to snap this picture of myself:
(As you might’ve noticed, I’m wearing one of my custom T-shirts. Want your own? Click here.)
See the players on the field behind me? The Jays pitchers were playing catch, and I watched them from this vantage point for a moment before heading down to field level. You might be wondering about me seeing Toronto on the road: Even though the Jays are my favorite team, seeing them on this trip was pure luck — I only had a couple scheduling opportunities for visiting Minneapolis in September, and the Jays were in town for one of them. Couldn’t pass up that chance. For all the times that I’ve seen Toronto in action, this was only the second series that I’d seen them on the road, funny enough.
Down at field level, I found a spot behind third base, where I simply hung out and enjoyed the scene. It was fun, as always, to watch the players up close, but my attention was more drawn to the beautiful ballpark landscape around me:
Soon enough, the enormous video board began to show different clips and information. At one point, there was live footage of the field. I quickly snapped the following photo because I could see myself (or, more aptly, the few pixels that I knew were me) and I thought it would be fun to share:
As I stood there, players and staff passed back and forth in front of me, going to and from the dugout. Longtime trainer George Poulis, who has since become the head trainer for the Braves, said hello to me as he walked past, while reliever Danny Barnes, who I met way back in 2011 when he was with the Lansing Lugnuts, nodded as he passed me. One player I was keeping my eye (and camera) on was closer Roberto Osuna, and I’m glad that I did. Just a moment after I took this photo …
… he finished playing catch. Instead of carrying his warmup ball to the dugout with him or tossing it into the ball bag, he turned and fired it all the way into the upper deck — like it was no big deal, I might add. I don’t know if he was aiming for this opening — I suspect he was — but his throw sailed through the opening to Section 329, which you’ll see at the bottom left of the deck:
As I watched the ball disappear, I thought, “That’ll make a cool souvenir for someone,” and then thought, “Hey, what about me?” Being at the edge of the infield, I was extremely far away from the upper deck, of course. Getting there would require running back up to the concourse, along the concourse to the foul pole, and up several flights of stairs — and then hoping that a staff member hadn’t scooped up the ball. If you know me, though, you know that I’m always up for a baseball challenge, so I took off in the direction of where I hoped the ball would be.
And found nothing.
I searched, searched, and searched some more, and the ball wasn’t anywhere. There were a couple concessions employees preparing their stand nearby, so I figured that one of them had grabbed it. I figured that at least I got a little exercise out of the quest, and turned to head back down the stairs toward the concourse. Midway down, I stopped and thought about the situation. I couldn’t imagine concession staff caring about errant baseballs, so I figured the ball still had to be there. I ran back up, searched for a few more minutes — including getting down on my hands and knees, and came up with this gem:
I have to admit that I was pretty satisfied with myself as I retraced my steps back down the stairs, along the concourse, and back down to field level. I might’ve even been grinning like a fool.
There were still a few Jays leaving the field when I returned, and I happily stood there and snapped pictures of several of them. Most ignored me, but starter/reliever Joe Biagini looked right at me as I was taking his picture …
… and asked, “How do I look? Good?” I told him that he indeed did look good, and he nodded and continued to the dugout.
As the Jays left the field, the Twins made their way toward home plate to take batting practice. I snapped this shot from a spot above the visitors dugout …
… and then just stood there and watched the action. When the gates opened, I went back to left field to try to snag a home run ball. The lower deck had a moderate number of people trying to snag baseballs, so I went all the way back to the upper deck, where there were just a couple other fans. Of course, upper deck shots are relatively rare, even in BP, but I figured that I’d hang out in this spot for a few minutes to see if anything came my way. It wasn’t long before someone on the Twins — I’m not sure who, unfortunately — blasted a moonshot that landed a few rows in front of me, and I had no trouble dashing down and grabbing it:
I’m always happy to snag a ball during BP, so I dropped the ball in my backpack and headed off to further explore Target Field. My first stop was the press box (no photos there — sorry) to pick up some lineup sheets. I saw Tabler again, and nearly collided with his TV broadcast partner and longtime MLBer Buck Martinez, who hurried out of the broadcast booth and almost walked straight into me. I also saw Twins legend and HOFer Bert Blyleven, who did not circle me.
Speaking of circles, I headed straight for the iconic “Welcome to Target Field” sign below the press box next. Target Field’s press box location is unique in the big leagues. Instead of being on the suite level, it’s immediately above the 200 Level, and there’s a cross-aisle directly below it. One of my pre-visit goals was to get a picture of myself with the Target logo on the wall below the press box, and here’s that effort:
I stood with my back to the Target sign for a few minutes to enjoy the view. From that spot, I could hear the broadcasters in their various booths talking, which provided a nice soundtrack as I took in the perfect scene in front of me:
As I posted on Instagram later on my visit, Pittsburgh’s PNC Park often has a much-deserved reputation as offering the best view from home plate in the majors, but I think that the view at Target Field is certainly no slouch. What do you think?
Next, I went back to the concourse and began a slow walk to take in the sights. Remember the Puckett statue from outside Gate 34 recognizing his game six home run? Well, on the concourse, there was a display featuring the seat in which the home run ball landed:
Returning to the outfield seats at the end of my walk through the concourse, I enjoyed this cool view of the Budweiser Roof Deck above the left field foul pole:
I love how you can see the top of the Ford Center and its water tower just beyond the roof deck. Today, the building provides office space, but it was once one of the locations where Model T Fords were assembled.
As the time ticked down toward first pitch, I spent a few minutes standing in a variety of spots to enjoy the view and atmosphere at the ballpark — high above the field in the seats in right-center, in the area inside Gate 34 and down toward field level in the right field corner, to name a few. Just before first pitch, I grabbed some food and took a seat in the upper deck in left-center. What did I eat, you might ask? Well, I’ll be glad to tell you.
I present to you deep-fried, beer-battered cheese curds:
They were pretty darned good. I’d have liked them to be a little more gooey — the cheese basically still held its shape as I bit into them — but I was glad to add another unique type of ballpark fare to my ever-expanding repertoire.
After eating, I headed to the team shop for the first time, and was immediately blown away by its size and some of its unique features. Case in point, this Twins suit, which could be yours for the low-low price of $740:
Later in the game, I took a seat in the upper deck in right field, stopping to snap this panorama of the area inside Gate 34:
I watched a couple innings of the game from that spot, in part because the view of the field was perfect, and in part because I needed to get off my feet. I hadn’t sat for four or five hours by that point, and was ready to give my feet a little break.
Midway through the game, I grabbed a spot here, where I enjoyed this outstanding view:
I spent the game’s latter innings watching the action from several spots, while also enjoying a few more laps around the concourse to take in all the sights. As soon as the ninth inning drew to a close, I made the short walk back to my hotel, majorly in need of sleep after such a long day:
I crashed pretty soon after getting back to my room, pumped to have finally made it to Minneapolis and excited for the next day’s visit to beautiful Target Field.
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 at 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.
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 tow 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 enthusiastically 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:
When I woke up early on the morning of May 21, my first mission was to run to my balcony and check out the view of Dr Pepper Ballpark like a kid charging downstairs on Christmas morning to see if Santa came. Yep, the ballpark was still there, as expected, and it still looked great.
Next, it was time to excitedly think about returning to the ballpark — where I’d spent an awesome evening a day earlier — later that day.
While I was pumped to get inside on the nicest MiLB parks I’ve visited, I was especially excited for two stomach-related things:
- Filling my stomach in the exclusive JC Penney Club, thanks to an invitation from Jason Dambach, executive VP and general manager of the Frisco RoughRiders.
- Feeling butterflies in my stomach being interviewed during the team’s broadcast.
After a big, delicious breakfast at my hotel, the Embassy Suites Hotel and Convention Center, I settled down at the desk with my laptop to catch up on a little blogging … but I’d also intermittently go out to the balcony, sit on the chair and just take in the beautiful view in front of me. This was the pattern for the bulk of the day, and pretty soon it was time to pack up my stuff and walk over to the ballpark. I walked through the gates early so that I could shoot a bunch of video with my GoPro, which you’ll be able to see on my YouTube channel in the future.
In between recording video clips, I also wanted to make sure that I could simply enjoy the ballpark experience. I’d be up around 4 a.m. the next morning and had a travel day that exceeded 12 hours, so I wanted to have a relaxing visit and savor every last minute of my 10th day in Texas. One of the first things I did was stand right behind the home plate netting and enjoy a long stretch of batting practice … turning around for a brief moment to take this picture:
While I was in that spot, I took a bunch of peeks at the JC Penney Club, where I’d be eating later:
Let me explain the context: A day earlier, I’d met Jason and we’d talked about my baseball trip, Dr Pepper Ballpark and bunch of other cool things. The topic of food came up, and I’d excitedly told him about my plan to eat the Texas Mac & Cheese BBQ Sandwich. He mentioned the JC Penney Club, an upscale eatery with a great view of the ballpark, and told me that I’d be hard-pressed to find better food in all of the minor leagues — and then told me that he’d make me a reservation to eat there before the RoughRiders game a day later. Wow!
I was scheduled to eat at 5 p.m., and had about an hour to continue to explore the park before then; I wanted to do lots of walking around, as I suspected I might be a little sedentary after experiencing the buffet-style dining.
With BP still taking place, I took a walk down the first base line and found a spot to stand next to the visiting team’s bullpen. From there, I watched a pitcher throw a side session, while also keeping an eye on the action on the field. It was glorious:
In my blog post about my first day in Frisco, I wrote about the unique, fan-friendly position of the home bullpen. The visitors’ bullpen is in basically the same position, albeit on the first base side, but is a little different in the way that it’s laid out. It has seats on two sides of it and a party deck above, which is where I was standing a moment earlier. Here’s what the scene looks like:
And, for good measure, here’s a panoramic shot of Dr Pepper Ballpark during BP from the first base side:
My next stop was the Diamond Deck group party area in the left field corner. I’d originally planned to hang out on the grass berm for a bit, but when I passed the Diamond Deck, something caught my eye:
See the baseball right below the rail?
I picked it up after taking the above photo, and saw that it was a generic minor league practice ball:
I’ve got a few of those in my collection, but I don’t think I’ve seen once since I visited G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, home of the Potomac Nationals, back in 2011. Anyway, since the gates weren’t open and I didn’t want to keep the ball, I tossed it to a San Antonio Missions player (the guy in the middle):
It was awesome to still have a bit of time until the ballpark opened; I was loving just watching BP from various vantage points and taking in the park’s beauty and uniqueness — here, for example, is a look at the separate buildings down the third base line, which I talked about in my previous blog post:
Soon enough, it was time to head up toward the JC Penney Club and check out the buffet. First, though, I shot this image of the construction crew still hard at work on the lazy river …
… and this shot of the beautiful ballpark as the grounds crew performed its post-batting practice duties:
I was impressed when I finally entered the JC Penney Club. The room was long and thin, and had identical buffets on each side of the door, which meant that long lineups wouldn’t be an issue. There were a number of bistro-style tables throughout, and windows that ran the full length of the club, giving diners an outstanding view of the ballpark from wherever they sat:
The menu, however, was what impressed me the most:
- Beef Wellington with shallot and red wine sauce
- Pan-seared chicken with chasseur sauce
- Roasted carrots with hazelnut tapenade
- Lyonnais potatoes with herb compound butter
- Baked Brie with assorted dried fruits and nuts
There were also several salads — let’s be honest, I wasn’t going to focus much on them — and some traditional ballpark fare that seemed favored by the kids who were dining at the same time as me. When I stepped up to the buffet for the first time and asked for a slice of the beef, the server asked, “Just one? You’ll be back for sure.” And then, a bit later when I did indeed return, he offered, “I told you that you’d be back,” with a smile.
For those of you who enjoy my food photos, check out plate #1:
That’s the beef Wellington on the left side, a huge chunk of the baked Brie on the top and the pan-seared chicken on the bottom right. And, of course, there was also another plate:
You’re looking at more beef Wellington, baked brief, pan-seared chicken and, this time, some of the Lyonnais potatoes and a bit of chick pea salad, too.
I can definitely say that the meal was one of the best I’ve ever eaten at a ballpark, and the tremendous quality of the food was as good as you’d find in a fancy restaurant. If you get the chance to eat at the JC Penney Club, make sure that you go for it!
For a reason that could only be described as greed, I grabbed these two cookies before I hit the road …
… and waddled back down to the concourse level. (Come to think of it, waddling seemed to be a bit of a theme on my Texas trip!)
As I made my way along the concourse, well, looking for somewhere to sit down for a little bit, I noticed the Roughned Odor-themed drinks that had made headlines a little earlier in my trip. As you likely remember, the Texas Rangers infielder had sucker punched Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista after a hard slide at second, and the RoughRiders capitalized on the moment quickly by producing souvenir cups depicting the image and filled with a red energy drink. I hadn’t noticed the drinks for sale during my first day at Dr Pepper Ballpark, so I was glad to track them down on my second day. It turns out, there was a “licensing issue” about the use of the cup, so the promotion had to be changed a little. The teams were offering the cups for a donation, and I stopped to snap this picture:
I sat in a shaded area in the left field corner while my food digested, and then returned to the standing room area behind home plate in time for the anthem:
I watched the first inning from the same spot, enjoying views like this …
… before heading down the third base line and finding a spot against the railing, where I had this view:
After a couple of innings in that spot, it was time to make my way toward the press box, as I was slated to join the broadcast in the top of the fourth inning. As I said earlier, I had a few butterflies in my stomach, which is always the case when I’m interviewed on the air. This time, though, I wasn’t as nervous because I’d had a chance to talk to the broadcast guys during a quick visit before the game. They were all super down to earth and fun to talk to, and we exchanged lots of baseball stories. They even asked me to name my best ballpark adventure story, which was an easy one to answer.
Anyway, I hung out outside the broadcast studio, and as soon as the third inning wrapped up, I went in and grabbed a seat and a set of headphones between Nathan Barnett and Ryan Rouillard. My nerves quickly subsided, thanks to the fun, easy banter and professionalism of Nathan and Ryan, and the top of the fourth was just about in the books. Luckily, Nathan asked if I’d stay on for the bottom half, and of course I was thrilled for the chance. We talked about my Texas trip, my assorted ballpark visits and more, and it was an absolute blast. As soon as the inning ended, the third member of the broadcast team, Steve Goldberg, took a photo of me between Nathan and Ryan:
By the way, give the RoughRiders broadcast team a follow on Twitter, and check out a broadcast online, too. These guys are great.
When I left the press box for the last time, I went back to the concourse and picked up a lemon ice …
… and then grabbed a spot behind home plate to watch the remainder of the game, which seemed to fly by quickly. Each passing inning meant that my Texas trip was coming to an end, but I was grateful for all the wonderful memories I made, the great people I met and the help of all those who contributed to the adventure. I’m certainly looking forward to returning to the Lone Star State again soon.
The next morning, I was up about 4 a.m. to begin my long trip home — but I couldn’t resist taking one last photo of the darkened Dr Pepper Ballpark from my balcony:
So long, Texas. I hope to see you again soon.
Following an awesome two-day visit to El Paso, it was time to hop back in my rental car and set my sights on Midland for the seventh and eighth days of my Texas road trip. The drive from El Paso to Midland is one that I’d been cautioned about by multiple people soon after I announced my trip — including a Twitter friend who is a geography instructor and knows about such things. He strongly advised me to make sure that my car was full of gas before I left El Paso, given that there are long stretches without gas stations (and without much at all, to be honest) between the two cities.
I heeded the advice, topped up my car and pulled out of El Paso about 7:30 a.m. on May 18. There was a Midland RockHounds game scheduled for that evening and, while the drive from El Paso to Midland is only about 4.5 hours, I’d be losing an hour due to a time zone change. Plus, I was scheduled to meet with some folks from Visit Midland in the afternoon before the ballgame to tour the area a bit.
As promised, the drive between the cities was indeed memorable — and not because of running out of gas, thankfully. There was plenty of beautiful terrain to enjoy, including the mountains around El Paso …
… and vast areas of flat ground that stretched as far as the eye could see:
Occasionally, I’d see a small town, so I’ll pull off and top up my gas. In one stop, my car would only take $5 to fill the remainder of the tank, which shows you that I wasn’t taking any chances! Someone told me there’s a stretch of about 80 miles without a gas station. I didn’t measure, but this doesn’t seem improbable.
Eventually, the scenery around me began to change, and I was soon seeing pump jacks and flares on each side of the road for miles on end. Yep, I was definitely entering oil country. In addition to being the midway point between El Paso and Fort Worth, Midland is very well known for its oil. Oil was discovered in the Permian Basin in the 1920s, and the oil production has been going strong ever since. I’ve since read that today, this area produces around 20 percent of the country’s petroleum and natural gas. One more quick noteworthy fact about the area — if you’ve read the book “Friday Night Lights” or seen the movie or TV show of the same name, you’ll recognize the name of Permian High School. Well, it’s located in Odessa, which is just outside Midland. Or, you could say that Midland is just outside Odessa — there’s definitely a sports rivalry between the two cities!
Under dreary skies, I pulled into Midland and checked into my hotel just 10 minutes before I was supposed to meet up with Visit Midland. After spending so many hours in the car, I only had the chance to drop my luggage in the room, splash some water on my face and run back down to the lobby. There, I met up with Visit Midland’s Lyndsey White and Amy Harrison, who’d arranged for me to have a private tour at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, which had just undergone a $18 million renovation to improve the facility and its exhibits for local residents and tourists alike. It was an informative experience, and one that I’ll write about in a future blog post. For now, though, here’s a photo of me in front of two pump jacks on the museum’s property:
I came into the experience knowing very little about oil production, so it was interesting to learn a lot from our well-versed tour guide, as well as see a ton of artifacts from the area’s rich oil history. Lyndsey and Amy dropped me back at my hotel later in the afternoon, and I had a few minutes to relax and check out the amazing gift basket that had been left for me by the people at Visit Midland, who really went out of their way to make my stay memorable. I hadn’t had time to look at it earlier, but I was excited to now check it out. It was brimming with cool RockHounds souvenirs, including this bucket hat, Security Bank Ballpark replica and logo baseball:
There were also treats from local vendors, including some white chocolate-covered Oreos with baseball stitching from a local candy store — and how Visit Midland knew that Oreos are my weakness is beyond me!
Before making the short walk over to the ballpark, I thought I’d check to make sure that the game was still on. Though it wasn’t raining, the sky was definitely dark and rain was in the forecast. I looked on my Twitter to see if there were any updates about that night’s game and, to my disappointment, I read that it had been postponed due to the weather. There was good news, though — there’d be a doubleheader the next day.
A little more good news: The hotel I was staying in, Home2 Suites Midland, was outstanding, and the idea of having a sit-down dinner and then relaxing in the air conditioning for the evening more than a little appealing at this point on my trip. The hotel was new, clean and the suite-style rooms were huge, so I zipped out for a big steak and loaded baked potato at Outback, and then returned to relax for the evening … and also shoot this photo from my window looking across a few parking lots to Security Bank Ballpark under dreary skies:
The next morning, I’m pleased to say that the scene outside my window looked significantly brighter, as you can see here:
The doubleheader was scheduled for 4:30 p.m., and I had plenty to fill my time before then. I was fortunate to get invited to lunch with Lyndsey and several of her colleagues, as well as Ray Fieldhouse, the RockHounds assistant general manager/operations, to taste some local fare and learn more about the city. We went to Gerardo’s Casita, a place that has authentic Mexican cuisine and reminded me a bit of L&J Cafe, a place I’d visited in El Paso a couple days earlier. I ordered the steak enchilada platter, and it was delicious:
During lunch, the discussion turned to the fact that President George W. Bush was raised in Midland, which is something I hadn’t realized. In fact, the Bush family home is still intact and now serves as a museum. After eating, Lyndsey took me over to the museum and had a tour, which I’ll be blogging about in a future post. Here, though, is a shot of me in front of the house:
Lyndsey dropped me back off at the hotel shortly after 2 p.m. and I immediately headed out for the short walk to Security Bank Ballpark. I figured that the crowd would be pretty sparse for the early innings of the first game, as is often the case with doubleheaders, but I still wanted to get to the park good and early to tour around, take lots of photos and shoot some video with my GoPro.
Although I’m always excited when I approach a ballpark, this one had an extra-special feel, as it was the 50th different Minor League Baseball park I’ve visited since 2010.
After I took the photo of the main gate …
… my plan, like always, was to take a long walk around the park’s perimeter and check out everything from all angles. I enjoyed a nice walk around the quiet park by myself, stopping occasionally to photograph things like this statue, which has plaques recognizing the team’s various championships and awards:
(The RockHounds won back-to-back Texas League titles in 2014 and 2015, and those plaques are on the base of this statue behind the catcher.)
When I stopped in the team’s office to pick up my press pass, I saw those two championship trophies, as well as another from when the club won the Texas League championship in 2009. The tall trophy second from the left is the John H. Johnson President’s Trophy, which was awarded to Midland in 2007 after it was named the top franchise in the minors:
This was the first photo I took upon entering the ballpark:
As you can see, it was a little dreary and there were a few puddles from the previous day’s rain, but I had my fingers crossed that weather wouldn’t interfere with the doubleheader. I set out down the third base side to take my customary lap of the concourse and, as this picture shows, Security Bank Ballpark was still majorly empty, which suited me just fine, as it would make my life easier when it came to shooting some video:
Although Security Bank Ballpark had a pretty standard feel (it was built in 2002 and shares a lot of traits with other parks from that era) there were a bunch of cool features that I enjoyed seeing. Check out the expansive areas down the baselines — perfect for hanging out if you want to catch a long foul ball:
Another neat thing was the grass berm beyond the left field fence:
The berm is very tall — more of a hill than a standard berm, and climbing it provided a great panoramic view of the park. Here’s the view from close to the top of the berm:
After climbing back down from the berm, I took this shot of myself with my 50th different MiLB ballpark as the backdrop:
Then, I walked around a baseball-themed splash pad in center field …
… and a good-sized kids’ play area nearby:
While the grass hill in left field might be the prime attraction as far as grass seating is concerned, it’s hardly the only place to throw down a blanket and enjoy the game. There’s also lots of grass seating just to the right field side of the batter’s eye:
If you’ve been following along with my Texas trip, you’ll know that I’ve been impressed with the basketball courts at several of the parks I’ve visited. Well, Security Bank Ballpark no different, and actually has the best in-stadium basketball court I’ve seen in all my travels. It has one of those rubber-mat surfaces in RockHounds colors and is emblazoned with the team’s logo:
Speaking of that logo, I found a foam RockHounds ball near the basketball court, just after taking the above photo:
I grabbed it and gave it to a kid soon after the gates opened a while later.
Shortly before the gates opened, I snapped this photo from the wide concourse area down the first base line to show just how empty the park still was:
Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of staffers running around getting ready for the game, but there were occasional pockets of time in which I was really the only person in the area — and that was awesome. It’s always such a treat to get to wander around an empty ballpark; it’s hard to explain, but it’s a feeling that I really enjoy when I get to experience.
About the time that the gates opened, the teams came onto the field and began to play catch. I was in the area behind home plate, so I snapped this photo that shows the view from the area:
Did you notice the big hill in left field? This picture should hopefully put its size into perspective.
As I suspected, the crowds weren’t exactly flooding into Security Bank Ballpark right away. But, I suspected that by midway through the first game, the park would be hopping — and that was indeed the case, thanks in part to the team’s Thirsty Thursday promotion that began after the conclusion of Game #1.
So, how empty was the ballpark at the start of the first game? Here’s a shot I took in the top of the first inning that puts things into perspective:
I was positively giddy about the initial emptiness, thinking that I’d have an excellent chance of snagging a foul ball or two. In fact, I even sent out a tweet jokingly wondering how many foul balls I’d end up with. Well, the answer was a little humbling. Despite hanging out in a great area — I sat in the top row of right near that wide concourse that you saw a few photos earlier — no balls came even close to me. I had easy access to a couple seating sections, as well as the wide concourse behind me and down to the corner, and there wasn’t a single ball hit anywhere near that area in the first few innings. I suppose that if I’d stayed, my luck might have changed, but I never like to sit in one single area for too long, so I soon headed off to enjoy the ballpark from different areas.
My next stopping place was the grass berm in right field. By now, there were a few fans on the left field berm, but the right field one was empty. I watched a bit of the action from this spot and was surprised to end up with not one, but two baseballs:
Now, they weren’t home run balls, nor were they hit during BP. They were both sitting on the grass berm when I arrived, and were soaking wet. They hadn’t been there earlier, so I’m certain they were found in a bullpen by a pitcher and simply tossed up onto the grass for a fan to find. Since I was the only fan in the area, I was happy to add two more Texas League balls to my collection.
After snapping the shot of the two balls, it was time to get something to eat. Before my visit to Midland, I’d seen that the RockHounds’ entry in the MiLB Food Fight competition was a unique hot dog, and I knew I wanted to try it. It was a hot dog with a couple strips of bacon and slathered in peanut butter and jelly. Sound good? I thought it was:
In fairness, I think it could’ve afforded more peanut butter and jelly, as I found they got a little lost behind the strong flavor of the bacon and the hot dog itself. I was impressed with the solid amount of bacon, though, and I think I may try to recreate one of these hot dogs at home sometime.
After eating my first meal of the evening, I decided to find a front-row seat on the first base side and shoot some action photos. The crowd was still pretty thin, so it was easy to get a good spot and start clicking away with my camera. Here’s Midland starter Sam Bragg:
And Frisco starter Connor Sadzeck:
I spent an inning or so right behind home plate where, despite shooting through the netting, I was able to get a decent shot of Midland infielder Franklin Barreto just after making contact:
For the remainder of the game, I took a few more laps around the concourse, shot a bit of video with my GoPro and, in general, just enjoyed a laid-back night at the ballpark.
During the break between games, I grabbed a spot at field level to rest my legs, and noticed something amusing. The Midland groundskeeper had a dog with him. Now, we’ve all seen the bat-retrieving dogs at minor league parks, but this wasn’t the deal here. The dog simply appeared to be a pet — and one that enjoyed hanging out on the field while it was being prepped. It was nice to see a dog behaving so calmly, despite lots going on around it; while the infield was being leveled, the dog just waited at the end of the grass:
Here’s a wider-angle shot that shows the scene:
Some dogs aren’t crazy about water hoses, but when the base paths were being watered, the dog — once again — just hung out nearby. It was definitely neat to see:
Soon enough, the players returned to the field and began tossing. I was still at field level on the third base side, so I got some cool shots, like this one of Frisco infielder Luis Mendez:
And this one of Frisco catcher Alex Burg:
As the game began, I made another trip over to one of the concession stands to get something else to eat. This time, I went with something that was a little more conventional for a ballpark — a sausage on a bun, which I loaded up with lettuce, onions, pickled jalapenos and mustard:
I watched the early innings of the game behind home plate. By now, the crowd had definitely thickened, but I found a good spot in the front row, where I was able to enjoy views like this one of Frisco starter Victor Payano on the mound:
Here’s a picture from the same spot that turned out sort of neat:
Midland first baseman Viosergy Rosa has just made contact, and you can see the ball against the outfield fence.
Partway through the game, I watched a bit of the action while leaning on the railing at the edge of the concourse behind home plate, where the view looked like this:
Great looking view from home plate, right?
As the sun set, I slipped out of the ballpark to snap this panorama of the main gate …
… and then went back inside to watch the last couple innings from my earlier seat behind home plate and just enjoy the game and the park. It was too bad I didn’t get to experience two days at Security Bank Ballpark, but I’m glad that the doubleheader allowed me to spend lots of time at this Texas League facility — and the other things that I was able to experience in Midland certainly made this a memorable stop on my Texas trip. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit again soon.
When the game wrapped up, I had just a quick walk back to my hotel where I’d relax for a few hours and then go to bed knowing that I’d be up in the morning to drive to Frisco for the last two days of my Texas trip.
My 10-day visit to Texas started off on an extremely high note with two outstanding days in Round Rock. While I was sad to bid farewell to that city, I was excited to get up on the morning of Saturday, May 14 and set my sights on Corpus Christi. The city sits right on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, so I was pumped to enjoy a different sort of climate for a pair of visits to Whataburger Field, home of the Corpus Christi Hooks, over the next two days.
It takes about 3.5 hours to drive from Round Rock to Corpus Christi, but I checked out of my hotel early in the morning so that I could get to Corpus in good time and play tourist for a bit before seeing the Hooks in action that evening.
The drive between the two cities was interesting because it featured more ranches than I could’ve counted; there was no doubt that I was in Texas, and I was sure enjoying the scenery. Soon enough, though, the scenery changed. The small towns and big ranches gave way to the sight of the Gulf, the distinct smell of sea air and the call of seabirds. I couldn’t help but roll down my windows as I breezed into Corpus Christi to take it all in.
It was still way too early to check into my hotel, so I headed straight for the beach and just a few minutes after passing through the city limits, this was my view:
I spent a little time taking a romantic walk on the beach by myself and soaking up the beach air, but my main priority in visiting this part of the city was to tour this:
That’s the U.S.S. Lexington, an aircraft carrier that now serves as a museum ship. I’m a big military history buff, so I knew I wanted to spend some time at the “Lady Lex,” as it’s called, from the time that I started planning this trip. I’ll have details and lots of pictures from my tour in an upcoming blog post. This post, from here on out, is all about baseball.
After spending a couple hours on the aircraft carrier, I checked into my hotel downtown and got ready for the game. While I could’ve walked just over a mile to Whataburger Field, I opted to drive because I read that inclement weather can occur quickly in Corpus Christi (more on that in my next post) and I didn’t want to be caught walking a mile in the rain like a fool.
I pulled into the parking lot at Whataburger Field about 75 minutes before the gates were set to open, and was amazed to see sizable lineups along the sidewalk and even stretching into the road:
The early crowds were a sure sign of a sought-after giveaway, and that was definitely the case here — the Hooks were giving away replica jerseys to the first 1,750 fans. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about the lines; just a few minutes after arriving, I met up with Matt Rogers, the team’s director of communications, and got my media pass. I figured I’d get my pass and start wandering around to check out the ballpark before the gates opened, but Matt asked if I wanted a tour, and of course I accepted.
We began our tour by stopping at a radio station studio inside the park. This is the studio from which the post-game show is broadcast and it’s in a different location than the broadcast booths. I’ve seen radio station studios in some MLB parks, but I believe this is the first one I’ve seen at the MiLB level:
After visiting the studio, our first stop was the press box. I’d seen online before my visit that Whataburger Field has a picturesque view from home plate, so I hustled to the windows in the press area to take in the scene:
Outstanding, right? That’s the Harbor Bridge in the background, which I think provides an awesome backdrop. I always get a kick out of seeing big bridges on my trips and driving over them, so the thought of sitting behind home plate with a beautiful bridge in the background was enticing. There are a couple other notable features to mention. See the Citgo sign in right-center field? Well, right behind it, you’ll see a tall structure. That’s part of Hurricane Alley, which is a big waterpark directly behind the ballpark. The other feature that I want to point out is behind the video board in left field. It’s hard to see in this picture, but do you notice a body of water? That’s a canal/turning basin that enormous vessels travel through. A huge Citgo refinery is located out of sight to the left, so oceangoing vessels come in from the Gulf, travel under the bridge, pick up whatever they’re picking up at the Citgo docks and then turn around and head out to the ocean. If you stand on the grass berm in left field, I later noticed, you can watch the ships pass from just a short distance away.
The press area at Whataburger Field was like most other minor league press areas I’ve seen, but with one notable exception. The club’s games are broadcast in Spanish, and Matt told me the Hooks are the only team with this setup in the minor leagues:
Since we were already on the press/suite level, we checked out one of the suites and then saw the main dining area for those with suite tickets:
Our next stop was a party deck on the suite level along the first base side. It featured a combination of picnic tables and regular stadium seats, as well as a great view of the bridge:
Before we went down to the main concourse, I snapped this panorama of the view from this area:
Batting practice seemed to wrap up early, possibly because the sky was gray. This was a bit of a concern, given that I was eager to get a ball at some point during my visit. The Hooks play in the Double-A Texas League, so I obviously wanted to add a Texas League ball to my collection. Although I’d be attending a handful of Texas League games throughout this trip, I knew it’d feel good to get a ball early on. Funny enough, as I was contemplating the weather’s apparent interference with BP, I spotted a ball! Matt was leading me down the concourse toward the right field foul pole, and I saw a baseball sitting at the base of the railing:
I snapped the above photo of the ball but didn’t pick it up since the gates weren’t yet open. Argh.
The ball quickly left my mind as Matt pointed out some of the cool features at Whataburger Field and, boy, let me tell you that there are plenty of neat things about this ballpark. For example, the concourse down the lines is elevated and descends behind the foul pole. Before you get to the stairs, though, you have a great vantage point for watching the game — and, if you look over your right shoulder, you can look right down into the visitor’s bullpen:
I love minor league parks that really make the bullpens accessible to fans, so after being impressed with the bullpen locations in Round Rock over the previous two days, I was excited to see a high degree of accessibility here, too. Check out the picnic tables on the concourses behind the ‘pen. You can sit just a couple feet behind the relievers, which I think is really cool.
Our next stop was a VIP deck behind the bullpen. There are a bunch of picnic tables at ground level, but you can climb up to the upper deck and sit there, too. I love the design of this area …
… as it seems to split the difference between looking like a ballpark and looking like a waterpark. I’m sure this was the designer’s goal, given that this area is basically what divides the ballpark from the waterpark. (If you look off the upper level of the deck farthest away from the playing field, you’re looking straight down into the waterpark.)
This deck isn’t the only group party area in the outfield; there were many of them, but none neater than this area that includes a swimming pool:
Funny enough, I was impressed with the swimming pool in Round Rock because it was the first one I’d come across in the minor leagues, and now I was standing next to another one. And, speaking of features that were present in both ballparks, here are some rocking chairs, too:
I love the location of the rocking chairs because they’re directly behind the outfield fence. Imagine wearing your glove as you enjoy the comfy seating, and then standing up to catch a home run ball? Awesome.
As we continued on through the outfield, Matt showed me another impressive feature — there’s a youth baseball field located essentially behind the Whataburger Field batter’s eye:
The premise is that youth teams can schedule a game in the early evening and then walk right into the MiLB ballpark after their game wraps up and watch the professionals play. It’s a great idea and something that more teams should do, I think.
Not to be constantly comparing Round Rock and Corpus Christi, but like the park I’d spent the two previous days in, this one also had a climbing wall …
… a basketball court …
… and an impressive play structure setup:
Beyond these areas, though, there were some elements that I think it’s safe to say are unique across all of baseball. The area on which Whataburger Field was built was once a cotton plant, and the ballpark designer wanted to keep some features from the area’s previous incarnation intact. This meant leaving an enormous set of boilers, which are located right behind the basketball court …
… and a pair of cotton presses, which were used to make bales of cotton. Here’s one of them:
And, lest we get too far away from talking about baseball, here’s something cool. In this closeup of the cotton press from the previous image, you’ll see some broken windows. I asked if there was a chance that any of the windows were broken by balls during batting practice, and Matt confirmed that the middle one on the bottom row was once broken by Hunter Pence. The words “Bam Bam,” Pence’s nickname, were added after the feat:
It’s difficult to accurately predict the distance of these windows from home plate, but it would take an absolutely mammoth shot to break a window — especially on the fly. Here’s a Google Images view of Whataburger Field, and the red arrow points to the location of the cotton press window that Pence hit. Wow:
We continued making our way around the concourse until we were back at home plate, at which time Matt had to get back to work. As I stood there contemplating my next move, I suddenly thought about the ball that I’d seen earlier. By now, I figured that any of the ushers in the area would’ve grabbed it — and, besides, the gates were now open, which meant a fan could’ve picked it up, too. For the heck of it, I hustled down the first base concourse and, to my amazement, the ball was still sitting in its place!
I snatched it quickly and was thrilled to add a Texas League ball to my collection:
With about 45 minutes left until first pitch, I basically retraced my steps from my tour with Matt and checked out some sights again and others I’d previously missed. Here’s one shot, for example, that shows the downtown Corpus Christi skyline, which is clearly visible from several spots throughout the ballpark:
And here’s a shot of a bunch of the sights beyond the outfield fence, where I’d been walking earlier. You can clearly see the grass berm, the waterpark behind the ballpark, the swimming pool and a couple party areas:
My next stop was the batting cages down behind the third base line, where I watched a couple members of the Hooks working on their swings. I don’t have any photos of this, though — even though I was standing just a few feet away, I was shooting through a chain-link fence and two separate sections of netting, so my camera didn’t feel like cooperating. Still, this is a cool area that is definitely worth checking out during your visit to Whataburger Field.
I watched the action in the cages for a while and then decided to take another walk through the hubbub of activity behind the outfield fence. As I headed in that direction, movement from the canal outside the ballpark caught my eye. I hurried toward the fence and saw an oil tanker named the Ridgebury Lessley B heading out toward the Gulf:
I made a point of Googling the name of the tanker and, as I write this, it’s about to enter the Strait of Gibraltar!
Once the ship had sailed out of sight, I went over to the cotton presses and checked them out. I love how they were left when Whataburger Field was built. It almost feels as though you’re looking back into the history of the area. As I looked down inside the presses, I could only imagine how many hours they ran and the sheer volume of cotton that came out of them. Here’s a close-up view of one of the presses:
In my next stop, I stepped out through an open door in the right field corner onto the warning track and took some photos to make up this panorama:
Remember my mention of the nearby Citgo refinery earlier in this post? Well, there’s a heck of a lot of industrial-lookin’ stuff within sight of Whataburger Field. (And, yes, “industrial-lookin’ stuff” is a technical term.) Here’s a look at the skyline from one angle of the ballpark:
By the way, see all those white and blue cylindrical devices in the foreground? Those are wind turbine pieces.
After I took this photo, I realized that while first pitch had yet to arrive, my hunger sure had. Time to do something about that! On an earlier lap around the park, I spotted the Smoke 5714 concession stand, which advertised the use of Nolan Ryan Beef; the number in the concession stand’s name, of course, refers to Ryan’s career strikeout total. Anyway, there were a number of tasty-looking things on the menu, including smoked turkey legs, smoked sausages and loaded baked potatoes, but I opted for the Texas-style cheesesteak sandwich:
I’m not sure what made it “Texas style,” but the steak and the peppers and onions were yummy. As you’ve maybe heard me rant before, I’m not a fan of the ballpark cheese goo, but I otherwise enjoyed this big sandwich and the potato chips it came with.
Once I’d eaten, I walked over to the right field corner to watch the visiting Frisco RoughRiders (where I’d be headed at the end of my Texas trip) warm up. As I said earlier, there are some cool viewing areas at Whataburger Field in the right field corner, so I was eager to check them out. As I peered over the edge of the railing, catcher Kellin Deglan (a first-round pick in 2010, taken one spot ahead of Christian Yelich) was directly below me:
He was headed to the corner to catch starting pitcher Victor Payano’s long tosses, so I followed behind and took some pictures like this one of the big lefty:
When Payano and Deglan moved into the bullpen, I took a spot on the stairs above the catcher, where I had a straight-on view of Payano warming up.
I watched the entirety of the warmup and when the duo headed toward the dugout, I grabbed this seat and spent the first two innings with this great view of the park and of the setting sun:
Although the evening weather was perfect, I was still having trouble getting used to the Corpus Christi humidity. In addition to drinking several bottles of water throughout the game, I also opted for a little icy refreshment in the form of one of my favorite ballpark treats:
I was impressed with the view as the sun dropped behind the upper level of Whataburger Field. Here’s one last sunset shot in which the sun looks like a ball of fire:
As much as I probably would’ve enjoyed staying in that seat for the remainder of the game, I wanted to watch Evan Gattis’ at-bats from the grass berm beyond left field. The Hooks/Astros slugger, of course, is known for his towering blasts, and I figured that if he hit one onto the berm, I’d have a really good chance of snagging it. I made sure to be on the berm for Gattis’ next two at-bats of the game, but he didn’t send anything my way. Ho-hum.
I decided it’d be fun to spend the innings between Gattis’ trips to the plate on the VIP party deck in right field. It didn’t hold a group on this evening, so I don’t know if it was technically open or closed, but I climbed up to the top level, sat on a picnic table and enjoyed this great view of the game:
The sunset still looked great from my new vantage point:
I spent the last three innings over on the third base side, partly because I hadn’t yet sat in this area and partly because I wanted to enjoy the light show on the bridge. As you can see here, the colors were constantly changing, making the bridge an eye-catching ballpark backdrop whether it was day or night:
I split as soon as the final out was recorded, hopped in my car and was back in my hotel room just a few minutes later for some much-needed rest. I’d be back at Whataburger Field in a little over 12 hours.
If you read about my first day in Round Rock and, in particular, what I ate, you might not be surprised to know that my second day in town didn’t begin with a hearty breakfast. In fact, given the size of my dinner the night before, I simply started my day with a handful of almonds and a bottle of water.
The light breakfast wasn’t solely due to the fact that I’d, umm, overindulged during my first visit to Dell Diamond. I also knew that I had a pretty awesome lunch lined up.
At 11 a.m., I met with Nancy Yawn, the director of the Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, to have lunch and learn more about the city I was visiting. I was excited, in particular, to learn about Round Rock’s connection to sports. The city is known as the Sports Capital of Texas, and Nancy had promised to give me a tour around to look at some of the various sports complexes — a great way to begin a day the would culminate with another Round Rock Express game.
Before we started our tour, we had an outstanding lunch at Cover Three, a restaurant within walking distance of my hotel. I had a plate of absolutely delicious nachos to start (I neglected to get a photo, unfortunately) before my mouthwatering main dish of a gulf shrimp po’ boy with Parmesan fries. This, I’m happy to report, didn’t escape my camera:
After lunch, Nancy took me through some of the city’s sports facilities, starting with the Round Rock Sports Center. It’s a new complex that cost close to $15 million to build and has nearly 50,000 square feet of playing space for sports such as basketball, volleyball and a whole lot more. This mind-blowing facility was undoubtedly the most impressive non-professional sports center I’ve ever visited. It has too many cool factors for me to attempt to sum up, so I suggest checking out this site if you’re interested in learning more. (Or, if you’re in Round Rock to see the Express, make a point of going and seeing the center.)
Here’s one shot that gives you an idea of the size of the center, although this image hardly does the magnitude of this facility justice:
Next, we headed toward Old Settlers Park, which is a sports fan’s dream — it’s 645 acres and includes 20 baseball fields, five softball fields, seven soccer fields, two football fields and an enormous multisport facility. Before we got there, though, Nancy asked if I’d had a chance to visit Round Rock Donuts yet. This iconic landmark has been featured on numerous food shows on TV. Since my answer was in the negative, we made a quick detour and I got a chance to
sample devour the “world famous Round Rock glazed donut,” which was one of the best donuts I’ve ever eaten:
Soon enough, we pulled into the park and I was blown away once again. Given the park’s size, we just did a driving tour, so the photos below were taken out my window. Still, you can see the impressive nature of this facility with this shot of one of the gates:
And here are just a couple of the baseball fields:
I was wildly impressed by everything, and I can certainly see why Round Rock is the sports capital of the state. In Canada, where sports outside of hockey aren’t much of a priority at the youth level, it’s jaw dropping to see such outstanding facilities designed for youth sports.
Soon enough, I had to start preparing to head over to Dell Diamond, so Nancy dropped me back at my hotel so I could get my stuff together. I’m thrilled that I had the chance to learn more about the city and see some of its sports-centric sites; too often, I zoom into a city, watch a baseball game and then leave again the next morning. My two days in Round Rock gave me a chance to get a better appreciation for the area — thank you, Nancy, for everything you did to make my visit so memorable.
Since I’d been a little later than usual getting to the ballpark a day earlier, my plan was to get to Dell Diamond several hours before first pitch. This would give me a chance to shoot a bunch of video that will be up on my YouTube channel soon, but also allow time for simply walking around the park before it opened and enjoying all the sights.
So, I quickly filled my backpack with all my camera gear, paused for this quick shot in front of my rental car …
… and was standing here with my media pass about 10 minutes later:
If you read about my first game at Dell Diamond, you might recall that I didn’t have a chance to take my customary trip around the exterior of the park before entering, but I more than made up for that with a couple laps around the park on this day — all while filming the scenes with my GoPro. Because that video is forthcoming, I’ll hold off on sharing photos of various features along the way. Instead, here’s one quick panorama of the exterior of the front gate that should give you a good idea of how the area looks:
One of my first priorities once I entered Dell Diamond was to snag a batting practice ball. I enjoy collecting baseballs during my various ballpark trips, and I especially wanted to get a Pacific Coast League ball while in Round Rock. I have at least one ball from each of the other leagues I’ve seen in action, so a PCL ball (or two, or three) was a must. It didn’t take long to find a PCL ball; it was sitting in the grass behind the right field foul pole during Oklahoma City’s batting practice session. Unfortunately, my self-imposed rule is to not take baseballs until the gates open, so I grabbed the ball and tossed it back onto the field.
Still confident that I’d end up with a ball once the gates open, I stood and watched the Dodgers go through some warmup drills in right field from a cool vantage spot right above:
Next, I went over to check out the rocking chairs in left field. I’d seen them a day earlier but hadn’t done any serious rocking, so that had to change. I sat with this view for a few minutes and rocked to my heart’s content. I particularly like this shot of the view from my chair:
Once I’d watched a bit of BP from this spot, I went down to field level on the third base side. I hadn’t been to field level a day earlier, so it was great to stand just above the dugout and watch the events unfold on the field. As I’ve said before, few things are better than being privy to BP while the stadium is still closed. Here was the view from where I stood:
As is always the case during my pregame tours, I didn’t spend too long in one single place. After watching the players from field level for a little while, I went back to the berm in left field, where I took this panorama:
The player facing me is Jack Murphy, who is someone I follow on Twitter because I met him and got his autograph back in 2010, during my very first trip after starting The Ballpark Guide. (Here’s a post I wrote a few years ago about that autograph and a bunch of others, if you’re interested. Murphy’s autograph appears in the sixth photo.)
Anyway, my reason for moving back to this location is that I wanted to be on the berm as soon as the gates opened, as I knew it would be an ideal location for catching a ball or two. I waited patiently and, before long, the gates opened up and four or five kids made a beeline for the berm — picking up any balls that had been hit for home runs earlier on. I wasn’t going to run around and compete with them for baseballs; plus, I couldn’t fit my glove into my non-checked luggage on this trip. I figured that if a ball was hit right near me, I’d grab it. Luckily, this happened soon enough. Maybe 10 minutes after the gates opened, I snagged this beauty:
My first PCL ball! I was part thrilled, part relieved.
With my mission accomplished, I climbed back up to the concourse and began to walk down the third base side. I paused for a moment to send out a tweet saying that I’d gotten a ball, when I heard a line drive ricochet off the seats about 12 rows below where I stood. I reacted quickly and began to head toward the ball, when I heard an usher’s voice behind me: “It’s in that row.” What? In many parks, I’ve encountered ushers who are super quick to retrieve balls before fans can get them, but this friendly usher was actually giving me directions so that I could locate the ball quicker. Yet another reason I was thrilled with the overall experience in Round Rock. I found the ball an instant later, snapped this photo …
… and then went down to the Round Rock dugout, which was empty at this point:
I watched the last few minutes of Oklahoma City’s BP session and, when it wrapped up, I ran down the line to see the players leave through the staircase/walkway that I wrote about in my previous blog post. What a great way for fans to get so close to so many past/present/future MLB stars:
While in the area, I also snapped this photo of the Home Run Porch. As you can see, it’s located right above the rocking chairs:
With the field momentarily empty, I wandered around a bit and checked out some of the sights I’d seen a day earlier. Eventually, I saw the Express make their way onto the field, so I went back down behind the team’s dugout to take some player photos — something I hadn’t really done during my first game at Dell Diamond but that always enjoy doing when I have a chance. My spot behind the dugout meant that I had a great view of many of the players.
Here’s Ike Davis, who has played more than 600 games in the big leagues:
Veteran shortstop Doug Bernier:
Outfielder James Jones, who I noticed was wearing his MLB pants with his MiLB uniform — see the MLB logo?
A few minutes later, when Jones was stretching, I shot this photo that makes it look like he’s posing for me:
I can assure you that he wasn’t.
When the game began, I was excited to have my choice of the outstanding food items at Dell Diamond once again. I’d eaten five amazing things a day earlier, which meant that it was only logical to broaden my horizons and try something new, right? Well, that’s what I was initially thinking, but as I wandered though the various concession areas, the Texas carnitas nachos I’d loved a day earlier beckoned me. I know it might sound silly to eat the same thing on consecutive days when I love sampling as many items as possible, but you try making that argument to the tantalizing combination of homemade chips, shredded pork, queso, pico de gallo, jalapenos and sour cream:
I’m happy to report that the nachos were just as good as a day earlier, and I’m now wondering if there’s a way I can convince the team to FedEx me a few orders! Seriously, this meal is that good. When you visit Dell Diamond, make sure that you eat the nachos. Please.
The size of the nachos convinced me to spend a couple innings seated, rather than walking, after I finished eating. So, I stayed in the Home Run Porch in left field and, as the sun set, enjoyed this view:
When I was ready to walk again, I found a spot on the concourse directly behind home plate, where the view looked like this:
This ended up being the last photo that I took at Dell Diamond. When I’m fortunate enough to have two days in one city, I enjoy spending the second half of the second game sitting in a good spot and simply enjoying the game. While my priority is always to walk around the park, take hundreds of photos and document everything I can, I’m also a fan of the game itself. As such, it’s a treat to finally sit down and take the game in.
I can’t say enough about my two-day visit to Round Rock. It’s always a thrill to start a trip off on the right note, and that was definitely the case here. Thanks to everyone I met along the way and especially to those who contributed to my experience.
Although I was sad to leave Dell Diamond, I was excited for the next chapter in my Texas road trip. In the morning, I’d be driving 3.5 hours to Corpus Christi for two days. Those blog posts will be coming soon.
A culinary journey through Dell Diamond’s top food items, two personal tours, an awesome gift and some guy named Yu Darvish on the mound.
Where to start?
Well, how about at the beginning of the day?
I don’t need to spend a bunch of time talking about the flight to Texas, but it definitely went smoother than last time I visited. I flew from Ontario to Chicago, had a short layover and then flew from Chicago to Austin. Upon arriving in Austin, I quickly picked up a rental car and navigated my way through the rush hour traffic around Austin on the way to Dell Diamond, home of the Round Rock Express. Normally, I like to get to the ballpark at least three hours before first pitch, which gives me time to walk around outside and tour the park’s interior before the gates open. My flight’s arrival time and the traffic meant that I only got to Dell Diamond a little more than 90 minutes before first pitch. I had time to snap this quick photo …
… and then I headed straight inside, where the outstanding Express staff had so much great stuff planned for me that I quickly forgot about being frazzled over my later-than-usual arrival.
My first stop was to meet Laura Fragoso, the team’s senior VP of marketing. She hooked me up with my media pass and then introduced me to Cassidy MacQuarrie, the team’s community relations coordinator, who spent at least half an hour giving me an amazing tour of Dell Diamond. Since she’d met me on the suite level, that’s where our tour began. This suite might look like any other at a minor league park, but it’s especially noteworthy because it used to be Nolan Ryan’s suite:
In case you weren’t aware, the team is owned by Ryan and his business partners in a company called Ryan-Sanders Baseball. The Express name pays tribute to Ryan’s nickname, of course, and Cassidy told me that Ryan attends several games throughout the season. Anyway, as you might expect, there were a ton of Ryan-related sights throughout the park. (The staff T-shirts, for example, have #34 on the back.) The coolest Ryan display I saw was this piece of custom art made by a local artist. The image is made entirely out of cigar labels:
As I learned about the team’s history, connection to the community and a whole lot more, we made our way out to the left field corner, where I saw something really impressive. When the players enter and leave the field, they do so in this area instead of through tunnels connected to the dugouts. This feature was designed to give fans a chance to interact with players, and it’s something I’ve seen in lower levels of the minors but not at the Triple-A level. Whether you’re an autograph collector or you just want to say hello to your favorite ballplayer, you can do so by lining up along the railing here:
(The guy in the blue BP shirt is a member of the visiting Oklahoma City Dodgers who’s signing autographs.)
Another neat feature in left field is Dell Diamond’s “best seats in the house” — a long row of rocking chairs positioned just behind the outfield berm:
And here’s something that I really like:
Garbage cans, you ask? Look closely — the actual garbage can pales in comparison to the much-larger recycling and composting bins, which I think is awesome. Cassidy told me that the plates on which the food is served are made from compostable materials, which means that you can put your plates and any food scraps into the bin on the right, rather than into the trash. I believe this is the first such setup I’ve seen at a ballpark, and other teams should be hastily following suit. In fact, I’ve come across many parks that have little to no recycling, much less composting. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked around with one or more plastic bottles in my backpack to recycle back at the hotel because the only disposal option at some parks is the garbage. Well done, Round Rock!
The tour with Cassidy breezed past, and soon enough I was informed that Dell Diamond’s executive chef had prepared a selection of some of the ballpark’s notable food items for me to sample! After a long day of travel, this was music to my ears. We made our way to a table on the concourse behind third base and my eyes bugged out a bit when I saw my dinner laid out in front of me:
A moment later, chef Ed Ebert arrived and gave me a detailed explanation of each of the food items. Here’s the rundown, starting from the top left and moving clockwise:
Hot dog wrapped in a grilled-cheese sandwich: Instead of a conventional bun, this hot dog is tucked inside a folded grilled cheese sandwich. It should also be noted that the hot dogs at Dell Diamond (and burgers) come from Nolan Ryan’s beef company.
Kahuna kolache: This is a Hawaiian-inspired dish that features a jumbo hot dog stuffed inside a special bun. Between the hot dog and the bun there’s a sweet mango sauce.
Texas carnitas nachos: Homemade red, white and blue tortilla chips with shredded pork, homemade queso, homemade pico de gallo, jalapenos and sour cream.
Black and bleu burger: A blackened burger patty sitting on a dollop of chipotle mayo, topped with a blend of applewood smoked bacon and roasted jalapenos, along with a medley of jack and bleu cheese.
Hot dog flight: From left, there’s The Fender, a hot dog with Texas chili, cheese, onions and sour cream; The James Dean, a hot dog with bleu cheese coleslaw and Frank’s Red Hot sauce; and The Marilyn, a hot dog with neon nuclear relish, red jalapenos and shredded cheese.
The verdict? Everything was delicious … and filling! My favorite were the nachos, which were the best nachos I’ve ever eaten at any ballpark. I loved how the ingredients were homemade — none of that abysmal pump “cheese” that I’ve ranted about numerous times. (I ranted about it with chef Ed for a bit and I think he appreciated my enthusiasm.) From top to bottom, the nachos were just outstanding. The burger and the hot dog/grilled cheese combo were my runners-up.
Before I started eating, we got a quick group picture. Laura took the shot, so she unfortunately wasn’t in it. From left, you’re looking at Nicole Hunt, who works for RS3 (Ryan Sanders Sports Services) and also did an exemplary job of fanning away any flies while I ate; Cassidy MacQuarrie, who gave me the tour; me, shortly before eating the majority of the food in front of me; chef Ed Ebner, who is the corporate chef for RS3; and Joe Nieto, who is the assistant general manager for RS3:
Everyone had to get back to their pre-game duties, but Ed soon made a quick return to show me something interesting. The picture below is a lava rock from Mount Etna in Sicily and a key element of the Fire and Ice meal production that won Round Rock first place in the MiLB Food Fight competition that recently wrapped up. This lava rock is heated and used to cook beef tenderloin and shrimp; it’s a suite-only item, so I didn’t see it in action, but the wow factor is obviously off the charts:
After I’d taken a few minutes of recovery time following my meal, I was joined by Randi Null, the team’s director of creative marketing. Time for another tour!
Perhaps fittingly, one of the first stops on our tour related to food. This is a huge garden planted and maintained by the team, and it provides food that is served at Dell Diamond! There were plenty of tomato plants, jalapeno plants, herbs and a whole lot more:
Randi also took this photo of me in front of the huge Welcome to Round Rock mural, which is based after the iconic Welcome to Austin mural that you might have seen before:
We also checked out the team’s hall of fame area, which is beyond the grass berm in left field. There are currently two members in the team’s HOF; former pitcher Roy Oswalt will join them at a ceremony this summer. The area also has a bunch of photos from throughout the team’s history, as well as this Express-themed cow that is signed by Nolan Ryan:
When Randi had to get back to her pregame tasks, I quickly made my way toward the Express bullpen. Why? Yu Darvish had just walked there himself and was beginning to warm up. As you might expect, there are a huge crowd around him. Being above and behind him, I wasn’t able to get any head-on shots. However, I had a great view as I watched him go through his warmup:
After the warmup, I watched Darvish sip from a cup of water and I took this picture as he tossed the rest:
Then, it was time for some fist bumps …
… and time for me to run around to each side of home plate so I could watch him pitch for the first few innings. Darvish was slated to throw no more than 60 pitches, so I wanted to be sure that I had a good vantage point for shots like this from the first base side:
And this one from the third base side:
I was hoping for a good head-on shot as he walked toward the Round Rock dugout at the end of an inning of work, but he kept his head down virtually the entire time. For a brief instant, he looked up and I shot a couple pictures like this one:
As much as I would’ve enjoyed grabbing a seat behind home plate and watching the three-time MLB all-star deal, I also wanted to continue exploring Dell Diamond. Since I’d watched a couple innings of Darvish, I decided to take a walk up to the press box, where I hadn’t yet been. It provided not only some air conditioning and an opportunity to mix myself a lemonade/iced tea mix, but also this great view of the action:
There were a fair number of media members from Japan in the press box, but I heard from an attendant that most of them had already left and were down waiting to interview Darvish in the press area once he’d finished his start. The attendant told me that the press box was so crowded at the start of the game that people were sitting on the floor! That’s remarkable, considering the press box at Dell Diamond is huge and can accommodate a sizable crowd.
After chatting with a few people in the press box for a half-inning or so, I decided to go back to the main concourse and catch a bit of the action from behind home plate. Here’s how the scene looked in panoramic form:
And here’s another panorama — this one has Darvish on the mound:
Up for another panorama? Good. Here’s the view from the home run porch:
This deck was added to increase the park’s seating capacity when the Round Rock franchise joined the Triple-A Pacific Coast League prior to the 2005 season. It’s shaded from the sun, which makes it an ideal spot if you’re looking to stay somewhat cool while you watch the game.
Remember the cool walkway that the players use while traveling to and from the field? That’s hardly the only Dell Diamond feature that provides fans with the opportunity to be close to the players. Both bullpens are also extremely accessible; they’re each located in the outfield and directly between the field and a pair of grass seating berms. This means that you can stand just a few feet behind the players to cheer — or heckle, depending on which side you’re on. I spent a bit of time right behind the Round Rock ‘pen, and it was obviously a thrill to be so close to the players. Here’s Anthony Carter:
And Jefri Hernandez, who maybe looks like he’s been busted allegedly chewing something he’s not supposed to in the minor leagues:
Here’s something interesting that I noticed — the players using a Texas-themed citronella candle:
I’m guessing it’s to keep away the bugs, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in any of the other parks I’ve visited.
And, before continuing on, I snapped this shot of me with my brand-new Express cap! As a way of welcoming me to the city, the team was kind enough to give me free rein in the team shop to pick any cap I wanted — wow! This is the one I chose and I love it:
My next stop was the enormous play area behind right-center; both Cassidy and Randi had taken me through the area earlier, but I wanted to wait until it was being used to get some pictures. It’s one of the most impressive play areas I’ve ever seen — and that includes the MLB parks I’ve visited. There was an enormous trampoline/bungee cord attraction in which you’re strapped into a harness connected to bungee cords and can bounce and do flips:
A rock climbing wall:
A basketball court:
And, my favorite, a swimming pool and hot tub!
This is the first pool I’ve come across in my ballpark travels. I know there are some of them out there, but as someone who loves swimming, I was super impressed with this feature. It should be noted that this area is part of a group picnic deck; whereas the other play area attractions are open to all fans, only those among a group that has bought tickets in this zone can use the pool and hot tub.
As the sun began to set, I grabbed a spot on the berm in right field and watched a bit of the game:
But before long, I was on the move again. (Ever wonder how much I walk during a typical ballpark visit? I’ll actually have a blog post about that very topic after I finish all my Texas posts.) Anyway, I went back along the concourse to the left field corner, where I stood for a moment at the top of the steps that lead from the field toward the clubhouses to show you how things look in this spot:
As I once again walked along the outfield concourse, I sensed a bit of a commotion behind the fence that divides Dell Diamond from the players’ parking lot, so I climbed partway up the stairs toward the Home Run Porch to survey the scene. It didn’t take too long to realize what was going on. By now, Darvish had finished his stint on the mound, and the happenings just outside the fence were all related to him. Take a look at this photo:
There were several Express staff members standing outside the clubhouse door just out of sight to the left of my photo and just out of sight to the right is the team’s indoor batting cages that double as a press conference space. There were several media members milling around, and I realized it wouldn’t be long before Darvish emerged from the door on the left, walked down the sidewalk in front of me and entered the door on the right. Of course, I could’ve attended the media session thanks to my pass, but I preferred to just be a fly on the wall and take it all in. One more cool detail — see that white Mercedes-Benz SUV? That was backed into the spot for Darvish just before I snapped the above photo.
Just as expected, Darvish came through the door a few minutes later. Unfortunately, he was very tough to photograph. Shooting through the fence wasn’t possible and the dusky conditions were less than ideal. I snapped a handful of shots as Darvish passed right below me, but all of them were blurry. Here’s the best one:
It was one of those moments that I couldn’t adequately capture with photos but that was absolutely awesome to witness. Seeing MLBers rehabbing up close is such a cool experience (remember when I watched Derek Jeter take BP while standing on the field?) so even if I didn’t get great photos, seeing Darvish is something that’ll be etched in my mind for a long time. I figured Darvish’s media availability would be brief and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before he exited the door to my right and headed toward the vehicle for a moment. His face was blocked by the tree, but you can clearly see his uniform pants and cleats in this shot:
By now, it was the top of the sixth inning, so I headed back toward the berm in right field to watch some of the game. In this spot, I stood just a couple feet from Oklahoma City pitcher Jacob Rhame as he warmed up. The access that fans get to the bullpens at Dell Diamond is outstanding. In fact, another fan was standing behind Rhame and the two of them were carrying on a conversation while the righthander threw. I was so amused that I took this video of the scene:
The background noise makes it hard to follow the conversation, but I could clearly hear Rhame answering questions about his tenure in the Dodgers organization and more, between pitches.
Next, I spent a couple more innings behind home plate, enjoying this view …
… and when the game was just about to wrap up, I headed over to the steps toward the clubhouse. As it turns out, a player had already beaten me there! Here’s a shot of a Dodgers player standing on the concourse with a friend/family member during the late innings — pretty awesome to see:
Soon after the last pitch of the game, I hopped back into my rental car and drove less than 10 minutes to my hotel and crashed. It’d been an awesome day, but an extremely full one and I wanted to be well rested for my second day in Round Rock. It would feature an outstanding lunch with the director of the Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, a chance to tour some of the other impressive sports facilities in Round Rock and, of course, another Express game. A blog post all about that day is coming next.