Tagged: ballhawking

Toronto Blue Jays – March 31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weird and cool, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soft drinks in cups = OK.

Soft drinks in bottles = not OK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, to summarize:

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

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

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

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

Colorado Rockies – September 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then wait.

And then wait.

And then wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes sense, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following me on Twitter.

Following me on Instagram.

Liking me on Facebook.

Subscribing to me on YouTube.

Frisco RoughRiders – May 21

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-malcolm

While I was in that spot, I took a bunch of peeks at the JC Penney Club, where I’d be eating later:

dr-pepper-ballpark-jc-penney-club

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-visitors-bullpen-1

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-visitors-bullpen

And, for good measure, here’s a panoramic shot of Dr Pepper Ballpark during BP from the first base side:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-deck-with-ball

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-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):

dr-pepper-ballpark-san-antonio-missions-players

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-concourse-buildings

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 …

dr-pepper-ballpark-lazy-river

… and this shot of the beautiful ballpark as the grounds crew performed its post-batting practice duties:

dr-pepper-ballpark-from-second-level

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-inside-jc-penney-club

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-meal-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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-meal-2

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 …

dr-pepper-ballpark-cookies

… 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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-roughned-odor-drink

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-anthem

I watched the first inning from the same spot, enjoying views like this …

dr-pepper-ballpark-home-plate-view-game

… before heading down the third base line and finding a spot against the railing, where I had this view:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-left-field-corner

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-malcolm-in-broadcast-booth

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 …

dr-pepper-ballpark-lemon-chill

… 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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-early-morning

So long, Texas. I hope to see you soon again.

Midland RockHounds – May 18 and 19

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 named Steven Ericson, 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 …

el-paso-drive-mountains

… and vast areas of flat ground that stretched as far as the eye could see:

el-paso-drive-plains

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:

midland-petroleum-museum-pump-jacks-malcolm

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:

treats-from-visit-midland

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!

IMG_0335

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:

security-bank-ballpark-from-hotel-weather

The next morning, I’m pleased to say that the scene outside my window looked significantly brighter, as you can see here:

security-bank-ballpark-from-hotel-good-weather

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:

midland-food

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:

george-bush-home-malcolm

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. By the way, if you want to see everywhere I’ve been, it’s all at this link.

After I took the photo of the main gate …

security-bank-ballpark-front-pregame

… 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:

security-bank-ballpark-home-plate-statue

(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:

security-bank-ballpark-trophies

This was the first photo I took upon entering the ballpark:

security-bank-ballpark-first-view-inside

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:

security-bank-ballpark-empty-concourse-early

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:

security-bank-ballpark-wide-concourse-lf

Another neat thing was the grass berm beyond the left field fence:

security-bank-ballpark-bottom-of-berm

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:

security-bank-ballpark-top-of-berm-pano

After climbing back down from the berm, I took this shot of myself with my 50th different MiLB ballpark as the backdrop:

IMG_0247

Then, I walked around a baseball-themed splash pad in center field …

security-bank-ballpark-splash-pad

… and a good-sized kids’ play area nearby:

security-bank-ballpark-play-areas

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:

security-bank-ballpark-berm-pano

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:

security-bank-ballpark-basketball-court

Speaking of that logo, I found a foam RockHounds ball near the basketball court, just after taking the above photo:

security-bank-ballpark-soft-ball-found

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:

security-bank-ballpark-wide-concourse-foul-balls

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:

security-bank-ballpark-home-plate-view-pregame

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:

security-bank-ballpark-first-inning-no-crowd

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:

security-bank-ballpark-texas-league-balls

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:

security-bank-ballpark-food-pbj-hot-dog

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:

midland-rockhounds-sam-bragg1

And Frisco starter Connor Sadzeck:

frisco-roughriders-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:

midland-rockhounds-franklin-barreto

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:

security-bank-ballpark-dog

Here’s a wider-angle shot that shows the scene:

security-bank-ballpark-grounds-crew-dog

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:

security-bank-ballpark-infield-watering-dog

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:

frisco-roughriders-luis-mendez

And this one of Frisco catcher Alex Burg:

frisco-roughriders-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:

security-bank-ballpark-food-sausage-dog

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:

frisco-roughriders-victor-payano

Here’s a picture from the same spot that turned out sort of neat:

midland-rockhounds-visoergy-rosa

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:

security-bank-ballpark-home-plate-view-game

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 …

security-bank-ballpark-outside-gate-pano

… 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.

Corpus Christi Hooks – May 14

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:

corpus-christi-beach

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:

corpus-christi-uss-lexington-from-beach

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:

whataburger-field-lineup-outside

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:

whataburger-field-radio-studio

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:

whataburger-field-bp-press-box-view

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:

whataburger-field-press-box-spanish-radio

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:

whataburger-field-club-dining-area

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:

whataburger-field-harbor-bridge

Before we went down to the main concourse, I snapped this panorama of the view from this area:

whataburger-field-group-deck-pano

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:

whataburger-field-ball-on-concourse

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:

whataburger-field-visitors-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 …

DSC_0353

… 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:

whataburger-field-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:

whataburger-field-rocking-chairs

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:

whataburger-field-kids-ball-diamond

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 …

whataburger-field-climbing-wall

… a basketball court …

whataburger-field-basketball-court

… and an impressive play structure setup:

whataburger-field-play-structure

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 …

whataburger-field-boilers

… and a pair of cotton presses, which were used to make bales of cotton. Here’s one of them:

whataburger-field-cotton-press-full

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:

whataburger-field-bam-bam-window

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:

whataburger-field-pence-home-run

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!

whataburger-field-ball

I snatched it quickly and was thrilled to add a Texas League ball to my collection:

whataburger-field-texas-league-ball

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:

whataburger-field-downtown-skyline

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:

whataburger-field-behind-fence

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:

whataburger-field-oil-tanker

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:

whataburger-field-cotton-press

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:

whataburger-field-warning-track-pano

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:

whataburger-field-citgo

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:

whataburger-field-texas-style-cheesesteak

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:

corpus-christi-hooks-kellin-deglan

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:

corpus-christi-hooks-victor-payano1

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.

corpus-christi-hooks-victor-payano

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:

whataburger-field-right-field-seats-view

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:

DSC_0476

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:

whataburger-field-sunset-fireball

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:

whataburger-field-party-deck-pano

The sunset still looked great from my new vantage point:

whataburger-field-citgo-sunset

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:

whataburger-field-bridge-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.

Round Rock Express – May 13

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:

po-boy-sandwich

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:

round-rock-sports-indoors

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:

round-rock-donut

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:

round-rock-sports-facility-1

And here are just a couple of the baseball fields:

round-rock-sports-facility-2

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 …

IMG_0075

… and was standing here with my media pass about 10 minutes later:

dell-diamond-media-pass

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:

dell-diamond-front-pano

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:

dell-diamond-okc-warming-up

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:

dell-diamond-rocking-chair-view

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:

dell-diamond-bp

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:

right-field-berm-murphy-pano

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:

dell-diamond-ball-1

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 …

dell-diamond-ball-2

… and then went down to the Round Rock dugout, which was empty at this point:

dell-diamond-empty-express-dugout

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:

dell-diamond-player-stairs

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:

dell-diamond-home-run-porch

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:

express-ike-davis

Veteran shortstop Doug Bernier:

express-doug-bernier

Outfielder James Jones, who I noticed was wearing his MLB pants with his MiLB uniform — see the MLB logo?

james-jones-mlb-pants

A few minutes later, when Jones was stretching, I shot this photo that makes it look like he’s posing for me:

express-james-jones

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:

dell-diamond-carnitas-nachos

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:

dell-diamond-home-run-porch-view-night

When I was ready to walk again, I found a spot on the concourse directly behind home plate, where the view looked like this:

dell-diamond-home-plate-view-night

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.

Round Rock Express – May 12

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 …

round-rock-express-dell-diamond-front

… 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:

round-rock-express-nolan-ryan-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:

round-rock-express-nolan-ryan-cigars

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:

round-rock-express-players-stairs

(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:

round-rock-express-rocking-chairs

And here’s something that I really like:

round-rock-express-recycling-composting

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:

round-rock-express-food-for-malcolm

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:

dell-diamond-malcolm-and-group

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:

round-rock-express-lava-rock

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:

round-rock-express-veggie-garden

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:

round-rock-express-malcolm-welcome-to-sign

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:

round-rock-express-nolan-ryan-cow

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:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-from-behind

After the warmup, I watched Darvish sip from a cup of water and I took this picture as he tossed the rest:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-water

Then, it was time for some fist bumps …

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-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:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-pitching

And this one from the third base side:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-on-mound

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:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish

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:

round-rock-express-press-box-view

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:

dell-diamond-home-plate-pano

And here’s another panorama — this one has Darvish on the mound:

dell-diamond-yu-pano

Up for another panorama? Good. Here’s the view from the home run porch:

dell-diamond-home-run-porch-pano

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:

anthony-carter-round-rock-express

And Jefri Hernandez, who maybe looks like he’s been busted allegedly chewing something he’s not supposed to in the minor leagues:

round-rock-express-jefri-hernandez

Here’s something interesting that I noticed — the players using a Texas-themed citronella candle:

round-rock-express-bullpen-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:

IMG_0032

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:

round-rock-express-trampolines

A rock climbing wall:

round-rock-express-rock-climbing-wall

A basketball court:

round-rock-express-basketball-court

And, my favorite, a swimming pool and hot tub!

round-rock-express-swimming-pool

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:

dell-diamond-grass-berm-pano

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:

round-rock-express-steps

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:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-fence

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:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-press

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:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-legs

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 …

round-rock-express-home-plate-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:

round-rock-express-player-concourse

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.