Tagged: ballhawking

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 …

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… 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:

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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.

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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 …

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… 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 …

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… 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:

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Veteran shortstop Doug Bernier:

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

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

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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 …

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… 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:

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Then, it was time for some fist bumps …

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… 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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

Syracuse Chiefs – June 23

Getting to spend consecutive days watching baseball in any given city is awesome. So, after an exciting first day in Syracuse on June 22, it was great to get up early and enjoy hanging out in my hotel for the day before heading over to NBT Bank Stadium.

The day had a bit of an inauspicious start, though. I took the following photo at 6:30 a.m. and, as you can see, it was rainy and miserable looking:

crowne-plaza-syracuse-room-view-day-two-rain

The forecast was calling for sun and clear skies by game time, though, so I didn’t let the rain dampen my mood. Plus, even with the dreary morning skies, I got to enjoy a great view of the city from the window of my 15th-floor room at the Crowne Plaza Syracuse. By noon, the weather had cleared up …

crowne-plaza-syracuse-room-view-day-two

… and I was looking forward to another perfect day of baseball with temperatures in the upper 70s. The evening’s game was set to begin at 7 p.m. For 7 p.m. games, I usually get to the park between 4:30 and 5 p.m., but I had a couple good reasons to be earlier on this day. Just before midnight the night before, Chiefs assistant GM Jason Horbal had sent me a tweet saying to have someone in the reception area call him when I got to the ballpark so we could catch up. I’d also met Syracuse.com sports reporter Lindsay Kramer during my Monday visit, and he wanted to meet up to interview me for a story he was going to write about my visit. Man, I never need any extra incentive to get to the ballpark, but I certainly had it on day #2 and couldn’t wait to get to the park.

My media pass from a day earlier was still valid — thanks, Jay! — so I entered the Chiefs admin area and ran into Jason right away. He had to speak to someone for a moment, so I hung out in this cool area …

syracuse-chiefs-office

… before he reappeared and I followed him to his office. I didn’t take any photos of his office because, hey, that’s his personal space. But I can tell you that it was amazing — practically a Chiefs/baseball memorabilia museum. Signed balls, game-used bats, random baseball stuff everywhere and a cool picture of Bryce Harper wearing his Chiefs uniform above the desk. We talked baseball for probably half an hour and I was at my baseball nerdiest, asking Jason a million questions about behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on with an MiLB franchise. I heard stories about the recent Dwight Gooden and Lenny Dykstra autograph appearance at NBT Bank Stadium, Nick Swisher’s visit during a rehab stint in May and a whole lot more. Jason’s a great guy. Give him a follow on Twitter and if you’re at a Chiefs game, look for him in the concourse and say hello.

After a while, he understandably had to get back to his pregame duties, but first he led me through the Chiefs offices, into a tunnel, through the Charlotte dugout and onto the field! Let me tell you, there’s no cooler experience than being on the field of a professional ballpark. Jason said to feel free to hang out on the field for as much of batting practice as I wanted and then headed away. Once he left, I took this photo to show where I was standing:

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And this is what it looked like in panorama form:

nbt-bank-stadium-bp-on-field-pano

As you can see, there was no action just yet. The Chiefs were due to hit very shortly, though, so I found a spot next to the home dugout, which was still empty:

nbt-bank-stadium-home-dugout

Before the action began, I took this quick shot of myself with my GoPro:

The first sign of action on the field wasn’t the Chiefs hitting — it was three members of the Knights playing hacky sack. I was pretty impressed with their dedication. I believe they played for over an hour:

charlotte-knights-hacy-sack

From left to right, that’s pitcher Zach Phillips with the sack on his head, pitcher Maikel Cleto and, I think, a member of the training/conditioning staff, although I could be incorrect. Incidentally, Phillips was one of the Knights I saw several times in the hotel lobby over the course of my stay.

Soon enough, the Syracuse players emerged from the dugout tunnel, took the field and started to hit. I was standing on the edge of the warning track beside the home dugout for virtually the entire batting practice, so I had an awesome view. Here’s star infielder Emmanuel Burriss, who was called up to the Nationals just three days after this game:

emmanuel-burris-syracuse-chiefs

And here’s Tony Gwynn, Jr., who also made an appearance in my previous blog post:

tony-gwynn-jr-syracuse-chiefs

Sometimes, the Knights’ game of hacky sack got a little crazy. At one point, an errant kick sent the sack into the stands and Cleto had to retrieve it:

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As some players hit, infielder Josh Johnson did some running drills:

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Although I took a bunch of photos, I was trying to remain as stationary as possible for much of BP, as I once again had my new GoPro strapped to my chest. I took some cool footage of the experience that I’ll be uploading onto my YouTube channel very soon. If you subscribe, you’ll be the first to know when it’s live!

It was an absolute blast watching BP from the field. I’d done it once before, when a guy named Jeter was rehabbing in Triple-A, and this time was awesome, too. If you read my blog regularly, you know how much I enjoy the batting practice experience in the minors, so watching it from just a handful of feet away on Jason’s recommendation was outstanding. Thanks again, Jay!

Before I left the field at the conclusion of BP, I snapped one last picture of Darin Mastroianni’s bat and batting gloves sitting on the tarp next to the cage. It’s interesting (to me, anyway) because Mastroianni’s jersey number with the Chiefs is actually 16, so the number 19 on the end of his bat must’ve been from a different season:

darin-mastroianni-bat

After leaving the field, I walked through the stands over to the Charlotte bullpen area, where the players were now playing catch. I was excited to see pitcher Kyle Drabek, who I saw lots of times between 2010 and 2014 in the Blue Jays system:

kyle-drabek-charlotte-knights

I also saw Brad Penny playing catch a day after his start. Even cooler, I noticed Penny running the stadium stairs when I first went out to the field. Pretty cool to see a a 37-year-old pitcher who has made nearly $50 million in his career working so hard to get back to the majors.

By this time, Phillips was done his marathon hacky sack game and was playing catch, too:

zach-phillips-charlotte-knights

I watched the action on the field until the players headed for the clubhouse, and then I, too, found a different place to visit. It was time to hit the press box to meet up with Lindsay to discuss my interview. I met him and we decided to speak later in the game, so I took this photo of the empty field just before 6:30 p.m. …

syracuse-chiefs-nbt-bank-stadium-empty-field

… and then went to a suite-level observation area that allowed me to capture the scene outside NBT Bank Stadium:

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Time to eat? I think so!

The Chiefs have a two-for-one Tuesday special every Tuesday home game, in which you can buy select concession items and get a second one for free. I’d been excited to see what the promotion would feature during my visit, and I pumped that it would be the food I was planning to buy anyway — the “Hofmann Ripper.” This deep-fried hot dog included hot sauce, blue cheese sauce and celery pieces. Sounds good, right? Obviously, I ordered two:

syracuse-chiefs-food-hoffman-ripper

They were tasty. I’m not sure that they were the best ballpark hot dogs that I’ve eaten, but they were certainly among the most creatively designed. The combination of the hot sauce and blue cheese sauce was very chicken wing-esque, and the crunch from the celery was good. If you’re at NBT Bank Stadium this summer, I definitely recommend checking them out at the Chicken Fry Fry stand on the first base side.

Once I’d eaten, I took a bunch of photos to make up this big panorama …

nbt-bank-stadium-left-field-corner-pano

… and then went down to field level in time for the first pitch. Like a day earlier, I found a spot in the front row behind the Chiefs dugout, which gave me a great vantage point for some action shots. Here’s Syracuse starter Taylor Hill, who pitched 5.2 innings of three-run ball:

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And Charlotte second baseman Micah Johnson in the process of stealing his first of two bases in the game:

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(You can see that Burris had a little trouble getting a handle on the ball!)

And here’s a shot of Chiefs catcher Dan Butler on his way back to the dugout after an inning:

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I got this cool action shot of Burris just after he made contact with a pitch that ended up landing foul …

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… and this one a moment later on his way to the dugout after lining out sharply:

emmanuel-burris-syracuse-chiefs-dugout-walk

As I’d been mentioning on Twitter in the days leading up to my Syracuse visit, I’d hoped to get a foul ball during either game. Back in 2013 when I visited NBT Bank Stadium for a doubleheader, I got a pair of foul balls. I didn’t make a real attempt to snag a foul during the first day of my visit this time, though, so I wanted to get a souvenir during the second game. For whatever reason, the crowd on this night was sparse, which meant the upper deck was pretty bare — especially down the lines. See this photo for evidence:

nbt-bank-stadium-empty-section

I always find that an easy way to end up with a foul ball is to sit in an empty section if there is one. Even if the ball isn’t hit directly to you, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting there before other fans. So, that’s exactly what I did. I took a seat in the above section just behind the News Channel 9 sign and less than half an inning later, I was holding this foul ball off the bat of Charlotte DH Tyler Saladino:

syracuse-chiefs-foul-ball

Funny story about this ball: It landed half a section to my right and a few rows above me, but I got there quickly and grabbed it. There was a kid a couple sections to my left who started running in the general direction of the foul, but he wasn’t even close to entering the section by the time I’d grabbed the ball. A handful of fans in that area booed loudly once I picked up the ball, apparently since I hadn’t chosen to ignore the ball so the kid could grab it. Not because of the booing, I decided right then and there that I’d quickly take a photo of the ball and then walk over and hand it to the kid. As I took the above photo, I noticed who I presumed to be the kid’s father waving his arms to encourage people to continue booing. Hmmm. That was enough of an incentive to convince me to keep it myself.

This is the seventh foul ball in my collection. One day, I’ll have to write a post about all of them.

Anyway, with my mission complete, I met up with Lindsay in the press box for my interview. I took this photo as we talked:

nbt-bank-stadium-press-box-view

When the interview was done, I headed back down to the concourse when I ran into Jason behind home plate. I think it was the bottom of the seventh inning, and I decided to hang out with him and watch the rest of the game from this spot:

nbt-bank-stadium-behind-plate-night

That’s former MLB pitcher Jose Valverde on the mound for Syracuse. He pitched the ninth inning and picked up the save as the Chiefs won 4-3. It was hilarious to watch his disregard for the new pitch clock that’s made headlines throughout baseball in 2015. Simply put, he cares zero percent about it. I was actually laughing out loud a few times. I believe the clock begins its 20-second countdown when the pitcher either receives the ball back from the catcher or steps onto the mound dirt between hitters. In any case, there were plenty of times that the entire 20 seconds had wound down long before Valverde had even taken the rubber. He never got a warning for it, either, so it was a funny game within a game to watch.

Although I was sad to be leaving NBT Bank Stadium when the game wrapped up, I was once again looking forward to enjoying the Crowne Plaza Syracuse for the remainder of my visit. The next morning, I took this panorama out my window …

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… before taking my camera and going for a walk around the block to take some more shots. Here’s the hotel from the top level of the parking garage:

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And the lobby entrance closest to the garage. There’s also valet parking here, too, if you’re interested:

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I don’t know when I’ll visit Syracuse next, but I do definitely know that the Crowne Plaza is where I’ll stay. I was thoroughly impressed with every element of this visit, from the location of the hotel to the in-room amenities to the professionalism and friendliness of every staff member I encountered. If you’re a baseball fan visiting the city — or are just visiting the ‘Cuse for any reason, really — I wholeheartedly recommend this hotel.

The next morning, I checked out of the hotel about 10:30 a.m. and planned to do a little shopping before I made the three-hour drive home. First, though, I wanted to make one last baseball-related stop. I’m always interested in seeing baseball facilities of any type on my trips, and when I saw on the map that I was just a few minutes from Le Moyne College, a school that has an NCAA Div. II baseball team, I knew I had to visit. The college campus was beautiful and quiet. I found the athletic facilities easily, parked my car and took a walk around to check out everything. Here’s a look at the baseball field from just inside the gate:

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And the field in panorama form:

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After taking these photos, I packed up my camera for good and began the short drive home after an outstanding few days.

I’ll be announcing my next travel plans very soon, so please keep an eye on this blog for details. Thanks for reading!

Lakewood BlueClaws – July 15

Planning baseball road trips for my website, The Ballpark Guide, is a heck of a lot of fun, but it’s not the easiest thing to do.

When you’re planning to be away for 10 or more days, a lot of factors are involved in planning — teams’ schedules, travel times, geographical considerations, etc. It can take hours to create a perfect road trip itinerary … and then a rainout can quickly wipe out all your meticulous work.

That’s what happened on my first road trip of 2012. I woke up very early, drove for nearly eight hours to Lakewood, N.J., and the BlueClaws’ game was rained out. This hardly ruined the road trip, but it did mean a return visit to Lakewood was in the cards. At the time, I had no idea when I’d get back to check out the South Atlantic League team but, when planning my road trip for this July, decided to wrap up the 10-day trip in Lakewood. (And I kept my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t rain again.)

Lakewood isn’t far from Philadelphia, but I wasn’t planning to stay directly in Lakewood. Because I’d face a long drive home the day after seeing the BlueClaws, I decided to stay in New Brunswick, N.J., as it’s directly on the route between Lakewood and home. As it turns out, my decision to stay in New Brunswick was a good one. I booked a night’s stay at the Hyatt Regency New Brunswick, and it was outstanding. Just a short jaunt off I-95, the hotel was easy to find and when I reached the lobby, I was looking at one of the sharpest-looking lobbies I’ve ever been in. (Take a look at the professional photos on the hotel’s website to see what I mean.)

As nice as the lobby was, I was equally impressed with my room. (And the ride up the glass elevator was cool, too!) First, though, I took a photo of the guests’ lounge on my floor …

hyatt-regency-new-brunswick-floor-lounge-area

… before documenting my room:

hyatt-regency-new-brunswick-room1

As you can see, it’s got a big bed, a couple of sitting chairs, a huge desk and HD TV and, in general, plenty of room. Here’s a look at the room from the other direction:

hyatt-regency-new-brunswick-room

Other perks? The room had a balcony and the hotel had perhaps the biggest athletic center I’ve ever seen at a hotel — scores of machines and free weights and refrigerated towels to use to help you cool off post-workout. Although I didn’t have a chance to eat at the Hyatt Regency New Brunswick during my stay, the hotel had a great-looking restaurant and lounge. I definitely recommend this hotel if you include a visit to Lakewood’s FirstEnergy Park on your baseball road trip schedule. It’s less than an hour from the ballpark and is in a perfect spot whether you’re heading northeast to New York City or southwest to Philadelphia.

I spent about an hour enjoying my room and exploring the hotel before packing up and making the drive to Lakewood for the last game of this road trip.  The drive breezed past and before long, I was standing here:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-outside-panorama

You’ve got to admit FirstEnergy Park sure looks great from the outside, huh?

Well, it looks pretty darned good from the inside, too. And I got the chance to check out the park good and early, long before the gates opened. The team’s media and PR manager, Greg Giombarrese, had left a media pass for me (thanks, Greg!), which meant just a couple minutes after parking my car, I was looking at this:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-hickory-bp

A glorious sight, no? And a much better sight than during my last visit. (Although that one was cool in the sense of being able to get into the empty park and wander around.)

Given my love for watching batting practice, I was eager to find a spot with a good view of the field and just hang out and enjoy the scenery on the last game of my road trip. The weather was perfect and with the park empty except for players and staff, I had my pick of the spots. The grass seating berms in the outfield, one of which you can see here …

firstenergy-park-lakewood-video-board

… seemed like a great place to enjoy BP, so that’s where I headed. Over the next 45 minutes or so, I hung out in several spots — both grass berms, the center field picnic area, along the walkway and even right beneath the video board:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-under-video-board

Obviously, home run balls were plunking to the ground (and occasionally hitting the walkway and bouncing like crazy) all around me. As much as it was tempting to add ’em to my collection, I once again stuck to my code: If I’m in the park early because the team has given me a media pass, I won’t take any balls. Instead of just leaving them where they landed, I had a blast picking them up, photographing them …

firstenergy-park-lakewood-bp-ball

… and then calling to any of the Hickory Crawdads outfielders and tossing them back. With the exception of my ceremonial first pitch in Auburn on the first day of this trip, I’d never thrown a ball to a professional ballplayer, so it was fun standing on the berm and firing the balls back into rotation to guys like Sam Stafford:

sam-stafford-hickory-crawdads

And Cody Kendall, who’s since been promoted to High-A Myrtle Beach:

cody-kendall-hickory-crawdads

This was the pattern for the next stretch of time, and the balls were plentiful:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-bp-ball-2

I probably grabbed and tossed back at least a dozen before heading over to the group picnic area in the right field corner, as I figured there were more balls to find here:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-picnic-area-rf

Sure enough, there were a handful, including this one:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-picnic-area-ball

I grabbed some and chucked them to the closest Hickory player. But before I could throw the last one, he’d already walked out of range. There was a ball sitting on the bullpen rubber just in front of me, so I decided to toss my ball onto the mound so it’d sit next to the one pictured below:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-bullpen-mound-ball

Unfortunately, it took a crazy bounce of something on the mound and rolled away, finally ending up here near the foul line:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-bullpen-mound-balls

Oops.

As I watched the ball roll away from the mound, I heard a voice behind me: “Did you just toss that ball on the field?”

I turned around and started to explain myself to an usher, who interrupted me: “Thanks for doing that, but you could’ve kept it for yourself.”

Go figure. Anyway, as BP started to wrap up, I went up to the suite level to check out the view. From here, I took this panoramic shot of FirstEnergy Park:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-suite-level-panorama

By now, the gates had just opened, so I took the stairs back down toward the concourse, rounded a corner and … screeched to halt. I’d come within inches of colliding with Lakewood pitchers Miguel Nunez and Delvi Francisco, who were on the way from the BlueClaws clubhouse to the autograph table on the concourse:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-players-concourse

I followed them toward the autograph table, which sits outside the team shop. During my last visit, I didn’t get to check out the team shop, so I was anxious to see what it was like. Turns out, it’s nice and large and has a huge selection of BlueClaws and Phillies gear:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-team-shop

Since the gates were open, BP balls were fair game, as far as I was concerned. I set out toward the outfield to see if I could track one down to add to my collection. It didn’t take long. Turns out, there were a pile of balls farther back on the grass berm on the far side of the outfield concourse. Within a couple minutes, I had this:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-kept-ball-1

And this:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-kept-2

There was still a bit of time to wait before first pitch, so I went up to the press box where I captured this panorama:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-press-box-panorama

After checking out the suite level, which was the only place I didn’t get to see during my last visit, I went back down to field level to wait for the BlueClaws to begin tossing. Within a few minutes, they came out and I sat in the front row along the first base side and took a pile of photos. Here’s second baseman Alejandro Villalobos:

alejandro-villalobos-lakewood-blueclaws-1

Once I’d watched Lakewood for a bit, I zipped over to the Hickory side, as this was the first time I’d seen the Crawdads on my travels. Here’s Luis Marte, whose pants are begging for the end of the season to come to a quick, merciful end:

luis-marte-hickory-crawdads

And starter Andrew Faulkner, who gave up just one hit over six innings to pick up his third win of the season:

andrew-faulkner-hickory-crawdads

Throwing out the first pitch before this game was none other than Mookie Wilson. You’ll remember him as the “other player” from the infamous Billy Buckner play, of course, but he’s also a longtime resident of Lakewood and got a huge ovation after he threw out the pitch:

mookie-wilson-lakewood-first-pitch

I stayed on the third base side for the first inning, before heading up to the concourse to watch Wilson sign a few autographs. The autograph line was insanely long — I’m guessing about 500 people. Wilson’s often remembered as a friendly, easy-going player and, after watching his interactions with fans, I can definitely agree with that statement. Here’s a shot of him signing:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-mookie-wilson-signing

Once the game began, I decided to watch a few innings from behind home plate, and found a spot with this view:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-behind-home-plate

Sitting in this area not only gave me a panoramic-type view of the park, but also allowed me to keep tabs on the speed of each pitch, as the radar gun was just a few feet away:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-radar-gun

From here, I had a great view of Lakewood starter Nic Hanson, who was promoted to High-A Clearwater soon after this game:

nic-hanson-lakewood-blueclaws

When I casually glanced over toward the BlueClaws dugout, I did a double take to see longtime Toronto Blue Jays catcher Ernie Whitt, who’s a roving instructor for the Phillies:

ernie-whitt-phillies-lakewood

Quick side note: When I was a kid, Whitt was one of my favorite players. Around 1988 or 1989, he was scheduled to sign autographs at a mall near Toronto and my mom packed up my younger brother and me, bought a pair of baseballs and headed to the mall in hopes of getting my first-ever autograph. Of course, the line was extremely long and as we slowly snaked toward Whitt, his allotted signing time was quickly running out. Sure enough, the staff cut off the line before we got there — in fact, my brother and I were at the head of the line. We must’ve looked heartbroken, because Whitt caught a glimpse of us and waved us up to get his autograph. Needless to say, I’ve always liked and respected Whitt even more since then and wish I’d noticed him during BP so I could’ve told him this story.

I took a handful of action shots from this area, including Villalobos again:

alejandro-villalobos-lakewood-blueclaws-2

And this guy, whose name I missed:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-blueclaws-player

By the middle innings, I was hungry. During my pre-game walk, I’d spotted a great-looking taco stand in the concession area in the right field corner, and knew there were a couple tacos with my name on them. I went with the mahi taco — blackened mahi mahi with avocado, lime, cabbage, pineapple and pico de gallo. The verdict? Delicious:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-food-fish-tacos

The taco was refreshingly tasty and light, making it a nice footnote to my 10-day baseball road trip. I’d definitely eat it again and suggest that when you visit Lakewood, the taco stand should be on your radar.

Once I’d eaten and enjoyed the view from center field, I went back up to the suite level and captured this sunset over the parking lot, which looks cool:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-sunset

I was so impressed with the bright glow of the sun that I headed out the front gate to take a look at how the sun was illuminating the front of the park. The result was this shot, which I love:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-sunset-outside-panorama

The shots that made up this panorama proved to be the last baseball pictures of this road trip. After taking them, I went back inside, found a seat and enjoyed the remaining few innings that wrapped up this awesome adventure.

***

Thanks for checking out all the details from my July road trip. Through your support, my blog ranked eighth among MLBlogs last month! I couldn’t do it without you. Rest assured, I’ve got lots more content coming. I’m still hoping to take a short road trip or two next month and have a ton of other content to share over the coming weeks and months.

Reading Fightin Phils – July 11

For the third consecutive day, I stayed within the Philadelphia Phillies system on this road trip. After checking out the Phillies Short-Season A and Triple-A affiliates (Lehigh Valley and Williamsport, respectively), I traveled to Reading, PA, to check out the Fightin Phils, who play in the Double-A Eastern League. The who, you might ask? The team’s been known as the Reading Phillies since 1967, but during the offseason, management made a number of changes that included a name and logo change.

I was anxious to explore Reading’s FirstEnergy Stadium on this trip. The park opened way back in 1951, but the team has consistently made upgrades to give the park a historic feel with modern-day perks. Best of all, I’d get an awesome opportunity to check out the entire park with director of PR Eric Scarcella, who had not only given me a media pass for my visit, but had also arranged to give me a tour once I arrived. I hung out around the press box to meet up with Eric, and snapped the photos to make up this panorama, which should give you an idea of how things look:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-pressbox-panorama

The first stop on our tour was a huge plaza outside the first base stands that was very reminiscent of Fenway Park‘s Yawkey Way or, more aptly, Citizens Bank Park’s Ashburn Alley. At FirstEnergy Stadium, this area opens early and fans can grab some food, catch some live entertainment and even play carnival-style games. Here’s what the area looks like from the opening:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-pavilion-area

From there, Eric took me outside the park to check out the recent renovations to the front gate area. The brick walkway is full of plaques recognizing different inductees from throughout the team’s history. If you’ve been a fan of the Phillies (or should I say a phan of the Phillies?) over the last half-century, it’s pretty likely that your favorite players once suited up in Reading. Here’s a plaque honoring a trio of 1987 Reading hall of fame inductees with a couple names you’ll surely recognize:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-hall-of-fame-plaque

Eric was more than generous with his time and we kept a pretty good pace throughout the tour because we had so many spots to hit. Up next was the main concourse, which is absolutely awesome. It’s under the stands, and while this type of concourse can occasionally seem dark, damp and dingy, that’s not the case in Reading at all. In fact, when you walk through this area, it feels like you’ve just stepped back in time. The signs are hand painted to really give the area a vintage feel — much in the same way as some parts of Fenway Park. Here’s a concession stand, for instance:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-concourse-concession-stands

On top of the concessions, the concourse is also lined with historical displays. If you want to know virtually every detail about the history of baseball in Reading, take a wander through here and you’ll soon be a walking trivia machine. Here’s one example of the year-by-year data:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-historical-displays

Once Eric had given me a crash course on the team’s history, we followed the concourse up the area behind the third base line and took this ramp:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-ramp-third-base-side

To the right of this ramp, we stopped in the ’67 Club, a picnic area with this view:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-67-club

Then, it was farther along the walkway and over to this awesome deck area in the left field corner:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-left-field-deck-area

This deck is an absolutely perfect place to enjoy the game. It’s got standing room areas, bar-style tables and, my favorite, boxes like this one:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-left-field-seating-box

I think if I was visiting FirstEnergy Stadium with a handful of people, I’d push pretty hard to buy tickets in one of these boxes. Wouldn’t you?

As we checked out the sites, I couldn’t help but try to keep an eye on the field. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats were taking batting practice, and balls were thudding into the area all around us. Want proof?

firstenergy-stadium-reading-bp-balls

Those balls weren’t the only ones I saw. There were at least eight or 10 others in various spots throughout the deck. Although I left most of them where they saw, I couldn’t resist grabbing one for my collection:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-batting-practice-ball

Eric had already spent more than half an hour with me and there was still lots to see. We retraced our steps back down to the concourse, where I snapped this photo to give you an idea of what it looks like when it’s empty:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-empty-concourse

Our next stop was the party deck area in right field, which has this view:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-right-field-corner-view

But as great as the view is, it’s not the prime spot in this area. You know the swimming pools in Miami’s park? Check out Reading’s version of this style of “seating”:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-swimming-pool

By now, Eric had spent about an hour with me and soon had to get back to his pre-game responsibilities. First, though, he took me to two last spots in the park, starting with the team shop. I’ve found on my travels throughout the minors leagues that team shops at MiLB parks vary considerably. The one at FirstEnergy Stadium, however, is one of the nicest I’ve visited. In addition to an enormous selection of Fighting Phils stuff — including a ton of their various jerseys — I was impressed with the Mitchell & Ness wall of retro Phillies gear:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-team-shop-mitchell-ness

Equally impressive, albeit for another reason, was a pair of lockers dedicated to a couple former Reading stars — Ryan Howard and Darin Ruf. Each locker was loaded with a bunch of game-used gear, plus some other neat items:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-team-shop-locker-displays

Just when I thought our tour was over, Eric led me through a door into the team’s offices, where I not only spotted this Mike Schmidt signed jersey …

firstenergy-stadium-reading-mike-schmidt-jersey

… and raised an eyebrow about this Taylor Swift plaque. Turns out that Swift grew up just a few miles from Reading and still has ties to the area. In fact, long before she became a household name, she sung the anthem before a game at FirstEnergy Stadium:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-taylor-swift

Once Eric and I said our goodbyes and he went to get ready for the game, I went back out to the seating bowl and contemplated my next move. My brain was swimming with all the information Eric just dropped on me, and I was pumped to get wandering around and see all the sights again. It made sense to start outside, so I went back through the gates (which were now open and full of people streaming in) and checked out the front of the park, which I captured in this panorama:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-panorama-outside

I also got a closer look at the two ostriches outside the front gates. We all know that ostriches are extremely fast and have big eggs, but did you know they can stand up to nine feet fall and weigh more than 300 pounds? Neither did I. (That’s comparable to Shaq, by the way.) I learned this information by talking with the staff member handling the pair of birds. The two are female, as males would be too aggressive toward fans. One last interesting tidbit: During the season, the two ostriches live at FirstEnergy Stadium in a pen behind the outfield fence. Here’s one of them checking me out:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-ostrich

Next, I went back into the plaza behind the first base stands to capture this panorama, which shows just how happening the area is:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-plaza-panorama

I got back to the seating bowl just in time to see a few Fightin Phils heading to the field. One of the best parts of FirstEnergy Stadium is just how close you can get to the players. I mean, this concept is common throughout the minors, but it’s at a different level in Reading. The home team’s clubhouse is just behind this door …

firstenergy-stadium-reading-home-clubhouse-door

… and before the game, the guys cut across the concourse and through a walkway to the field. You’re close enough to touch the players although, as with the ostriches, I suggest keeping your hands to yourself. Here’s one player making his way toward the field:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-players-entrance-path

It was neat to see a handful of Fightin Phils up close, but as a Jays fan, I was more interested in seeing the Fisher Cats. I raced through the concourse and got to the spot outside the visiting clubhouse just in time to see a bunch of New Hampshire players pass by:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-visitors-entrance

After watching most of the guys walk by, I saw 2012 first-round draft pick Marcus Stroman leave the clubhouse in his street clothes. He was carrying a clipboard, so he was obviously tasked with charting pitches for the game:

marcus-stroman-reading-concourse

That’s him in the plaid shirt with the New York Rangers cap, and the two guys walking in front of him are also members of the Fisher Cats. I’ve followed Stroman’s path through the minors and can’t wait until the “Stro Show” takes the mound for the Jays.

Anyway, wanting to confirm my theory that Stroman was charting pitches, I trailed him through the concourse until he took his seat behind home plate:

marcus-stroman-sitting-reading

I moved out to the left field deck for the anthem and the first inning, and then set my sights on dinner. When I asked Eric about the park’s notable eats, he recommended the Churger — a burger, slice of cheese and a chicken breast on a roll. If this had been the first day of my trip, I would’ve wolfed down this sandwich, but having eaten ballpark food for several days, I decided to get something lighter. Not healthier, mind you, but lighter. When I’d passed through the concession area earlier, I was intrigued with the several varieties of gourmet hot dogs, and decided to pick the Chooch Dog, named after Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz. It features chili, shredded mozzarella cheese, coleslaw and hot sauce. And it looks like this:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-food-chooch-dog

OK, so it might not look that great, but it was tasty. A little tough to eat, which reminded me of the Pops Special hot dog I ate back in April at Syracuse’s NBT Bank Stadium.

Once I finished eating (and finished glaring at the drips of hot sauce that were mocking me from my T-shirt), I found a camera bay-type area on the third base line and started to take a bunch of action photos. As much as I love touring new parks, I really enjoy taking action shots — especially since I upgraded my camera. I’ll continue to upgrade my lenses over time but, for now, I’m pretty happy with the shots I’m able to get. Here’s Fisher Cats second baseman Ryan Schimpf:

ryan-schimpf-new-hampshire-fisher-cats

(You’ll notice a large sign for the Churger in the background, mocking me.)

Fightin Phils third baseman Maikel Franco:

maikel-franco-reading-fightin-phils

And New Hampshire DH Gabe Jacobo who, in his first game after being promoted from High-A Dunedin, had a three-hit game that included a home run and two runs batted in:

gabe-jacobo-new-hampshire-fisher-cats-on-deck

His home run came just a moment after I captured him on deck, and from my spot next to the New Hampshire dugout, I had a great view of Jacobo shaking hands with Fisher Cats manager Gary Allenson:

gabe-jacobo-new-hampshire-fisher-cats-home-run

I spent several innings in this spot and shot dozens more action photos before taking another walk through the stadium. I soon came across Stroman, and snapped this photo of him:

marcus-stroman-in-stands

Speaking of the Fisher Cats, they were en route to a 5-1 win, thanks (in part, at least) to Jacobo’s blast). As the game progressed, I decided to make a lap around the outside of the park, as I hadn’t had a chance before the game. One of the neat things you’ll notice outside FirstEnergy Stadium is a giant brick wall, which gives the park a really neat, retro feel:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-brick-wall

After a full lap, I went back inside, found a seat and watched the remaining few innings before packing up and heading to my hotel. Although I was in Reading, I decided to drive on to Allentown, PA, for the night. I’d been in Allentown for the previous night’s IronPigs game, but heading back to the city made sense geographically. The next day, I was driving on to Little Falls, N.J. to see Jeremy Nowak play again, and Allentown was right on my way. Before long, I got to my hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn Allentown – Bethlehem Airport. I love staying in Hilton Garden Inns. I’ve done so a number of times in the past and the Allentown hotel was as great as I’d expected. I didn’t take any photos upon arriving, but the next morning snapped this one of the outside of the hotel:

hilton-garden-inn-allentown-bethlehem-airport-outside

The room was great and had all the amenities I’ve grown to expect at a Hilton Garden Inn — comfy bed, desk, sitting chair, fridge, etc. Here’s a look at the room from the front hallway:

hilton-garden-inn-allentown-bethlehem-airport-room

And here’s the scene looking back toward the door:

hilton-garden-inn-allentown-bethlehem-airport-room-1

The next morning, I went down to the hotel’s main level and swam for about half an hour in the indoor pool, which I often love doing on my baseball road trips. Afterward, I hopped in the car and checked out the surrounding areas. One of the perks of staying in this hotel is the neighborhood. Not only is the hotel close to the highway, it’s also close to virtually anything you’d need. It’s across the street from a Target, which I visited for some snacks and a couple packs of baseball cards, and eateries including Five Guys, Dunkin’ Donuts, Friendly’s, Sonic, Waffle House, Starbucks and more are within walking distance. And if you’d rather eat in the hotel, it has a neat feature I don’t recall encountering in the past. A Red Robin sits across the parking lot from the hotel, and you can order things off the Red Robin menu for room service. Pretty cool, huh?

I’d definitely recommend the Hilton Garden Inn Allentown – Bethlehem Airport when you’re staying in the area, and this will definitely be the place I visit next time I’m back. Up next, though, I’d head back to New Jersey for the first time since 2012. This time, I’d be checking out some indy league action!

Toronto Blue Jays – April 17

With the exception of being away from home, I love everything about my baseball road trips. The ballparks and games themselves are the focal point as I continue to build The Ballpark Guide, but my trips are often full of other fun adventures, like doing interesting touristy things and staying in cool hotels. I’ve driven to and from Toronto countless times, so when I got up at 6 a.m. yesterday to get ready for my second baseball game of 2013, I decided I wanted to get to the city quickly, rather than do some sightseeing along the way. Why?

I can’t deny that I was excited for last night’s game, but I was super excited to check out my hotel. I love staying in hotels, and from the minute I booked a two-night stay at Toronto’s Westin Harbour Castle, I was pumped to check in. I’ve heard about this hotel for years and have always heard it to be a prime spot for baseball fans. Now that I’m here, I can definitely confirm this sentiment.

The Westin is one of Toronto’s nicest hotels and has a prime location right on the shore of Lake Ontario. It’s just a short walk from a number of downtown attractions, which is ideal because parking downtown is expensive and driving downtown can be a hassle, given traffic and the permanent construction in the city’s core. It was easy to find my hotel, though, and I’m rather directionally challenged. It’s just a couple minutes off the highway and before long, I was parked and checking in. As far as the nearby attractions, they’re too many to list extensively. If you’re into fine dining, for example, consider the Westin’s restaurants or take just a short walk to hit dozens of area eateries. There are also at least two grocery stores about five minutes away if you want to load up on snacks for your room. One thing I did before visiting was check out the hotel on Google Maps, and just scroll around a bit to see what’s in the area. If you want to do the touristy thing, the CN Tower, Hockey Hall of Fame and all sorts of shops are just a short walk away.

I was told that I’d enjoy my room, but WOW — I didn’t have any idea it’d be this great! I’m on one of the upper floors and have a lake-facing view. Here’s a shot out my window, although the photo hardly does the view justice:

westin-harbour-castle-room-lake-view

You’re looking at a ferry taking people over to the Toronto Islands, a group of islands just a stone’s throw from the city’s downtown. As a side note, I went over to the islands once — during a Grade 8 trip to Toronto with my school band to play the anthems at the SkyDome. The spot that we boarded the ferry is directly below my window here at the Westin. And here’s another side note that baseball fans will enjoy — in 1914, Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run at Hanlan’s Point Stadium, a ballpark on the island. He was playing Double-A ball at the age of 19 and was still a half-decade away from tearing up Major League Baseball.

Most of one side of my room is made up of windows, so I truly have a panoramic view of the lake and islands. If I look out the window on the right side of the room, I can see Centre Island and Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport:

westin-harbour-castle-centre-island-view-airport

I’m pretty pumped about the view, but the room itself is outstanding, too. But before I get to the room itself, check out what was waiting for me when I got in:

westin-harbour-castle-welcome-note

Yes, it’s a welcome note AND a mini baseball bat filled with baseball-shaped candy! I should explain — since booking this trip late last week, the Westin has been following me on Twitter and knows about my love of baseball. How cool is it that they’d make the effort to find a baseball-themed welcome gift for me? It’s outstanding, but it wasn’t the only thing waiting for me. On top of a nice platter of fresh snacks, there was this:

westin-harbour-castle-stella-artois

My room is about 400 square feet, which is significantly larger than my first apartment. Since I’m staying here two nights, I’ll get to more details about the room and the hotel in my next blog post — I’ve still got some exploring to do!

The gates at Rogers Centre open 90 minutes before first pitch, so I figured I wanted to get to the stadium shortly before 5 p.m. I’d have time to walk around and take some photos, buy my ticket and get a good spot in line. First, though, I toured around my floor of the Westin and looked out the different windows to get varying views of the city. Hockey and basketball fans will like this one:

westin-harbour-castle-centre-air-canada-centre-view

As you can see, I’m right across the street from Air Canada Centre, which is home of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors. What a view! Soon enough, I made the short walk over toward Rogers Centre. The walk took about 15 minutes; you could do it in less time, as much of that time was spent waiting for street lights to change. It’s a nice walk and if you’re new to the city, gives you the opportunity to walk past the ACC and Toronto’s historic Union Station, as well as walk in the shadow of the CN Tower.

I’ve been to Rogers Centre virtually every year since it opened in 1989, I believe. And regardless of how many times I visit, it’s always exciting to approach the stadium. After crossing the pedestrian bridge over the railway tracks, I looked up to see the stadium’s famous statue called The Audience. (Side note — it’d be nice to see some statues of Blue Jays legends outside the stadium, too.) Whenever I see this statue …

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… I can’t help but recall visiting Rogers Centre (then known as SkyDome) in 1989 for my birthday party. I remember thinking the statue, for whatever reason, was the coolest and funniest thing ever.

There weren’t many people around when I bought my ticket shortly before 5 p.m. and, as usual, I headed toward Gate 11, which is where I like to enter the stadium. Once there, I took my usual ticket shot:

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I often enjoy taking panoramas of the outside of ballparks, but at Rogers Centre, it’s very difficult to get far enough away and still have a clear view. I kept walking backward and as you can see here, I still couldn’t get far enough away to get the entire height of the park in my frame:

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After embarrassingly tripping on a step (the perils of walking backward while looking through a camera, I guess), I looked to my right and Gregg Zaun walked right past me! He played 16 years in the majors, including a stint in Toronto, and has worked for years as the studio analyst during Jays games. I didn’t want to run ahead of him and snap a photo, so I took this one:

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I’ve zoomed in to show his World Series ring, which he won in 1997 with the Marlins:

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How do people feel about the Jays current logo? I love it. I wasn’t a huge fan of the last couple incarnations, so it’s fun to see a logo that I enjoy so much adorning all sorts of things around the park, including many light posts:

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The half-hour or so that I had to wait in line went quickly, and as soon as I entered the stadium, I made a quick turn to my left to head down to the left field corner. This is the route I always take when the gates open; sometimes you can find a batting practice ball here, or just hang out in hopes of catching a ball. I, however, wanted to get an early shot of the team’s new 200 Level Outfield Patio, which has been featured repeatedly on the team’s broadcasts:

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I’ll have more photos of it later on, but it’s the structure with the railings between the Budweiser and Rogers logos. It’s free for anyone to enter, has nearby bars and a souvenir stand and, most importantly, has three levels of standing room. I figured that given its new popularity, it would be packed during the game. It was, but it was never packed enough that I couldn’t get a spot when I tried.

I often try to get a batting practice ball by hanging out in the 100 Level outfield seats or in the corners at field level. This time, I wanted to go up to the less-crowded 200 Level, so I made the quick jaunt up the dark ramp:

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Seriously, how dark is this area? If you didn’t know better, you’d swear you were somewhere you shouldn’t be. I know this photo is less than thrilling, but I wanted to show how dark things are without using my flash. Things were brighter and more exciting when I got up to the 200 Level seats, and I took a moment to grab this shot of myself with the White Sox batting practice in the background:

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I had to be quick; as I hoped, the balls were flying into the 200 Level fairly consistently. While I was standing in this area, I was thinking how I’ve been to Rogers Centre so many times. I don’t want to have my blog posts seem formulaic or mundane, so I decided I should try to take some shots of things I haven’t previously shared. As I looked around, the phone in the Toronto bullpen caught my eye:

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I also get a kick out of these three seats; I always see them from afar but this might be the first time I’ve stood right next to them:

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And speaking of being next to things, check out the view to my immediate left:

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Yep, it’s the new standing room area I mentioned earlier. As for Chicago’s BP, catcher Tyler Flowers was putting on an impressive display. He crushed several balls into the 100 Level seats, and before long, blasted this one into the seats just to my right:

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Adam Dunn was putting on an even better performance. He was routinely hitting 200 Level bombs and even hit a handful off the facing of the fourth level; I specifically noticed one hit between the Cito Gaston and Pat Gillick names in the photo below. Talk about power:

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I decided not to hang out and try to get more balls. I was pleased to get one, so I made a beeline for the new standing room area to my left. I’ve got to say that it’s absolutely awesome. I’ve ranted about the ushers at Rogers Centre in the past, but those watching over this new area seemed really proud to welcome fans to check things out. I took a number of shots, but I’ll share just a few for now. Here’s one taken through the giant “B” in the Budweiser sign:

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And here’s one that shows the layout of the area before it got crowded:

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As you can see, there are three levels, tables and a number of sections have wooden bars for your food and drinks, or just to lean on. It’s a perfect spot.

The 200 Level has a number of cool additions since I last visited this part of the park. I was excited to see two bars named after former stars Roberto Alomar:

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And Joe Carter, although I cringe when I see how they’ve left out a crucial comma:

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After making one complete circuit of the 200 Level, I went down the ramp to check out the team shop. As I mentioned last year during my Rogers Centre visits, the new Memorabilia Clubhouse section is absolutely amazing. It’s full of game-used and game-issued stuff, and the only disappointment was not seeing the club’s two World Series trophies, which were on display here last year.

There was a cool assortment of game-used balls for sale:

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And other neat things, too. Did you know that for just $800, you can get a broken Jose Bautista bat?

Since I was on the 100 Level, I decided to head over to the Sportsnet studio to watch the pre-game show with Jamie Campbell and Gregg Zaun:

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I watched most of the show and from there, went over to the first base side during the anthems. Here, I caught my first glimpse of new Blue Jay Munenori Kawasaki, who was called up to fill in at shortstop with Jose Reyes hurt. Kawasaki has quickly become a popular figure in Toronto for his hustle and for bowing after plays:

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(More on him later.)

I spent the first inning standing in this general area, where I took the photos to make up this panorama:

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But by now, my stomach was growling. It’d been a long day and I was ready for something filling. I toured around for a bit, noting the new (and delicious-smelling) food options, but caved and went with my favorite thing to eat at Rogers Centre, the chicken wings at Quaker Steak & Lube:

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After buying my food, I often grab one of the many folding chairs stacked up around the 100 Level and eat while watching the game through the railing. It’s a perfect strategy if you have a 500 Level ticket, as there’s no way you’ll make it up to your seat while your food is still remotely warm. I’ve done this for years, but this year, I was dismayed to notice that the chairs are locked up — see the padlock?

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As for the wings, they were delicious and very meaty, as always. I got my usual flavour, Louisiana Lickers … and ordered it in my usual way: “The Louisiana one, please.” I wonder how many people actually say “lickers.” I stood to eat dinner behind the 100 Level outfield seats and after I was finished, noticed that the Jays new-look team has apparently brought all species out to Rogers Centre:

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No big deal; just a guy in a bear costume, enjoying the game. My next stop was the outfield standing room area again, which was considerably more crowded than last time I stopped by:

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It wasn’t difficult to find an open spot on the third level, however, and I lucked out because this screen was directly above me:

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Game broadcasts nowadays are so good that it’s easy to feel at a slight loss for information when you attend games in person. Being able to watch the live game while consulting the screen for stats was baseball heaven!

The view from this area is really good. Photos always make things look a million miles away, but here’s the panorama I took from the area:

rogers-centre-200-level-view-panorama

Late in the game, I decided to watch an inning or two from the concourse behind home plate, partly to watch Kawasaki. He’s a slap hitter who reminds me very much of Ichiro — and it’s not just that they’re both from Japan. Both have an insane dedication to stretching and calisthenics. Both guys routinely stretch between pitches while at bat and while in the field. At one point, the Jays showed a video of Kawasaki performing a handstand during pre-game stretching. As for the stretching, see what I mean?

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Kawasaki had an outstanding at bat while I stood behind home plate. With two strikes, he fouled off at least five pitches until he drew a walk. (He finished 2-for-2 with a walk to boost his batting average to .364.) My favorite picture of him is this one:

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Even though I’d bought a 500 Level ticket, I hadn’t quite made the trek up to the nosebleed seats just yet. In the bottom of the sixth, and with the Jays getting pummeled 5-0, I went up to the 500s and had this view of the video board …

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… and this view of the field:

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Remember my quest to find new things to photograph? I’ve never noticed it, but the foul poles at Rogers Centre (which are actually netting) are held in place by giant, crane-like arms:

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I spent up until the middle of the ninth inning up in the 500s, and then slipped down to the 100 Level concourse to watch the Jays’ last at-bat. The Sox had tacked on two more runs to make the final score 7-0, which drops Toronto’s record to 6-9. What a disappointing start to the season. Fans are already panicking, and while that’s a little premature, it’s frustrating to see the team faring so poorly early on.

Nevertheless, I’ll be back at Rogers Centre for the final game of the series against the White Sox, and I can’t wait. I’ll be blogging about the game, and more about my stay at the Westin Harbour Castle, in the next day or two. If you’ve recently found this blog, please consider following me on Twitter to keep up to date with all my road trip plans and visit The Ballpark Guide. If you’re planning a baseball road trip of your own, my website has a ton of tips to help you make the most of your ballpark visits. If you find that my website has saved you a few bucks or increased your enjoyment of the game — or if you just enjoy reading about my travels, please consider making a small donation to help the cause. Thank you!