On my first day in Durham, I’d hurried from the airport to my hotel and then straight to the ballpark. My experience a day later would be completely different. I began my second day in Durham by spending a few hours working on a blog post about the previous day, and then met up with Veda Gilbert from Discover Durham for lunch.
She chose a spot within walking distance of my hotel called Bull City Burger & Brewery, which prides itself on using local beef and making its burger toppings (and buns) from scratch. That sounded perfect to me, and I opted for a burger topped with house-made pickles and pimento cheese:
It was absolutely outstanding — and served as good fuel for the two-hour walking tour of the city that followed. We hit a number of interesting and historical places as we made our way around Durham’s downtown, but there’s one spot in particular that I think you’ll like. If you read yesterday’s post, you’ll know that the Durham Bulls moved from Durham Athletic Park to Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995, and have called it home ever since. Fortunately, DAP still stands, and it was the biggest highlight on our walk. This is the park where the Bulls played from 1926 to 1994 and, of course, where the movie Bull Durham was filmed:
There was a showcase tournament taking place at the time …
… but we were able to enter a check out the historic ballpark for a bit:
It’s easy to make an argument that this is the most famous minor league park in the country, so I’m very happy that I had a chance to visit it:
I could’ve sat there and watched the action for a long time, but there were plenty of other interesting sights to see around town. One of the other downtown attractions that we visited was the famous statue of Major the bull, which is a popular spot for photos. Here’s me making an attempt at the “bull horns” hand signal:
After a really interesting tour of the American Tobacco Historic Area …
… I went back to my hotel, enjoyed some air conditioning for an hour or so, and then made the short walk over to DBAP. A day earlier, I’d been intrigued by the gate that opened into the outfield concourse, and had followed it rather than taken my usual lap around the outside of the park. On this day, I made it my top priority to check out the exterior of the ballpark from all angles. After walking behind the office buildings that are situated beyond right field, I turned right and made my way down Jackie Robinson Drive, which runs behind the first base side. Here’s the side of the ballpark from that spot:
One thing that really caught my eye in this area was the Victory Garden, which is situated between the ballpark and the sidewalk. I’ve seen lots of ballpark gardens that supply veggies and herbs to the ballpark’s food services team over the years, but this one’s a little different. The Victory Garden is a partnership between the Bulls, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, and the produce goes to local families in need. This garden produces more than 2,000 pounds of food a year, and together with some other similar gardens around the area, helps to feed 60,000 people each month. I enjoyed walking through it and noting the unique plants — in addition to all of the veggies that you’d expect to see, there were other crops such as a fig tree and some okra plants. Here’s a look at one section of the garden:
After checking out the garden, I arrived at the picturesque plaza in front of the main gates, where I snapped this photo …
… and then went inside. By now, batting practice was taking place, so after a quick lap of the concourse, I grabbed a spot in a semi-shady area and watched for a bit:
I hung out in this spot for about 10 minutes, before moving down the line to continue watching with this view:
As I stood in that area, I noticed something that I’d missed a day earlier. If you look at the following photo …
… do you see the low, gray building in the distance with the horizontal slot-style windows? That’s the Durham County Detention Facility. The stadium’s PA and crowd noises can get pretty loud, and I wonder if those who are jailed in the facility can ever hear the game. I’m assuming that the jail doesn’t have a lot of windows that open, but I’d still be curious if the sound from outside gets in at all. I can’t imagine much being worse than jail, except for perhaps being behind bars while hearing the exciting sounds of a ballpark!
I was glad to be spending a second day in Durham not only for the chance to enjoy DBAP again, but also to see the special jerseys that the Bulls were wearing on this night. The team was honoring the Durham Tobacconists, which was the name of the franchise when it was founded in 1902. The Tobacconists played in the North Carolina League and only made it as far as July before the league abruptly folded. Here’s a picture of pitcher Ricardo Pinto in his Tobacconists uniform:
When BP concluded, I continued walking around the concourse and taking in the various sights. Here’s another thing that I’d failed to notice a day earlier — temporary netting that was draped over the railing and attached to spikes in the warning track to protect the video board during batting practice:
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a setup in all my travels. Sure enough, a couple of Bulls employees began to remove the netting shortly after I took the above photo.
If you read my previous post, you might remember that I mentioned a pop-up mini golf course that was located adjacent to the ballpark. Here’s a view of it in the daylight, and I think you’ll agree that it’s pretty appealing:
The Bulls and the city have done a really good job of making the area around DBAP really appealing. Throughout my visit, it was clear that there were people who had come down to the area just to hang out, and not necessarily with plans to attend the game. It wouldn’t be long before the mini golf course — and a bunch of restaurants in the area with patios — were full of people enjoying this late-June night, and it made for a really fun vibe around the ballpark.
While I was in the left field corner, I went over to the Blue Monster to watch the grounds crew pack up the protective netting. As they worked, the Monster’s door (I always call this the “Manny Ramirez door”) was open, as you can see here:
Seeing the door open gave me an idea, so I followed the concourse past a concession stand to the end of the Blue Monster, and was able to lean in and see behind it. If you look at this photo, you’ll see the light coming from the open door:
The manual scoreboard operators work in this space, albeit well on the other side of the door. One day, I tell you, I’ll get to help out with a manual scoreboard during a game!
After the grounds crew tucked the protective netting safely behind the fence, I continued walking around the park and went over to the right field side. There, I snapped this photo of this impressive seating section:
Wherever I walked, it seemed as though there was a unique and appealing place to hang out and watch the game, and this was just another example. Kudos to the Bulls for going beyond the standard stadium seats to give fans a variety of fun seating choices.
Sensing another big crowd — especially with the special Tobacconists uniforms in use — I decided to grab dinner soon after the gates opened. Pizza might not be the most original pick at a ballpark, but I’d seen a LOT of fans carrying slices around a day earlier. This had to be a good sign, so I headed for the Pie Pushers Pizza concession stand and checked out the menu. Beyond the standard slices, there was a good selection of unique options. But, I always feel that the best way to evaluate a pizza is with a slice of pepperoni and cheese, so that’s what I ordered:
While it wasn’t the best ballpark pizza that I’ve had, it was pretty good and definitely worth checking out when you visit DBAP.
As I’d done a day earlier, I grabbed a Rita’s Italian Ice as a post-dinner way to beat the heat:
This time, I opted for the blue raspberry flavor, which was a poor choice. I’ve obviously yet to see a blue raspberry in the wild, which should’ve been a warning. This flavor basically just tasted sweet, so I think I’ll stick with better choices such as strawberry, cherry or lemonade in the future.
Once I’d eaten — and furiously rubbed my lips with the back of my hand so it wouldn’t appear as though I was wearing blue lip gloss — I went down to field level on the third base side to watch the visiting Norfolk Tides warm up. Here’s starting pitcher Luis Ysla:
One of the things that never gets old about visiting minor league ballparks is just how close you can get to the players. It’s one of the most appealing things about MiLB games, as far as I’m concerned. I stood fewer than 10 feet from Ysla throughout his entire warm-up, which is far closer than fans can get at most of the MLB parks.
When the game began, I grabbed a spot behind home plate that provided this view for the first inning:
I spent the second inning in this standing-room spot …
… and later went to this spot in straightway center, using the edge of the batter’s eye to block out of the sun as it set beyond the third base line:
For the last half of the game, I continued watching an inning here, an inning there, and loving the overall design and feel of DBAP. It’s a park that I didn’t know much about before arriving, but that has quickly climbed toward the top of my favorite MiLB ballparks list. I can’t wait to return, whenever that may be.
Exactly 12 hours after my alarm rang to start Day #1 of my nine-day baseball trip, I walked into Durham Bulls Athletic Park for the first time. I’d made the 815-mile trip using four different methods of transportation — an airport shuttle, two flights, a rental car and a whole lot of steps — and was thrilled to visit my 72nd different ballpark since 2010.
About half an hour earlier, I’d checked into my hotel — the Aloft Durham Downtown — and quickly realized that this is a perfect hotel for the baseball traveler. In addition to being close to DBAP, it has a ticker on the walls of the lobby that displays MLB scores! How perfect is that?
If that’s not perfect enough, being able to see the ballpark and its iconic “Hit Bull Win Steak” bull from the window of my room was definitely a sign that I was in the right place:
After checking in, I dropped my suitcase off in my room, quickly changed into a road trip tee and headed over to the ballpark. The hotel and the ballpark are both key features in Durham’s American Tobacco Historic District, an urban renewal neighborhood that is one of the must-visit spots in this city. It’s the type of area in which you can easily spend a large chunk of day shopping, eating and sightseeing. These were things that I’d do on my second day in town; first, though, I was intent on getting over to the ballpark as quickly as possible.
I’ll admit that DBAP wasn’t a park that I knew a lot about before I arrived in town. Sometimes, I do a lot of advance reading about parks before I visit, but that’s not what I did in this case. It can be fun to be a little in the dark, so to speak, because that can help to make the experience more exciting.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll likely know that I tend to take a walk around each ballpark’s perimeter before entering, but that wasn’t the path that I took during this visit. Instead, I was allured by a sidewalk that headed up toward the base of the large bull, so followed it and was surprised to see that the gates were open:
The ballpark’s actual gates don’t technically open until an hour before first pitch — 6 p.m. in this case — but I’d stumbled into an area of the park that is accessible well in advance of that. The sidewalk that I was on quickly turned into an outfield concourse situated above the ballpark’s 32-foot Blue Monster and, when I walked to the railing, this was my view:
I LOVE when teams make community-friendly decisions like this. This gate closes once the game begins, but until then, people are free to walk through this area — from the left field foul pole to about straightaway center — and enjoy the view. More teams need to make parts of their parks accessible like this. I mean, I can think of a lot of ballparks that use privacy slats in their exterior chain link fences and other similar methods to ensure that people from the community can’t even look into the ballpark. Being able to walk through a part of the concourse before the gates open, or perhaps even if you aren’t going to the game, is absolutely outstanding.
On the other side of the concourse is a huge sports bar called Tobacco Road. It was still quiet at 4 p.m., but it got gradually busier and by the time the game began three hours later, it was packed with people enjoying food and drinks while they watched the game. Here’s a shot that shows the restaurant, the field and the concourse that people can use before the park’s gates open:
There were a couple of other fans in the area, but it was still mostly empty. I headed over to center field, where I took this panorama …
… noted the attractive batter’s eye …
… and then snapped this shot of myself:
I continued along the concourse, noting how the look of the office buildings in the area matched nicely with the ballpark:
(By the way, how amazing would it be to work in one of these buildings?)
Downtown ballparks can have a lot of challenges “fitting” in with their environment, but it’s very clear that DBAP does that well. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The ballpark was designed by Populous, which is most widely known for designing the outstanding Oriole Park at Camden Yards and essentially rewriting the book on not only how ballparks should look, but also how they should fit within their neighborhoods. DBAP opened in 1995, three years after Camden, and it’s visually evident that the same visionaries were behind both projects.
I continued along the concourse until I came to this gate that prevented me from walking any farther:
The concourse that you see beyond the gate is set behind the seats in right field, and very much reminds me of Eutaw Street in Baltimore. After standing near the gates and enjoying the scene for a moment, I retraced my steps past Tobacco Road and toward the iconic bull. Another gate in this area prevented access to the main concourse of the park below me, so I exited and made my way down Blackwell Street toward the main gates. After picking up my credential, I snapped this shot of the team’s retired numbers:
You’ll notice that Crash Davis’ #8 is one of the six numbers retired by the team. He, of course, was the inspiration for Kevin Costner’s character of the same name in the 1988 movie Bull Durham. What you might not know, however, is that the real Davis hit .317 while playing for the Bulls in 1948.
I obviously had to snap a photo with it:
Blue Jays fans may also enjoy noting the retired #25 of current Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo. He served as the skipper of the Bulls from 2007 through 2014, winning a pair of International League championships and one Triple-A title during that span.
Next, I walked around to the plaza in front of the main gates, where I took this photo:
What a beautiful looking park! The fountains, dual staircases and brick design combine to make this one of the most stylish MiLB park entrances that I’ve ever come across.
After a short browse through the team shop, I road an elevator up to the concourse. Check out the signage inside of the elevator:
The concourse at DBAP is under and behind the seating bowl, which is perhaps the only less-than-perfect design feature of this ballpark. I love concourses that are open to the field, and I think that most MiLB fans feel the same way, but I also feel that there are both right and wrong ways to approach enclosed concourses. This one was definitely built the right way — tall ceilings, wide walkways and with lots of natural light, you won’t mind spending time in this area. Plus, if you’re concerned about missing the game, there are a bunch of TVs to ensure that you can always keep your eye on the game. After a short walk through the concourse, I made my way through one of the tunnels to the seating bowl …
… and was immediately impressed with what I saw. Take a look at how wide this cross-aisle is:
The small seating sections and wide cross-aisle mean that it’s easy to get around this part of the park. So, unless you need to head to the concourse to buy food, you can get where you want to go without being out of sight out of the game.
I decided to start checking out the inside of DBAP by walking toward the left field foul pole, so I headed in this direction …
… and soon stopped at field level to snap this panorama:
Eventually, I got close enough to the bull that I was able to take this photo of it:
This bull isn’t the one that you might recognize from the Bull Durham movie. That bull, which moved from the old Durham Athletic Park in 1995 when the team relocated to DBAP, was damaged in a 2007 storm. This one is a recreation — Bull #2, for lack of a better term. Its eyes light up and it snorts during home runs and wins, but it was still quiet at this point.
From this spot, I watched batting practice for a few minutes before heading the opposite way along the cross-aisle toward the right field corner. Here’s the view from the opposite end of the concourse that I’d spotted through the closed gate earlier:
And here’s a look at the Blue Monster and the bull, where I’d stood only a few minutes ago:
Next, I walked around to the grass berm in center field to take this panorama …
… and then continued back to the right field corner to do some preliminary food research. DBAP has an extensive menu and it was no surprise to see some Carolina barbecue available for sale. What was a surprise, however, was just how impressive the Smokehouse Barbeque concession stand looked. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into the design of this concession stand, including the use of barn board, tin and the vintage lights. Check it out:
Just after I took this photo, an usher approached me. I’d seen him picking up BP balls in the outfield seats earlier, and he now was carrying a handful of them. He asked me if I was looking for a ball. I replied that I wasn’t, and he asked if I wanted one anyway. He said that he keeps a few to give out to kids once the gates open. “Big kids, too?” I asked, and he laughed and handed me one that I photographed after he continued on his way:
While I was in the area, I continued to check out some of the interesting and appealing spots for fans to hang out. The White Street Picnic Area in the right field corner seems to answer the age-old question, “Why have a standard party deck when you can have a three-level one?”
Another neat spot that I noticed was a private party area called the Lowes Food Landing. With couches and bar-style seating, it shared a lot of common traits with other party areas that I’ve seen around the minor leagues, but with one exception — the concession stand was a stylishly finished shipping container:
Next, I went back down to the enclosed concourse to take another walk through the part of it that I’d missed earlier. One attraction that I noticed was an on-site brewery from the Bull Durham Beer Company:
I’ve seen a handful of MLB parks with breweries (Coors Field and SunTrust Park immediately come to mind) but I can’t immediately think of another brewery inside of an MiLB facility.
After walking the length of the concourse, I went up to the suite level to check out the PNC Triangle Club, an upscale suite area that looked like this:
It also offers an outstanding view of the action, all from a climate-controlled space that was definitely appealing on this 86-degree day. Here’s the view, through glass, from behind home plate:
I spent a few minutes to enjoy this view, drink a bottle of water and to cool off for a little bit, given that I’d already been walking a lot in the full sun. Then, it was time to head back out into the heat and continue exploring the ballpark. I went along the concourse toward the right field foul pole, and then walked down to the front row of the outfield seats to continue watching BP. This was the view to my right — check out the sweet front-row seats in this area:
This type of seating arrangement is found in many minor league parks, but I don’t know if I’ve seen it make up the front row of the outfield as it does in Durham. Often, it’s found on party decks. Another really creative idea from those who designed DBAP.
I decided not to spend too long in this area. It was extremely bright, and while I could follow most of the hit balls through the air, there were definitely some that I couldn’t track — and standing in the front row of right field is never a good spot to be when you can’t see what’s coming toward you. After a ball that I’d lost in the sun clanged off the picnic deck several yards to my left, I knew it was time to find another spot to check out. I retreated to the concourse to watch the remainder of BP, and then made my way around to left field to check out the Blue Monster up close:
Once the gates opened, I had a sense that this game would be well attended, so I wanted to grab some food before the lineups got long. I originally headed to the Smokehouse Barbeque concession with the hope of grabbing some Carolina barbecue, but nothing on the menu caught my eye. There were lots of pulled pork dishes, and while I’ll eat pulled pork if I have to, it’s not something that I’m all that keen about. The wide selection of concession items throughout the park meant that I wouldn’t be thwarted, so I made my way to the Gonza Tacos Y Tequila stand in the left field corner — a place with eye-catching signage and a food truck-style vibe. After scouring the menu for a moment, I chose a pair of soft corn tacos that were filled with braised beef short rib meat, cilantro, roasted corn-poblano salsa and spicy creme fraiche:
There were only a coupe of people ahead of me in line, so my order came quickly, and I took it up to the top of the Blue Monster and grabbed a comfy seat while I ate. The tacos were very good, and I appreciated the variety of ingredients. They weren’t cheap, though. The two tacos cost $10, and it only took about three bites to eat each one.
I’d added a bit of some delicious hot sauce before eating, so that meant that I needed to look for something cool and refreshing after I finished. The answer was a strawberry Rita’s Italian Ice, which I’m always a sucker for. I took my cup all the way out to the outfield seats and enjoyed cooling down while I ate it:
After eating, I went down to the front row of the seats and took a look around. Something that caught my eye were the video boards in the outfield fence. In particular, I noticed how far back they were from the rest of the fence. I don’t know if I’ve seen this setup before; video panels are always protected by some sort of cage, but it seems to me that they’re not usually set back this far:
One of the things that I love about visiting different ballparks is noticing the small details that I might not pick up during a game broadcast, and this fence/video panel situation definitely falls into that category.
Speaking of the outfield fence, let’s take a moment to pause and appreciate how outstanding the Blue Monster is:
One thing that’s unique about DBAP is that the park’s video board is a part of the fence. There’s no large video board elsewhere in the park, which is highly unusual by MiLB standards. I think including it in this location just adds to the unique and innovative nature of this ballpark. You’ll also notice a manual scoreboard, which always boosts the visual appeal of a ballpark in my books. Throw in the home run bull, a sports bar and tons of seating/standing choices on top of the Monster, and you’ve easily got one of the coolest features throughout all of the minor leagues.
I figured that I needed to spend some time in this unique outfield area now that the game was underway, so that’s exactly what I did. I watched a little of the action from this spot …
… and then stood at the railing on the Monster for a bit, where I could look right down to see Durham left fielder Joe McCarthy:
Between innings, I snapped this shot of myself with the bull:
I spent a couple of innings in that spot and then decided to go find another vantage point from which to watch. The sky beyond the right field corner had turned a nice shade of blue-orange-purple, so I opted for a seat down the third base line where I could enjoy this amazing view:
About half an inning after taking the photo above, I stood up to stretch between innings and noticed an equally appealing sky over my left shoulder. Check out this shot:
That’s the Lucky Strike water tower rising above the American Tobacco district, and the area in the bottom right is a pop-up mini golf course that many fans were playing before, during and after the game.
I watched the remainder of the game from this vantage point, and then made the easy walk back to my hotel through the balmy Durham night after the game concluded. The appeal of the area around the ballpark made me want to stay out and explore more, but after a long travel day and about 16,000 steps, I was ready to get off my feet and call it a night. My plan to explore Durham wouldn’t have to wait long, however — I had an exciting walking tour planned for the following afternoon.
One of the best things about my visit to El Paso and the three Chihuahuas games that I attended was how different each day was. When you’re attending games over three straight days at a single ballpark, there’s always a chance that things will be a little repetitive — but I’m happy that wasn’t the case here.
Day two was a chance to tour the ballpark and enjoy the game (and the food) like I normally do.
What was on the agenda for day three?
I’m glad you asked.
My last Chihuahuas game of this trip was all about spreading the word about the Best View competition, my website, blog and baseball travels in general, and I had a number of people who graciously helped me in that regard. I ended up booking a trio of interviews, all of which took place on May 6 in a true back-to-back-to-back fashion.
Before the interviews began, however, I needed to spend a little time on the hotel pool deck enjoying the view. Doing so was a popular pastime on this trip, as it was impossible to tire of looking at beautiful Southwest University Park while hanging out in the equally beautiful El Paso weather. Here’s a shot that my wife snapped of me mid-morning:
You might notice that I’m wearing my Stars and Stripes road trip tee, which you can buy here.
After a bit of relaxing at the hotel and a bit of tourist stuff, the baseball portion of my day started with a 4 p.m. visit to the ESPN El Paso studio, located about 12 minutes from Southwest University Park. Steve Kaplowitz, host of the afternoon drive show, had agreed to have me on to talk about the Best View competition, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. I’ve been fortunate to do a ton of interviews on various teams’ game broadcasts overs the years, but this was the first time that I’d ever visited a radio stadium studio to sit in with the host. And that definitely had me dealing with a case of the nerves.
Anyway, I met Steve shortly before 4 p.m., and he decided that instead of leading the show off with my interview, he’d do a segment talking about the Kentucky Derby controversy from two days earlier. That suited me just fine, because I got to hang out in the studio and watch Steve go to work. I was absolutely in awe about what a professional he was. We were shooting the breeze about baseball just seconds before the show began, and he seamlessly switched into his radio voice and began the show by talking about horse racing. Absolutely amazing. It was a thrill to sit across the desk from him and listen to his Derby discussion while being simultaneously excited and nervous for my segment to begin.
After the first commercial break, he introduced me and we were off and running. I’m happy to say that my nerves only lasted a couple of minutes, and I soon felt a lot more at ease because of Steve’s easygoing demeanor. I’d initially figured that I’d be on the air with him for maybe five or 10 minutes, but Steve graciously had me on for two segments — maybe about 20 or so minutes altogether. And if it weren’t for me having to run off to my next interview, he’d actually hoped to keep me on until the top of the hour! We covered a host of topics, including Best View, my thoughts on El Paso and Southwest University Park, baseball road trips in general, ballpark food — and I even took some listener questions. At one point, I mentioned that my wife and I were enjoying the sightseeing around El Paso, and Steve asked, “You didn’t leave her sitting in the lobby, did you?” I gulped and admitted that she was actually sitting in the car in the parking lot. Steve quickly told his producer Adrian to go summon my wife to the studio, so off Adrian went while Steve and I continued talking baseball. A few minutes later, there was a commotion at the door and Adrian told Steve that he’d brought my wife in, but that she didn’t want to enter the studio for fear of making me nervous. By now, I was over my case of the nerves, but my wife had seen me fretting on the way to the studio and I guess she didn’t want to throw me off. Anyway, there was a hilarious back-and-forth exchange — all of it on the air — and she decided to hang out in the lobby while we finished our segment. The time with Steve flew past, and I’m really thankful to him for having me on.
During the commercial break, Steve snapped this shot of me …
… and then a staffer brought my wife in, and she took this shot of Steve and me:
Steve had to obviously get ready for returning after the commercial break, so after another brief moment of conversation, my wife and I headed out of the studio, where I got this photo taken:
Then, it was straight into the car and back on the road toward the ballpark for my next interview. Interview #2 was with longtime Chihuahuas broadcaster Tim Hagerty. Instead of having me on that evening’s game broadcast, Tim decided to interview me off the air with the plan of using our conversation as filler material when needed throughout the season. He noted that he’d always looking for fillers for rain delays, and that my interview might air multiple times over the course of the season. That sounded perfect to me, so I met Tim in the lobby of the ballpark and we headed up to the radio booth to get underway.
Tim and I talked for probably 10 minutes about a wide range of baseball and ballpark topics, and the time together just flew past. Understandably, he soon needed to get back to prepping for the game, so I got this quick photo with him …
… and then it was time to meet up with Nathan Nunez. He works in the team’s broadcast and media relations department and hosts the Fear the Ears podcast. Nathan and I found a quiet place to sit and talk on the suite level, and chatted about — you guessed it — Best View, ballparks and baseball trips for more than 10 minutes. If you’re interested in hearing that podcast episode, you can check it out here.
Nathan and I grabbed this photo before we said our goodbyes …
… and then for the first time in almost an hour and a half, I had time to relax for a minute.
Of course, that didn’t mean that I chose to grab one of the comfy chairs in the air conditioned suite level. Nope, I was ready to walk around the concourse in search of my next adventure. First, though, I met up with my wife, who’d been chilling at our hotel since we got back from the radio station and had since walked over to the ballpark. I should divulge that she’s not a baseball fan, and when we travel, she’ll normally go to one game with me and find other things to do on the other days that I’m at the ballpark. She’d admitted to me a day earlier, however, that after spending the night at Southwest University Park on May 4, so could, “Sort of see” what I like about visiting ballparks. To my surprise, she opted to hang out at the park with me on this night. As such, my goal for this ballpark visit was simply to enjoy the game and the atmosphere — and maybe point out a few things that might increase her enjoyment of baseball. Each of my two previous games had been busy in their own ways, so I thought that a low-key evening would be a fun way to wrap up this visit.
We headed to some seats in the shade in the upper deck for part of the pregame, and enjoyed this view as the grounds crew prepared the field and the players got warmed up:
Then, we went up to the suite level to enjoy the view from behind home plate — which, after all, was the reason for our six-day trip to El Paso:
After enjoying that view for a few minutes, we went back out to the second deck, where I noticed Tim on the video board talking about the upcoming game:
We grabbed some seats in the left field corner for the anthem, watching this impressively large flag on display in center field …
… and then enjoyed the first couple innings of action from that spot. It turned out to be a good place to be. The slugging Chihuahuas were putting on a hitting clinic. They launched six home runs en route to a 15-0 victory, but some of the round trippers were absolute bombs. See the word “Shamaley” on the bottom of the video board?
Austin Allen hit one ball off the bricks directly below it. Not long afterward, Josh Naylor smoked a ball through the structure above and onto North Santa Fe Street outside of Southwest University Park.
One player on Salt Lake who I was excited to see was Ty Kelly, whose name you might recognize from stints with the Mets and Phillies. I’ve been following his career since 2012, when he and my buddy Jeremy Nowak were teammates on the Frederick Keys. They were both Carolina League all-stars that season, and Kelly moved up through the minor leagues and made his MLB debut with the Mets in 2016. I don’t believe that I’d seen him play in person since 2012, so I was excited to see him again. We were sitting fairly far away for each of his at-bats, so here’s a picture of him on the video board:
After taking a lap around the concourse and checking out the team shop for a bit, I decided to grab something to eat in the second half of the game. I wanted to find something unique, and one particular item at one of the home plate concession stands jumped out at me — Churwaffles and Chicken. This dish consisted of four mini cinnamon sugar waffles alongside a couple of chicken tenders, with the whole thing topped with maple butter sauce:
The chicken was excellent, but the waffles weren’t my thing. I think of waffles as fluffy, and these were definitely not that. It’d probably not a meal that I’d be in a hurry to order again, but I’m glad I checked out something different. I washed it down with a horchata, which Nathan had enthusiastically recommended to me earlier. This was the first time that I’d ever had this drink — which is made with rice milk and has flavors of vanilla and cinnamon — and, to my surprise, it was served in a vessel the size of a yogurt tub:
It was really tasty, albeit very sweet, and there was no way I could get through all of it. This was definitely a beverage that I’d order again, though — although I wouldn’t mind if it were available in a smaller serving. (For the record, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever made that statement about ballpark fare.)
We’d hung out at field level in the right field corner while I ate, and I wanted to close out our Southwest University Park experience by watching the remainder of the game from a new vantage point. Earlier in the evening, I’d seen that the Big Dog House high above right field wasn’t very crowded, given that it was a Monday night, and wanted to check it out. This spot had been renovated since my visit three years earlier, and it looks really swanky. We were escorted up by a super-friendly staffer named Tony who handed me a batting practice baseball, which I somehow neglected to photograph. He gave us a nice tour of the space, which looked like this …
… and then we grabbed a spot on the couch where we enjoyed this view:
Given how the balls were flying on these evening, I had big aspirations to snag a home run in this spot, but that didn’t happen. (We did see a couple more long balls hit, though.)
And that’s how our last Chihuahuas game ended — enjoying this beautiful park from one of the poshest seating sections that I’ve ever encountered in the minor leagues.
The entire visit to El Paso was absolutely outstanding, and I’m so appreciative of everyone who played a part. Thanks so much to the Chihuahuas — especially Angela, Brad, Tim and Nathan — as well as Veronica and Maegan at Visit El Paso, who were super at helping to set up this trip, and Steve and Adrian at ESPN El Paso. Each of you augmented my trip in your own way, and I’m very grateful.
Given that I live 2,300 miles from El Paso, I don’t know when I’ll be back to the Sun City.
One thing’s for certain, though — I’m already looking forward to returning.
When I think about all of the experiences that I’ve had at more than 200 baseball games at 70+ ballparks, it’s hard not to consider the Best View in the Minors plaque presentation on the field on May 4 in El Paso to be the most memorable. A chance to walk on the field between innings in front of a Saturday night sellout crowd is an experience that I’ll never forget.
You might think that this meant my subsequent games at Southwest University Park would be a letdown, but I’m happy to report that wasn’t the case — not by a long shot. On May 5, I had plenty of reasons to be excited about returning to this beautiful ballpark. First and foremost, this would be my first Copa de la Diversión game experience. If you aren’t familiar with the Copa series, it’s a huge promotion in the minor leagues that has 72 teams involved this year. Translated as “Fun Cup,” the Copa promotion is an opportunity to celebrate Hispanic culture — and it’d be an understatement to say that I was pumped about being in El Paso on Cinco de Mayo for the first Copa day of the 2019 season.
The game was scheduled for a 1:05 p.m. start, the weather was absolutely perfect and, at about 10:30 a.m., I set out from my hotel to take a walk around Southwest University Park before entering — something that I hadn’t done a day earlier. I started by walking down North Santa Fe Street, which is only a handful of blocks in length but is home to a variety of attractions, including the ballpark. Here’s the view from the sidewalk with the ballpark on my right:
I continued down the street and turned around at the far end of the ballpark to snap this photo of its Wall of Champions:
Most teams display their successes inside of the park — and, for the record, there’s another similar display on the outfield fence — but I think it’s a neat idea to tout the team’s prowess in a spot that passing motorists and pedestrians can see. As you can see in the image above, the Chihuahuas have had a lot of success. They’re only in their sixth season, but already have a Pacific Coast League championship, a pair of conference titles and four division crowns.
One thing that I frequently enjoy during my ballpark visits is checking out ballparks from unusual angles outside. Sure, it’s always cool to snap a photo or a panorama from outside of the main gates, but I also think it’s interesting to find a bizarre angle from which to shoot. One noteworthy thing about this ballpark is that while it’s surrounded on three sides by streets, the fourth side is comprised of a railway line. (Several times throughout the game, trains will go past. And, sometimes, foul balls will leave the stadium and land on the train tracks.) Anyway, there’s a walkway along the rail line, so I followed it and snapped this shot of the ballpark — complete with a freight train rumbling past at the time:
After a full lap around the outside of the park, I entered via the Durango Street office entrance — pausing to snap this photo of the Best View plaque already on display beside the reception desk:
I was thrilled to see it there, and happy that it wouldn’t be gathering dust on some bookshelf or filing cabinet inside the administrative offices where fans wouldn’t be able to see it. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t return to this area a few additional times over the course of my visit just to see it there.
Once I’d checked out the plaque for a moment, I went up to the quiet concourse and headed toward the outfield. A day earlier, I hadn’t done my usual amount of pregame touring, so I definitely wanted to take advantage of that on this day. Players from both teams were playing catch down the lines as I made my way around to center field to capture Southwest University Park from this angle:
I enjoyed this view for a few minutes, and then continued on my lap around the concourse until I got to the right field corner. This part of the park is really enticing, and it also plays a key role in the view that fans get from home plate. This area is home to a pair of structures — one with four levels and another with three levels — that are connected by a pair of walkways. The second and third levels are known as the City Hall Grill and Sun Kings Saloon, respectively. Both are eateries with a variety of drink and food items and good views of the ballpark. The fourth level, the Big Dog House, is absolutely one of the most impressive seating areas in all of the minor leagues. I’d had a chance to tour these areas when I visited El Paso three years earlier, and was eager to check them out again — especially since the Big Dog House had since gone through a major renovation. I made my way up to the Sun Kings Saloon and sat in the shade for a few minutes with this view in front of me:
This area was completely quiet because the gates hadn’t yet opened, and while it was tempting to remain there for a while longer, I soon decided to continue my walk around the ballpark — opting to visit the Big Dog House a day later. The next spot that I headed — another place that I’d neglected to check out a day earlier — was directly behind home plate, down at field level:
From here, you can clearly see the right field structure that I’d visited a few minutes earlier, as well as my hotel in left-center. As impressive as the view was, I was equally impressed by the seating immediately to my left. Check out this area, known as the Dugout Club, that offers fans a suite-style experience just inches from the field of play and the home dugout:
In the image above, you might have noticed a number of staff members in red shirts — 11 of them, to be precise. The gates were about to open, and they were meticulously wiping down each of the seats. That’s the norm at a lot of ballparks, but I was impressed at just how carefully they were working. I even watched one staffer patiently wiping up and down each of the rungs in the railings between sections. I’ve been to my share of MiLB ballparks that don’t get this TLC, and it shows. It’s this largely behind-the-scenes work that easily makes Southwest University Park one of the cleanest parks, MLB or MiLB, that I’ve ever visited.
Soon enough, the gates opened and the players returned to the field — this time, wearing their El Paso Margarita uniforms. I made a beeline toward the home bullpen in foul territory to snap some pictures of what one might reasonably call the loudest uniforms in the history of baseball. Here are catcher Austin Allen, pitcher Dillon Overton and bullpen coach Akinori Otsuka:
You’ll notice that Otsuka was wearing a Margaritas umbrella hat, which was the day’s stadium giveaway. For the record, he wore it for much of the pregame warm-ups, and only swapped it for his regular cap when the anthem was played. (By the way, if his name sounds familiar, he’s the former MLBer who saved 32 games for the Texas Rangers in 2006.)
It’s always fun watching players get warmed up, and the scene in front of me seemed even more lively because it was easy to tell that the players were having a blast in their bright uniforms. There were a lot of smiles as they got together, stretched and began to play catch — and definitely some laughs as they spotted Otsuka in his umbrella hat. As Overton and Allen began to throw, I positioned myself behind the catcher and took shots like this one:
I watched the players for a few more minutes, and then decided to go grab some food. As you might remember, I hadn’t eaten a ballpark meal the night before, so I was determined to make up for it during this visit. I’d been impressed with Southwest University Park’s menu when I visited three years ago, and while it’s always tempting to try items that I’ve previously enjoyed, I generally like to mix things up. El Paso might not be known for its pizza, but as silly as it may sound, I’d spotted a Peter Piper Pizza billboard a day earlier and had been thinking of pizza on and off ever since. I decided that my first meal of the game would be a pepperoni slice, which you can see here:
I was absolutely blown away by how good this pizza was. It was piping hot with a nice, thin crust, and there was a generous helping of cheese. It was difficult not to go back for another slice immediately. Of course, I needed something to wash the pizza down, and opted for a cold drink that worked well with the Copa theme. The team was selling margaritas for $2. The city of El Paso lays claim to inventing this drink, so I felt that it was an appropriate beverage on this hot, sunny day:
If you find the image above to look tantalizing, here’s another shot that is a bit more … amateurish. As I held the cup and moved it to get a good angle for some photos, I failed to initially realize that I’d tipped the cup too far forward and was pouring the drink on the concourse in front of me. Oops:
I wrapped up my meal just before the national anthem was about to begin, and went back over to the bullpen area to watch the players. While there, I noticed that El Paso’s Sammy Solis was also wearing his own umbrella hat. I was curious to see what he’d do with it when the music started to play. Here’s your answer:
When the game began, I spent the first few innings doing what I love best — checking out the ballpark and the action on the field from different vantage points and just generally soaking up the atmosphere. Eventually, I made my way to the upper deck down the first base line, where I was able to keep my eye on Chihuahuas’ right fielder Josh Naylor:
Because I always have my eye out for Canadian-born players, I’ve enjoyed following his career since he was drafted by Miami in the first round of the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft. (And I even got a chance to hold one of his bats before it was sent to him back when I toured the Sam Bat factory.) Anyway, Naylor has been a wrecking ball for the Chihuahuas this season — and has since been called up to San Diego. Before the call-up, he hit .299 with 10 home runs and 35 RBI in 45 games. And he’s only 21 years old.
After watching the game from the upper deck for about an inning, I set off to find something else to eat. I didn’t really feel like a hot dog, so I browsed the multiple concession stands around the concourse to look for something that caught my eye. On unique item that sounded appealing was called Diablo Fries, named after the El Paso Diablos franchises that played at various times for nearly 100 years in El Paso. This dish consisted of a serving of fries topped with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, diced jalapenos and nacho cheese — although the latter was more like queso, which was definitely a good thing, given how I generally feel about nacho cheese. Here’s the meal:
I have to say that it was pretty darned tasty. I’m not the biggest fry lover, but these were crisp and seasoned well, and the Cheetos and jalapenos provided some nice spice without being so hot that they melted my face. It’s definitely a meal that I’d recommend for fans who are visiting Southwest University Park.
Of course, I needed something cool and refreshing to drink with a spicy meal, so I grabbed a green apple slushie from the Slush’ae concession stand on the first base side. I’d had a couple of slushies from that stand during my last trip, and they were perfect. The green apple flavor, I’m pleased to say, was just as good as the lemonade and mango varieties that I’d previously had:
Once I’d eaten, I knew that I needed to get out of the sun for a bit. El Paso averages more than 300 days of sun per year, which is absolutely incredible. Where I live, we had snow up until about three weeks before I left for this trip, so I wanted to avoid getting a sunburn. There are plenty of spots around the ballpark in which you’re in the full sun, but there are also fortunately a number of other places where you can catch some shade. I went back down to the concourse and browsed in the team shop for a bit, and then went and found a shady spot down the third base line where I watched a bit more of the game out of the sun.
As the game progressed, I decided to once again head back to the upper deck on the first base side, and not only because it provided a good view of the action. Since I’d finished my slushie, it had been on my mind to the point that I wanted to try another. Perhaps not the best dietary choice, but the sweet, fruity flavor and the chill of this beverage made it a perfect companion during this ballpark visit. This time, I opted for the cherry flavor, and it was also delicious:
I polished this drink off shortly before the game concluded, and spent the rest of the time until the final out on the outfield concourse where I could watch the game and keep an eye on the action in the visitors bullpen. This spot also allowed me to leave the park quickly so that I could get back to my hotel, pick up my wife and head off for some more sightseeing and dinner.
After dinner, we returned to the hotel and immediately went out to the pool deck and hung out with this view of the ballpark:
Over time, the scene changed to look like this …
… and, eventually, this is what we were looking at:
After two excellent yet dramatically different days at Southwest University Park, I was already looking forward to the excitement that the next day would bring.
At the conclusion of the fourth inning of the May 4 game between the host El Paso Chihuahuas and visiting Salt Lake Bees, I left where I’d been sitting, wove my way through the crowded concourse and took the elevator down to the clubhouse level.
Checking out the various areas of a ballpark while the game is going on is nothing new to me. Going down to the clubhouse level, however, is something that I rarely do — especially once the game has begun. But this wasn’t any old game. Two days earlier, I’d traveled 12 hours and nearly 2,300 miles to El Paso — a city with warm weather and warmer people — for a big reason. The reason for my visit to this West Texas city was to present its Triple-A team with a plaque for winning the Best View in the Minors competition that I ran last year. If you’re new to this blog or perhaps didn’t hear about the competition, here’s a quick rundown.
When I visit different ballparks, I like to watch the game from as many vantage points as possible — and that usually includes spending an inning in the seats behind home plate. When I sit in this spot in any park, I always make a point of appreciating the view. To me, the view isn’t just about watching the game itself. Rather, it’s about taking in what sights are within view in the distance. In downtown ballparks, the city’s skyline is often visible. At other parks, you can see forests, mountains, bodies of water and more. I’ve always found that the right view from home plate can augment my ballpark visit, and I know many of you feel the same way. And that was the impetus behind the Best View competition. It gave you, the fans, a chance to decide which MiLB park offers the best view from home plate — and you overwhelmingly chose El Paso’s Southwest University Park. As part of the competition, I’d promised to visit the winning city to present the team with a plaque this season.
Back to the night in question. After taking the elevator down to the clubhouse level, I walked through the tunnel toward the home dugout and stopped just short of entering it. The field of play was just a few yards in front of me, roughly at waist level, and the familiar sounds of a professional dugout was nearby — the semi-muffled sounds of the stadium PA in the distance. The shouts of encouragement and claps from the dugout. The click-clack of metal cleats on cement. The dull thud of baseball bats being placed in their holders.
Here’s a quick peek at how things looked in front of me:
I hadn’t made the journey through this tunnel merely to enjoy the sounds, though. Rather, I was alongside Angela Olivas, the Chihuahuas’ senior director of marketing and communications and Brad Taylor, the team’s general manager, both of whom played a major role in my visit to El Paso. Angela, who was outstanding in coordinating a number of elements related to my visit and the presentation, had arranged for me to present the Best View plaque to Brad on the field during at the start of the sixth inning. I was also joined by my wife, who was attending this game to capture the presentation on video.
Our meetup just behind the home dugout at the end of the fourth inning meant that we had a whole inning until our moment on the field — and that was a major thrill for me, as I got to enjoy this time in this behind-the-scenes location. As I chatted with Angela, Brad and, eventually, the team’s on-field host Andy Imfield, I also noticed that my pregame jitters about going onto the field were quickly dissipating.
It turns out that the fifth inning was a bit of a marathon. Sixteen batters, seven runs scored and three mound visits meant that the inning took a long time to complete; I’d guess it was close to half an hour. That suited me just fine, because it lengthened our time spent in this area. I was constantly enjoying the sights and sounds, but was especially excited to see that the tunnel in which we stood was steadily busy, too. Left-hander Sammy Solis, who has pitched in nearly 150 games in the big leagues, went back and forth a few times in anticipation of entering the game in the sixth inning. Catcher Austin Allen, who was DHing for the Chihuahuas, made a few trips past us — presumably to get some swings in at the batting cage just a handful of yards behind where we stood. Outfielder Boog Powell, midway through his three-hit game, chatted with Brad for a moment.
Eventually, when the fifth inning came to an end, someone said, “We’re up,” and our contingent went up the dugout steps, turned left and walked along the warning track in front of the Chihuahuas dugout. As Brad and I positioned ourselves on the grass, facing the crowd, I heard the PA announcer say my name and explain the reason for my visit. The in-stadium video camera operator positioned himself in front of us, and Andy gave me a cue to wave once I was on the video board in right-center field. The whole time, team photographer Jorge Salgado snapped photos; those that you see here are courtesy of him.
Here’s Brad and me while the competition was being announced …
… and here’s me waving once I was on the video board:
On cue, I presented the plaque to Brad …
… and we then posed for another picture before heading off the field in time for the inning to begin:
(By the way, you might have noticed that I was wearing one of my new The World Needs More Baseball T-shirts. If you want to buy one of my shirts, you can click here.)
Thanks to my wife, I’m excited to be able to show you the presentation as a video. Check it out here:
My visit to Southwest University Park on May 4 hadn’t begun with my walk through the clubhouse-level tunnel, of course. Nope, I’d arrived at the park several hours prior with the goal of enjoying the environment in anticipation of the plaque presentation that would happen later on. After arriving in El Paso late on the night of May 2, and spending all of May 3 doing touristy things, I was more than ready to attend a ballgame. That’s partly because this ballpark wasn’t just in my mind for much of my stay in El Paso — it was also within sight. We were fortunate to stay at the Courtyard El Paso Downtown, a new hotel that is across the street from the ballpark. Not only were we able to see Southwest University Park from our room’s window, but the hotel also has a pool deck on the fifth floor that offers this view of the park:
Absolutely perfect, right?
If you were to make a guess at how much of my trip I spent standing on the pool deck and admiring the scenery, the correct answer would be, “A lot.”
Fortunately, by the time 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 4 rolled around, I no longer had to just look at the park from afar. It was time to make the short walk over. First pitch wouldn’t be taking place for another 2.5 hours, but I wanted to get into the park good and early and enjoy its environment. Plus, I was feeling a little anxious about presenting the plaque, and figured that if I wandered around the ballpark for a while, it’d help to relax me a bit.
Of course, relaxing in the beautiful Southwest University Park was as easy as it gets. After a slow walk around the concourse, I went to the outfield grass berm and snapped this photo …
… and then hung out in this spot for a few minutes:
Neither team was hitting, which was a bit of a surprise to me. Part of the reason I’d gone to the park so early was to watch batting practice, but with little happening on the field beyond the usual pregame field prep, the park was still quiet. That was fine with me, as it gave me a chance to just enjoy the environment; my first two ballpark visits of the season, as you might recall, didn’t exactly offer favorable weather.
While I was in the outfield, I took some time to photograph the plaque before I presented it. Here’s one of those shots:
After taking the above shot, I carefully packed up the plaque in its bubble wrap-lined box and secured it in my backpack again. I’d been careful while traveling with it two days earlier, and the last thing I wanted was to chip it in the couple of hours that remained until I was due to turn it over. Upon doing so, I snapped this shot of myself with the video board — which was incidentally showing the live broadcast of the Kentucky Derby — in the background …
… and then continued to explore the park a bit more. On the upper level, I noticed an addition since my last visit — the Section 211 Patio Suite. It was added two seasons ago, and offers a private experience for groups. Check out the cool faux-foliage surroundings:
This suite has three different types of seating — stadium seats, tall chairs and, my personal favorite, this comfy sectional:
As much as I’m not a “suite guy,” because I prefer wandering around ballparks rather than remaining in one specific area, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm too hard to have me watch a ballgame in this cool spot.
Once I’d checked out the suite, I went down to the main concourse to meet up with Angela, who gave me a rundown on how the plaque presentation would go. I’d meet her at the end of the fourth inning, we’d go down below the ballpark and meet up with GM Brad behind the home dugout, and then go out onto the field between innings. Sounds just about perfect, right?
By now, the ballpark’s gates had opened, so I met up with my wife who was playing the role of photographer/videographer for this ballpark visit.
The evening’s promotion was First Responders Night, so we went over to the plaza in the right field corner to check out some of the sights. There were police motorcycles and a police car, but the big attraction for me was an FBI SWAT team’s armored vehicle. I had the opportunity to not only climb inside of the vehicle, but to also hold one of the SWAT team’s shields — which I can attest was much heavier than expected:
Soon after I decided that I probably wouldn’t cut it as a SWAT officer, we set out in search of something to eat. I made the uncharacteristic move of declining dinner on this evening. Sorry, folks. I was a little anxious about the upcoming plaque presentation, and didn’t want to put anything in my stomach. My wife, non-queasy about said presentation, was hungry and asked me for a food recommendation. During my visit three years ago, I’d been really impressed with the Juarez Dogs concession stand on the first base side, so that’s where we headed. She opted for an impressive hot dog called the Memphis Meets Mexico Dog. It consisted of an all-beef hot dog wrapped in bacon, topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce, coleslaw, pickles and pork rinds. Any time you can have pork three ways in a meal, it’s a good day, right? Here’s how this hot dog looked:
Even though I’d decided not to eat a proper meal — something that I’d make up for in my subsequent visit to Southwest University Park — I knew I needed to celebrate the plaque presentation after it was done. At several points throughout the game, my wife and I had spotted other fans walking around with a drink that caught our attention, and we knew we had to seek one out to buy. Shortly after we returned to the concourse following the presentation, we made our way to the Frutas Locas concession stand on the first base side and bought a drink known as a pinas locas. Behold:
It consisted of an entire pineapple filled with pineapple juice and fresh pineapple rings. The red sauce is called chamoy, which is a Mexican condiment that is both salty and spicy. And the straw that you see is wrapped in dried fruit and rolled in chili powder, making for even more spice with the drink. I wasn’t sure about all of the spice at first, but it quickly grew on me and I appreciated the contrast that it provided to the sweetness of the fruit. If you’re ever in El Paso, you might decide to order this drink for its Instagram appeal — but I bet that you’ll enjoy the taste, too.
It was fitting to wrap up this ballpark visit with an enormous, novelty pineapple drink, because this was a day that was sweet in a lot of ways.
I’ve got so many people with the Chihuahuas to thank:
- Angela for so skillfully organizing the event, as well as fielding what probably felt like a million questions from me leading up to it;
- Brad for receiving the award;
- Andy for giving me the cue to wave and for writing the script that was read over the PA;
- Jorge for snapping the awesome photos that you see here; and
- The Chihuahuas fans who voted, shared and otherwise supported the Best View competition last season — and who made me feel exceedingly welcome in their city.
About 12 hours after this game ended, I’d be back at Southwest University Park for the team’s first Copa de la Diversión day, in which the Chihuahuas would suit up as the Margaritas in what are probably that loudest uniforms I’ve ever seen. A big blog post all about that experience will be coming very soon.
My last day in Milwaukee was a special one, and not just because I had another opportunity to visit Miller Park.
I was also getting a chance to meet up with my longest-standing Twitter friend, Craig Wieczorkiewicz, also known as the Midwest League Traveler. We’ve talked regularly on Twitter dating back to 2011, which is when he started his website and when I was in the second year of The Ballpark Guide. He was among the first 50 people I followed on Twitter and I have the unusual honor of being the first person Craig followed on Twitter outside of each of the MWL teams. (These details are important to know in case they ever come up in a trivia game.) So, yeah, we go back pretty far. But, even through we’d had countless Twitter exchanges, DMs and emails, we’d never had the opportunity to meet up. There were a few times that we tried to sync up trips that never panned out, and in 2014, we were both in Syracuse at the same time but didn’t get a chance to meet.
Craig was the first person I contacted when I planned my trip to Milwaukee, knowing that he lives less than two hours from there, and I was thrilled when he confirmed that he’d be able to take in a Brewers game with me on the last day of my visit.
My first two Miller Park experiences gave me plenty of opportunities to explore the park, which was good because I knew that visiting with Craig would be more of a “find somewhere to sit and blab our faces off” visit than a ballpark exploration one. Our plan was to meet up well before the gates were scheduled to open so that we could get in line to eat at the Friday’s restaurant located inside of the ballpark. I’d purposely avoided checking out this eatery during my two previous visits, and found myself thinking of it several times as game time approached.
The day itself was fairly quiet for me once again. Instead of doing a bunch of touristy things, I mostly stuck around my hotel, the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. As I’d done throughout my visit, I frequently enjoyed looking at Miller Park in the distance. On this day, though, I took out my zoom lens and snapped this photo of the park:
As much as I was enjoying keeping an eye on the ballpark, I was also enjoying the environment immediately around me. This hotel was easily one of the most impressive that I’ve ever had the fortune of visiting, and not only because it’s such a convenient choice for baseball travelers. Beyond its prime location and the numerous on-site amenities that I enjoyed throughout my stay, the room was outstanding. My photos don’t do my room justice, so I’ve decided not to show them here. If you’re curious, though, check out this link to read more about the rooms. Beyond being spacious, having a super-comfy bed and a roomy bathroom, my favorite feature were the window blinds. The entire ballpark-facing side of the room was a window, and drawing the blinds was as easy as pressing a button on the wall to shut out the sun and turn the room dark. (If you’re wondering if I may have possibly overused this fun feature, I plead the fifth.)
Throughout the day as I waited for Craig to arrive, I kept an eye on the Marquette University fields that were visible from my room. They’re quiet here, but there were several times throughout the day that they were in use with school teams practicing lacrosse and soccer on this perfect autumn day:
Eventually, I met Craig in the lobby of the hotel and we drove over to Miller Park together in my rental car. We made a beeline for the Friday’s door as soon as we parked, and despite my worries that we might not be early enough to get a spot toward to the front of the line — I tend to overdo things in the early department sometimes — Craig repeatedly convinced me that we were in more than enough time. Soon enough, we were standing here …
… and, most importantly, there were only a few people in line ahead of us.
Friday’s at Miller Park has ample seating, but the coveted spots are the “outside” tables. Fans who get into the restaurant first generally choose to sit outside, so being too far back in the lineup outside could relegate you to an inside seat at the restaurant — still cool, but not nearly as exciting as an outside spot. When the doors finally opened, we headed inside and there was no problem getting an outside spot. Craig was right all along, and I was relieved. As we were about to sit down, I snapped this panorama to show the view from our table:
The Brewers were taking batting practice when we first arrived at our table, but left the field just a moment later. That was no concern, though. The home team takes BP first, so I knew that the visiting Cincinnati Reds would soon be headed to the cage — and hopefully hitting lots of home run balls our way.
I took advantage of the empty outfield to snap this shot of the view to my left:
Check out how close we were to the field!
Before we ordered, I took this shot of Craig and me …
… and then we got down to business getting acquainted and, of course, talking baseball. It’s tough to think of a better place to finally meet another baseball fan than exactly where we were sitting. Things got even more exciting — and a bit challenging, to be honest — when the Reds began to hit. I hadn’t taken a glove on this trip, simply because it never fits in my carry-on luggage, so I definitely had to be attentive to balls when they were hit. It was a juggling act to have a conversation while also watching the action on the field, and the challenge intensified when our food arrived.
I’d ordered a beef dip sandwich, and was hungry enough (and possibly distracted enough by watching BP) that I took a few bites of it before I realized that I’d failed to snap a photo. A first-world problem, granted, but in all of the 170+ other ballpark food photos that I’ve shared on this blog, I’ve always documented my food with a photo before digging in. The OCD side of me bristles with the idea of having one food photo in which the food is partially eaten, but I’ll share this shot anyway:
I can categorize the meal as “fine.” Nothing to write home about, but not bad, either. What was several steps above “fine,” however was the combination of the view and the company. As an introvert, I can sometimes feel a little anxious about meeting new people, especially if we’ll be spending a few hours together. But I was thrilled at how naturally Craig and I got along — which I suppose makes sense, given the amount of time that we’ve been Twitter friends. We chatted non stop about baseball, blogging and many other things that don’t start with the letter “B.” And, all the while, we were both digging the view. As we talked, I’d occasionally grab my camera and document the view from different vantage points. For instance, when I looked up and to my right, I had an outstanding view of the upper deck and the enormous glass panels:
Early in the BP session, four Reds wandered over and stood on the grass right below us:
This proved to be the biggest source of action we saw the whole time we were at Friday’s, believe it or not. There were a couple of home runs that entered the restaurant several tables to our left, but otherwise, no baseballs came remotely close to us. I was absolutely blown away by the lack of home runs, as I’d figured we’d have no trouble snagging a few balls between the two of us. The lack of baseballs did nothing to dampen the fun, though, and the Friday’s at Miller Park definitely goes down as one of my favorite ballpark eating experiences because of its uniqueness. I definitely recommend that you check it out when you visit this stadium.
Eventually, we wrapped up our meals and headed out to the concourse of Miller Park. The first thing that I wanted to do was take a look at where we’d been sitting from the perspective of the seating bowl, so we went down into the seats in the left field corner where I took this photo:
Our table was directly above the “YS” in Fridays; the person wearing the red T-shirt is a staff member who was preparing our table for the next group.
I knew that we’d be spending more time during the game sitting than walking around like I usually do, so I wanted to continue to check out the ballpark’s sights until we found a place to sit. Before we headed up to the concourse, I took this shot of the seats in right field, which clearly shows the variety of seating options available in that part of the ballpark:
Given that this would be my last visit to Miller Park on this trip, I knew that I once again needed to visit the Brewers Authentics kiosk to investigate more game-used pants options. Craig did a fairly good job of keeping his eye rolls to himself as I hurried us to the display and babbled about the pants that I’d bought two days earlier. I tend to take forever to make decisions involving baseball memorabilia, but didn’t want to make Craig stand idly by while I indecisively browsed others dudes’ drawers. Luckily, I’d scoped out another pair of pants two days earlier and knew that I’d buy them if they were still around during my next visit. Fortunately, they were, and I was soon the proud owner of a pair of Darnell Coles’ pants!
(For the record, that’s probably a line that has never been written in the history of everything.)
There were several reasons that I’d chosen Coles, the team’s hitting coach between 2015 and 2018. (He resigned just over a month after I bought his pants, but my sources say that my purchase of the pants had nothing to do with his decision.) In addition to the pants being of the throwback variety, which made them instantly special, Coles played 14 years in the big leagues — including two seasons with my favorite team, the Blue Jays. I remember watching him as a kid, especially during the 1993 season when the Jays were on their way to their second straight World Series title.
I didn’t take a photo of the pants at the game, but I definitely put them on when I got back to my hotel later that night and snapped this shot, feeling quite delighted that the pants matched my shirt:
(This photo was taken around midnight, or roughly three hours before I had to get up to catch a flight. I definitely wasn’t grinning then, nor was I still wearing these pants.)
Pants safely tucked into my backpack, Craig and I completed our walk around the concourse and then ascended to the upper deck to find a spot from which to watch the game. We chose a spot on the third base side of the upper deck, and in what was apparently a strange case of foreshadowing, I randomly took this photo of Christian Yelich on the video board when he came up to bat in the first inning:
Just a couple of hours later, Yelich hit for the cycle — the second time he’d done so during his 2018 MVP season, and Craig and I were pretty pumped to be there to see it. This was the first time I’d ever seen a player hit for the cycle in the big leagues in person. (I saw Adalberto Mondesi, then known as Raul Mondesi, Jr., hit for the cycle back in May of 2013 while playing for the Lexington Legends. You can read about that visit here, if you’d like.)
Craig and I sat in the upper deck for a few innings, and then moved to a spot in the outfield, where we had this view:
Midway through the game, I bailed on Craig for half an inning to meet Andy and Patrick, a pair of super-friendly baseball fans with whom I’d recently connected on Twitter. They’re Reds fans who were visiting Milwaukee from Indiana — and were impressively making the drive back home after the Brewers game. It’s always a thrill for me to meet people from Twitter at games, and Andy and Patrick are no exception — and I hope our paths will cross again in Indiana or elsewhere.
Then, I returned to the bleachers and met back up with Craig, and we remained in that spot for the rest of the game. Afterward, we drove back to the hotel parking structure and said our goodbyes. Craig began his ride home, and I headed into my hotel and began thinking about my next adventure — one that would begin well before dawn of the next day.
My third day in Charlotte included another evening Knights game at BB&T BallPark, but before I headed to the ballpark, I had another sports facility to visit. A day after using some spare time to visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame, I made the short walk over to Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers. It’s only a block away from the ballpark, and offers daily tours. The tour that I took was only $6, and was very extensive — including a visit to field level, the visiting locker room, several luxury suites and more locations around the stadium.
After the tour, I grabbed a sub on the short walk back to my hotel and took it up to my room to eat. In my previous posts, I noted how conveniently located the Hilton Charlotte Center City was to not only the ballpark, but also to the other sports venues that I wanted to see. This is definitely the hotel that I recommend when you visit Charlotte on a baseball trip, and not only for its location. For more on the hotel, check out the bottom of this post.
As I did a day earlier, I walked over to BB&T BallPark between two and two-and-a-half hours before first pitch, which would once again give me plenty of time to explore. Even though I was eager to get inside, I spent a few minutes walking around the park’s exterior and looking at it from different angles. I took a handful of shots, but I’ll share just this one — this image of the main gates from across South Mint Street, which separates the ballpark from the picturesque Romare Bearden Park:
A moment after taking this photo, I entered the park and decided to go right up to the home run porch in right field — a place that I’d visited a day earlier, but in which I wanted to spend a little more time. In this spot, I snapped this shot:
You can see a bit of Romare Bearden Park behind me and, of course, some of the city skyline that never gets old. You might’ve also noticed that I’m wearing one of my stars and stripes road trip T-shirts shirts — the first time I’d worn it, actually — which you can buy here if you’re interested.
Batting practice hadn’t taken place during either of my first two visits to BB&T BallPark, so when the players emerged onto the field and started to gather around the cage, I left the home run porch and walked over to a spot just above the first base dugout, where I had this view:
I didn’t do much walking around during BP. Instead, I mostly hung out in various spots behind home plate and just enjoyed the scene in front of me. Shortly before the gates were due to open, I made my way over to the area immediately inside of the main gates. The Knights were welcoming longtime MLB pitcher Steve Avery for an autograph signing, and I wanted to see him up close for a few minutes. You probably know Avery’s name — he was a key member of the talented Atlanta Braves pitching staff of the early 1990s — and while he didn’t get the same acclaim as teammates Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, Avery ended up winning 96 ballgames in his career and was a part of Atlanta’s 1995 World Series-winning team.
Avery spent the last few minutes before the gates opened chatting with Knights staffers and even signing a few autographs for them …
… and as soon as fans entered the stadium, they quickly lined up next to him. I’m not sure how long he spent signing, but it had to be at least half an hour, and I’m sure that a few hundred fans left BB&T BallPark that night as happy owners of Avery’s autograph.
While Avery signed, and the grounds crew prepared the field after the completion of BP, I set off in search of something to eat. I always find that it can sometimes be difficult to choose my meal during my last visit to a ballpark. Even after visiting the previous two days, there were still a lot of menu items that sounded appealing — and that meant that the pressure was on to find something good. After excellent cheesesteak nachos during my first visit and an interesting but awkward hot dog on Day #2, I went in a different direction and bought a hamburger. This wasn’t any ol’ burger, though. It was called the Dragon’s Breath Burger (I’m assuming to pay homage to the enormous dragon near the batter’s eye) and it promised to be spicy.
The spice came in the form of habanero pepper relish and jalapeno pimento cheese. I decided to go grab a quiet seat in the outfield to tackle this burger, and I’m glad I did — it would’ve been awkward for any fans in busier sections of the ballpark to witness my tears.
This was easily the hottest freaking thing I’ve ever eaten at a ballpark, and probably one of the hottest things I’ve ever had in my life. The jalapeno pimento cheese wasn’t noticeable because of the heat of the habanero relish, which seemed to essentially just be a generous spoonful of finely diced habanero peppers. You can see plenty of the relish (in orange) in this image:
So, how hot is a habanero? I actually grow them in our garden, and know that a fraction of one pepper will nicely spice an entire pot of chili, for instance. It felt as though there was at least one full pepper on this burger, which put it well past the point of being “nicely spiced.” In terms of metrics, a jalapeno pepper can register as high as 10,000 units on the Scoville scale, but a habanero can get as high as 350,000 units. It’s about as hot a hot pepper you can find before you get into the “ridiculous” range with ghost peppers, Carolina reapers, etc. All of this meant that even a valiant effort from me wasn’t enough to finish this burger. After just a couple of bites, I was sweating, hiccuping, my eyes were watering and my nose was running.
I regretted not being able to finish the burger, but each bite was agony. I generally like spicy foods, but this meal was just too much for me.
After unfortunately tossing the rest of the burger, I blew my nose several times as though I was in the midst of a mid-January head cold — which might’ve seemed bizarre to any onlookers, given the pleasant August weather. Then, I walked over to the Charlotte bullpen area to watch the Knights get ready. As you can see here, they were wearing their throwback uniforms, which are clearly inspired by the old unis of their parent club, the Chicago White Sox:
I watched the warm-ups from field level, and then headed over to the team shop — known as “The Knights Armor Shoppe” — to browse for a bit before first pitch:
I was actually inside of the shop when the game began, but soon went back out to the concourse and once again made my way around to the third base side for the first couple innings of action. Here was my view in the bottom of the second:
For the rest of the game, I spent time in a bunch of places — an inning in the outfield, an inning on the home run porch, an inning on the grass berm, and so on — and, of course, I closed out the game by hanging out on the third base side of home plate where I could take in the view as the evening turned to night, wrapping up three outstanding days in Charlotte.
As I noted, the three days in Charlotte were really augmented by the caliber of my hotel. I always love choosing the hotels that I’ll visit on my baseball trips, and I’m glad I chose this one. From the moment I checked in to the time that I left, I enjoyed everything about this hotel — even though I was on the go so much that it didn’t feel as though I spent a lot of time there. Take a look at the image of the check-in area …
… and here’s a shot of a guest room identical to mine; I used a photo from the hotel’s website because it looked better than the ones I took:
The room was absolutely perfect. A really comfortable bed, free Wi-Fi that was really fast, free bottled water, a mini fridge and more, with everything spotlessly clean, were all things that I appreciated about my room at the Hilton. Every day of my trip was long and full, so it was always nice to have a comfortable hotel room with all the amenities I’d ever need to return to each night. It will definitely be the hotel I choose whenever I get back to Charlotte.
The end of my visit to Charlotte wasn’t the end of this trip, fortunately. About 12 hours after leaving BB&T BallPark, I’d be waiting in line at Charlotte Douglas International Airport to catch a flight to my next destination.