Tagged: baseball road trip

Ottawa Champions – June 28

Whenever I return to a ballpark I’ve previously visited, my mission is to have a new adventure to blog about. It can be easy to fall into the ever-present blogging trap of being formulaic, and that’s something that I try to avoid as best I can.

Sometimes, I really have to get creative to give you a new story. Other times, something awesome just falls into my lap.

The latter was the case during a late-June visit to Ottawa to watch the Can-Am League’s Champions host the Dominican Republic National Team. As you might remember, I’ve seen Ottawa in international baseball action twice over the past two seasons — against Cuba in 2016 and again against Cuba earlier this June.

Once I heard that the Dominican squad would be in Ontario, I couldn’t resist traveling to Ottawa to see the Champions again. I arrived at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park about 3.5 hours before first pitch, and went down to the field as Ottawa was taking BP. I figured that I’d just be watching the action for a bit on my own, but team president and minority owner David Gourlay was in front of the dugout. I went over to say hello, and we spent about 15 minutes talking everything from baseball to baseball card collecting. Before David and I wrapped up, he asked if I’d had a chance to tour behind the scenes of RCGT Park.

“Well,” I said somewhat sheepishly, “I’ve done a little snooping … but haven’t ever had a full tour.”

He pledged to meet up with me midway through the game and give me the grand tour. Things were already looking up.

Before Ottawa finished its BP, I also got a chance to talk to all-star catcher Danny Grauer for a few minutes; he and I had chatted during my first Champions game of the season and it was fun to get caught up with him. He’s a friendly and instantly likable guy, so I make a point of saying hello to him or speaking to him for a few minutes at each the Champions games I attend.

Once Danny left the field, I spoke for a while to team broadcaster Mason Detre, and also enjoyed such scenes as this one:

Yeah, it looks like a batting cage, but that’s Ottawa manager Hal Lanier watching his players hit. Lanier is a decorated former MLB coach and manager, with a World Series title in 1982 and National League manager of the year honors in 1986. And he also had a decade-long playing career for the Giants and Yankees. It’s not every day I get to see someone with that baseball pedigree.

In each of the times I saw Cuba in Ottawa, the international team was late getting to town and didn’t take BP. That was a disappointment for me, so I was pleased to hear that the Dominicans had arrived in plenty of time — and even more pleased to see some players filtering into the visitor’s dugout with bats in their hands toward the end of the Champions BP session.

I soon learned that the Dominican side was being managed by Luis Polonia, another manager with extensive MLB experience (and a pair of World Series rings). Before long, Polonia and his club were on the field, and I was thrilled to be soaking it all in:

I watched the majority of the Dominican BP session before heading off to wander around RCGT Park a little more. What I found, however, was rain. The weather was hot and sunny enough during Ottawa’s BP session that I could feel the skin on my neck burning a bit. By the time the Dominicans were on the field, the weather was still good but there were clouds in the area. As the visitors left the field, Ottawa rushed to get the tarp in place as the raindrops fell. And a few minutes later, this was the scene:

As it rained just about as hard as I could, an usher and I checked the weather app on his phone and learned that the storm was supposed to let up around 7 p.m. With the game’s first pitch scheduled for just a few minutes later, that meant that an on-time start was in doubt — but that things looked hopeful for a little later.

There wasn’t much exploring to be done as the rain fell; I wanted to stay in sheltered areas, so I went up to the suite level and walked into the restaurant/sports bar that is located on the suite level’s third base side. It’s not a working restaurant during most games, but it’s used for a variety of functions and is adorned with lots of cool Champions action pictures, as well as an overall baseball theme. It was empty except for me, so I silently stood at the windows and hoped for the storm to go away. This scene wasn’t overly promising …

… but this one, just a short while later, certainly was:

The rainbow was so impressive that I’d quickly scampered down to the seating bowl to get a better angle of it. And, would you believe that by shortly after 7 p.m., this was how the ballpark and sky looked?

That’s right, the skies had cleared and the stage was set for a great night of baseball in Canada’s capital.

As the players hit the field, I walked down the front row of the third base seats to watch the warmups. Ottawa’s starter was Phillippe Aumont, who’s the only former major leaguer on the Champions roster and is also a former MLB first-round draft pick. He signed with Ottawa just three week earlier, and is doubling as the team’s pitching coach. I watched Aumont and Grauer go through their stretching routines and then begin to play catch:

A short while later, I went over to the visitor’s side to see the Dominican team up close for the first time since BP. One noteworthy thing caught my eye — one of the Dominican pitchers, Luis Nunez, was wearing a Hudson Valley Renegades  (short-season A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays) warmup jacket over his uniform. (He played for the Renegades last season, for the record.) Its blue was nearly a perfect match with the Dominican uniform, so it blended in, with the exception of the team logo on the left chest. I was amused enough to snap a series of photos at Nunez, who eventually noticed me and gave me a peace sign:

I also noticed catcher Danny Tavares and a teammate who appeared to be having a secretive conversation, but were really just using Tavares’s glove to block the sun:

As the game was just about set to begin, I had my first big-time surprise of the evening. A fan who was headed toward his seat noticed my shirt and stopped to ask me about it. “Are you the guy who does those shirts?” he wondered. It turns out that the fan, Ben Lampron, follows me on Twitter. Even cooler is the fact that he’s not from Ottawa — he lives in Minneapolis, and was visiting Ontario for business when he decided to take in a Champions game. Ben snapped this shot of us right away:

It was such a strange occurrence to run into each other in this manner, and we made plans to meet up once the game had begun. We ended up sitting together for the first couple innings and talking baseball. It turns out that, counting independent ball, Ben has been to nearly twice as many stadiums as me. He travels frequently for work and attends baseball games whenever his schedule allows. We had a great time comparing notes on our favorite (and not-so-favorite) ballparks, and I’m sure our paths will cross again at some point.

After Ben and I parted ways, I went behind home plate to watch a few batters, and then decided that it was time for some dinner. Earlier, I’d heard the PA announcer suggest the “Fan Club Burger” to fans, and while I didn’t know exactly what the burger was about, I decided to take a shot. I’m glad I did. The burger was like what you’d make at home if you were competent in the kitchen — a nice, thick patty with a series of conventional toppings, including bacon:

It was excellent and definitely gets my recommendation for fans visiting RCGT Park. In fact, I’ll probably try it again this summer. Once I’d eaten, I settled into a seat in the front row behind the visitor’s dugout. From there, I had a great view of the Dominican players as they leaned on the railing while their team was on offense …

… as well as the action at the plate and first base. Here’s former Blue Jays minor leaguer Gustavo Pierre at the dish …

… and Sebastien Boucher, a Mariners draft pick in 2004 who’s in his 13th season of professional baseball:

In the fifth inning, I went up to the cross-aisle, where I had this view as I watched a couple batters with Champions director of marketing/communications Craig Richenback:

At one point, a Dominican hitter showed bunt and fouled it back to the screen. Craig sort of shook his head about the idea of bunting, and I was initially puzzled by his reaction. Then, it hit me.

Aumont had a no-hitter going.

It’s funny — when I’m attending ballgames, I don’t have a complete pulse on the game. It might sound weird, given what a baseball fan I am, but I’m walking around so much and checking out different sights that I don’t always know the score. I’ll always have an eye on what’s taking place on the field, but I’m just not glued to the action. I find that at baseball games, there’s so much more to see and do than just sit watching the game itself. To me, seeing a bit less of the game and a lot more of the ballpark and the sights around it actually enriches the entire experience.

I’d never seen a no-hitter in all my baseball adventures, but that didn’t stop me from continuing to experience the ballpark as I usually do. Just a moment after realizing that the no-no was intact, I connected with David and we began an outstanding tour — most of which was out of sight of what was happening on the field.

We met up in the concourse inside the main gates, but soon descended into RCGT’s Park’s lower level. For me, no matter how many stadiums I visit, it’s always exciting to see things that the average fan doesn’t get to see — and then share them on my blog. For me, even something as standard as this hallway beneath the stadium carries with it an excitement:

Our first stop was a seemingly ordinary room with an important role. It holds the beer (and soft drinks, I’m presuming) that are pumped up to the concourse concession stands and served to fans. The Champions are one of only a handful of teams with their own beer, and there were several kegs of it waiting to be hooked up:

Next, we checked out the visitor’s clubhouse, which was marked with a Dominican Republic team logo on the door:

Want to see inside? I did, too, and David led me in to check it out for a moment:

We then walked down the a hallway that is essentially parallel with the first base line. It has a tunnel running perpendicular to it that leads you to the visitor’s dugout, but we kept going until we reached the end. Here, we could see not only the DR bus, but also the batting cage that had been on the field earlier:

I stuck my head through the roll-up door in the above photo and this is what I saw to my left:

You can see a couple of the Dominican relievers in the bullpen, as well as Ottawa mascot Champ waiting for the next on-field, between-innings promotion.

While you can see part of the field in the last picture, our next stop was to a spot where the view of the field was much better. Check it out:

David led me through the umpires’ tunnel to the door directly behind home plate, which is a spot I’d never been at RCGT Park and rarely at any of the 60+ parks I’ve visited. It provides an awesome view of the action — the pitcher looking in to get his sign from the catcher, the batter digging in, the umpire crouching as the pitcher begins his windup, and then the ball highlighted against the batter’s eye on its way to the plate. Visiting this spot was a true highlight of the tour.

While I was within sight of the video board, I checked the score. The Dominicans were still hitless.

Our next stop was the laundry room — not to look at the laundry, but to check out a concrete pillar that David was excited to show me. If you don’t know much about RCGT Park, here’s a quick primer. It opened in 1993 as JetForm Park and was the home of the International League’s Ottawa Lynx, who were the top affiliate of the Montreal Expos. The Lynx remained the prime tenant through the 2007 season, and then moved off to Allentown, PA, to become the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. In the years that followed, the stadium was used by independent and semi-pro teams, and even sat vacant for a stretch. The Champions took over in time for the 2015 season and have been there ever since. But back to the Lynx — they won the league title in 1995, just their third year in existence, and the team signed a pillar in the laundry room to commemorate the victory. How cool is this?

You can clearly make out the names of many future major leaguers who were on that roster, including Curtis Pride, F.P. Santangelo, Kirk Rueter and more. If you click on the image, you can blow it up to see the various names.

In a tip of the cap to the Lynx, the Ottawa Champions signed another side of the same pillar following their Can-Am League title last season. As I was checking out the names, David realized that he’d yet to sign it himself. “I’ve got a Sharpie,” I offered, “want to do the honors?”

David took my marker, added his name, and I snapped his shot next to the pillar:

After the laundry room, we stopped by Lanier’s office. It was pretty basic, but it was cool to see a framed photo on the shelf recognizing the manager’s 900th career win, which he’d accomplished just a few days earlier:

I knew from previous visits to the ballpark that the manager’s office is connected to the home team’s clubhouse, so I was hoping that that would be our next stop — and the tour didn’t disappoint. This was another major highlight. I’ve only been into professional baseball clubhouses a few times, so it was a huge thrill to just walk into the space and look around me. I respect that this space is the home team’s sanctuary, so I wanted to take a photo that would avoid invading anyone’s privacy while still giving you an idea of how the room looks. I figured that a wide-angle shot would do that the best:

Our last stop on the tour was a room adjacent to the clubhouse, which featured a workout area …

… and a pair of soaking tubs:

It’s hard to see in the image above, but there was a hilarious homemade sign on the wall that read:

SHOWER “WITH SOAP” BEFORE USING TUBS!

I love how “with soap” was emphasized.

The tour lasted a little longer than 15 minutes, so David was pretty darned generous with his time. Thanks so much, David!

Once we went back up to the concourse, I hurried up to the seating area to check the scoreboard. Still a no-hitter.

Next, I met up with a Twitter follower and fellow baseball fan named Jane-Anne Dugas. She and I have talked several times on Twitter dating back to last season, but our paths had never crossed in person. We’d connected earlier in the game, and I grabbed a seat next to her with this view for the ninth inning:

That’s Aumont dealing to outfielder Juan Crousset and if it’s difficult to see the goose eggs on the video board in the background, here’s a closer look:

It was great to meet and talk baseball with Jane-Anne, but as the game’s final batter dug in, we hit the pause button on our conversation to simply watch the magic before us. This is what unfolded:

As soon as I stopped recording, I rushed down to the field to snap a bunch of photos. As this was the first-ever no-hitter that I’d witnessed in person, I wanted to get as many shots as I could of this special occasion. I watched as outfielder Steve Brown and pitcher Daniel Cordero ran onto the field with a jug of water …

… and dumped it all over Aumont, much to everyone’s excitement:

This next photo isn’t the greatest, but it was a cool moment — Grauer hugging Aumont:

Here’s a teammate giving Aumont his hat back, which came off in the celebration:

You’ll notice that the pitcher has a firm grip on the final-out baseball, too.

And here’s my favorite photo of the no-hitter — Aumont saluting the fans on his way to the dugout:

While I’ve been lucky enough to see a long list of cool on-field accomplishments in person, I don’t know if anything beats seeing my first no-hitter. And this isn’t just my first no-hitter since starting The Ballpark Guide; I’ve been going to professional baseball games since 1988 and had never seen one before this night.

It was a perfect conclusion to a perfect day at RCGT Park.

Binghamton Rumble Ponies – May 18

Less than 24 hours after leaving Binghamton’s NYSEG Stadium following my first visit since 2011, I was back in the car and pulling into the Eastern League ballpark’s parking lot for some matinee action.

I always find matinee games awesome on my baseball road trips. In some instances, they provide a full nine innings of daylight, which is great for photographs, a quiet evening off and an opportunity to catch up on blogging in my hotel. At other times, they give me a chance to see a stadium for a second time before hitting the road again. This time, I’d be heading home after the game, but was glad for the follow-up opportunity to see the Rumble Ponies again host the Altoona Curve at NYSEG Stadium.

My first game’s experience, which you might have read about here, was excellent. As I said in my last post, the changes that have recently been made to the ballpark made for a much better fan experience than when I last visited six years ago.

A day earlier, I’d enjoyed snagging a couple batting practice home runs in the parking lot. Given the 10:30 a.m. start time on this day, however, I knew that BP wouldn’t be in the cards. Instead of hanging out in the parking lot again, I immediately entered through Gate 1 and headed over to the new picnic area behind the fence in right field. In my previous blog post, I showed you the view from this spot — but not a full shot of how the spot itself looks. Check it out:

I can imagine this being a thrilling place during a home run. The ball would ricochet like crazy on the asphalt and likely bounce off the rounded building, too. If there were a bunch of fans in the area, it’d be fun a scramble to see who could come up with the baseball. (There ended up being one home run ball land in this spot later in the game, but I was unfortunately sitting on the opposite side of the park at the time. It’s too bad, too, because there weren’t any fans using the picnic tables when the home run was hit. A lone fan sauntered over to the area to easily pick up the baseball.)

As I said, batting practice wasn’t taking place, but that didn’t mean that the field was empty. Many players on each team were on their respective sides of the field and and were just starting to warm up, so I began my second day at NYSEG Stadium by standing in the shade under the party deck down the first base line and watching the scene. One funny thing that I noticed was a Rumble Ponies player sitting on one of the field-level seats and impersonating a silly batting stance while a teammate laughed:

Speaking of that party deck, that’s where I headed next. I wanted a bird’s-eye view of the field and the warmups below me, as you’ll see in this shot of the mostly empty ballpark …

… and this one of a Rumble Ponies team meeting taking place:

Next, I headed to the opposite side of the field to check out another new seating area. I hadn’t visited this spot a day earlier, and while it might not have all the bells and whistles of the new party deck I’d just been standing on, it’s an awesome spot to watch a ballgame. This new area consists of tables and chairs that are protected by netting, as well as bar-style seating at field level:

Since I apparently cannot stand still for long when I’m at a ballpark, my next stop was back where I’d been standing earlier. By now, the Binghamton players were playing catch, and I watched the action for a few minutes before noticing a scene that shows just how solitary gameday can be for the starting pitcher. Here’s Rumble Ponies starter PJ Conlon, more than an hour before first pitch, standing by himself against the center field fence and stretching:

Once I’d watched the Binghamton warmups for a few minutes, I once again returned to the visitors’ side to see Altoona. Remember the new seating area from two photos ago? I took a spot at field level, which put me just a few yards from the closest Curve players. Not 30 seconds after arriving, a Curve player walked over toward me and I realized it was outfielder Connor Joe, Pittsburgh’s 30th-ranked prospect and the same player who’d said hello before the game a day earlier. I could tell he was reading the lettering on my new T-shirt and taking it in.

“Cool shirt,” he told me. “What’s The Ballpark Guide?” I was once again a little surprised at being approached by a player, but excited to tell him a little about my site. Seemingly hearing the conversation between his teammate and me, Curve shortstop Kevin Newman, the third-ranked prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, turned around and read my shirt aloud: “Fastballs and walkoffs and hot dogs and road trips.”

As this was happening, I was telling Joe how I’d been to 64 different stadiums, but I suggested that he’d probably played at more throughout all the years of his baseball career, and he laughed. Soon enough, he waved and headed back to the field. The whole exchange lasted less than a minute, but it was pretty cool. I made up my new T-shirts just before this trip with the hope of having them catch peoples’ eyes, and the thought that two players were commenting on the design was an unexpected thrill.

Of course, now I had a pair of new players to add to my “players with whom I’ve had a cool interaction and now I cheer for them” list, so I got busy snapping some shots of both Joe and Newman. Here’s one of Joe that turned out well:

And one of Newman:

Although I was mostly watching Joe and Newman, something unusual caught my eye. Altoona shortstop Pablo Reyes was wearing his Oakley sunglasses upside down on his face. I thought he might’ve just been doing it for a joke, and I’m sure he was to some extent, but they remained in place while he played catch. It was a bizarre sight, but one that definitely made me smile:

In fact, I thought this sight was so bizarre that I submitted it for consideration in ESPN’s Uni Watch blog, and it got included. Here’s the tweet that I sent:

And here’s a screenshot of the part of the Uni Watch blog post that mentions my submission:

By the way, the photo of Reyes may make it appear as though he was just wearing his shades upside down while standing around, but he was actually wearing them that way while playing catch. Here’s proof:

After I’d finished watching the oddity with Reyes, I shifted by attention back to Joe and Newman, who appeared to be having a good time toward the end of warmups:

When warmups wrapped up and first pitch approached, I went back over to the Rumble Ponies side of the field for a few minutes. While there, I snapped this shot during the national anthem …

… and then took a spot in the first row above the Altoona dugout to shoot some action shots of players. Here’s Curve starting pitcher Yeudy Garcia, who’s the #12 prospect in the Pirates system:

Here’s Champ Stuart, who hit the first foul ball I snagged a day earlier, just after laying down a bunt:

And, since we’re talking about those foul balls from my first game in Binghamton, here’s Luis Guillorme, who hit the second one I snagged:

The next inning, Altoona outfielder Jordan Luplow got hit by a pitch, and I snapped this shot just after the ball made contact:

The HBP was sort of interesting, although I’m sure Luplow would beg to differ. He had absolutely crushed a home run the previous night, and while I hadn’t noticed if he’d watched it a little too long or done something else to get under the opposition’s skin, the beanball made it obvious that Binghamton wasn’t pleased. In fact, the intentional nature of the pitch was so evident that one of the Curve coaching staff yelled out a warning to Conlon, “You’ve got to hit, too,” and then may have used two-part curse word.

There’s no way Conlon didn’t hear what was yelled, but he didn’t react. I was ready for some fireworks when he came up to bat, but it wasn’t payback time on this day. Speaking of Conlon, here’s a shot I snapped just after his delivery a few pitches after hitting Luplow:

After watching innings one and two from behind the dugout, I opted for a change of scenery and found it on one of the picnic tables in the right field corner. I was determined to spend some time there in the hopes of snagging another home run ball for my collection. I spent about an inning and a half with this view …

… but nothing came my way.

Eager for a little shade, I decided to take a walk through the covered concourse under the seats to check out some of the historical plaques recognizing those enshrined in Binghamton’s baseball hall of fame. This part of NYSEG Stadium might initially go unnoticed because of its location, but it’s a must-see area. (Although, I’d love to see it somewhere with a little more visibility, given that there are plaques recognizing many all-time greats of the game who have a connection to Binghamton.) One name that I thought was notable was that of Bud Fowler. His name isn’t one that I recognize, but Fowler was the first African-American player to play professional baseball. He suited up for the International Association’s Binghamton Crickets in 1887 and hit .350.

My short walk through Binghamton baseball history lasted about half an inning, although I could’ve spent longer reading all the plaques. I wanted to get back out to the seats to enjoy some more action, and settled into a seat behind home plate, where I had this view:

After an inning in that spot, I took a front-row seat above the Binghamton dugout to shoot a few more action shots. Here’s L.J. Mazzilli, the home run hero from a night earlier, ducking out of the way of a pitch …

… and then making square contact a couple pitches later to hit his first triple of the season:

Later in the inning, Stuart hit a single. Altoona was careful to keep Stuart from getting a big lead, given his speed. The result was a number of pick-off attempts, and I had a great view for them:

The throws must’ve worked; Stuart did indeed try to swipe second base, but was tossed out by Altoona catcher Zane Chavez:

(I like how first baseman Edwin Espinal is making the “out” sign at the same time as the umpire.)

The next inning, I shot this image of Altoona’s Reyes who was batting without his lucky upside-down sunglasses …

… and Rumble Ponies reliever Luis Mateo, looking skyward after coming off the mound following a one-inning outing:

I spent the game’s final innings once again in the right field corner hoping for a home run ball:

Again, though, nothing came my way. That didn’t do anything to dampen an excellent two days in Binghamton. After my disappointment in 2011, I was really hoping that I’d enjoy this visit — but had no idea things would’ve changed for the better to this degree. Now, I’m eagerly looking forward to returning to Binghamton for some Rumble Ponies baseball, whenever that may be. And if you’re remotely in the area, I wholeheartedly recommend that you make a stop at NYSEG Stadium, too.

Colorado Rockies – September 19

Want to guess what time I got up on my first morning in Denver?

If you guessed 3:45 a.m. local time, you’d be right.

Now, before you label me a sleep-deprived maniac, let me tell you two things — my body was clearly still on east coast time, and I was thrilled to be in a new city for three days of baseball at my 63rd different ballpark. Deciding that I wouldn’t wake my wife like a tot on Christmas morning, I quietly let myselfout of our hotel room and went down to the lobby of the Westin Denver Downtown. My wife and I hadn’t done much exploring of the hotel the night before, and I was itching to check out some of the amenities. It’s definitely one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed at over the years, so I’m anxious to share some pictures over my next few blog posts.

My first stop was the super-cool pool deck that you might’ve seen me post about on Instagram during my trip. It’s probably my favorite feature at the hotel, as it’s the first pool I’ve seen that is part indoors, and part outdoors — and, as you might guess, it was pretty quiet about 4 a.m.:

After walking around the hotel a bit, I set out for an early morning walk, anxious to smell the mountain air before the streets got busy with vehicles. The Westin is situated in the heart of Denver in an area known as the 16th Street Mall. The mall is an open-air pedestrian mall that’s more than one mile long and stocked with 300+ stores and 50+ restaurant. You can’t actually drive down 16th Street (although I mistakenly did the day before — but that’s another story) so it’s a great place for pedestrians and tourists to browse. Anyway, I walked around the mall a bit and then zigzagged my way through some of the neighboring streets, noting some eye-catching scenery like this:

Once I’d walked for a bit, I returned to the lobby to hang out until my wife arrived, and then we went back to our room in time to watch the Rocky Mountains come into focus, which was absolutely amazing:

If you’re visiting Denver for any reason and book a room at the Westin Denver Downtown, make sure ask for a room that faces the mountains. As you know, I’m a sucker for a hotel room with a view, and it’s certainly tough to top a mountain range! While the mountains were certainly the star attraction out the window of our room, it was also impressive to see Sports Authority Field at Mile High, home of the NFL’s Denver Broncos, and Pepsi Center, home of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche. Can you spot the two stadiums in the photo above? Let me know in the comments below.

After having breakfast near the hotel, my wife and I did a handful of touristy things around the city, but once mid-afternoon arrived, it was time to head back to the hotel and get ready to walk over to Coors Field. My wife, meanwhile, had a different plan, and hopped in our rental car and drove off to check out the Denver Botanic Gardens. She’s not the biggest baseball fan, but to be fair, if we’d traveled to Denver to see the botanic gardens, I might’ve sneaked off to a ballgame.

I loaded my camera stuff into my backpack and began the short walk from the Westin to Coors Field, getting more excited with each city block that I put behind me. Soon enough, the glorious ballpark came into view, and I snapped this panorama from across the street:

I was immediately impressed with the exterior beauty of the park, but it was just the tip of the iceberg (or tip of the mountain, perhaps?) in terms of how I felt about the look of this ballpark. Admittedly, Colorado isn’t a team I watch on TV very much; I live on the east coast, so most of the Rockies games aren’t at an ideal time, and I don’t follow the National League as much as I do the American League. This meant that I was in for plenty of positive surprises throughout my entire visit to Denver, starting before I even entered the ballpark.

As you can see from this photo …

… I got to Coors Field just after 4 p.m., which was well in advance of the gates opening. That was part of my plan, though, as I wanted to wander around the exterior for a bit. I’ve mentioned in other blog posts that I love red brick ballparks, so it was a thrill to simply walk the exterior perimeter of Coors Field and enjoy the mammoth structure towering over my left shoulder:

The streets around the ballpark were still fairly quiet …

… but the energy picked up by the time I made it around to the center field gate, although at least half of the fans waiting in line were St. Louis Cardinals fans (and one confused guy with a Rockies jersey and Cardinals cap). I hung out in the line for just a little bit, and soon enough, I was through the gates (and metal detectors, ugh), up the stairs, and onto the concourse:

Wooo! Look at those lovely wide concourses — I love the feel of big concourses that aren’t claustrophobic. There are a handful of MLB parks that are simply too confined, and while tight confines might have their own charm, I’ll always favor those that don’t make me feel like a sardine.

I made my way through the concourse until I got to the natural landscape area beyond the fence in straightaway center — wow!

I’d obviously seen this area on TV, but didn’t get a true appreciation until I saw it in person. Just imagine the sound of the fountains mixed with the music wafting over the stadium speakers, the cracks of the bats from batting practice and the shouts of the players on the field. I was in heaven.

After taking in the natural oasis for a few minutes, I hustled over to the adjacent bleacher seats and snapped this panorama:

(The haziness you see on the right of the image is barbecue smoke — more on that later.)

As I stood there and basked in the view, I was feeling pretty darned lucky to be spending three days in Denver.

I didn’t bother with trying to snag a BP ball. Instead, I took a walk along the outfield concourse, noting all the delicious food options that I’d be undoubtedly diving into — if not during my first game, then definitely over the next couple days.

I also scoped out the play area in the left field corner, which is a must-visit spot if you’re taking in a game at Coors Field with kids:

Next, I shot this photo of the Rockpile section in center field to give you an idea of what it looks like:

This ended up being a spot in which I’d spend plenty of time over the next three days. It provides a fantastic view of the playing field, and its prices are dirt cheap — certainly among the best I’ve ever seen in the major leagues. Seeing this section made me think about my favorite unique seating sections in baseball. Let’s just take the major leagues — let me know about your favorite spots, and why, in the comments section. (And, after I’ve received a few comments, I’ll chime in with my favorite spots, too!)

By now, I’d spent a fair bit of time checking out the scenes around center field, but had yet to make my way toward the home plate concourse. That obviously had to change, so I set out to walk down the concourse on the third base side — stopping to enjoy this perfect scene for a few minutes before I went:

One cool sight that I saw (and visited during each of my three games at Coors Field) was the game-used kiosk along the concourse. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll know that I love collecting game-used gear when I can, so I took in the Rockies game-used selection of bases, helmets, jerseys, bats and balls with great interest:

The one knock on the kiosk? There were no prices listed for anything, which made it annoying to browse the available options without any idea of whether anything was good value or not. Of course, this certainly wasn’t enough to sour my mood, so after browsing for several minutes, I continued through the concourse …

… until I made it to the Blue Moon Brewery at the Sandlot. You probably know Blue Moon beer, right? Well, it was originally created by the Sandlot Brewery, located in Coors Field. (In fact, it was originally known as Bellyslide Belgian White, which is something I learned on my Coors Field tour the next day.) Anyway, Coors has since bought the brand, and the beer is still brewed at the brewery inside the ballpark. And, in the photo you’ll see below, there’s a smokehouse restaurant attached to the brewery that sells all sorts of tasty fare — and offers seating right along the edge of the concourse, too:

Once I’d wandered around the home plate area for a bit, I headed back to the outfield to climb atop the Rockpile section. As I said earlier, it provides a perfect view of the field, but you’ll also see that this vantage point gives you a great impression of the stadium overall, and even the Denver skyline in the distance:

I spent several minutes just standing there and taking in the sights. Just being at a ballpark always makes me smile, so it’s nice to occasionally slow down and breathe the (mountain) air a bit.

Of course, I was also itching to do more exploring of Coors Field, so I made my way behind home plate, climbed all the way up to the top row of the upper deck, and snapped this photo:

And here’s the scene as a panorama:

Since I was already on the upper level, I wanted to check out Coors Field’s newest big attraction, The Rooftop. It’s a two-level bar/eatery/hangout that is nearly 40,000 square feet in size and not only provides panoramic views of the field and stadium, but of the city’s skyline, as well. Here’s how this area looks from across the way:

As I made my way onto The Rooftop and began to marvel at the sights, another sight caught my eye — my enormous head on the video board! I definitely did a double take when I looked up and saw a screenshot of one of the tweets I’d sent when I arrived at Coors Field. I’ve been lucky to be on the video board at a few ballparks over the years, but this was definitely the biggest I’d ever seen myself:

Several fans’ images were cycling through, so I’d see myself, then wait for a few minutes for other photos to cycle through, and there I’d be again. Hilariously, though, the cycling stopped at my photo at one point — it was as though the program running the images had frozen. And that meant that my face was fixed on the video board for maybe three or four minutes straight. I couldn’t resist scurrying to a different spot of The Rooftop and snapping another shot:

I didn’t actually spend too long up in this location on this day, but I devoted a lot of time to The Rooftop during my visit the next day. For now, though, I went back down to the main concourse, headed behind home plate, and enjoyed watching the Coors Field grounds crew finish the last of the pregame field prep as the seats slowly began to fill:

I love the look of a ballpark as the sun begins to set, which is something that occurred earlier than I’m used to on this visit. September 19 is among the latest I’ve ever attended an outdoor baseball game since I started my travels, which meant that the sun was already low in the sky before first pitch. That was fine with me, though, as I provided great views like this one of right-center and The Rooftop:

The game soon began, and after watching the first inning from the center field concourse, I decided that I was time to eat — based on my food-scouting mission from earlier, I felt that a made-to-order burger, onion rings and a shake from the nearby Helton Burger Shack were in order. Can’t go wrong with that choice, right?

Well, that wouldn’t be in the cards, as evidenced by this sign:

I’m not sure which player hit the bomb that sabotaged my dinner plans, but no worries — it was an interesting occurrence and brought back memories of a 2014 visit to New Hampshire’s Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. As I was watching batting practice, a home run sailed over my head and smashed a window of the adjacent hotel. I snapped a photo of the broken window and it got shared a lot on social media. If you’re interested in that story, you can find my blog post about it here.

Anyway, I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed a glass shard-filled burger, so I’m glad that the powers that be decided to close the Helton concession stand. That meant that I needed a new choice for dinner, and the choice was easy. I’d noticed the Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que concession stand earlier — in part because the delicious smoke that was wafting through the concourse was impossible to ignore. There was a long lineup at Famous Dave’s, which is always a good sign. I ordered a pound of Memphis dry rub rib tips, and while I’m not the hugely rib fan in the world, these looked too good to pass up:

They were delicious. The rub was the perfect blend of seasonings and the sweetness of the barbecue sauce I added to my container for dipping purposes complemented the smokiness of the rib tips perfectly. Definitely a meal worth getting when you visit Coors Field.

Of course, that wasn’t the only thing I bought from Famous Dave’s. For “dessert,” I washed down my rib tips with three slices of chocolate-dipped bacon; I’d never previously tried chocolate-dipped bacon, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So, so delicious:

After I’d eaten (and enjoyed a post-rib and bacon rest) I realized that there’s another big incentive to the Rockpile section. If you sit atop it, and turn to your right, you’ll have a perfect view of the sun setting over the Rockies. The view was so good that probably 20 or so fans came up to where I was sitting and shot photos of the scene; it was just too beautiful to pass up. As for my photos, here are a couple that show the progression of the sunset:

Once the sun was down, I made my way around this guy (who, in fairness, was just retrieving the cellphone he’d dropped) …

… to go grab a frozen lemonade, which I ate on the Rockpile:

Next, I watched an inning from this spot …

… and noted just how accommodating the Coors Field ushers were. At some parks, you’ll get shooed away if you stand in this area for more than a couple seconds, but the local ushers weren’t hassling anyone. As long as the cross-aisle was kept clear for people to walk, the ushers had no problem with fans watching the action from this spot. Definitely another check mark for Coors Field in my books.

As the game progressed, I decided to make another visit to the upper deck, so I took a long elevator ride …

… and a few moments later, I was exactly a mile above sea level. How did I know? Check out this cool Coors Field feature — see the purple beam? That mark is 5,280 feet, or one mile, above sea level:

I caught the game’s final innings from a seat that provided this spectacular view:

And, once the final out had been recorded, I made my way back down to street level, having a quick chuckle at this sign …

… and made the short walk back to my hotel, where I fell into bed eagerly anticipating my second full day in Denver.

Toronto Blue Jays – June 21

I try to visit Rogers Centre every two years, which means that after not seeing a game at the stadium since the spring of 2013, I was way overdue to travel to Toronto.

Time to do something about that.

For this visit, I think I was more excited about the hotel I’d be visiting than the game itself, despite being a longtime Blue Jays fan. That’s because I had one night booked at the Delta Toronto, which is one of the city’s newest hotels and the tallest hotel in the Toronto skyline. Even more importantly, it’s located about a Jose Bautista home run distance from Rogers Centre, and the ballpark-facing room photos that I’d obsessively browsed online offered as impressive a view as I’ve ever had from a hotel. (And, if you know me, you know one of my very favorite things is a hotel from which you can see the ballpark.)

I opted to take the train to Toronto instead of drive, as I was swamped with work and sitting on the train would allow me to get caught up on some writing during the trip. The VIA Rail train arrives at Toronto’s Union Station, which is the city’s central travel hub downtown, and I was pleased to see that I could actually access the Delta through a series of walkways and pedestrian bridges.

Anyway, I arrived super early, as I was hoping to get into my room before check-in, and I wanted to give myself some time to check out the new hotel and tour the area around it, too. When I passed through a walkway from Union Station to the Delta, I found my path blocked by a large group of men stretching on the floor — I quickly noticed that they were all wearing Vancouver Whitecaps uniforms, and were obviously doing their pregame stretching routine at the hotel before playing Toronto FC in Major League Soccer action later that afternoon. Always a good sign when a major league sports franchise is staying in the hotel you’re visiting, right?

My early arrival meant that my room wasn’t quite ready, so the front desk clerk asked if I wanted to visit the exclusive Club Lounge on the 46th floor while I waited. Umm, that was a no brainer!

When I reached the lounge, I rushed to the window to check out the view, and this is what I saw:

delta-toronto-club-lounge-view

How’s that for incredible? The focal points, of course, are Rogers Centre and the CN Tower, but you can also see Ripley’s Aquarium, Roundhouse Park and a whole lot more. See the island on the left? That’s the tip of the Toronto Islands, home to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. And, since I love my panoramas, here’s the same view in panoramic format:

delta-toronto-club-lounge-view-pano

While the view was the main attraction, the lounge was outstanding, too. Here’s how it looks:

delta-toronto-club-lounge-inside

With the exception of an attendant and a couple people working on laptops, the lounge was empty, so I toured around it and learned that there were complimentary drinks and snacks — including red licorice, which I may or may not have overindulged in. It was cool being so high off the ground; I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a hotel so tall, so I had a blast looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows and identifying the sights below that I recognized.

Soon enough, I was called because my room was now available, and I was in for even more of a treat. Here’s a photo of how my room looked; this shot is off the hotel’s website because it looks better than the ones I took:

delta-toronto-room

I’ve been lucky to stay in some outstanding hotels over the years, and this room is easily on the shortlist of the very best, both in terms of in-room amenities and view. My room was on the same side of the building as the lounge I’d just left, so the view was similar, albeit with a lower vantage point as it was on the 33rd floor. Here’s the view from the desk, which I took just after the dome started to open:

delta-toronto-view-dome-opening

Would you like to see a dozen or so shots of the dome in various states of opening? No? Fine, I’ll respect that. (But I’ve got the photos ready if you want to see ’em.)

I was fortunate to be in a corner room, so I had a spectacular view in two directions. The outer walls were entirely made of glass, truly giving a panoramic feel to the world outside. I normally don’t devote too many words to hotel bathrooms, but this one was outstanding. It featured a soaker tub set up to offer amazing views of the city and lake:

delta-toronto-soaker-tub

I was loving the room, but there would soon be baseball to watch — and even though I’ve been to Rogers Centre a million times, I was still eager to arrive early. So, I quickly changed into my Gregg Zaun shirsey …

malcolm-zaun

… in the hopes of having it autographed by the former Jay and current Sportsnet studio analyst, and headed downstairs. As you could tell from the earlier photos, the Delta is very close to Rogers Centre, making it a perfect choice for baseball fans or those who want to stay in a central area downtown. This is the view from the sidewalk directly outside the hotel:

view-of-rogers-centre-from-delta

When I got closer to the stadium, I turned around and snapped this photo of the Delta:

delta-toronto-outside-view

Then, at exactly 4:36 p.m., I claimed the first spot in line at Gate 2 …

rogers-centre-gate-two-first-in-line

… and began the process of standing there for another 54 minutes until I was able to hustle inside the park. When you enter through Gate 2, which I don’t think I’ve ever done before, you’re in right field. I was the first fan into the second deck seats less than a minute after my gate opened, and I was soon looking at this view:

rogers-centre-second-deck

My plan was to spend 10 or 15 minutes seeing if a BP home run would come my way. I’ve had reasonably good success snagging BP balls at Rogers Centre with minimal effort over the years, and hoped that being in the virtually empty second deck for the lefty hitters might yield some results. Unfortunately, it did not, so I soon began to tour the park and note the changes since my last visit. My first visit was the game-used room of the team shop, which is always a cool place to check out. The prices are beyond ludicrous, but I always get a kick out of seeing artifacts from the team and ballpark. Here’s the rubber that sat under Mark Buehrle’s cleats when he pitched his 200th inning of 2014, for example. Yours for a cool $2,500:

rogers-centre-game-used-rubber

Speaking of pricey, how about a Blue Jays pub table for $650? Buck Martinez books not included:

toronto-blue-jays-table

After opting not to spend three or four figures on anything at the shop, but thoroughly enjoying perusing everything, I went back to the main concourse and headed over behind home plate:

rogers-centre-home-plate-pregame

And, as I made my way over to the third base side, I looked up and could see the top of the Delta poking above the upper deck:

delta-toronto-rogers-centre

Beyond wanting to see the hotel from inside the stadium, I had another reason for heading to the third base side — I wanted to visit the broadcast studio and flag down Zaun for an autograph and a photo. After all, I figured he’d get a kick out of my shirt. To my dismay, he had a rare night off, and a couple other panelists were talking with host Jamie Campbell:

rogers-centre-samsung-broadcast-booth

Argh. Of all the luck.

I decided that it’d be appropriate to quell my tears with some food. Rogers Centre’s food selection has changed dramatically over the years since I started The Ballpark Guide. My all-time favorite concession stand at the park was the Quaker Steak & Lube stand that sold delicious chicken wings, but it’s no longer there. My second-favorite food item was sold at the Shopsy’s concession stand, which has also gone the way of the dodo. (By the way, the sandwich that I’d always get at Shopsy’s was called the Bill Cosby Triple Decker, which I imagine is no longer available anywhere except perhaps a cell block.)

After a full lap of the main concourse to note all the new food selections, of which there were many, I opted for the buffalo cauliflower poutine. It’s a dish that was new for 2016 and had been receiving lots of publicity, so I was curious to check it out. (Plus, I also thought it’d be fun — and rare — to have a veggie at the ballpark.) I grabbed the food and ascended to the upper deck to eat it. Here’s how it looked:

rogers-centre-buffalo-cauliflower-poutine

As I dug in, I was surprised at the lack of fries. The “poutine” label, to me, suggested that there’d be fries at the bottom of the container, but that wasn’t the case. Rather, the pieces of breaded and fried cauliflower made up the bulk of the meal. They were topped with cheese curds, buffalo sauce and fresh parsley. The verdict? It fell into the odd “good but I wouldn’t order it again” category. The fried cauliflower was definitely tasty, but I found there was a lack of variety in this meal. Soon enough, the cauliflower was soggy from the melted cheese and hot sauce, so everything sort of clumped together. I definitely appreciated the meal’s creativity, though — even if it wasn’t something I’d likely order again, it was fun to try something so unique.

The game began as I ate, so I enjoyed watching the first inning from a section I don’t think I’d visited much in the past. Of course, the ever-present Rogers Centre usher had to come over and check my ticket. I had a ticket for a section in the 500 Level in right field, but had stopped in a nearly empty section in left field to eat. For the record, the usher “let” me stay but admonished me to leave the section as soon as I finished eating.

Anyway, it takes more than an overzealous usher to get me down, so I finished my meal, enjoyed the unique view from my seat …

rogers-centre-upper-deck-pano

… and then decided to head over toward my seat in right field.

As I walked through the 500 Level concourse for the first time since 2013, I noticed a change. Ever since the Blue Jays became good again, the 500 Level has once again come alive. In the glory years of the team, the seats in the upper deck were often packed. During the team’s down years, though, many sections were blocked off and several of the 500 Level concession stands remained closed, giving a bit of a ghost town feel to the sections and concourse toward the foul poles. It was nice to see this part of the stadium so lively during this visit, and I imagine it’ll stay that way as long as the team continues to be competitive.

Moving from the 500 Level concourse to the seating area, I did a bit of exploring around to look at some of the varied/bizarre seating options that I hadn’t previously noticed during my Rogers Centre visits. This photo shows the top row of Section 504, which is the first section to the right field side of the video board:

rogers-centre-section-504-seats

I initially thought the seats behind the “504” sign were sort of a cool area, but you might beg to differ if I showed you the view from those seats:

rogers-centre-section-504-view

Ugh.

After watching the game from this section for a bit, I continued to meander around to see the various sights. I noticed my hotel from a different part of the stadium, with the base of the CN Tower visible on the left:

delta-toronto-from-rogers-centre

My next stop was the WestJet Flight Deck in center field, which is one of the hottest places to catch the game in the entire stadium. Here’s how this party deck looks …

rogers-centre-westjet-flight-deck

… and here’s the view from this area:

rogers-centre-westjet-flight-deck-view

Later, I returned to the team shop as it was a little less crowded, and that gave me a better chance to look at the game-used items. Perhaps the coolest thing I saw there was Roberto Alomar’s glove from the 1992 and 1993 World Series championships:

roberto-alomar-glove

It was, as you might expect, not for sale.

I spent the last part of my visit watching the action from behind home plate, enjoying views like this one:

rogers-centre-behind-home-plate-game

 

I’ll admit, though, that my visit ended before the game’s last out. I’m not typically a fan of leaving a game early, but I ducked out of Rogers Centre a couple innings before the game was over so that I could get back to my hotel room and shoot some time-lapse images of the evening scene. Although it’s tough to beat the idea of being in the stadium, the idea of watching the sun setting over it from an awesome hotel room was pretty appealing, too.

Here’s how that view looked:

At about the midway point, you’ll see the Rogers Centre dome close, which I think looks cool.

I spent the rest of the evening enjoying the outstanding view, occasionally peering down at the street 33 floors below …

street-below-delta-toronto

… and then I drifted off to sleep with the glorious scene of Rogers Centre and the CN Tower in front of me. My sleep, however, was rather short-lived by design — I had my alarm set for 3:30 a.m. so that I could get up when it was still dark, set up my GoPro again, and capture the sunrise in time-lapse mode. It was fun to watch the city come to life through my window:

(By the way, if you’d click to give each of those videos a thumbs-up, I’ll send you a virtual high five. Subscribe to my channel and I’ll send a double high five.)

When the sun rose the next morning, I — you guessed it — enjoyed the view some more before having an awesome breakfast at the hotel restaurant and then going back up to my room just to hang out and enjoy the view until it was checkout time. Given the cool corner bathroom, I sat on a stool next to the tub, drank a black cherry lemonade, and just relaxed:

delta-toronto-my-leg

The Delta Toronto definitely provided an outstanding visit, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for baseball fans. You can’t beat the view or the easy proximity to a ton of major attractions, as well as the impeccable guest rooms and top-notch service. It’ll definitely be my choice when I visit Toronto again to see the Blue Jays.

Frisco RoughRiders – May 21

When I woke up early on the morning of May 21, my first mission was to run to my balcony and check out the view of Dr Pepper Ballpark like a kid charging downstairs on Christmas morning to see if Santa came. Yep, the ballpark was still there, as expected, and it still looked great.

Next, it was time to excitedly think about returning to the ballpark — where I’d spent an awesome evening a day earlier — later that day.

While I was pumped to get inside on the nicest MiLB parks I’ve visited, I was especially excited for two stomach-related things:

  1. Filling my stomach in the exclusive JC Penney Club, thanks to an invitation from Jason Dambach, executive VP and general manager of the Frisco RoughRiders.
  2. Feeling butterflies in my stomach being interviewed during the team’s broadcast.

After a big, delicious breakfast at my hotel, the Embassy Suites Hotel and Convention Center, I settled down at the desk with my laptop to catch up on a little blogging … but I’d also intermittently go out to the balcony, sit on the chair and just take in the beautiful view in front of me. This was the pattern for the bulk of the day, and pretty soon it was time to pack up my stuff and walk over to the ballpark. I walked through the gates early so that I could shoot a bunch of video with my GoPro, which you’ll be able to see on my YouTube channel in the future.

In between recording video clips, I also wanted to make sure that I could simply enjoy the ballpark experience. I’d be up around 4 a.m. the next morning and had a travel day that exceeded 12 hours, so I wanted to have a relaxing visit and savor every last minute of my 10th day in Texas. One of the first things I did was stand right behind the home plate netting and enjoy a long stretch of batting practice … turning around for a brief moment to take this picture:

dr-pepper-ballpark-malcolm

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

dr-pepper-ballpark-jc-penney-club

Let me explain the context: A day earlier, I’d met Jason and we’d talked about my baseball trip, Dr Pepper Ballpark and bunch of other cool things. The topic of food came up, and I’d excitedly told him about my plan to eat the Texas Mac & Cheese BBQ Sandwich. He mentioned the JC Penney Club, an upscale eatery with a great view of the ballpark, and told me that I’d be hard-pressed to find better food in all of the minor leagues — and then told me that he’d make me a reservation to eat there before the RoughRiders game a day later. Wow!

I was scheduled to eat at 5 p.m., and had about an hour to continue to explore the park before then; I wanted to do lots of walking around, as I suspected I might be a little sedentary after experiencing the buffet-style dining.

With BP still taking place, I took a walk down the first base line and found a spot to stand next to the visiting team’s bullpen. From there, I watched a pitcher throw a side session, while also keeping an eye on the action on the field. It was glorious:

dr-pepper-ballpark-visitors-bullpen-1

In my blog post about my first day in Frisco, I wrote about the unique, fan-friendly position of the home bullpen. The visitors’ bullpen is in basically the same position, albeit on the first base side, but is a little different in the way that it’s laid out. It has seats on two sides of it and a party deck above, which is where I was standing a moment earlier. Here’s what the scene looks like:

dr-pepper-ballpark-visitors-bullpen

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

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-first-base-side

My next stop was the Diamond Deck group party area in the left field corner. I’d originally planned to hang out on the grass berm for a bit, but when I passed the Diamond Deck, something caught my eye:

dr-pepper-ballpark-deck-with-ball

See the baseball right below the rail?

I picked it up after taking the above photo, and saw that it was a generic minor league practice ball:

dr-pepper-ballpark-practice-ball

I’ve got a few of those in my collection, but I don’t think I’ve seen once since I visited G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, home of the Potomac Nationals, back in 2011. Anyway, since the gates weren’t open and I didn’t want to keep the ball, I tossed it to a San Antonio Missions player (the guy in the middle):

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

It was awesome to still have a bit of time until the ballpark opened; I was loving just watching BP from various vantage points and taking in the park’s beauty and uniqueness — here, for example, is a look at the separate buildings down the third base line, which I talked about in my previous blog post:

dr-pepper-ballpark-concourse-buildings

Soon enough, it was time to head up toward the JC Penney Club and check out the buffet. First, though, I shot this image of the construction crew still hard at work on the lazy river …

dr-pepper-ballpark-lazy-river

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

dr-pepper-ballpark-from-second-level

I was impressed when I finally entered the JC Penney Club. The room was long and thin, and had identical buffets on each side of the door, which meant that long lineups wouldn’t be an issue. There were a number of bistro-style tables throughout, and windows that ran the full length of the club, giving diners an outstanding view of the ballpark from wherever they sat:

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

The menu, however, was what impressed me the most:

  • Beef Wellington with shallot and red wine sauce
  • Pan-seared chicken with chasseur sauce
  • Roasted carrots with hazelnut tapenade
  • Lyonnais potatoes with herb compound butter
  • Baked Brie with assorted dried fruits and nuts

There were also several salads — let’s be honest, I wasn’t going to focus much on them — and some traditional ballpark fare that seemed favored by the kids who were dining at the same time as me. When I stepped up to the buffet for the first time and asked for a slice of the beef, the server asked, “Just one? You’ll be back for sure.” And then, a bit later when I did indeed return, he offered, “I told you that you’d be back,” with a smile.

For those of you who enjoy my food photos, check out plate #1:

dr-pepper-ballpark-meal-1

That’s the beef Wellington on the left side, a huge chunk of the baked Brie on the top and the pan-seared chicken on the bottom right.  And, of course, there was also another plate:

dr-pepper-ballpark-meal-2

You’re looking at more beef Wellington, baked brief, pan-seared chicken and, this time, some of the Lyonnais potatoes and a bit of chick pea salad, too.

I can definitely say that the meal was one of the best I’ve ever eaten at a ballpark, and the tremendous quality of the food was as good as you’d find in a fancy restaurant. If you get the chance to eat at the JC Penney Club, make sure that you go for it!

For a reason that could only be described as greed, I grabbed these two cookies before I hit the road …

dr-pepper-ballpark-cookies

… and waddled back down to the concourse level. (Come to think of it, waddling seemed to be a bit of a theme on my Texas trip!)

As I made my way along the concourse, well, looking for somewhere to sit down for a little bit, I noticed the Roughned Odor-themed drinks that had made headlines a little earlier in my trip. As you likely remember, the Texas Rangers infielder had sucker punched Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista after a hard slide at second, and the RoughRiders capitalized on the moment quickly by producing souvenir cups depicting the image and filled with a red energy drink. I hadn’t noticed the drinks for sale during my first day at Dr Pepper Ballpark, so I was glad to track them down on my second day. It turns out, there was a “licensing issue” about the use of the cup, so the promotion had to be changed a little. The teams were offering the cups for a donation, and I stopped to snap this picture:

dr-pepper-ballpark-roughned-odor-drink

I sat in a shaded area in the left field corner while my food digested, and then returned to the standing room area behind home plate in time for the anthem:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-anthem

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

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

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

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

After a couple of innings in that spot, it was time to make my way toward the press box, as I was slated to join the broadcast in the top of the fourth inning. As I said earlier, I had a few butterflies in my stomach, which is always the case when I’m interviewed on the air. This time, though, I wasn’t as nervous because I’d had a chance to talk to the broadcast guys during a quick visit before the game. They were all super down to earth and fun to talk to, and we exchanged lots of baseball stories. They even asked me to name my best ballpark adventure story, which was an easy one to answer.

Anyway, I hung out outside the broadcast studio, and as soon as the third inning wrapped up, I went in and grabbed a seat and a set of headphones between Nathan Barnett and Ryan Rouillard. My nerves quickly subsided, thanks to the fun, easy banter and professionalism of Nathan and Ryan, and the top of the fourth was just about in the books. Luckily, Nathan asked if I’d stay on for the bottom half, and of course I was thrilled for the chance. We talked about my Texas trip, my assorted ballpark visits and more, and it was an absolute blast. As soon as the inning ended, the third member of the broadcast team, Steve Goldberg, took a photo of me between Nathan and Ryan:

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

By the way, give the RoughRiders broadcast team a follow on Twitter, and check out a broadcast online, too. These guys are great.

When I left the press box for the last time, I went back to the concourse and picked up a lemon ice …

dr-pepper-ballpark-lemon-chill

… and then grabbed a spot behind home plate to watch the remainder of the game, which seemed to fly by quickly. Each passing inning meant that my Texas trip was coming to an end, but I was grateful for all the wonderful memories I made, the great people I met and the help of all those who contributed to the adventure. I’m certainly looking forward to returning to the Lone Star State again soon.

The next morning, I was up about 4 a.m. to begin my long trip home — but I couldn’t resist taking one last photo of the darkened Dr Pepper Ballpark from my balcony:

dr-pepper-ballpark-early-morning

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

Midland RockHounds – May 18 and 19

Following an awesome two-day visit to El Paso, it was time to hop back in my rental car and set my sights on Midland for the seventh and eighth days of my Texas road trip. The drive from El Paso to Midland is one that I’d been cautioned about by multiple people soon after I announced my trip — including a Twitter friend named Steven Ericson, who is a geography instructor and knows about such things. He strongly advised me to make sure that my car was full of gas before I left El Paso, given that there are long stretches without gas stations (and without much at all, to be honest) between the two cities.

I heeded the advice, topped up my car and pulled out of El Paso about 7:30 a.m. on May 18. There was a Midland RockHounds game scheduled for that evening and, while the drive from El Paso to Midland is only about 4.5 hours, I’d be losing an hour due to a time zone change. Plus, I was scheduled to meet with some folks from Visit Midland in the afternoon before the ballgame to tour the area a bit.

As promised, the drive between the cities was indeed memorable — and not because of running out of gas, thankfully. There was plenty of beautiful terrain to enjoy, including the mountains around El Paso …

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

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Occasionally, I’d see a small town, so I’ll pull off and top up my gas. In one stop, my car would only take $5 to fill the remainder of the tank, which shows you that I wasn’t taking any chances! Someone told me there’s a stretch of about 80 miles without a gas station. I didn’t measure, but this doesn’t seem improbable.

Eventually, the scenery around me began to change, and I was soon seeing pump jacks and flares on each side of the road for miles on end. Yep, I was definitely entering oil country. In addition to being the midway point between El Paso and Fort Worth, Midland is very well known for its oil. Oil was discovered in the Permian Basin in the 1920s, and the oil production has been going strong ever since. I’ve since read that today, this area produces around 20 percent of the country’s petroleum and natural gas. One more quick noteworthy fact about the area — if you’ve read the book “Friday Night Lights” or seen the movie or TV show of the same name, you’ll recognize the name of Permian High School. Well, it’s located in Odessa, which is just outside Midland. Or, you could say that Midland is just outside Odessa — there’s definitely a sports rivalry between the two cities!

Under dreary skies, I pulled into Midland and checked into my hotel just 10 minutes before I was supposed to meet up with Visit Midland. After spending so many hours in the car, I only had the chance to drop my luggage in the room, splash some water on my face and run back down to the lobby. There, I met up with Visit Midland’s Lyndsey White and Amy Harrison, who’d arranged for me to have a private tour at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, which had just undergone a $18 million renovation to improve the facility and its exhibits for local residents and tourists alike. It was an informative experience, and one that I’ll write about in a future blog post. For now, though, here’s a photo of me in front of two pump jacks on the museum’s property:

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I came into the experience knowing very little about oil production, so it was interesting to learn a lot from our well-versed tour guide, as well as see a ton of artifacts from the area’s rich oil history. Lyndsey and Amy dropped me back at my hotel later in the afternoon, and I had a few minutes to relax and check out the amazing gift basket that had been left for me by the people at Visit Midland, who really went out of their way to make my stay memorable. I hadn’t had time to look at it earlier, but I was excited to now check it out. It was brimming with cool RockHounds souvenirs, including this bucket hat, Security Bank Ballpark replica and logo baseball:

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There were also treats from local vendors, including some white chocolate-covered Oreos with baseball stitching from a local candy store — and how Visit Midland knew that Oreos are my weakness is beyond me!

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Before making the short walk over to the ballpark, I thought I’d check to make sure that the game was still on. Though it wasn’t raining, the sky was definitely dark and rain was in the forecast. I looked on my Twitter to see if there were any updates about that night’s game and, to my disappointment, I read that it had been postponed due to the weather. There was good news, though — there’d be a doubleheader the next day.

A little more good news: The hotel I was staying in, Home2 Suites Midland, was outstanding, and the idea of having a sit-down dinner and then relaxing in the air conditioning for the evening more than a little appealing at this point on my trip. The hotel was new, clean and the suite-style rooms were huge, so I zipped out for a big steak and loaded baked potato at Outback, and then returned to relax for the evening … and also shoot this photo from my window looking across a few parking lots to Security Bank Ballpark under dreary skies:

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

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

The doubleheader was scheduled for 4:30 p.m., and I had plenty to fill my time before then. I was fortunate to get invited to lunch with Lyndsey and several of her colleagues, as well as Ray Fieldhouse, the RockHounds assistant general manager/operations, to taste some local fare and learn more about the city. We went to Gerardo’s Casita, a place that has authentic Mexican cuisine and reminded me a bit of L&J Cafe, a place I’d visited in El Paso a couple days earlier. I ordered the steak enchilada platter, and it was delicious:

midland-food

During lunch, the discussion turned to the fact that President George W. Bush was raised in Midland, which is something I hadn’t realized. In fact, the Bush family home is still intact and now serves as a museum. After eating, Lyndsey took me over to the museum and had a tour, which I’ll be blogging about in a future post. Here, though, is a shot of me in front of the house:

george-bush-home-malcolm

Lyndsey dropped me back off at the hotel shortly after 2 p.m. and I immediately headed out for the short walk to Security Bank Ballpark. I figured that the crowd would be pretty sparse for the early innings of the first game, as is often the case with doubleheaders, but I still wanted to get to the park good and early to tour around, take lots of photos and shoot some video with my GoPro.

Although I’m always excited when I approach a ballpark, this one had an extra-special feel, as it was the 50th different Minor League Baseball park I’ve visited since 2010. By the way, if you want to see everywhere I’ve been, it’s all at this link.

After I took the photo of the main gate …

security-bank-ballpark-front-pregame

… my plan, like always, was to take a long walk around the park’s perimeter and check out everything from all angles. I enjoyed a nice walk around the quiet park by myself, stopping occasionally to photograph things like this statue, which has plaques recognizing the team’s various championships and awards:

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(The RockHounds won back-to-back Texas League titles in 2014 and 2015, and those plaques are on the base of this statue behind the catcher.)

When I stopped in the team’s office to pick up my press pass, I saw those two championship trophies, as well as another from when the club won the Texas League championship in 2009. The tall trophy second from the left is the John H. Johnson President’s Trophy, which was awarded to Midland in 2007 after it was named the top franchise in the minors:

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

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As you can see, it was a little dreary and there were a few puddles from the previous day’s rain, but I had my fingers crossed that weather wouldn’t interfere with the doubleheader. I set out down the third base side to take my customary lap of the concourse and, as this picture shows, Security Bank Ballpark was still majorly empty, which suited me just fine, as it would make my life easier when it came to shooting some video:

security-bank-ballpark-empty-concourse-early

Although Security Bank Ballpark had a pretty standard feel (it was built in 2002 and shares a lot of traits with other parks from that era) there were a bunch of cool features that I enjoyed seeing. Check out the expansive areas down the baselines — perfect for hanging out if you want to catch a long foul ball:

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

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The berm is very tall — more of a hill than a standard berm, and climbing it provided a great panoramic view of the park. Here’s the view from close to the top of the berm:

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

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

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

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While the grass hill in left field might be the prime attraction as far as grass seating is concerned, it’s hardly the only place to throw down a blanket and enjoy the game. There’s also lots of grass seating just to the right field side of the batter’s eye:

security-bank-ballpark-berm-pano

If you’ve been following along with my Texas trip, you’ll know that I’ve been impressed with the basketball courts at several of the parks I’ve visited. Well, Security Bank Ballpark no different, and actually has the best in-stadium basketball court I’ve seen in all my travels. It has one of those rubber-mat surfaces in RockHounds colors and is emblazoned with the team’s logo:

security-bank-ballpark-basketball-court

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

security-bank-ballpark-soft-ball-found

I grabbed it and gave it to a kid soon after the gates opened a while later.

Shortly before the gates opened, I snapped this photo from the wide concourse area down the first base line to show just how empty the park still was:

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

Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of staffers running around getting ready for the game, but there were occasional pockets of time in which I was really the only person in the area — and that was awesome. It’s always such a treat to get to wander around an empty ballpark; it’s hard to explain, but it’s a feeling that I really enjoy when I get to experience.

About the time that the gates opened, the teams came onto the field and began to play catch. I was in the area behind home plate, so I snapped this photo that shows the view from the area:

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

Did you notice the big hill in left field? This picture should hopefully put its size into perspective.

As I suspected, the crowds weren’t exactly flooding into Security Bank Ballpark right away. But, I suspected that by midway through the first game, the park would be hopping — and that was indeed the case, thanks in part to the team’s Thirsty Thursday promotion that began after the conclusion of Game #1.

So, how empty was the ballpark at the start of the first game? Here’s a shot I took in the top of the first inning that puts things into perspective:

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

I was positively giddy about the initial emptiness, thinking that I’d have an excellent chance of snagging a foul ball or two. In fact, I even sent out a tweet jokingly wondering how many foul balls I’d end up with. Well, the answer was a little humbling. Despite hanging out in a great area — I sat in the top row of right near that wide concourse that you saw a few photos earlier — no balls came even close to me. I had easy access to a couple seating sections, as well as the wide concourse behind me and down to the corner, and there wasn’t a single ball hit anywhere near that area in the first few innings. I suppose that if I’d stayed, my luck might have changed, but I never like to sit in one single area for too long, so I soon headed off to enjoy the ballpark from different areas.

My next stopping place was the grass berm in right field. By now, there were a few fans on the left field berm, but the right field one was empty. I watched a bit of the action from this spot and was surprised to end up with not one, but two baseballs:

security-bank-ballpark-texas-league-balls

Now, they weren’t home run balls, nor were they hit during BP. They were both sitting on the grass berm when I arrived, and were soaking wet. They hadn’t been there earlier, so I’m certain they were found in a bullpen by a pitcher and simply tossed up onto the grass for a fan to find. Since I was the only fan in the area, I was happy to add two more Texas League balls to my collection.

After snapping the shot of the two balls, it was time to get something to eat. Before my visit to Midland, I’d seen that the RockHounds’ entry in the MiLB Food Fight competition was a unique hot dog, and I knew I wanted to try it. It was a hot dog with a couple strips of bacon and slathered in peanut butter and jelly. Sound good? I thought it was:

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

In fairness, I think it could’ve afforded more peanut butter and jelly, as I found they got a little lost behind the strong flavor of the bacon and the hot dog itself. I was impressed with the solid amount of bacon, though, and I think I may try to recreate one of these hot dogs at home sometime.

After eating my first meal of the evening, I decided to find a front-row seat on the first base side and shoot some action photos. The crowd was still pretty thin, so it was easy to get a good spot and start clicking away with my camera. Here’s Midland starter Sam Bragg:

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And Frisco starter Connor Sadzeck:

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I spent an inning or so right behind home plate where, despite shooting through the netting, I was able to get a decent shot of Midland infielder Franklin Barreto just after making contact:

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For the remainder of the game, I took a few more laps around the concourse, shot a bit of video with my GoPro and, in general, just enjoyed a laid-back night at the ballpark.

During the break between games, I grabbed a spot at field level to rest my legs, and noticed something amusing. The Midland groundskeeper had a dog with him. Now, we’ve all seen the bat-retrieving dogs at minor league parks, but this wasn’t the deal here. The dog simply appeared to be a pet — and one that enjoyed hanging out on the field while it was being prepped. It was nice to see a dog behaving so calmly, despite lots going on around it; while the infield was being leveled, the dog just waited at the end of the grass:

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

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Some dogs aren’t crazy about water hoses, but when the base paths were being watered, the dog — once again — just hung out nearby. It was definitely neat to see:

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Soon enough, the players returned to the field and began tossing. I was still at field level on the third base side, so I got some cool shots, like this one of Frisco infielder Luis Mendez:

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And this one of Frisco catcher Alex Burg:

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As the game began, I made another trip over to one of the concession stands to get something else to eat. This time, I went with something that was a little more conventional for a ballpark — a sausage on a bun, which I loaded up with lettuce, onions, pickled jalapenos and mustard:

security-bank-ballpark-food-sausage-dog

I watched the early innings of the game behind home plate. By now, the crowd had definitely thickened, but I found a good spot in the front row, where I was able to enjoy views like this one of Frisco starter Victor Payano on the mound:

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

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Midland first baseman Viosergy Rosa has just made contact, and you can see the ball against the outfield fence.

Partway through the game, I watched a bit of the action while leaning on the railing at the edge of the concourse behind home plate, where the view looked like this:

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Great looking view from home plate, right?

As the sun set, I slipped out of the ballpark to snap this panorama of the main gate …

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… and then went back inside to watch the last couple innings from my earlier seat behind home plate and just enjoy the game and the park. It was too bad I didn’t get to experience two days at Security Bank Ballpark, but I’m glad that the doubleheader allowed me to spend lots of time at this Texas League facility — and the other things that I was able to experience in Midland certainly made this a memorable stop on my Texas trip. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit again soon.

When the game wrapped up, I had just a quick walk back to my hotel where I’d relax for a few hours and then go to bed knowing that I’d be up in the morning to drive to Frisco for the last two days of my Texas trip.

El Paso Chihuahuas – May 17

After the outstanding first day I had in El Paso, I was eager to get my second day in town started — and I wouldn’t have to wait too long. The Chihuahuas were hosting the New Orleans Zephyrs in an 11 a.m. game, so I planned to get to Southwest University Park between 9 and 9:30 a.m.

First, though, it was time to check out one of El Paso’s top restaurants. The plan was to again meet up with Leesy McColgary from Visit El Paso to have breakfast at L&J Cafe, a restaurant that you’d hardly notice from the outside but that is ranked third on TripAdvisor’s list of top El Paso eateries.

When I exited the DoubleTree Downtown El Paso to meet Leesy, I was amazed at how cool and fresh the morning air was. El Paso has virtually no humidity, and while I’d found it hot a day earlier, it was downright chilly in the morning, which I certainly welcomed.

As I waited, I was excited to look at Southwest University Park just across the street from my hotel:

southwest-university-park-from-hotel

Soon enough, Leesy arrived and we were off to L&J Cafe. It’s a favorite spot for locals — so much so that when we arrived about 15 minutes before the restaurant opened, there was a lineup outside. On a Tuesday. Here’s the outside of the restaurant:

el-paso-l&j-cafe-outside

Since we were a little early, we took a quick tour of the historic Concordia Cemetery, which is something that I’ll blog about in an upcoming post.

While the breakfast choices on the menu looked good, I’m not a huge breakfast guy — and, besides, the other examples of traditional Mexican food were making my taste buds tingle. I decided to forgo the idea of a traditional breakfast and, instead, order an enchilada platter with a combination of red and green sauce. This, ladies and gents, was my breakfast, and it was absolutely delicious:

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And, in case I needed more, Leesy suggested that we order some sopaipillas, which are fried pastries served with honey:

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They were much lighter than I expected and definitely something I’ve craved a few times since.

This was one of the best overall meals I’ve had in a long time, and I can assure you that L&J Cafe will be on my agenda whenever I make it back to El Paso. Once I finished eating, Leesy dropped me back at my hotel and I waddled over to Southwest University Park, eager to get my second visit underway.

My first visit a day earlier had included a private tour and a lot of ballpark exploring, and frankly it was nice to know that during my second visit, I could do a little more focusing on the game and just enjoying the view. Doing so isn’t always possible when I only have one day in a city, so I was once again thankful for having two days in each city on this trip. Before I grabbed a seat and relaxed, though, I had an exciting experience — I was meeting up with Felix Chavez from the El Paso Times for an interview. I’ve done a handful of newspaper interviews over the years, and as a longtime journalist myself, it’s always fun to be on the “other” side of the interview. I met Felix outside the press box as soon as I arrived, and we chatted for several minutes about my baseball travels, blog/website and, of course, my impressions of Southwest University Park. It was super enjoyable; I’ve occasionally been interviewed by disinterested reporters, but it was clear that Felix was curious about my adventures, which made the process really pleasant. (By the way, you’ll see his story at the end of this post.)

Felix also had a surprise for me — one of the Times‘ photographers was there, and he’d be following me around for a while to take some photos of me to run with the story. I met the photographer, Victor Calzada, after my interview, and we headed down toward the concourse. I was impressed with Victor’s ethical approach to taking my photo. I asked him how he wanted to set me up, and he told me that he didn’t want anything that was staged. Instead, he asked me to do my thing and he’d be a “fly on the wall” behind me for 20 or 30 minutes. It was definitely a new experience to walk around a ballpark and have someone following me to snap photos, but Victor was such a natural that it made everything easy.

This is the first shot I took at the ballpark on this day …

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… and as I looked at the video board through my camera’s viewfinder, I could hear Victor snapping off shots in the background.

Since I’d taken so many ballpark shots a day earlier, I primarily wanted to focus on action shots during this visit. I love grabbing a spot close to the field and shooting the players, so that was my main goal today … and Victor was always just a few steps behind me. I began by going down to field level on the first base side, where I took some shots of New Orleans warming up. Here are outfielder Kenny Wilson, a former Toronto Blue Jays prospect, and infielder Elliot Soto:

new-orleans-zephyrs-warm-ups

Even though my focus was on player shots, I still couldn’t resist documenting the beauty of Southwest University Park. It’s one of those places that looks great from every angle. I walked along the outfield concourse and snapped the photos to make up this panorama:

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While I was there, I noticed that the grass berm was much more full than it had been a day earlier:

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Because it was a morning game, there were a bunch of school groups in attendance, and many of the kids had clearly flocked to the berm.

As I did a day earlier, I went down to the El Paso bullpen to take action shots of the Chihuahuas’ starting pitcher warming up. On this day, it was Daniel McCutchen, and I got a bunch of photos that turned out well, including this one:

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Once he finished tossing, I made my way behind home plate snapped this panorama just before the anthem that shows just how beautiful this ballpark is:

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I forget exactly when Victor and I parted, but I think it was during the first inning. In any case, he took some great shots of me doing my thing, as you’ll see at the bottom of this post. As the first inning got underway, I found a spot in the front row above the dugout on the first base side, which gave me a great place to shoot the action.

One of the fun things about watching baseball at the Triple-A level is seeing all the guys you recognize from MLB stints, so you’ll likely see some players throughout the rest of this post that you’ve seen on TV in the big leagues.

Here is New Orleans’ Robert Andino …

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… and here is El Paso’s Josh Satin, each of whom has played parts of multiple seasons in the bigs:

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It was wonderful to sit in the front row on a hot, sunny day and shoot the action. There were a few empty seats on each side of me, so I wasn’t cramped at all as I shifted left and right to snap my shots, like this one of Manuel Margot jumping out of the way of a pitch:

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Chris Reed making a pick-off move:

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And Margot swiping second base a pitch after the pick-off attempt:

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Here’s something interesting that I noticed: Reed, the New Orleans starter, is 6’3″, but has a squat delivery to the point that he looks much shorter just before he releases the ball. Don’t you agree?

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As for Margot, he proved himself to be impressive on the base paths, promptly stealing third base, too:

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There was plenty of action at home plate, too. Here’s El Paso’s Hunter Renfro about to connect on what ended up being a home run …

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… and celebrating with teammate Alex Dickerson just after crossing home plate:

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Here’s a funny shot I snapped of Rocky Gale experiencing the definition of chin music:

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And this is a better shot of the El Paso catcher connecting on a pitch a moment later:

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(I always love when I get a shot just as the bat meets the ball!)

Here’s another of Wilson, who is on his way to the New Orleans dugout after hitting a home run:

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After a couple innings of shooting, I decided to get back to walking around the ballpark. Remember this shot of the nighttime view of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez that I took from the upper level of the park a day earlier? This is how the scene looked in the daytime:

southwest-university-park-looking-over-to-juarez

Next, I went down to the front row behind home plate for an inning of action. Shooting through the netting rarely yields outstanding photos, but the overall view from this seating area was certainly enjoyable:

southwest-university-park-behind-net

By now, it was past noon and although the thought of a ballpark lunch was appealing, I was way too full from my breakfast. I was a bit disappointed to miss the opportunity to sample something else of the Southwest University Park menu, but that’ll just have to wait for another visit.

Speaking of food, I was continuously noticing fans with frozen drinks — which made sense, given the hot temperature. I’m a sucker for frozen lemonade and other such products, so I made my way to the “Slush’ae” concession stand down the first base line. Now, I’d been particularly intrigued by the yellow and red combination of slushie that I’d seen countless fans drinking, and I wanted to give it a try. I scanned the available flavors and, for some inexplicable reason, decided that the mystery color combination had to be pink lemonade. (This, despite the fact that red and yellow do not equal pink. Maybe the heat was getting to me.)

Anyway, I was handed this …

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… and while it was delicious and chilly, it didn’t satisfy my curiosity for the red and yellow product that continued to be enjoyed around me.

As I took this photo …

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… I said to myself, “Time for another slushie,” and returned to the same concession stand where I’d been less than 10 minutes earlier. “Back again?” the server asked me, with a smile on her face. I explained my predicament and she handed me what is arguably the most unique ballpark drink I’ve ever had:

southwest-university-park-mango-slushie-chamoy

You’re looking at a mango slushie. Pretty standard, right? Yes, but here’s where the twist comes. The red stuff on the top and bottom of the cup is chamoy sauce, which I certainly hadn’t heard of. It’s a Mexican sauce made of pickled fruit (typically apricot or plum), and the taste is difficult to explain. You’d expect gooey red sauce to be super sweet, but that isn’t the case. It’s sort of a combination of salty and sour, if that makes sense. You can choose how much chamoy sauce you want added; since I was a newbie, the server gave me a small amount, but I saw people who’d obviously asked for a heap of it.

The intrigue didn’t end with the chamoy sauce. It’s hard to clearly see the straw in the above photo, so take a look at this one:

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The red stuff wrapped around the straw is flechazos, which is a dried fruit that’s not unlike what is often called “fruit leather.” It’s sweet, chewy and delicious. The twist, though, is that the flechazos-covered straw is rolled in chili powder, which gives you a unique spiciness that you certainly don’t expect when you’re having a frozen fruit drink.

The slushie was outstanding, and something that you should definitely seek out whenever you visit Southwest University Park. I’d definitely order it again, maybe even twice.

Once I slurped down the slushie and gnawed the chili and flechazos off my straw, I headed back down to the front row behind the dugout to take some more action shots — and just in time. Nick Wittgren, who I’d talked to a day earlier during BP, had just taken the mound, and I was anxious to photograph him in action:

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I also took another shot of him on the way to the dugout after one efficient inning of work:

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It took him just six pitches to get three outs. He was called up to the majors a week after this outing and picked up his first career MLB win a little over a week later.

Wittgren’s efforts aside, his Zephyrs fell to El Paso. And, unlike a day earlier, when I’d slipped out early to enjoy the last bit of the game from my hotel’s roof deck, I had a front-row seat for the final out and the post-game high fives:

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As the fans began to filter out of Southwest University Park, and I followed suit, I was definitely sad to be leaving. Although I’d had two full and awesome days in El Paso, they’d gone by very quickly. Still, as much as I was sad to be leaving this beautiful ballpark, I was looking forward to taking a walk around the city and then hanging out in my hotel room, so that’s what I did for the afternoon and evening. There was a short rainfall late in the afternoon, and a nice rainbow right outside my window:

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The next morning, I woke up early in advance of my drive to Midland. First, though, I needed to track down some copies of the El Paso Times to read the story about me. I walked over to the Times building, but it didn’t open until 8 a.m. and I wanted to be on the road well before then. So, I took the opportunity to snap this photo of me in front of the newspaper’s building …

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… and then found a gas station and bought five copies of the newspaper. “You know they all say the same thing, right?” said the clerk when I flopped the stack of papers down on the counter.

I eagerly flipped through to the sports section and was shocked to see my story as the top item. Here’s a scan of the front page banner:

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And the front of the sports page:

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And, finally, the turn on the third page of the sports section:

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If you’re interested in reading the story, you can click the above images to enlarge them.

Special thanks to everyone who helped make my visit to El Paso so memorable. I can’t wait to return!

Next up, a doubleheader at Security Bank Ballpark, home of the Texas League’s Midland RockHounds.