Tagged: baseball road trips

Traveling to Denver – September 18

The first day of any baseball trip is always filled with excitement and anticipation, and that’s especially the case when I’m headed somewhere new. Those were the feelings coursing through me bright and early on the morning of September 18 as I packed up the car and headed to the airport in advance of a flight to Denver. In a trip that came together rather quickly, I booked three days in Denver so that I could check out Coors Field — my 12th MLB park and 63rd ballpark overall — extensively. My wife was joining me on this trip, too, which made things even more exciting.

It was also cool — and a bit of a relief, to be honest — to know that I didn’t have a game booked on my travel day. I’ve always booked a game on my travel days in the past, and while it’s giddy driving or flying and anticipating that night’s game, it makes for an awfully long day. And, if there’s a flight delay, which is what happened to me last fall on my way to Texas, there’s a risk of missing the game entirely.

We were scheduled to fly from Ontario, Canada, to Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., where we’d have a short layover and then fly onto Denver. This was our view as we waited to catch our first flight of the day …

airport-view

… but soon enough, we were in the air and, a short while later, on the tarmac at Dulles. I specifically say “on the tarmac” because we exited the plane outside, rather than through a jetbridge, and walked into the airport from there. It wasn’t an arrangement I’d previously experienced, and it was nice to get a bit of fresh air, given that we’d be in airports or airplanes for about nine or so hours straight. The outside time gave me a chance to snap this photo with our plane, too:

malcolm-with-airplane

I’d researched the dining options for Dulles in advance of our trip and I knew I wanted to eat at Smashburger. It turns out that our arrival area was just a few gates from the airport’s Smashburger location, so a few minutes after arriving, I was sitting down to enjoy this bad boy:

smashburger

For the record, it’s a bacon cheeseburger and those are “smash fries” beside it. The fries aren’t smashed, of course — the “smash” part just means they’re tossed in olive oil, rosemary and salt, and they were definitely tasty.

With a couple hours to kill at the airport, we spent most of the time staring at exciting sights like this one:

empty-dulles

Soon, though, we were back in the air and pointed toward Denver. Here’s a shot of the view out my window as we got closer to the Mile High City:

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It was exciting to not only be visiting another ballpark, but to also be getting the chance to see baseball in a different state. Colorado is the 18th state that I’ve visited for baseball.

We touched down in Denver a little earlier than scheduled, and I hurried outside like a nerd to smell the mountain air. This was something I talked about a fair bit in advance of the trip, but I found that my first gulps of the Denver air smelled like exhaust, given that I was standing in the bus/shuttle pickup area outside the terminal:

first-view-of-denver

That was OK, though. Even though the view immediately outside the terminal wasn’t overly exciting, it was a thrill to see the Rocky Mountains in the distance.

At the Denver International Airport, you have to take a shuttle from the terminal to the car rental area, so that’s what we did — and, soon enough, I was grinning like a nerd beside the Toyota Rav4 that we’d rented for the trip:

malcolm-rental-car

(And, yes, I was still wearing my fanny pack. That’s right.)

It took us about an hour to get from the airport to our downtown hotel, the Westin Denver Downtown. After quickly checking in, we headed out to explore the city a bit. We were staying in the 16th Street Mall district, which we’d done intentionally. Not only was our hotel just a short walk from Coors Field, but it was also smack dab in the heart of the Denver tourist district. This meant that hundreds of restaurants, shops and tourist attractions were within walking distance, which was awesome. There were so many appealing choices for dinner, but we picked a place called Modern Market — and I devoured this pizza topped with prosciutto, gorgonzola, pear slices and arugula:

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The combination of everything was delicious. I could go for another right now, in fact.

We were zonked by the time we finished dinner, so we went back to the hotel and crashed — but not before I took this shot of the nighttime view from our room, though:

westin-denver-downtown-night-view

The Rocky Mountains were in the distance, although they weren’t visible at this hour. I’d have to wait till morning to see them. The bright lights you see in the distance are the stadium lights at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, home of the Denver Broncos. Coors Field wasn’t visible from our room, but it wouldn’t be long before I was checking it out.

Frisco RoughRiders – May 20

The final days of a baseball road trip can be a little challenging — sometimes, I simply don’t want the trip to end. Other times, I’m exhausted and admittedly ready to get home and resume a normal schedule that includes sleeping and eating vegetables. Fortunately, that wouldn’t be the case on days nine and 10 of my Texas trip — I was thrilled to visit Frisco and see the RoughRiders for a pair of games.

Frisco is located just north of Dallas, and is about a five-hour drive from Midland, where I’d spent May 18 and 19 seeing the RockHounds in action. Although the RoughRiders were playing an evening game, I was anxious to make the drive east through Texas and get to my hotel for an early check-in. It’s an understatement to say that I was excited to experience my hotel, the Embassy Suites Hotel and Convention Center. That’s because — in addition to looking very impressive online — it is located directly beyond the outfield of Frisco’s Dr Pepper Ballpark, meaning I’d once again be fortunate to visit a hotel with a field-facing room.

I pulled into the hotel’s parking lot just after 3 p.m., hurriedly unloaded my backpack and suitcase and checked in quickly. I remember being amused at myself as I walked with a profound sense of purpose through the hotel lobby to the elevator, and then from the elevator to my room, as I was pumped to see what the view was like.

Well, it certainly exceeded my expectations!

I dropped my luggage in the living room area, made a beeline down the hall and through the bedroom, went out onto the balcony and saw this:

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Wow!

What a great looking ballpark, eh? I instantly loved the unique structure of the park — instead of the standard look that I’ve often seen around the minors, this park was visually engaging because of the smaller structures around the concourse, instead of one larger building. Like other parks, Dr Pepper Ballpark has a number of concession stands around the concourse and suites above, but I think it’s neat how it’s not all one continuous structure. The little walkways between the buildings, I’d soon find out, make getting around this ballpark really easy and fun.

The only thing that troubled me about the glorious sight in front of my eyes was the way the trees were overgrown and partially covered the Dr Pepper Ballpark sign. I realize this is a first-world problem, but I think it’d be nicer if the sign were fully visible to people in the hotel.

As you might have seen in the above photo, the batting cage was set up and the players were hitting, but I didn’t want to get to the park just yet, as I’d skipped lunch and was starving. I made a quick run across the street (heading in the opposite direction from the ballpark) to the Stonebriar Centre mall to grab a quick lunch from the food court. As you might suspect, I brought the food back to enjoy eating it with the great view from my balcony.

After eating, I snapped this panorama from my balcony …dr-pepper-ballpark-hotel-view-pano

… and then noticed the baseball field-shaped details in the balcony railings, which I thought were cool:

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I love when hotels think of small details like that.

Once I finished eating, I checked out a generous gift basket that the people at Visit Frisco had left me. They were instrumental in setting up my visit, and surprised me with a bunch of goodies, including a RoughRiders cap and towel and some other sports gear from the local area’s teams — a Dallas Cowboys pin and a Dallas FC scarf, as well as some other awesome treats.

Next, it was time to pack up my camera and GoPro and head out to the ballpark. Just as I love the view from ballpark-facing hotels, I love the short walk when you stay so close to the park: No sitting in traffic, no paying for parking — just a pleasant walk that lasts only a few minutes. As I left the hotel, I turned back and shot this photo; my room was on the right side of the left bank of balconies, fifth from the top:

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From where I stood on the sidewalk just outside the hotel’s doors, here’s what the view looked like ahead of me:

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Awesome!

Within a minute or so, I was standing outside the fence beyond the outfield and soaking up the view and atmosphere:

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Next, I made my way along a side street to the main gates of Dr Pepper Ballpark, where I snapped this photo:

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Again, you’ll see that this park has a unique look, with a series of individual building sections (and turrets, of course) that make the home of the RoughRiders unlike any other MiLB park I’ve seen.

Here’s the area as a panorama:

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After taking the above photo, I entered through the main gate, went through reception area and out to what I expected to be the concourse — and, boy, was I surprised. Here was the scene that awaited me:

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Yes, there’s a huge kids’ play area ahead and a bar/eatery on the right side, but check out the gravel walkway! And the trees! It felt like I was in cottage country or at a campground. Now, make no mistake — there is a traditional concrete concourse at Dr Pepper Ballpark, but behind the buildings that line the concourse, you’re treated to this campground/neighborhood feel, and it’s outstanding.

Although I was anxious to get exploring what I could already tell was going to be one of my favorite ballparks, I wanted to watch batting practice for a bit first. I made a beeline for the grass berm in left field, where this was my view:

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The San Antonio players were hitting bombs left and right. Look at all the balls that were sitting on the grass in a perfect line just to the left of me, obviously having hit the facing of the deck and then rolled back down the hill:

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I left them where they sat because the gates weren’t yet open and, instead, moved a little closer to center field to take this panorama:

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After standing on the berm for about 10 minutes and enjoying the action, I moved a little farther away to a spot behind the video board, where I took this shot partly to just show a different view of the scene during BP, but also to show the plants that grew at the base of the video board — once again giving Dr Pepper Ballpark a comfortable, natural feel:

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And, while I was in the area, I snapped this shot of me, squinting into the bright sun:

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Although it was tempting to just enjoy my spot on the berm and watch more BP, I was itching to finally explore more of the park — so that’s what I did next. My main priority was to first check out some of the unique sights around the ballpark, like the area I’d seen immediately upon entering earlier. Behind the third base concourse — there’s another gravel area with plenty of trees, plants and concession stands selling diverse food products like funnel cakes, custom-built hamburgers, street tacos and more:

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And the structure you see in the background is the batting cage area, so you can watch players taking some pregame cuts while you wait for your food. How perfect is this setup?

I found this area to be extremely serene before the gates opened; even though there was music playing, the smell of stadium food wafting through the air and staff members hustling around, being in this spot seemed to transport me back to going to the cottage as a kid, enjoying the crunch of the gravel beneath my feet and the trees and bushes around me. And, funny enough, I still had this experience even once the gates opened and the area was flooded with fans. A little more exploring revealed this wasn’t the only tranquil spot in Dr Pepper Ballpark — head behind the first base concourse, and you’ll enjoy this sight:

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Being away from home, traveling every day or two and often being in crowded environments can feel a little hectic, so it was comforting to be able to take a walk through the quieter areas of Dr Pepper Ballpark whenever the feeling suited, and I certainly encourage you to try it, too.

After enjoying the aforementioned tranquility, I headed out to the main concourse, where I snapped this photo …

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… and stood to watch batting practice for a few minutes. Having been to 62 major and minor league ballparks, I’ve seen a lot of great views from behind home plate, and this one is right up there. Don’t you agree?

Next, I took a walk down the first base line, enjoying the sun and the sounds of batting practice. As I descended to field level, a baseball caught my eye:

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As you can see, the ball was jammed under one of the doors leading out to the field. My “no baseballs before gates open” rule kept me from grabbing it, but I vowed to return after the gates had opened up, to see if it was still there.

Once I put the ball out of my mind, I stood in the front row and enjoyed a little more BP with this view:

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From this vantage spot, I couldn’t resist taking another photo of my awesome hotel:

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It wouldn’t be long until BP wrapped up, so I paid another visit to the outfield grass berm to enjoy the last group or two of hitters:

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Next, with nothing to watch on the field and plenty of time before first pitch, I continued exploring the park. Heading back to the tranquil food area on the third base side, I now saw some food trucks parked inside the park’s gates, including this one:

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What a cool feature! Food trucks arrive on game day, park inside the ballpark and then leave at the game’s conclusion. I’ve often seen food trucks outside ballparks — especially in the majors — but I can’t recall seeing one inside a park; just another creative thing that the RoughRiders do very well.

Since I was in the area, I watched a bit of action in the batting cages, and then decided to take a climb up to the press box area to check out the view. The myriad levels, walkways and bridges connecting the various buildings made this short walk unique — and also provided some cool vantage points. Here’s a view looking down from one of the pedestrian bridge/walkways a few levels up …

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… and here’s another view that shows the unique layout of this ballpark:

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As expected, the press box offered a sensational view of the park:

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I stood at one of the press box windows and took everything in, allowing my eyes to slowly pan from left to right, and then it hit me — the baseball that was hiding under the gate! I’d been so enjoying all the sights that I’d forgotten to check for the ball after the gates had opened. By now, the gates had been open about 20 minutes, and while there were lots of fans in the park, most of them were congregating around the concourse and concession stands. This meant that there was an outside chance of the ball still being there, so I hustled down to the concourse, made my way toward the right field corner and … voila!

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Above five minutes after grabbing the ball, I was leaning against the railing and enjoying the view, when a young family (parents and a boy about five) approached and asked me to take their photo. They descended a couple steps in front of me and I snapped a few shots with their iPhone. As I went to give the phone back, I pulled the ball out of my pocket and handed it to the kid, whose jaw dropped enough that the ball might’ve fit in his mouth. As much as I love collecting balls for myself, it’s sure a thrill to give them away, too.

Speaking of thrills, my next stop at Dr Pepper Ballpark was to see one of the most unique sights I’ve ever seen at any park, MLB or MiLB. In case you haven’t heard, the RoughRiders have installed a lazy river beyond the right field fence! It wasn’t complete when I visited, unfortunately — I guess I’ll just have to make a point of visiting again to check it out — but I was able to take a look at it and snap some photos.

In the following shot, you’ll see how the lazy river rises above the outfield fence; it’s behind the stone wall, which also serves as the backdrop for a waterfall:

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And here’s a shot from behind the foul pole, which gives you an idea of the layout and depth of the lazy river:

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Lazy rivers are my absolute favorite attraction at water parks. You can keep your slides and wave pools; give me a lazy river and I’ll happily float around for hours. Can you imagine how cool it would be to watch a minor league game from this vantage point? Hmm, I really need to return to Frisco, don’t I?

With still a bit of time before first pitch, I took a walk through the outstanding team shop, Riders Outpost:

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The store was enormous and was one of the best I’ve seen in the minor leagues. I couldn’t resist buying this Under Armour long-sleeved shirt:

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After restraining myself to avoid buying more, I went down to field level on the third base side, where I shot this picture of the main building behind home plate:

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As seems to be the theme at Dr Pepper Ballpark, this building is different than virtually everything else I’ve seen during my travels. On the concourse level, there’s a large open area where fans congregate during games. The second level is the JC Penney Club, an upscale eatery that I had the fortune of experiencing on the second day of my visit — and you’ll want to make sure that you read that blog post. The third level is made of suites and way up on the fourth level is the press box. Also, how awesome does this building look?

While at field level, I noticed the netting over the dugouts. Now, I get the important reason for it, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that it somehow makes the game seem farther away, as well as all but negates your chance of having a ball tossed to you at the end of an inning. This netting is slowly getting more common at MiLB parks, but I noticed something cool above the dugout — there’s a small opening next to the railing:

dr-pepper-ballpark-new-detail

I don’t know the specific reason for the inclusion of this opening, but if it was to give fans a chance to get pregame autographs from players, I give a big-time kudos to the RoughRiders for creating a fan-friendly element to the netting.

Speaking of autographs, I checked out the team’s autograph area down the third base side next. A player signs before the games, and pitcher Victor Payano (who pitched when I was in Midland) was signing for some kids:

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This is another thing that’s awesome about the minor leagues. When a MLBer signs in a designated area before a big league game, it’s pandemonium. In the minors, countless fans were passing by the autograph area without making a fuss. Some were exchanging greetings with Payano, others were shaking his hand and others were completely oblivious. As a fan, the idea of running up and grabbing an autograph and a photo without having to dedicate an hour to the process is truly welcome.

As first pitch approached, I took a few minutes to watch the pregame show on the video board. I was especially interested because it was hosted by two of the team’s three broadcasters, Nathan Barnett and Steve Goldberg:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pregame-show

This was significant because I was scheduled to join the live broadcast to talk about my Texas trip, blog and website a day later. I’ve been interviewed on the air in several different cities, and it never fails to be a huge thrill … and something that’s a initially a bit nerve-wracking, too. So, seeing and listening to the guys in advance of joining them on the broadcast helped me to relax a little.

I browsed the park until first pitch, and then grabbed a spot along the railing to watch the early innings, enjoying this view:

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By the end of the first inning, the seating bowl below me had filled up significantly, which was a sign of things to come. Both RoughRiders games I attended were packed with fans:

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About this time, I got the chance to meet up with Jason Dambach, the executive VP and general manager of the team. (And the president of the State College Spikes, too!) He’d tweeted at me before the game and we’d agreed to meet up, and it was great to get a chance to tell him about my travels and hear some details about the ballpark, too. One of the best things about visiting so many ballparks is the opportunity to chat with friendly baseball people, and Jason certainly fits that description to a T. I’m looking forward to crossing paths with him again somewhere down the line.

My next stop was the berm in left-center, which had filled up, too:

dr-pepper-ballpark-berm-game

I watched a little bit of the action from the berm, and then headed over to the Frisco bullpen down the first base line. In general, most bullpens in the minors are set up in a way that gives fans outstanding access, whether it’s to get an autograph before the game, ask for a ball or, as I enjoy, just standing next to the bullpen and taking in everything. The Frisco dugout is actually situated between different seating sections. This means that you can stand next to the bullpen on three of the four sides, which provides an awesome vantage point for watching pitchers get warmed up. See what I mean?

dr-pepper-ballpark-home-bullpen

It was nearly time to eat — I’d been walking around a lot because I knew I’d need a big appetite for the meal I’d soon be tackling. First, though, I wanted to take a few more photos to show just how beautiful this ballpark is. Here’s a panorama from the first base side …

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… and here’s a shot from behind home plate that I really like because I think it captures the beauty of this ballpark:

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Time to eat!

Before my trip, I’d researched all of the notable concession stand items at each of the five Texas ballparks I’d be visiting, and Frisco offered the one I was most excited about — the Mac & Cheese BBQ Sandwich. Behold:

dr-pepper-ballpark-food-mac-and-cheese-bbq-sandwich

This memorable sandwich comes on a mac and cheese bun; allow me to explain. Take a hunk of mac and cheese, form it into a patty, cover it in bread crumbs and deep fry it — and you’ve got one half of a “bun.” Sound excessive? Sure does! You get a choice of meat, and I got smoked brisket. That meant that each bite had a nice crunch, the gooey deliciousness of the mac and cheese as the breading broke open and, of course, the tender smokiness of the brisket. It all made for a sandwich that was outstanding and truly original.

As you might have guessed, it’s not optimal to do much walking after eating this sandwich, but I managed to waddle my way back to the standing room area behind home plate, where I enjoyed this awesome view:

dr-pepper-ballpark-night-view-home-plate

 

Here’s the same view as a panorama; it’s too good not to show this way, too:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-night

Then, midway through the ninth inning, I slipped out of the park and walked back to my hotel. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll know that I don’t like to leave games early, but that I’ll do so if there’s a worthwhile reason, as I did when I visited El Paso. Well, I had a good reason on this night — I wanted to sit on my balcony for the Friday night fireworks show that would begin soon after the final out, rather than watch it from inside the park. (The team has fireworks after Friday night games throughout the season and Sunday night games (during the summer) and one thing that is really neat is that fans can sit on the field to watch.

I made it back to my hotel just as the game was wrapping up, so I enjoyed a view minutes of this view …

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… and then used my GoPro to film the show. I wasn’t the only hotel guest enjoying the fireworks; there were a ton of people sitting on their balconies to take in the show. Here’s how it looked:

El Paso Chihuahuas – May 16

The good: I woke up on May 16 knowing that I’d be spending two days in El Paso, seeing the Pacific Coast League’s Chihuahuas play the beautiful Southwest University Park and staying in an awesome hotel across the street from the ballpark.

The bad: My alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. that morning.

The ugly: The weather that had caused a rainout a day earlier had intensified into one of the strongest storms I’d ever seen and I had an early morning flight to catch.

Time to get things started.

I’d gotten myself organized the night before, so I was out of my hotel before 4 a.m., into my rental car and peering through the windshield (with the wipers on psycho mode) at the dark and rain-ravaged streets of downtown Corpus Christi a few minutes after the top of the hour. My hotel was only 10 or 15 minutes from the airport, but the drive was one of the most harrowing I can recall — steering with one hand, holding my GPS with the other and gritting my teeth when I’d hit places that had an inch or two of standing water on the road. I was glad to pull into the airport about 4: 30 a.m. — even if it meant getting completely soaked on the walk between the rental car drop-off lot and the terminal.

“Quite a storm,” said the cheerful lady when I checked in at the Southwest desk. “We’re hoping to fly out this morning.”

Uh, hoping? Turns out that my apocalyptic view of the storm wasn’t exaggerated. Corpus Christi got something like five inches of rain overnight, many roads throughout the city were closed and a fellow passenger in line behind me heard that people in certain areas were being evacuated from their homes.

Of course, I wouldn’t have to worry about any of this silly weather in the desert climate of El Paso — but I’d have to get there first. With some time to kill, I hung out in the quiet airport …

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… and was delighted a short while later to learn that my 6:30 a.m. flight was still scheduled to depart on time. Soon enough, I boarded the flight and had this view:

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A little over an hour later, though, the view had dramatically improved:

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I took the above shot of the mountains through the window of the El Paso International Airport shortly after touching down and, as you can imagine, I was very pleased to see the clear skies after the previous day’s rainout.

I picked up my rental car and made the short drive to downtown El Paso to check into my hotel. It was still only mid-morning (there’s an hour’s difference between Corpus Christi and El Paso) but my hotel room was free, so I was thrilled to be able to get in and relax a little. I was staying for two nights at the DoubleTree Downtown El Paso, which is an absolutely fantastic hotel and the perfect spot to stay for baseball fans visiting El Paso. As I wrote earlier, it’s basically across the street from Southwest University Park and many of the rooms face the field. Mine didn’t, but I had a great view of the city and of the mountains beyond:

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I’d planned to have a short nap after arriving, but when I settled into my room and saw a bunch of welcome goodies from Destination El Paso (the city’s tourism department) I got too giddy to sleep. There were some delicious treats that served as a late breakfast for me, as well as this:

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Wow!

Speaking of Destination El Paso, I was scheduled to visit with Veronica Castro, the director of tourism development, and Leesy McCorgary, the digital marketing manager, to learn more about the city — and, of course, talk some baseball. We visited Anson 11, a restaurant within walking distance of the DoubleTree, and I ate a delicious plate of pork belly nachos with kimchee slaw, avocado and smoked mayo:

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You could certainly say that my visit to El Paso was off to a good start.

After lunch, we took a walking tour of the city’s downtown area and checked out a number of interesting sights, and I was thoroughly impressed with the downtown area. El Paso is an interesting city, seemingly equally influenced by Texas and Mexican culture. It’s right on the border with the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, which has often made headlines for its astronomical murder rate. El Paso, however, is exactly the opposite — it has repeatedly been named the “Safest City in America,” and I could see why. I did a ton of walking all around the downtown area during my visit, both with Veronica and Leesy, and on my own, and I was struck by how clean everything was and how safe it felt. El Paso is definitely in my sights for a return visit.

Anyway, after checking out some of the downtown sights, I was paired up with Angela Olivas, the Chihuahuas’ director of marketing and communications, for a one-on-one tour of Southwest University Park. (The day just kept on getting better and better!)

Beyond the insider information that I always get on my tours, one of the best things is getting access to areas I’d never otherwise see — even with a media pass. Our tour began in the bowels of the ballpark and we soon made our way through the tunnels into this grounds crew area, which is somewhere I wouldn’t have explored on my own …

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… and then out onto the field!

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No matter how many times I get to stand on a professional baseball field, it’s always a thrill. I routinely find myself bending down to touch the grass and kicking at the dirt just to feel it.

Sometimes, a tour’s visit to the field is short. This time, however, we spent several minutes out there while Angela explained the top-notch job that the team’s grounds crew does. You can imagine, given the desert climate, that it’s a big challenge to keep the field in pristine shape, but as you can see from these photos, the grass looked sensational.

By the way, how cool are the structures in right field? Here’s a closer look, and you can rest assured that you’ll see lots more photos (including the view from inside) later on in this post:

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One of the neat features that Angela pointed out while we stood on the field is Southwest University Park’s Peter Piper Pizza Porch, which is also known as the “blue monster” as a tip of the cap to the Green Monster at Fenway Park:

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This one isn’t quite as tall, but it’s an awesome feature and has seats above it, just like its green counterpart.

Before long, the tour continued through the tunnels below the ballpark. Check out how bright and clean everything was:

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We went past the home clubhouse …

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… and into an area called the “Dugout Club.” It’s a posh spot that the season ticket holders can access. Now, it’s nothing new for a team to provide swank surroundings for those who support the team in this manner, but the Dugout Club area has an awesome feature that I hadn’t ever seen before — a private viewing area of the indoor batting cages!

southwest-university-park-batting-cages

Players use these cages before the game when it’s either raining (not very often) or so hot that they don’t want to hit on the field (likely more often). Can you imagine how cool it’d be to stand at the window and watch indoor batting practice? And, as cool as that vantage point is, here’s something else that was impressive — season ticket holders’ access to the seating bowl:

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(Can you tell that I’m just a tiny bit excited about my visit to El Paso? I sure hope so!)

After checking out the Dugout Club, we continued through the tunnels past the umpires’ locker room …

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… and eventually out to the concourse, where Angela led me toward the group decks in right field:

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This multi-level area was ultra impressive. Here’s how one of the seating/dining areas looks before the doors are rolled up at game time:

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On the wall opposite from the roll-up doors, there were dozens of artifacts related to the long history of baseball in El Paso:

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(In the above picture, did you notice the baseball-themed women’s bathroom sign on the right side?)

We then visited another of the enclosed seating decks in this area …

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… before going out to the stadium-style seating at the front of the structure:

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As you can see, this area provided an outstanding view of the entire ballpark, and gives those who book space here an awesome atmosphere.

Next, we descended to the bottom of this structure to check out the visitors’ bullpen. Whereas the home bullpen is in foul territory on the third base side (pretty standard in the minor leagues) the ‘pen for the visiting team is in this area behind the right field fence and below the party decks:

southwest-university-park-visitors-bullpen

It was built this way to allow fans to have close-up access to the visiting team — not only from the concourse, but also from the sidewalk outside the ballpark! In this next shot, you’ll see the field, the bullpen, the concourse and the sidewalk (and street):

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So many teams design their parks so that passing pedestrians can’t see any of the action, but that’s obviously not the case here, and I think it gives the facility a friendly vibe. Just a few steps from the bullpen, there’s another nice seating area. The seats here aren’t reserved; they’re on a first-come, first-served basis, and are obviously a hot commodity among fans who get to Southwest University Park as soon as the gates open:

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And speaking of hot, there’s a great place for kids to cool down on sweltering days, and that’s the splash pad in center field. Water shoots through a bunch of jets in the ground to keep kids feeling refreshed, and I was contemplating going over and lying on third base, given the heat:

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There’s also a sizable baseball-themed play structure in the area …

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… but my favorite center field attraction is the grass berm that offers this view:

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Once we were done checking out the berm (and I was done catching imaginary home runs in my mind), Angela took me over to the exclusive seating section on top of the Peter Piper Pizza Porch:

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Next, we went back through the clubhouse and road an elevator to the club level. We passed through this upscale eatery …

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… and entered the press box, where I enjoyed this spectacular view:

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Now, I know that each ballpark offers a unique view, and there are some sensational ones throughout the minors. It’s always hard to compare, but this one is definitely among my favorites of the 50+ parks I’ve been to. (Did you notice my hotel just to the left field side of center?)

Here’s the scene as a panorama:

southwest-university-park-home-plate-pano

As we left the suite level, I was looking over toward Ciudad Juarez, and Angela explained what I was seeing. In this photo, you can see two arched bridges. There’s such heavy traffic between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez that one bridge is for people going one direction, and the other is for those coming the other direction:

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After a tour that lasted more than 45 minutes, Angela and I parted and I met up once again with Leesy to do a little more sightseeing, which I’ll write about in an upcoming blog post. Soon enough, I was back enjoying my hotel room — in particular, the air conditioning and the view.

A couple hours later, I made the short walk back to the ballpark, this time using my GoPro to document the sights. I’ll have a video put together to share very soon. Anyway, I was eager to check out the view from behind home plate again, and can you blame me? Here’s how things looked now that the visiting New Orleans Zephyrs were hitting:

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And of course, I couldn’t resist taking this shot of my hotel:

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(If you’ve followed my blog for a long time, you’ll know my love affair with hotels that face ballparks, and you’ve probably seen more than a few shots like the above.)

Wearing my GoPro on a chest harness (and looking like a major minor nerd), I went out to spend some time on the grass berm in center. I didn’t have my baseball glove with me on this trip, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until I could snag a home run ball. True enough, just a couple minutes after arriving, this Pacific Coast League ball landed nearby and I grabbed it:

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A moment later, I got the attention of New Orleans pitcher Nick Wittgren, who has since been recalled to the Miami Marlins, and tossed it to him. And I’m pleased to say that I got this cool moment on video, thanks to my GoPro and chest mount.

After throwing him the ball, I asked Wittgren what it was like playing in such heat. To my surprise, he actually turned around and walked over to me, and we chatted for several minutes. I told him all about my travels, and we compared some of the different ballparks we’ve both visited. A short while after he and his teammates wrapped up BP, I sent him a quick tweet and was surprised to get one back from him just a few minutes later:

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Even though the field was now empty, I couldn’t resist hanging out on the berm. No, I didn’t think I’d get a home run ball; I just was loving the vibe out there:

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There was still more than an hour before the gates were set to open, so I had 60-plus minutes to enjoy this breathtakingly beautiful park all on my own. Once I’d stayed on the berm for a bit, I shot this photo of my shadow on the field …

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… trying to recreate this photo that I took in Jamestown, N.Y. a couple seasons ago. What do you think? Pretty similar?

Given the thoroughness of my tour with Angela, I wasn’t in a hurry to run around and take a million photos before the gates opened, which I customarily do on my ballpark visits. While I did indeed take some shots, I mostly just wandered around for the next hour and enjoyed the sights. Occasionally, I’d hear the low rumble and high-pitched whistle of a freight train, so I went to investigate. Here’s a shot that I took from the landing of the stairs up to the upper deck:

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You can clearly see the train tracks on the left side of the image, and you’ll also note that they’re pretty darned close to the ballpark. In fact, the gap between the concourse and the tracks is netted off to prevent foul balls from hitting any passing trains. I’ve certainly seen parks that are close to the tracks, but this is about as close as you’ll ever get — and the trains rumble past very regularly, so you’ll definitely see lots of action.

Once the gates opened, my first stop was one of the two team shops at Southwest University Park. This one is located behind home plate (the other is in right field) and it’s very impressive. My favorite feature was the enormous wall of caps:

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Before long, the players hit the field, so I went down to the third base side to watch El Paso’s starting pitcher, Jeremy Guthrie. He, of course, has had a long major league career, so I wanted to take a bunch of shots and shoot some video of the righty getting in his pregame tosses. The location of the home bullpen means that you’re just a couple feet from where the pitchers warm up. See what I mean?

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From here, I also had a good view of some of the El Paso position players. Here’s third baseman Diego Goris:

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Center fielder Manuel Margot:

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And catcher Rocky Gale:

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I stayed in that area through the National Anthem, and then relocated over to the top of the blue monster for the top of the first inning, where I had this view:

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Between the top half and bottom half, I bolted over to this spot and enjoyed this wonderful view:

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Once the first inning was in the books, it was time to eat. It’d been a long time since lunch, and I’d done more walking than on any single day during this trip, so I was definitely hungry. There were tons of good-looking options in front of me, and I wanted to get something that was unique to the area. With that in mind, I opted for the Chihua Dog — an all-beef hot dog wrapped in applewood smoked bacon, topped with pinto beans, pico de gallo, jalapenos, guacamole and mayo:

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Delicious? Yes!

I ate the hot dog from a seat along the edge of the upper deck concourse, where I had this view:

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In the top of the third, I snapped this amusing image of the video board:

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Did you catch what I found funny? If so, post it in the comments. (Clicking to enlarge the picture will help your chances of spotting what I’m talking about.)

I ended up staying in this spot for a few innings. The view was great, there was a pleasant breeze that helped to counteract the heat and the usher for my section, Quincy, was among the friendliest ushers I’ve ever come across. I told him all about my travels, and we had fun talking about the various parks we’d each been to. As the sun began to set, I snapped some shots to make up this panorama, which I’m really happy with:

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Although the hot dog had strangely filled me up, I was eager to sample something else with local ties. I almost never drink alcohol, but I couldn’t resist a margarita — El Paso claims to be the place where this drink was invented, although there are also cities that make a similar claim. Either way, it’s a popular drink in this city, and the one I ordered was perfect:

southwest-university-park-margarita

(And, yes, I did manage to spill salt on my thumb before I took this photo. Oops.)

I spent the next few innings walking around the park and enjoying it from various vantage points. I wasn’t feeling pressured to take a ton of photos; I knew this blog post would already have several dozen, and I also knew that I’d be back at the park a day later to do it all over again.

When the sun set, I was interested in checking out the view outside the walls of Southwest University Park and, in particular, seeing Mexico.

Here’s a shot that shows Ciudad Juarez in the distance:

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And another that shows the two bridges after dark:

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Next, I went down to field level in right field to watch a bit of the action with this view:

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In addition to wanting to see a bit of the game from this unique spot, I also wanted to hang out around the New Orleans bullpen, given that there was now starting to be some action in it. Here’s what it looks like in the dark:

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Pretty cool, huh?

I’d hoped that Wittgren would be warming up so that I could watch him throw, but he was settled on one of the benches between a pair of teammates:

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After watching a Zephyrs pitcher warm up, I went back to the grass berm to shoot this nighttime panorama:

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At the top of the eighth, I did something I rarely do — I left the ballpark and went back to my hotel.

But I have a good reason, I promise. The DoubleTree has a rooftop pool and patio area on the seventh floor that faces the ballpark. I’d checked it out earlier and had grand aspirations of standing on the deck in the dark and watching the last inning or so of the ballgame, and then having a swim. Sounds perfect, right? That’s exactly what I did, although I didn’t bother taking my camera to the pool, so you’ll have to trust me on this. It was amazing to see the game from this one-of-a-kind location, and then jump into the pool and splash around while listening to the post-game sounds coming from across the street. I had the entire area to myself, too, which made it even better.

After my swim, I went back to my room and checked out the view a little more. In this photo, the bright light that appears to be floating in the air is actually an enormous star on Franklin Mountain:

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It’s a famous feature in El Paso that is managed by the chamber of commerce. People can pay a fee to have the star lit on certain nights. For example, if it’s your wedding anniversary, you can arrange to have the star lit in your honor, and also have your message posted on the chamber’s website. A pretty cool feature, I think.

Given that I was up at 3:30 a.m., I hit my bed about five minutes after taking this photo, already excited for my second day in El Paso.

Round Rock Express – May 13

If you read about my first day in Round Rock and, in particular, what I ate, you might not be surprised to know that my second day in town didn’t begin with a hearty breakfast. In fact, given the size of my dinner the night before, I simply started my day with a handful of almonds and a bottle of water.

The light breakfast wasn’t solely due to the fact that I’d, umm, overindulged during my first visit to Dell Diamond. I also knew that I had a pretty awesome lunch lined up.

At 11 a.m., I met with Nancy Yawn, the director of the Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, to have lunch and learn more about the city I was visiting. I was excited, in particular, to learn about Round Rock’s connection to sports. The city is known as the Sports Capital of Texas, and Nancy had promised to give me a tour around to look at some of the various sports complexes — a great way to begin a day the would culminate with another Round Rock Express game.

Before we started our tour, we had an outstanding lunch at Cover Three, a restaurant within walking distance of my hotel. I had a plate of absolutely delicious nachos to start (I neglected to get a photo, unfortunately) before my mouthwatering main dish of a gulf shrimp po’ boy with Parmesan fries. This, I’m happy to report, didn’t escape my camera:

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After lunch, Nancy took me through some of the city’s sports facilities, starting with the Round Rock Sports Center. It’s a new complex that cost close to $15 million to build and has nearly 50,000 square feet of playing space for sports such as basketball, volleyball and a whole lot more. This mind-blowing facility was undoubtedly the most impressive non-professional sports center I’ve ever visited. It has too many cool factors for me to attempt to sum up, so I suggest checking out this site if you’re interested in learning more. (Or, if you’re in Round Rock to see the Express, make a point of going and seeing the center.)

Here’s one shot that gives you an idea of the size of the center, although this image hardly does the magnitude of this facility justice:

round-rock-sports-indoors

Next, we headed toward Old Settlers Park, which is a sports fan’s dream — it’s 645 acres and includes 20 baseball fields, five softball fields, seven soccer fields, two football fields and an enormous multisport facility. Before we got there, though, Nancy asked if I’d had a chance to visit Round Rock Donuts yet. This iconic landmark has been featured on numerous food shows on TV. Since my answer was in the negative, we made a quick detour and I got a chance to sample devour the “world famous Round Rock glazed donut,” which was one of the best donuts I’ve ever eaten:

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Soon enough, we pulled into the park and I was blown away once again. Given the park’s size, we just did a driving tour, so the photos below were taken out my window. Still, you can see the impressive nature of this facility with this shot of one of the gates:

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And here are just a couple of the baseball fields:

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I was wildly impressed by everything, and I can certainly see why Round Rock is the sports capital of the state. In Canada, where sports outside of hockey aren’t much of a priority at the youth level, it’s jaw dropping to see such outstanding facilities designed for youth sports.

Soon enough, I had to start preparing to head over to Dell Diamond, so Nancy dropped me back at my hotel so I could get my stuff together. I’m thrilled that I had the chance to learn more about the city and see some of its sports-centric sites; too often, I zoom into a city, watch a baseball game and then leave again the next morning. My two days in Round Rock gave me a chance to get a better appreciation for the area — thank you, Nancy, for everything you did to make my visit so memorable.

Since I’d been a little later than usual getting to the ballpark a day earlier, my plan was to get to Dell Diamond several hours before first pitch. This would give me a chance to shoot a bunch of video that will be up on my YouTube channel soon, but also allow time for simply walking around the park before it opened and enjoying all the sights.

So, I quickly filled my backpack with all my camera gear, paused for this quick shot in front of my rental car …

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

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If you read about my first game at Dell Diamond, you might recall that I didn’t have a chance to take my customary trip around the exterior of the park before entering, but I more than made up for that with a couple laps around the park on this day — all while filming the scenes with my GoPro. Because that video is forthcoming, I’ll hold off on sharing photos of various features along the way. Instead, here’s one quick panorama of the exterior of the front gate that should give you a good idea of how the area looks:

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One of my first priorities once I entered Dell Diamond was to snag a batting practice ball. I enjoy collecting baseballs during my various ballpark trips, and I especially wanted to get a Pacific Coast League ball while in Round Rock. I have at least one ball from each of the other leagues I’ve seen in action, so a PCL ball (or two, or three) was a must. It didn’t take long to find a PCL ball; it was sitting in the grass behind the right field foul pole during Oklahoma City’s batting practice session. Unfortunately, my self-imposed rule is to not take baseballs until the gates open, so I grabbed the ball and tossed it back onto the field.

Still confident that I’d end up with a ball once the gates open, I stood and watched the Dodgers go through some warmup drills in right field from a cool vantage spot right above:

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Next, I went over to check out the rocking chairs in left field. I’d seen them a day earlier but hadn’t done any serious rocking, so that had to change. I sat with this view for a few minutes and rocked to my heart’s content. I particularly like this shot of the view from my chair:

dell-diamond-rocking-chair-view

Once I’d watched a bit of BP from this spot, I went down to field level on the third base side. I hadn’t been to field level a day earlier, so it was great to stand just above the dugout and watch the events unfold on the field. As I’ve said before, few things are better than being privy to BP while the stadium is still closed. Here was the view from where I stood:

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As is always the case during my pregame tours, I didn’t spend too long in one single place. After watching the players from field level for a little while, I went back to the berm in left field, where I took this panorama:

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The player facing me is Jack Murphy, who is someone I follow on Twitter because I met him and got his autograph back in 2010, during my very first trip after starting The Ballpark Guide. (Here’s a post I wrote a few years ago about that autograph and a bunch of others, if you’re interested. Murphy’s autograph appears in the sixth photo.)

Anyway, my reason for moving back to this location is that I wanted to be on the berm as soon as the gates opened, as I knew it would be an ideal location for catching a ball or two. I waited patiently and, before long, the gates opened up and four or five kids made a beeline for the berm — picking up any balls that had been hit for home runs earlier on. I wasn’t going to run around and compete with them for baseballs; plus, I couldn’t fit my glove into my non-checked luggage on this trip. I figured that if a ball was hit right near me, I’d grab it. Luckily, this happened soon enough. Maybe 10 minutes after the gates opened, I snagged this beauty:

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My first PCL ball! I was part thrilled, part relieved.

With my mission accomplished, I climbed back up to the concourse and began to walk down the third base side. I paused for a moment to send out a tweet saying that I’d gotten a ball, when I heard a line drive ricochet off the seats about 12 rows below where I stood. I reacted quickly and began to head toward the ball, when I heard an usher’s voice behind me: “It’s in that row.” What? In many parks, I’ve encountered ushers who are super quick to retrieve balls before fans can get them, but this friendly usher was actually giving me directions so that I could locate the ball quicker. Yet another reason I was thrilled with the overall experience in Round Rock. I found the ball an instant later, snapped this photo …

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

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I watched the last few minutes of Oklahoma City’s BP session and, when it wrapped up, I ran down the line to see the players leave through the staircase/walkway that I wrote about in my previous blog post. What a great way for fans to get so close to so many past/present/future MLB stars:

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While in the area, I also snapped this photo of the Home Run Porch. As you can see, it’s located right above the rocking chairs:

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With the field momentarily empty, I wandered around a bit and checked out some of the sights I’d seen a day earlier. Eventually, I saw the Express make their way onto the field, so I went back down behind the team’s dugout to take some player photos — something I hadn’t really done during my first game at Dell Diamond but that always enjoy doing when I have a chance. My spot behind the dugout meant that I had a great view of many of the players.

Here’s Ike Davis, who has played more than 600 games in the big leagues:

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Veteran shortstop Doug Bernier:

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

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

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I can assure you that he wasn’t.

When the game began, I was excited to have my choice of the outstanding food items at Dell Diamond once again. I’d eaten five amazing things a day earlier, which meant that it was only logical to broaden my horizons and try something new, right? Well, that’s what I was initially thinking, but as I wandered though the various concession areas, the Texas carnitas nachos I’d loved a day earlier beckoned me. I know it might sound silly to eat the same thing on consecutive days when I love sampling as many items as possible, but you try making that argument to the tantalizing combination of homemade chips, shredded pork, queso, pico de gallo, jalapenos and sour cream:

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I’m happy to report that the nachos were just as good as a day earlier, and I’m now wondering if there’s a way I can convince the team to FedEx me a few orders! Seriously, this meal is that good. When you visit Dell Diamond, make sure that you eat the nachos. Please.

The size of the nachos convinced me to spend a couple innings seated, rather than walking, after I finished eating. So, I stayed in the Home Run Porch in left field and, as the sun set, enjoyed this view:

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

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This ended up being the last photo that I took at Dell Diamond. When I’m fortunate enough to have two days in one city, I enjoy spending the second half of the second game sitting in a good spot and simply enjoying the game. While my priority is always to walk around the park, take hundreds of photos and document everything I can, I’m also a fan of the game itself. As such, it’s a treat to finally sit down and take the game in.

I can’t say enough about my two-day visit to Round Rock. It’s always a thrill to start a trip off on the right note, and that was definitely the case here. Thanks to everyone I met along the way and especially to those who contributed to my experience.

Although I was sad to leave Dell Diamond, I was excited for the next chapter in my Texas road trip. In the morning, I’d be driving 3.5 hours to Corpus Christi for two days. Those blog posts will be coming soon.

Round Rock Express – May 12

A culinary journey through Dell Diamond’s top food items, two personal tours, an awesome gift and some guy named Yu Darvish on the mound.

Where to start?

Well, how about at the beginning of the day?

I don’t need to spend a bunch of time talking about the flight to Texas, but it definitely went smoother than last time I visited. I flew from Ontario to Chicago, had a short layover and then flew from Chicago to Austin. Upon arriving in Austin, I quickly picked up a rental car and navigated my way through the rush hour traffic around Austin on the way to Dell Diamond, home of the Round Rock Express. Normally, I like to get to the ballpark at least three hours before first pitch, which gives me time to walk around outside and tour the park’s interior before the gates open. My flight’s arrival time and the traffic meant that I only got to Dell Diamond a little more than 90 minutes before first pitch. I had time to snap this quick photo …

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… and then I headed straight inside, where the outstanding Express staff had so much great stuff planned for me that I quickly forgot about being frazzled over my later-than-usual arrival.

My first stop was to meet Laura Fragoso, the team’s senior VP of marketing. She hooked me up with my media pass and then introduced me to Cassidy MacQuarrie, the team’s community relations coordinator, who spent at least half an hour giving me an amazing tour of Dell Diamond. Since she’d met me on the suite level, that’s where our tour began. This suite might look like any other at a minor league park, but it’s especially noteworthy because it used to be Nolan Ryan’s suite:

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In case you weren’t aware, the team is owned by Ryan and his business partners in a company called Ryan-Sanders Baseball. The Express name pays tribute to Ryan’s nickname, of course, and Cassidy told me that Ryan attends several games throughout the season. Anyway, as you might expect, there were a ton of Ryan-related sights throughout the park. (The staff T-shirts, for example, have #34 on the back.) The coolest Ryan display I saw was this piece of custom art made by a local artist. The image is made entirely out of cigar labels:

round-rock-express-nolan-ryan-cigars

As I learned about the team’s history, connection to the community and a whole lot more, we made our way out to the left field corner, where I saw something really impressive. When the players enter and leave the field, they do so in this area instead of through tunnels connected to the dugouts. This feature was designed to give fans a chance to interact with players, and it’s something I’ve seen in lower levels of the minors but not at the Triple-A level. Whether you’re an autograph collector or you just want to say hello to your favorite ballplayer, you can do so by lining up along the railing here:

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(The guy in the blue BP shirt is a member of the visiting Oklahoma City Dodgers who’s signing autographs.)

Another neat feature in left field is Dell Diamond’s “best seats in the house” — a long row of rocking chairs positioned just behind the outfield berm:

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And here’s something that I really like:

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Garbage cans, you ask? Look closely — the actual garbage can pales in comparison to the much-larger recycling and composting bins, which I think is awesome. Cassidy told me that the plates on which the food is served are made from compostable materials, which means that you can put your plates and any food scraps into the bin on the right, rather than into the trash. I believe this is the first such setup I’ve seen at a ballpark, and other teams should be hastily following suit. In fact, I’ve come across many parks that have little to no recycling, much less composting. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked around with one or more plastic bottles in my backpack to recycle back at the hotel because the only disposal option at some parks is the garbage. Well done, Round Rock!

The tour with Cassidy breezed past, and soon enough I was informed that Dell Diamond’s executive chef had prepared a selection of some of the ballpark’s notable food items for me to sample! After a long day of travel, this was music to my ears. We made our way to a table on the concourse behind third base and my eyes bugged out a bit when I saw my dinner laid out in front of me:

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A moment later, chef Ed Ebert arrived and gave me a detailed explanation of each of the food items. Here’s the rundown, starting from the top left and moving clockwise:

Hot dog wrapped in a grilled-cheese sandwich: Instead of a conventional bun, this hot dog is tucked inside a folded grilled cheese sandwich. It should also be noted that the hot dogs at Dell Diamond (and burgers) come from Nolan Ryan’s beef company.

Kahuna kolache: This is a Hawaiian-inspired dish that features a jumbo hot dog stuffed inside a special bun. Between the hot dog and the bun there’s a sweet mango sauce.

Texas carnitas nachos: Homemade red, white and blue tortilla chips with shredded pork, homemade queso, homemade pico de gallo, jalapenos and sour cream.

Black and bleu burger: A blackened burger patty sitting on a dollop of chipotle mayo, topped with a blend of applewood smoked bacon and roasted jalapenos, along with a medley of jack and bleu cheese.

Hot dog flight: From left, there’s The Fender, a hot dog with Texas chili, cheese, onions and sour cream; The James Dean, a hot dog with bleu cheese coleslaw and Frank’s Red Hot sauce; and The Marilyn, a hot dog with neon nuclear relish, red jalapenos and shredded cheese.

The verdict? Everything was delicious … and filling! My favorite were the nachos, which were the best nachos I’ve ever eaten at any ballpark. I loved how the ingredients were homemade — none of that abysmal pump “cheese” that I’ve ranted about numerous times. (I ranted about it with chef Ed for a bit and I think he appreciated my enthusiasm.) From top to bottom, the nachos were just outstanding. The burger and the hot dog/grilled cheese combo were my runners-up.

Before I started eating, we got a quick group picture. Laura took the shot, so she unfortunately wasn’t in it. From left, you’re looking at Nicole Hunt, who works for RS3 (Ryan Sanders Sports Services) and also did an exemplary job of fanning away any flies while I ate; Cassidy MacQuarrie, who gave me the tour; me, shortly before eating the majority of the food in front of me; chef Ed Ebner, who is the corporate chef for RS3; and Joe Nieto, who is the assistant general manager for RS3:

dell-diamond-malcolm-and-group

Everyone had to get back to their pre-game duties, but Ed soon made a quick return to show me something interesting. The picture below is a lava rock from Mount Etna in Sicily and a key element of the Fire and Ice meal production that won Round Rock first place in the MiLB Food Fight competition that recently wrapped up. This lava rock is heated and used to cook beef tenderloin and shrimp; it’s a suite-only item, so I didn’t see it in action, but the wow factor is obviously off the charts:

round-rock-express-lava-rock

After I’d taken a few minutes of recovery time following my meal, I was joined by Randi Null, the team’s director of creative marketing. Time for another tour!

Perhaps fittingly, one of the first stops on our tour related to food. This is a huge garden planted and maintained by the team, and it provides food that is served at Dell Diamond! There were plenty of tomato plants, jalapeno plants, herbs and a whole lot more:

round-rock-express-veggie-garden

Randi also took this photo of me in front of the huge Welcome to Round Rock mural, which is based after the iconic Welcome to Austin mural that you might have seen before:

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

We also checked out the team’s hall of fame area, which is beyond the grass berm in left field. There are currently two members in the team’s HOF; former pitcher Roy Oswalt will join them at a ceremony this summer. The area also has a bunch of photos from throughout the team’s history, as well as this Express-themed cow that is signed by Nolan Ryan:

round-rock-express-nolan-ryan-cow

When Randi had to get back to her pregame tasks, I quickly made my way toward the Express bullpen. Why? Yu Darvish had just walked there himself and was beginning to warm up. As you might expect, there are a huge crowd around him. Being above and behind him, I wasn’t able to get any head-on shots. However, I had a great view as I watched him go through his warmup:

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

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

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Then, it was time for some fist bumps …

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… and time for me to run around to each side of home plate so I could watch him pitch for the first few innings. Darvish was slated to throw no more than 60 pitches, so I wanted to be sure that I had a good vantage point for shots like this from the first base side:

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And this one from the third base side:

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I was hoping for a good head-on shot as he walked toward the Round Rock dugout at the end of an inning of work, but he kept his head down virtually the entire time. For a brief instant, he looked up and I shot a couple pictures like this one:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish

As much as I would’ve enjoyed grabbing a seat behind home plate and watching the three-time MLB all-star deal, I also wanted to continue exploring Dell Diamond. Since I’d watched a couple innings of Darvish, I decided to take a walk up to the press box, where I hadn’t yet been. It provided not only some air conditioning and an opportunity to mix myself a lemonade/iced tea mix, but also this great view of the action:

round-rock-express-press-box-view

There were a fair number of media members from Japan in the press box, but I heard from an attendant that most of them had already left and were down waiting to interview Darvish in the press area once he’d finished his start. The attendant told me that the press box was so crowded at the start of the game that people were sitting on the floor! That’s remarkable, considering the press box at Dell Diamond is huge and can accommodate a sizable crowd.

After chatting with a few people in the press box for a half-inning or so, I decided to go back to the main concourse and catch a bit of the action from behind home plate. Here’s how the scene looked in panoramic form:

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

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

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This deck was added to increase the park’s seating capacity when the Round Rock franchise joined the Triple-A Pacific Coast League prior to the 2005 season. It’s shaded from the sun, which makes it an ideal spot if you’re looking to stay somewhat cool while you watch the game.

Remember the cool walkway that the players use while traveling to and from the field? That’s hardly the only Dell Diamond feature that provides fans with the opportunity to be close to the players. Both bullpens are also extremely accessible; they’re each located in the outfield and directly between the field and a pair of grass seating berms. This means that you can stand just a few feet behind the players to cheer — or heckle, depending on which side you’re on. I spent a bit of time right behind the Round Rock ‘pen, and it was obviously a thrill to be so close to the players. Here’s Anthony Carter:

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

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

round-rock-express-bullpen-candle

I’m guessing it’s to keep away the bugs, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in any of the other parks I’ve visited.

And, before continuing on, I snapped this shot of me with my brand-new Express cap! As a way of welcoming me to the city, the team was kind enough to give me free rein in the team shop to pick any cap I wanted — wow! This is the one I chose and I love it:

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My next stop was the enormous play area behind right-center; both Cassidy and Randi had taken me through the area earlier, but I wanted to wait until it was being used to get some pictures. It’s one of the most impressive play areas I’ve ever seen — and that includes the MLB parks I’ve visited. There was an enormous trampoline/bungee cord attraction in which you’re strapped into a harness connected to bungee cords and can bounce and do flips:

round-rock-express-trampolines

A rock climbing wall:

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A basketball court:

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

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This is the first pool I’ve come across in my ballpark travels. I know there are some of them out there, but as someone who loves swimming, I was super impressed with this feature. It should be noted that this area is part of a group picnic deck; whereas the other play area attractions are open to all fans, only those among a group that has bought tickets in this zone can use the pool and hot tub.

As the sun began to set, I grabbed a spot on the berm in right field and watched a bit of the game:

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But before long, I was on the move again. (Ever wonder how much I walk during a typical ballpark visit? I’ll actually have a blog post about that very topic after I finish all my Texas posts.) Anyway, I went back along the concourse to the left field corner, where I stood for a moment at the top of the steps that lead from the field toward the clubhouses to show you how things look in this spot:

round-rock-express-steps

As I once again walked along the outfield concourse, I sensed a bit of a commotion behind the fence that divides Dell Diamond from the players’ parking lot, so I climbed partway up the stairs toward the Home Run Porch to survey the scene. It didn’t take too long to realize what was going on. By now, Darvish had finished his stint on the mound, and the happenings just outside the fence were all related to him. Take a look at this photo:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-fence

There were several Express staff members standing outside the clubhouse door just out of sight to the left of my photo and just out of sight to the right is the team’s indoor batting cages that double as a press conference space. There were several media members milling around, and I realized it wouldn’t be long before Darvish emerged from the door on the left, walked down the sidewalk in front of me and entered the door on the right. Of course, I could’ve attended the media session thanks to my pass, but I preferred to just be a fly on the wall and take it all in. One more cool detail — see that white Mercedes-Benz SUV? That was backed into the spot for Darvish just before I snapped the above photo.

Just as expected, Darvish came through the door a few minutes later. Unfortunately, he was very tough to photograph. Shooting through the fence wasn’t possible and the dusky conditions were less than ideal. I snapped a handful of shots as Darvish passed right below me, but all of them were blurry. Here’s the best one:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-press

It was one of those moments that I couldn’t adequately capture with photos but that was absolutely awesome to witness. Seeing MLBers rehabbing up close is such a cool experience (remember when I watched Derek Jeter take BP while standing on the field?) so even if I didn’t get great photos, seeing Darvish is something that’ll be etched in my mind for a long time. I figured Darvish’s media availability would be brief and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before he exited the door to my right and headed toward the vehicle for a moment. His face was blocked by the tree, but you can clearly see his uniform pants and cleats in this shot:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-legs

By now, it was the top of the sixth inning, so I headed back toward the berm in right field to watch some of the game. In this spot, I stood just a couple feet from Oklahoma City pitcher Jacob Rhame as he warmed up. The access that fans get to the bullpens at Dell Diamond is outstanding. In fact, another fan was standing behind Rhame and the two of them were carrying on a conversation while the righthander threw. I was so amused that I took this video of the scene:

The background noise makes it hard to follow the conversation, but I could clearly hear Rhame answering questions about his tenure in the Dodgers organization and more, between pitches.

Next, I spent a couple more innings behind home plate, enjoying this view …

round-rock-express-home-plate-view

… and when the game was just about to wrap up, I headed over to the steps toward the clubhouse. As it turns out, a player had already beaten me there! Here’s a shot of a Dodgers player standing on the concourse with a friend/family member during the late innings — pretty awesome to see:

round-rock-express-player-concourse

Soon after the last pitch of the game, I hopped back into my rental car and drove less than 10 minutes to my hotel and crashed. It’d been an awesome day, but an extremely full one and I wanted to be well rested for my second day in Round Rock. It would feature an outstanding lunch with the director of the Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, a chance to tour some of the other impressive sports facilities in Round Rock and, of course, another Express game. A blog post all about that day is coming next.

Houston Astros – September 22

What’s better than an absolutely awesome, jam-packed first day in Houston?

The feeling I had waking up on the morning of September 22 and knowing that I had another full day to explore Minute Maid Park, enjoy my downtown stadium-facing hotel and soak up all the fun that a baseball road trip provides.

I woke up super early so that I could set up my GoPro on one my window ledges and capture the sun rising over Minute Maid Park. Pretty majestic view, right?

While the GoPro snapped hundreds of shots that I used to build this time-lapse video (I’d love if you could click the thumbs-up button, by the way!) I started to browse the photos that I’d taken at the Astros game the night before and catch up on some highlights on ESPN of the previous evening’s action — all while enjoying hanging out in my outstanding hotel room.

In case you missed my previous post, I was fortunate to be staying at the Westin Houston Downtown — one of the nicest hotels in Houston and a perfect choice for fans visiting the city to see the Astros. Its great location aside, my guest room was one of the nicest I’ve ever been in. I was fortunate to get a corner room, which meant there were windows on two sides of the room, giving it a nice, open feel. Here’s one look at the room:

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And another shot:

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It was a great experience to relax in my awesome room for a bit, but soon it was time to explore the hotel a little. The hotel really plays up its close proximity to Minute Maid Park — each of the conference/event rooms in the hotel has a different baseball-related name and one of the on-site restaurants is called the Ballpark Cafe. Given the name of my website and blog, it only made sense to check the place out for lunch.

Boy, was I impressed! This was no ordinary lunch — it was one that I can easily count among the very best meals I’ve ever eaten.

You can check out the Ballpark Cafe’s menu here to view all the impressive fare. Despite what I ate the previous night at the ballgame, I was hungry again and absolutely enticed by many of the menu’s items. I started with the Yellow Tuna Tataki dish, which featured sliced tuna with edamame aioli and ginger soy sauce; for my main course, I had the Certified Angus Filet Mignon, served with Patron green peppercorn sauce, mashed potatoes and asparagus.

Now, I’m no food reviewer, but I can tell you that every bite of each dish was absolutely outstanding. The meal was one of those that I consider myself fortunate to have eaten.

Once I’d eaten, I headed back to my room to relax for a bit before snapping this shot of downtown Houston out my window …

downtown-houston-from-westin

… and then setting up my GoPro to take another few thousand shots that I could use to build another time-lapse video. I like how the clouds cast shadows on the buildings in this one:

Once I my GoPro finished its work and I enjoyed a bit more lounging in my room, it was time to pack up for the super-short walk over to the ballpark.

Having a second day in an MLB city is ideal because it doubles the time you can devote to checking out the park and the area around it, so I soon found myself exploring areas that I hadn’t had a chance to see a day earlier. My first stop was another parking lot that provided a spot where I could take this panorama of the outside of the ballpark:

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I spent the next little while wandering around the exterior of the park, taking shots like this one:

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And this one, of the park’s notable tower structure:

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Despite the searing heat, the pregame walking was a blast — it’s always awesome to get to check out MLB facilities. Soon enough, it was time to head inside. A day earlier, there were a few people ahead of me in line; on this day, I was the first fan into the park through my gate. Needless to say, the scene was pretty quiet even a few minutes later:

minute-maid-park-empty-seats

I took advantage of the early lack of a crowd to head down to the visiting side’s dugout so that I could see some of the Angels players up close. I had no trouble securing a spot in the front row where I had an awesome view of the action. Shane Victorino, who is a player I’ve enjoyed watching for years, was so close to where I stood that I heard him actually say “Aloha” to a fan who’d joined me in the front row. A moment later, I snapped this shot of the Flyin’ Hawaiian playing catch …

shane-victorino-pregame-tossing

… and I was amused that he’d yet to put on his belt. It’s hard to see in the above photo, but Victorino was wearing a custom Nike warmup shirt that paid tribute to his Hawaiian heritage. Here’s a zoomed-in shot of another picture I took that depicts the logo:

shane-victorino-t-shirt-closeup

Soon enough, this guy captured my attention:

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Albert Pujols has been one of my favorite players since he came into the major leagues, so it was awesome to see him so close. I’d previously seen him back in 2012 at Fenway Park and, of course, a day earlier in Houston, but now he was immediately on the other side of the dugout railing and just a few feet away. I took a ton of pictures of him, including this one that I really like:

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When Pujols finished tossing, he moved over toward the cage to begin stretching, so I followed him as best I could and took shots like this:

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Afterward, he moved back toward me and I took a bunch of shots like this, which show just how close he was:

albert-pujols-marucci-pregame

OK, convinced that I was stalking Pujols? You’re sort of correct, but let’s move on, shall we?

I took one more photo from the dugout area — this shot of Collin Cowgill’s glove …

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… and then it was time to find some other parts of the park to explore. My first stop was the second deck in right field, where I took this shot of the custom iron work on the railings:

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And this panorama of the scene from where I stood:

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As you might have noticed in the panorama, the huge windows beyond left and center field were casting crazy shadows on the field. I like how this shot of four Angels and their shadows turned out:

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I continued on my quest and noticed a couple cool MLB All-Star Game artifacts from past seasons, including this cowboy boot from the 2004 game in Houston:

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And from the 2010 game in Anaheim:

minute-maid-park-mickey-mouse-2010-all-star-game

Sort of interesting that these two statues represented the home fields for the two teams playing in the evening’s game, huh?

By this time, first pitch was starting to sneak up, so I took advantage of the opportunity to check out the concession stands like I had done a day earlier. This time, I made up my mind pretty quickly — I went with a chicken fried steak sandwich that featured Nolan Ryan Texas Beef. (He’s got a beef company in Texas, as you might have guessed.) Here’s a shot of this glorious sandwich:

minute-maid-park-food-chicken-fried-steak-sandwich

It was delicious! I’d never eaten chicken fried steak in the past, but I figured that a visit to Texas was the right time to try it. The steak was nice and tender and it didn’t take long until this hulking sandwich was just a memory.

I took a post-meal digestion break by watching a few minutes of the Astros pregame show …

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… before heading over to the third base side of home in time for the start of the first inning:

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I was glad to have this spot because the visitor’s side of the first inning proved to be eventful as Mike Trout …

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… and Pujols hit back-to-back home runs:

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Fireworks aside, it was awesome to have such a close view of the action. Here’s Houston’s 5’5″ Jose Altuve, who is one of the more exciting MLBers to watch:

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After I’d spent a few innings in this spot, it was time to continue exploring the park. I headed all the way up to the upper deck and over toward the train that you’ve undoubtedly seen on TV broadcasts. This next shot gives you a behind-the-scenes view — I took it while standing at the end of the train tracks; obviously, the train only travels as far as the windows that you see in the center of the image, but it was neat to have this vantage point of the train:

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Upon looking at the train, I went out to the seats and found an open area where I watched a couple innings with this view:

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From up here, I had a different view of the train:

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I don’t think I’d realized from seeing the train on TV over the past several years that it has a driver — although I admittedly don’t watch Astros games very often. I also thought it was funny how the train car has the Nolan Ryan Texas Beef logo on it, yet it’s carrying a load of oranges as a tip of the cap to the company that holds the ballpark’s naming rights.

Once I’d spent a bit of time with this bird’s-eye view, I went back down to the main level and checked out one of the team shops. I was drawn to one of the historical displays featuring seats from the old Astrodome:

houston-astrodome-seats

Did you know that it was originally called “Harris County Domed Stadium” when it opened in 1965? I sure didn’t.

As I often do during the latter half of the game when I’m visiting a ballpark on consecutive days, I found a seat with a great view of the action — behind home plate, in this instance — put my camera away and simply enjoyed the remainder of the game. After the final out, I made the quick walk back to my hotel room and got to bed in anticipation of getting up at 4 a.m. to fly from Houston to Chicago, Chicago to Toronto and then drive home.

Thanks for joining me to read about my adventure in Texas. It truly was an outstanding experience and one that I look forward to experiencing again soon!

Pittsburgh Pirates – August 30

Spending two days in the same city is always a blast, so after a great first day in Pittsburgh, I was excited to rise early on August 30 and get my second day underway. The Pirates were once again hosting the Rockies at PNC Park, but unlike a day before, the game was an afternoon game. This is the best possible scenario for baseball road trippers — you get to experience the park both at night and during the afternoon on subsequent days.

I took a look out my hotel window as soon as I got up and saw that the weather looked perfect over downtown Pittsburgh, which was a good way to start my day:

downtown-pittsburgh-morning-view-pano

So, I packed up quickly and headed out in search of adventure. As usual, I wanted to get into the ballpark as soon as the gates opened, but being up early meant that I had a good chance to explore some of the sights around the ballpark, including Point State Park, which is the spot where the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers meet. It’s also the place with the giant fountain that you often see on TV broadcasts when you’re watching the Pirates. For a quiet Sunday morning, there was lots to check out at this tourist-friendly park, and I’ll be sharing some photos and anecdotes in an upcoming off-season blog post.

For now, though, I’ll share this shot of PNC Park taken from the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, which I walked along to Point State Park:

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And here’s a shot of me on the trail with the ballpark in the background:

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I spent a couple hours playing tourist before retracing my steps, crossing the Roberto Clemente Bridge and getting in line to enter PNC Park. As soon as I got inside, I went straight down to field level on the Rockies side where I planned to get an autograph or two. As I waited, I watched pitcher Yohan Flande do some jogging back and forth. I positioned myself directly in front of him and shot a bunch of photos, including this one:

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It was sort of a funny moment — I shot photos for several minutes, and he silently ran toward me, then away from me, and then back toward me. He never acknowledged me with a nod or anything — not that you’d expect him to — but did sort of quizzically look at me a few times. I wonder if he was questioning why the heck I was standing there shooting photo after photo.

After Flande left, I gathered with some other fans to watch the soon-to-be-retired A.J. Burnett chatting with three members of the Rockies and teammate Jeff Locke:

pnc-park-players-before-game

It was cool to see Locke in person in the major leagues; I previously saw him pitch with the Double-A Altoona Curve way back in June of 2011 while visiting the Harrisburg Senators. You can see a photo of him from that day here.

Soon enough, Colorado reliever Christian Friedrich approached where I was standing and began signing autographs. He was a first-round pick in 2008, taken three spots ahead of 2015 MLB all-star Gerrit Cole. I normally don’t like getting autographs on tickets, but I didn’t have anything else handy, so I handed him my ticket from yesterday’s game and got it signed:

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After I’d received the autographed and tucked it safely away in my backpack, I shot this panorama from field level:

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If you look carefully, you can actually see Friedrich signing on the far left.

Before leaving the area in search of something to eat that would technically play the role of my breakfast, I took a shot of the out-of-town scoreboard:

pnc-park-out-of-town-scoreboard

While the scoreboard itself is cool, take a look at the area directly above where it says “National League” and “American League.” This is the viewing area that I mentioned in my previous post and also referenced when I wrote about visiting PNC Park last season. It’s a great spot to enjoy the game and while the first row is reserved for wheelchairs, you can often enjoy an inning or two standing against the concrete wall. If you plan on visiting PNC Park, make it a priority to watch some of the game from this spot if you can.

My quest for some food led me to the Quaker Steak & Lube concession stand near Section 110. I often eat at the QS&L stand at Rogers Centre in Toronto and had some delicious onion rings at the PNC Park location during my visit last August.

Amusingly enough, those onion rings served as my breakfast during that 2014 Sunday matinee game. Now, almost exactly a year to the day later, I was standing in line to buy chicken wings that was serve as breakfast. Apparently, my eating habits have not improved.

As for the wings, they weren’t Quaker Steak & Lube’s best effort. In fact, I’d say they were the worst QS&L wings I’ve eaten at a ballpark. Dry, not flavorable and only slightly above room temperature are three drawbacks to chicken wings in my book. Nevertheless, here they are:

pnc-park-food-quaker-steak-lube-wings

As you might’ve noticed from the background of the chicken wings picture, I’d eaten in the upper deck on the first base side. Once I finished eating, I realized that I could see my hotel, the Hampton Inn & Suites Pittsburgh-Downtown, from where I sat — which makes sense, I suppose, given that I could see PNC Park from my hotel room! Here’s a shot that shows the hotel and a bunch of Pittsburgh’s iconic bridges:

pnc-park-upper-deck-view-hotel

As first pitch approached, I went off in search of some more food, given that the chicken wings didn’t really satisfy. My quest took me down to the Riverwalk area and, in particular, the Rita’s Italian Ice concession stand. I’m a big fan of this sort of icy frozen treat, and I ordered the black cherry flavor:

pnc-park-food-rita's-ice

I’m pleased to report it was delicious and included several actual black cherry chunks; I’m slightly embarrassed to report that this sugar-laden snack was technically part of my breakfast.

Part of my priority for this visit was to watch the game from various vantage points that I hadn’t visited a day earlier. As I walked toward a cool area you’ll see in just a minute, I stopped to take this shot of the Roberto Clemente statue and the area around it:

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The statue is directly outside the gates, as you can see, but I think this photo does a good job of showing just how close the Clemente Bridge is to the park’s gates. As you can see, the bridge and the gates are just a few steps apart.

(Also, there appears to be a real-life pirate at the bottom of the photo.)

After taking this shot, I cut through the air conditioned Hall of Fame Club, which is located behind the left field seats. This area is impressive — it’s an upscale eatery with a view of the field and an extensive bar and menu, but it’s also open to anyone with a ticket. Whereas some upscale spots in MLB parks aren’t accessible, this one is definitely fun for everyone to check out. Directly outside the Hall of Fame Club sits a standing-room area, which is where I stood to watch the game’s opening innings with this view:

pnc-park-left-field-view-pano

You don’t get the downtown Pittsburgh skyline from this spot, but I think you’ll agree that the view is outstanding.

I next watched some of the game from this spot on the third base side of home plate:

pnc-park-main-level-view-pano

The overhang limits your full view of the city’s skyline, but it’s easy enough to see if you simply duck a little. After a couple more innings in this spot, I watched a little from the Riverwalk and then set off for another few laps around beautiful PNC Park to take in the sights. Many of the shots I took during my walk were similar to those I showed in my last blog post, so I won’t duplicate them here.

When the game wrapped up, I made the short walk back to the Hampton Inn & Suites Pittsburgh-Downtown:

hampton-inn-suites-pittsburgh-downtown-outside

As you might have read in my previous post, this hotel is awesome for baseball fans visiting Pittsburgh. Its close proximity to PNC Park means you can comfortably walk to and from the game and won’t have to fuss over parking. There are a number of key tourist attractions, including those that I visited before the game, within an easy walk from the hotel.

The rooms are awesomely spacious, too — here’s a shot of just part of my suite:

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I’m not sure when I’ll be back in Pittsburgh, but I do know that when it comes time to book my hotel room, I won’t hesitate to contact the Hampton Inn for a third time.

Next up, I’ll have a bunch of posts about my outstanding trip to Texas!