Tagged: baseball road trips

Tri-City ValleyCats – August 20

I pulled onto the campus of Hudson Valley Community College shortly after 3 p.m. on August 20, noticing small groups of first-year students and their parents checking out the school in advance of moving in. It wasn’t the campus that I was interested in seeing, though — my sights were focused on the building at the rear of the campus.

That’s where Joseph L. Bruno Stadium, home of the Tri-City ValleyCats, stands. It’s one of my favorite stops in the Short-Season A New York-Penn League, and a place that I visited way back in 2010 and again in 2012. If you’re thinking that another visit was overdue, I totally agree with you — and that’s why I had two ValleyCats games scheduled on this short road trip.

The ‘Cats were hosting the Brooklyn Cyclones, who were amusingly the team that I’d seen play Tri-City in each of my previous two visits, and by the time I got to the front gate of the ballpark affectionately known as “The Joe,” there was already a sizable crowd waiting to get in:

Although I was anxious to get inside, I also knew that I’d have more than enough time to enjoy the ballpark over the course of two days. So, I took a bit of time to make a lap of the park’s perimeter and check it out from a few angles.

Seeing the field for the first time, a peek through the chain-link fence atop the grass berm in the right field corner, instantly brought back fond memories of my two previous visits — a championship series game in September of 2010 and the first day of a road trip that took me through New England in 2012:

Given The Joe’s location on the HVCC campus, there are some cool sights to see around the ballpark — namely, a football stadium and a softball field, as well as a ropes course beyond the left field corner of the ballpark. But I was here to see the baseball field, and enjoyed looking through the trees that line the hill beyond the outfield fence to catch glimpses of it. Here’s a shot of the ballpark from the back side of the “hit it here” sign in right-center:

After a full circuit, I headed into The Joe through the main gates, which put me on the concourse directly behind home plate. As I often do, I snapped a photo of the field from this angle …

… and then walked down to field level to just enjoy the sights in front of me.

Fortunately, I’d be standing on the field before too long. The ValleyCats were hosting a “play catch on the field” promotion before the game, and even though I was traveling solo and didn’t have a catch partner, I took advantage of the opportunity to walk around the outfield, trying to dodge errant throws from the scores of kids playing catch. Here’s a panorama that I snapped from the left field corner a moment after nearly getting hit with a football, funny enough:

And here’s how the scene looked from straightaway center:

The drive from my home to Troy, New York (the Tri-City ValleyCats name represents the Tri-City area of Albany, Troy and Schenectady, the latter of which I impressively spelled correctly on my first attempt) took a little under five hours, and I didn’t make a stop for food. That meant that getting something to eat was pretty high up on my list of priorities. Last visit, I had an order of delicious salt potatoes, but I was looking to try something different this time. After a quick circuit of the concourse to evaluate the options, I was drawn to the pizza concession stand on the third base side. But this wasn’t any old ballpark pizza. Rather, this stand was serving made-to-order pizzas in a wood-burning oven:

I knew I had to try one. I ordered a pepperoni and cheese pizza, and hustled to a picnic table above left field once I had the hot box in my hands. I was impressed with the look of the pizza as soon as I lifted the lid, and even more impressed once I bit into the first slice. This pizza was absolutely delicious, and gets the nod as the best ballpark pizza I’ve ever eaten:

I finished the pizza about the time that the teams wrapped up their pregame warmups, so I walked back down the length of the concourse and grabbed a seat behind home plate for the first inning. Even though I had the netting to contend with, I had fun taking some action shots, like this one of ValleyCats starter Alex House:

And this one of Cyclones catcher Scott Manea picking up his first of two hits of the game:

Next, I took another couple laps around the concourse, enjoying the sights and keeping an eye on the action. The Joe is absolutely beautiful, but perhaps the lone knock on it is that the concourse doesn’t wrap around the entire field. Maybe it’s just a matter of personal preference, but I love parks that have this feature, as it’s enjoyable to take entire circuits of the field instead of have to walk back and forth from foul pole to foul pole. On my walk, I had to chuckle when I saw this banner:

What do you think? Agree or disagree?

After I watched a ball that landed in the outfield roll under the gate beside the left field foul pole for a ground rule double, I wanted to spend some time in this area. I figured that not only could there be a chance of snagging a home run, but grabbing a ground rule double ball would make for an interesting story. I snapped this panorama of this pristine-looking ballpark on my walk to the left field corner …

… and then hung out for an inning and a half just a few steps away from the base of the foul pole. While there, I snapped this shot of myself — of course, I’m wearing one of my T-shirts:

Interested in buying one for your own baseball road trips? Here’s the link.

No baseballs came my way, but that was all right. I was still having a blast, and especially excited that I had two days in Troy on this visit. Once I abandoned the idea of getting a baseball, I went behind the home bullpen for a few minutes:

One of the things that I love about the minor leagues is just how close you can get to the bullpens. While this is occasionally the case in the big leagues, there are also several MLB parks at which close access to the bullpen is impossible. It’s fun to watch the players hanging out, getting loose and, of course, warming up for action.

Speaking of the bullpen, there were a few interesting things that I noticed. We’ve probably all seen a player go to stand next to the plate to mimic the batter while a pitcher is warming up, right? Well, at The Joe, the ValleyCats had a pair of wooden batter-shaped models that could be used instead of actual players. I’ve seen some of these in the past, but they’re still fairly rare. You can see a couple of them below, “standing” next to the bench:

Even more interesting were a couple things that I hadn’t noticed at other parks. If you look carefully in the image above, you’ll see a series of strings that run across the bullpen. These represent the top and bottom edges of the strike zone for pitchers who are warming up. Has anyone else noticed these at other parks? I’m wondering if it’s something that’s exclusively done in the lower levels of the minors. Also, you’ll notice a large target that is laying against the fence. It’s divided into four quadrants with clock-style numbers around the perimeter. I’m guessing it’s a teaching tool and may even be something that pitchers use when practicing on their own. This is the first time that I can remember seeing such a thing.

The game itself was bonkers. Tri-City won 13-10 despite being outhit 17-11. Sounds like an offensive juggernaut, right? Yes, but the teams also combined for 20 strikeouts in a game that took 3:41 to play.

About 10 minutes after the final out, I was pulling into my hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn Troy:

I’ve stayed at Hilton Garden Inns many, many times over the years, and this hotel was easily among the most impressive I’ve visited. As with many hotel chains, HGIs have a lot of common features that are similar from property to property, so I was sort of expecting the standard king room that I usually get at this brand of hotel. I was shocked, however, to learn that the hotel had upgraded me to the presidential suite — something I didn’t expect or even imagine might be possible. I’ve since learned that when suites are available (the HGI Troy has 15 suites, including the presidential suite I was lucky to stay in) guests will sometimes get surprised with upgrades. So, if you book a room at this hotel when you’re traveling to Troy for some ValleyCats baseball, you never know which room you may end up in.

This suite was hands down the biggest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in, and featured a list of amenities that was hugely impressive. Standout features included a full kitchen and bar, living room with leather furniture and a fireplace, three TVs and a separate bedroom with a king bed at the end of the long hallway. There was even a full-sized dining room. Honestly, the photos of this suite fail to do it justice, but here’s a look at part of the scene in panorama format:

Above, you’re looking at the living room, with the dining room and kitchen beyond it. The bedroom is down a hall between the dining room and kitchen.

Since you’re probably wondering:

Yes, I used all three TVs during my visit.

And, yes, I put the fireplace on when I sat in the living room.

The full kitchen was another feature that I really appreciated:

While simply having a bar fridge is usually enough for me, it was great to have a full-sized fridge and freezer so that I could stock up on some snacks and drinks for my two-day stay. And, hey, if a fella’s gonna eat some Häagen-Dazs out of the tub in bed while watching SportsCenter, the freezer means that he can ration it out instead of eat it all in one serving. Theoretically.

The location of the hotel was also perfect for me as a baseball traveler. Just a short and easy drive to The Joe, the hotel was an even shorter drive to grocery stores and walking distance to several fast-food restaurants.

My intention of going to bed in decent time was zapped when I got into bed, flipped on the TV and found that it had on-demand programming. As I tweeted out at the time, Showtime boxing captured my attention, and I watched a couple hours of fights before shutting off the lights, anxious for my second day in Troy to begin.

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Ottawa Champions – June 16

On June 17 of 2016, I traveled to Ottawa, Canada, for some international baseball action. If you were following my blog back then, you might recall my exciting day seeing the independent Can-Am League’s Ottawa Champions hosting the Cuban National Team. If you don’t recall, this link should jog your memory.

A year minus a day later, I was back in Canada’s capital city for a reunion of sorts — the Champions were once again hosting Cuba, and I’d made plans to be in attendance as soon as the series was announced. My excitement for this game meant I pulled into the lots of Ottawa’s Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park more than three hours before first pitch. I was so early that the parking lot looked like this:

As usual, I took a short walk around the exterior of the ballpark before entering. I won’t post those photos here, though, because they’re virtually identical to some of the pre-entrance shots that I’ve shared in other posts about seeing the Champions. What can I say? I’m a creature of habit sometimes.

Ottawa was on the field hitting, and this is the first view I had after I walked through the main entrance and out to the cross-aisle behind the seating bowl:

I was eager to get down to the field, as that’s always a thrilling experience, but I decided to first do a little wandering around the park to check out the sights. My first stop was the top row of seats on the third base side. Here’s a shot that gives you a good idea of how the interior of RCGT Park looks:

My next stop was the grass berm in the left field corner. There’s a huge picnic area behind it, as well as a couple rows of Adirondack chairs that give fans a unique seating experience — and a cool spot to snag a long foul ball during the game. Here’s how the area looks from roughly the top of the berm:

Speaking of foul balls, a batting practice baseball laying in the grass caught my eye, so I picked it up and photographed it:

It was hugely waterlogged, so I’m assuming it’d been there since the day before.

Next, I headed down to the field, where I chatted for a while with Champions marketing and communications director Craig Richenback. I met Craig for the first time last season, so it was great to catch up with him again and talk baseball. Before long, we were joined by team president and minority owner David Gourlay, who is someone I’ve talked with several times on social media, but was happy to finally meet.

Given the magnitude of the international series, Craig and David were soon back to their pregame tasks. This left me alone watching BP — but only for a minute. Soon enough, Champions catcher and 2013 Cincinnati Reds draft pick Danny Grauer approached me. Why? Because he noticed my shirt and told me it was “awesome.” (By the way, I’m currently doing a prize draw for a free shirt. All the details are on my Facebook page.) If you remember my visit to Binghamton last month, I was approached by two players who also liked my shirt, so it was a thrill for another player to come talk to me because of it.

Danny was super friendly, and we talked for several minutes. Each time it was his turn to hit, he’d go over to the cage and take a bunch of swings — and I’d watch from right behind the cage:

Then, he’d come back around to me and we’d talk more baseball. Danny told me about playing a season of pro baseball in Germany, and I told him about some of the parks I’d visited. I’ve had some cool conversations with players over the years, and this ranks among them. I’ll definitely look forward to talking to him next time I visit RCGT Park.

After Danny headed off to the clubhouse, I spotted team broadcaster Mike Nellis, who I’d also met a year earlier. We’ve stayed in touch on Twitter, so it was great to catch up with him for a bit. By the time he headed off to prepare for the game, the Champions had finished hitting — and that meant I was the only person left standing on the field. I didn’t feel a compulsion to rush off, so I just hung out by myself. Cuba had yet to arrive (the team was late last year, too, and the players came off the bus wearing their uniforms) but I was hopeful that the squad would be here in time to hit. In the meantime, I just wandered around on the field and took shots like this one:

A little while later, the Cuba bus pulled in — late enough that BP wouldn’t be in the cards again. Still, I was excited to see the bus in its Team Cuba colors:

As the players climbed off the bus, they entered RCGT Park and headed toward the visitor’s clubhouse. I knew it’d be a little while before they reappeared and began to warm up, so I took some time to explore beyond the outfield fence. There’s a camera platform in straightaway center that I wanted to snap some photos from, as it provides a unique view of the ballpark. In the following photo, you can see the batter’s eye on the right and the walkway leading to the camera platform in the distance:

And here’s the view from the platform of a quiet — but soon to be lively — RCGT Park:

After snapping this shot of myself on the platform …

… I headed back to the field. The stands were still mostly empty when I noticed this picture of several rows behind the visitor’s dugout that were reserved for supporters of the Cuban squad. I thought it was an interesting sight, so I took a photo and tweeted it out:

Interestingly enough, the Cuban Embassy’s official Twitter account retweeted it and, given that it was the day that President Trump made changes to U.S.-Cuba relations, the embassy’s Twitter timeline comically looked something like this:

Political tweet
Political tweet
Political tweet
Retweet of my photo
Political tweet
Political tweet
Political tweet

A short while later, the Cuban players had emerged and were hurriedly warming up. The right field corner was a beehive of activity — some players stretching and taking grounders on the field, others taking BP in the cage and others hitting off a tee:

It was an interesting spectacle to watch. Warming up to play baseball, I’m sure, is the same in virtually any country in which the sport is played. Yet, the Cuban warmup just felt a little different. I’ve seen players stretch on the field a million times, but the Cuban stretching routine had more of a calisthenic nature to it, I’d say. A big difference was the use of whistles; when it was time for the players to change from one stretch to another, one of the trainers blew a whistle. It hearkened back to high school gym class a little.

One thing that didn’t remind me of gym class was the sudden smell of cigar smoke in the air. Briefly confused, I looked around and noticed that Cuba manager Roger Machado was puffing away at a (presumably Cuban) cigar as he watched his squad go through its paces:

I chuckled thinking of classic MLB managers like Jim Leyland who would clandestinely smoke cigarettes in the dugout, but here was Machado not attempting to hide his cigar at all.

A minute later, a Cuban staffer approached me, saying, “No press, no press.” Of course, I had every right to take photos of the team as it warmed up in a public place surrounded by members of the public, but I didn’t want to create an international incident. I asked him what he was worried about, but the language barrier, unfortunately, was as vast as the distance between Ottawa and Havana, so our conversation didn’t get too far. He wasn’t forceful; his comments were more of a pleading nature and he was perfectly polite, so I was happy to move away so that I wasn’t so close to the team’s warmup.

That seemed to satisfy him, as he gave me a thumbs up when he saw me shooting photos of the team a little while later. I think the big takeaway here is that the “learn Spanish” app that I use from time to time is shockingly not making me fluent. It’s regrettable that I wasn’t able to converse with him in his native tongue and find out what he was worried about.

In any case, after moving to a “safe” area, I continued watching the Cuban team. I was excited to catch a glimpse of Y. Cespedes — not Yoenis, but his half-brother Yoelkis. He was one of 13 players competing against Ottawa who suited up for Cuba in the most recent World Baseball Classic, and it was easy to spot him as he stood around the cage:

An interesting thing I noticed a moment later was that Yoeklis appeared to be wearing Yoenis’ New York Mets wristbands:

As you can see here, they’re orange and marked with the number 52, which is Yoenis’ number. Yoeklis, as you might’ve seen in the previous photo, was wearing jersey number 51. Another tiny bit of uniform nerdery — Yoelkis was also wearing WBC-issued batting gloves, and was the only player I specifically noticed with this garment.

Once I’d watched the Cuban side for a while, I went over to the front row of seats on the third base side to watch Ottawa warm up. I quickly spotted my new BFF Danny, so I snapped this shot of him stretching before he began to play catch:

There were a bunch of other noteworthy Ottawa players I wanted to see. Here’s Canadian Tyson Gillies, who was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2006. He played more than 500 games in the minors, reaching Triple-A with the Philadelphia Phillies system:

Here’s Steve Brown, who played on the Trois-Rivières Aigles in 2013 with my buddy Jeremy Nowak:

And here’s Gustavo Pierre, a former Blue Jays signee who I saw as an 18 year old with Auburn back in 2010 during my very first road trip for my blog and website:

There’s another Ottawa player I saw years ago on a road trip — pitcher (and Champions interim pitching coach) Phillippe Aumont, who is the only current Champions player with MLB experience. I saw him when he pitched for Double-A Reading back in 2011:

When Ottawa starter Daniel Cordero — who pitched four seasons in the Braves system — began to play catch, I found a new spot along the fence and took shots like this one:

Then, as he and Danny headed toward the bullpen, I found a spot where I could take photos like this:

Between warmups and first pitch, I set off in search of something to eat. As much as it was tempting to once again hit the poutine concession stand, I wanted to try something different. I’m happy to say there were a handful of new food choices on the RCGT Park menu, and I was surprised to find a Cuban sandwich. I’m assuming that it’s a specialty selection for the international series but, either way, I couldn’t resist ordering it.

The sandwich that I was handed didn’t remind me of what I was expecting to see — instead of being put into a panini press, the sandwich was served on a bun. (Way better choice in my books.) And, I’m happy to say, it was outstanding. My understanding is that Cuban sandwiches can use a few different types of meats, and this one had something that reminded me of corned beef (or, perhaps the Cuban version of corned beef). Tons of meat complemented with cheese, pickles and a spicy sauce made this sandwich a big-time winner:

I finished my sandwich just in time to catch the Cuban ambassador to Canada throw out the first pitch, listen to the Cuban and Canadian anthems, and then settled into my seat to watch the top half of the first inning from this spot:

Then, I spent the bottom half of the first inning and the first bit of the second inning with this view:

The action on the field was interesting. Given that many of the Cubans were on the WBC roster and Cuba is known for its baseball, one might expect to see the visiting team beat up on an independent ball club — and that’s no disrespect to the Champions, especially given that they’re defending league champs. But that certainly wasn’t the case — Ottawa not only won the game 3-0, but swept Cuba in the three-game series. In fact, Cuba is currently just 4-8 in its 12 games against independent teams on this tour. And that’s one of the great things about baseball — you might have an idea of which team could win on paper, but you’ve got to play the game, as the saying goes.

I mentioned earlier how Cuba’s pregame warmup was different, but it wasn’t the only difference I noticed in how the Cuban squad approached the game. Between innings midway through the contest, the players and coaches gathered in front of the dugout for a pep talk from manager Machado. When’s the last time you’ve seen a scene like this?

(And, yes, I hope you noticed the trombone on the left. There was a large Cuban contingent behind the dugout, and its chanting and music definitely made for a fun vibe.)

I watched the remainder of the game with this view …

… and then snapped this one last shot of the exterior of the ballpark after the game:

I’m not sure when my next Champions game will be, but I’m batting 1.000 in good times at RCGT Park, and I’m sure that streak will continue whenever I return.

Colorado Rockies – September 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then wait.

And then wait.

And then wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes sense, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Colorado Rockies – September 20

Having the chance to visit an MLB ballpark on any given day is a thrill in itself, but two visits in one day?

That’s exactly what happened to me on September 20, which automatically qualifies as a memorable day in my books. By early afternoon, I’d already spent more than 2.5 hours at Coors Field — nearly 90 of those minutes were devoted to an outstanding guided tour of the park, while the other hour-plus involved me wandering around the exterior of the park and just enjoying the environment.

When the tour concluded, I returned to my hotel to meet up with my wife and relax for a bit before the game. It was awesome to be staying so close to Coors Field, and the Westin Denver Downtown had everything we needed during our stay. The hotel’s location right in the heart of the city was perfect, as was the view. You’ll see our room’s nighttime view later in this post, but here’s how things looked, in panorama form, during the day:

Outstanding, right? Well, our room was just as good. Clean and modern, with enough spaciousness to really feel at home for our four-night stay. The king bed was super comfortable, too. Here’s how the main area of the room looked:

See the big window ledge? I’d sit on it to watch the sun come up in the morning, which was amazing.

After relaxing for a short while, it was time to head back to Coors Field for that evening’s game. My wife was joining me this time, which was exciting in its own right, but also valuable — I wanted to shoot some video, so she’d be able to film me. The big thing I wanted to film was me eating an order of Rocky Mountain oysters, and you’ll find that, umm, interesting video embedded later in this blog post.

In the meantime, we arrived at Coors Field well in advance of the gates opening, and my wife snapped this shot of me with a statue simply called “The Player” in front of the home plate gates:

We then made our way around to Gate A, which opens two hours before first pitch. (Other gates at the park open 90 minutes before first pitch, so Gate A is the place to be if you’re a keener.) As you can see in the following shot, the crowds around the gate weren’t overly thick at this point …

… so we kept an eye on the gate and checked out some of the area around it that I hadn’t seen a day earlier. The big attraction in this spot is an enormous garden that was added in 2013. Known as “The GaRden” (big “R” as per the Rockies logo), it’s a partnership between the team, food provider Aramark and Colorado State University’s department of horticulture and landscape architecture. The GaRden is 600 square feet and its herbs and veggies are used in the preparation of dishes served at Coors Field. You can’t tell from this image, but the whole structure is laid out like a baseball diamond, and it’s no coincidence that lots of purple plants are used — you’ll notice purple basil, in particular — to reflect the team’s main color:

Next, I learned that Coors Field has one of the coolest parking setups I’ve encountered in all my travels. The main parking lot is vast, as you might expect at a stadium with a capacity of more than 50,000. But, instead of having to park your car and then walk forever to get to the nearest gate, you can actually hop on a shuttle that is included in your parking price and get dropped off right at Gate A. Shuttles run on a loop, so you don’t have to wait for long to catch a ride. Here’s a shot of one of the shuttles about to drop some fans off:

When the gates opened, we went inside and rode the escalator up to the upper deck right away, as I hadn’t spent a ton of time in this location during my first visit and wanted to see the area in more depth. We weren’t the first fans into the stadium, but you’ll notice that the following shot looks completely devoid of fans:

That’s because fans who enter two hours before first pitch are confined to the outfield area, which is a similar setup to Cleveland’s Progressive Field. Not a bad thing, though, as there are certainly several things to see and do in this part of the ballpark.

We looked around The Rooftop for a bit and recorded some video that I’ll hopefully get uploaded to my YouTube channel before long. Then, it was time to … WHAT? What is my face doing on the video board again?

If you read my account of my first Coors Field visit, you’ll recall that the Rockies used one of my images on the video board. Well, it was back up there again, and this came as quite a surprise:

After my wife may or may not have made some cracks about the size of my head, we went up to the purple seats that I’d learned about in my tour earlier in the day. Haven’t read that blog post? I’d love if you took a few minutes to do so — but either way, the purple seats are exactly one mile above sea level and form a ring around the entire upper deck. When I saw them on my tour, I vowed to sit in them when I returned to Coors Field that evening, so here I am fulfilling that promise:

On our way away from the purple seats, I stopped to take this photo of the area beyond the fence in right-center, as I think it gives you a good idea of how this area is set up:

You’ll see the bullpens, three levels of seating and, finally, The Rooftop area. One thing that you’ll notice about The Rooftop is that there are two levels of standing-room spots. The lower level is directly above the top seating section, while the upper level is where you can see the red “Tavern” sign. You can’t visit Coors Field without taking some time to check out this spot. Despite being such an enticing area, it’s open to anyone with a game ticket, so it’s definitely worth visiting for a few innings.

On our way down to the main concourse, my wife snapped this shot of me:

I like how this brick wall is simply adorned with the team’s name and birth year. A gaudy ad could very well be hung in this spot, but I think it’s a nice touch to leave some areas around the ballpark free of ads.

When we got down to the main concourse, I wanted to head down to field level and watch the goings-on for a few minutes. At some parks I’ve visited, there’s no way to get down behind home plate unless you have a ticket for the area — even 90 minutes before first pitch when the seats are largely empty. During my first Coors Field game, I’d noticed how friendly and accommodating the ushers were, and that was the case during this visit, too. Not only were we freely welcomed to head down toward field level, an usher volunteered to take a picture of us. And, when we told him we were visiting from Canada, he was somehow even more welcoming. Here are Mrs. and Mr. Ballpark Guide:

We weren’t able to get right up to the fence, as the bottom few rows belong to special seating area for which you need a ticket. That was fine, though, so we hung out where we’d had our photo taken for a few minutes and enjoyed the scenery.

Before long, we were on the move again. This time, I found the players’ parking lot, which I hadn’t noticed a day earlier. It’s always a thrill when the players’ lot is visible to fans, and even though I’m not a car guy, I get a kick out of checking out the rides. This picture supports my theory that Range Rovers are the choice of baseball players, but there’s also a sweet Aston Martin Rapide S visible with a price tag of $200,000+, as well as some other pricey vehicles:

Once I was done gawking at the cars for a bit, I took my wife to see the natural vegetation area beneath the batter’s eye, which I’d loved from the minute I first spotted it a day earlier:

Then, it was off to find something to eat. In my blog entry about my first visit to Coors Field, I detailed the active Blue Moon brewery inside the ballpark. I hadn’t visited it a day earlier, but we went to check it out before finding out dinner, and it was definitely a neat sight to see:

We decided to stagger our dinners a bit — my wife was ready to eat now, and I wanted to wait a little longer to get up the courage to try the Rocky Mountain oysters. She bought a loaded baked potato — and I do mean loaded — from the brewery restaurant, and we went to the Rockpile section to eat. This wasn’t any regular baked potato. It was topped with chicken, bacon, black beans, salsa, cheese, sour cream and green onions, and I think you’ll like the look of it:

When she had polished off her dinner, there was no more delaying the inevitable — it was time for me to order the Rocky Mountain oysters. In case you don’t know the term, the meal is actually bull testicles. Big, meaty, bull testicles cut into slices, breaded and fried. Here’s how they look:

I could give you a detailed rundown about the whole experience, but I’d prefer if you’d just watch this short video:

I didn’t eat the whole order. I hate wasting food, but a handful of balls were more than enough for me. If I had to sum up the meal in a sentence, I’d say, “Chewy, musty and not something I’d order again.” Don’t get me wrong — I’m glad I ate ’em for the story, and kudos to Coors Field for selling something so unique, but a dish that also goes by the name “swinging beef” probably won’t be on my menu again. Some time after returning from Colorado, I was talking with my friend Andrew Petersen, who writes the Tripping Baseballs blog, and he mentioned that he’d tried the Rocky Mountain oysters when he’d visited Coors Field. Curious, I asked him what he thought, and he said, “Chewy. I don’t think I’d try them again.” I had to laugh at the parallel nature of our opinions.

Anyway, having sort of conquered the “oysters,” I treated myself to an enormous dessert from the self-serve frozen yogurt concession stand along the outfield concourse. It was so big that things were falling off it as I carried it along the concourse and up to my spot on the Rockpile. How does this look?

You’re looking at several different kinds of frozen yogurt, Skittles, gummy bears, sprinkles and a cherry — the other cherry fell off, unfortunately.

Ten minutes after the game’s final out, we were back to our hotel and enjoying the awesome view of the nighttime Denver cityscape:

And I was counting down the hours until my next game at Coors Field.

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:

denver-approach-from-air

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:

modern-market-pizza-denver

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-first-view

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-hotel-railing-detail

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:

embassy-suites-frisco

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

dr-pepper-ballpark-walking-to-the-ballpark

Awesome!

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

dr-pepper-ballpark-from-outside-gates

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

dr-pepper-ballpark-front-gates

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-front-gates

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-first-view-inside

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-watching-bp-from-berm

 

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-bp-baseballs

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-center-field

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-beneath-video-bard

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

dr-pepper-ballpark-malcolm

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-relaxing-area

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-paths

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 …

dr-pepper-ballpark-bp-view-from-concourse

… 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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-hiding-baseball

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-view-down-first-base-line

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

dr-pepper-ballpark-embassy-suites-hotel

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-batting-practice-berm

 

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-food-truck

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 …

dr-pepper-ballpark-looking-down

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

dr-pepper-ballpark-walkways

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

dr-pepper-ballpark-pregame-press-box-view

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!

dr-pepper-ballpark-scuffed-texas-league-ball

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-frisco-roughriders-lazy-river1

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

dr-pepper-ballpark-frisco-roughriders-lazy-river

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-riders-outpost-team-shop

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:

frisco-roughriders-under-armour

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-main-building

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pregame-autographs

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:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-third-base-side

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:

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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?

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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:

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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:

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

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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!

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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:

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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:

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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:

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(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.