Tagged: batting practice

Sam Bat Factory Tour #2 – April 28

If you’re a longtime reader of my blog, you might recall when I had the opportunity back in 2012 to tour the Sam Bat factory just outside of Ottawa, Canada. It was undoubtedly one of the coolest experiences I’ve had since starting The Ballpark Guide, and that particular blog post ranks second in terms of traffic of the 225+ posts I’ve written.

So, when I had another opportunity to tour the factory and check out the company’s brand-new facilities, I jumped all over it like a hanging curve ball.

Sam Bat is a bat company headquartered in the small town of Carleton Place in Eastern Ontario, Canada, and the company is currently celebrating its 20th year in business. You might already know Sam Bat’s story — if not, it’s a company that completely revolutionized professional baseball by introducing maple bats. Prior to Sam Bat’s maple bats being used in the big leagues, bats were all made of ash. Now, more than 75 percent of bats used in the pros are made of maple due to this wood’s hardness and durability. You can read more about the company here.

Barry Bonds swung a Sam Bat during his record-breaking 73 home run season. More recently, Miguel Cabrera used this company’s bats during his 2012 Triple Crown season, and still uses them. A long list of players, including Ryan Braun, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Melky Cabrera, are current Sam Bat users. Even Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista used a Sam Bat during his 54 home run season in 2010.

On the afternoon of April 28, I met up with Kevin Rathwell, who handles the company’s Canadian sales. We met in the company’s head office, which I’d visited last time, and soon headed over to the new showroom building that wasn’t in use during my last visit. The lobby of the new building was baseball heaven, and it was hard not to want to just stand with my mouth open and stare at everything. I recognized a few of the display pieces from my last visit, including the framed Bonds piece on the wall, but there were a ton of other interesting things, like a Miguel Cabrera bat laying on the counter, a Jose Canseco signed bat, and more:

Although we’d be checking out the factory soon enough, Kevin wanted to show me a short video on how the bats are made. It’s a standard tour stop, and an easy way to get an overview of the creation process. The video room not only has a bunch of photos of bats in various stages of being built, but also one of Sam’s old lathes:

After the video, Kevin had another cool thing for me to see — the use of Sam Bat products in MLB 15 The Show for PlayStation. Sam Bat is one of just a handful of bat manufacturers licensed for use in this video game. Kevin loaded a game between the Tigers and Brewers and, sure enough, there was Cabrera with the gold bat logo clearly visible on his lumber:

Next, we stepped into a large showroom where, to my surprise, there were a few dozen bats made by different manufacturers hanging overhead:

Perhaps sensing my upcoming question, Kevin quickly explained why competitors’ bats were on display at Sam Bat. When a player is interested in having a custom bat made for him by Sam Bat, he will sometimes send the company one of his current bats — there’s no copyrighting bat shape, which means that Sam Bat (or any company, really) can then make a custom bat for the player with the same shape and to the same specs as another company’s bat. In the above photo, there are bats from a number of past and current MLB stars, including Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, Ryan Zimmerman, Jason Heyward, Troy Tulowitzki and B.J. Upton.

Below the hanging bats, Kevin pointed out a display that showed all of the bat colors that are approved by Major League Baseball. It wasn’t something that I’d previously thought about, but players obviously don’t step up to the plate with wacky-colored bats. That’s because, as you might expect, MLB meticulously defines which colors are appropriate, as you’ll see on the lower half of this photo:

Another awesome sight in the showroom was the use of Fathead wall decals featuring the Sam Bat brand. As it turns out, the Sam Bat logo is visible in a number of Fatheads, including Cabrera …

… and slugger Giancarlo Stanton:

Now, Stanton isn’t a regular Sam Bat user, but he swung one in the 2016 All-Star Game Home Run Derby, crushing 61 total bombs and the 10 longest home runs of the night to win the event. Interestingly, the bat that Stanton was swinging wasn’t made for him. It belonged to teammate Marcell Ozuna. Mired in a pre-break slump, Stanton tried out one of Ozuna’s bats and did well with it. So well, in fact, that Sam Bat hurriedly made some bats for Stanton, but he continued to rely on Ozuna’s lumber. And, when the derby came around, it was a Ozuna’s Sam Bat in Stanton’s hands.

Here’s another quick anecdote that I found interesting: Ozuna himself began using Sam Bat’s products after then-Marlins hitting coach Barry Bonds recommended the company. Facing a slump of his own in May, Ozuna tried out one of Bonds’ bats and began to hit with it. He liked the bat so much that he got Sam Bat to make some custom bats for him, and cruised to his first all-star berth.

I loved hearing stories like these. As a baseball fan, you watch the game on TV carefully, but these sorts of stories show that you really don’t have a complete idea of what’s going on, so it was awesome to get some behind-the-scenes details.

But don’t get me wrong — my visit to Sam Bat wasn’t just about learning. I also had a chance to act goofy, as evidenced here:

As you might guess, this is me holding an enormous novelty bat. Sam Bat doesn’t produce bats of this size; rather, an employee whose family member came across the bat took it into the shop, where it was painted up and adorned with the company’s logo. It’s a cool piece, but you’d need arms bigger than mine to swing it. Just for good measure, here’s another shot that shows you just how big this bat is:

Our next stop on the tour was the other side of the showroom, which featured a number of interesting products for sale. Obviously, you’d expect to see all sorts of bat- and baseball-related items, but there were maple candlesticks, baseball holders and even Sam Bat-branded maple syrup:

Next, it was time to visit the factory itself, which I knew would be exciting. During my last tour, it was fascinating to watch bats being made by hand in front of me, and I knew I’d be in for more of the same. Perhaps the coolest thing about the manufacturing process at Sam Bat is just how hands-on it is. People are making the bats one by one and putting them through a series of important steps. By the time a bat is packaged up and shipped out, it’s been handled by eight or nine different employees. I toured the Louisville Slugger factory back in 2013, and while it was cool in its own right, the high degree of automation from such a large company doesn’t give you that hands-on feel that was obvious at Sam Bat.

When we walked into the factory, this rack is the first thing I noticed:

Lots of partially finished bats awaiting completion, right? Well, yes and no. This is a pile of bats that have been rejected for reasons such as knots. They won’t be finished and sold for use, but many will be finished and painted to be used as trophy bats — in other words, display pieces that aren’t swung in games.

Next, I checked out an enormous rack of maple blanks, which are also known as billets:

These are the rounded pieces of maple (essentially enormous dowels) that will be turned into bats. They’re weighed carefully to three decimal points and then the number is written by hand. So, if you see the blank in the middle with “5132” written on it, that number means that it’s 5.132 pounds. When an employee is building a bat, he obviously needs to have an end product of an exact weight — especially if it’s a bat being built for a professional. This means that he’ll need to choose his blank carefully, as a certain amount of wood (and weight) comes off as the bat is turned and sanded.

Once the blank is selected, it’s not simply inserted into a machine and turned into a bat within seconds. Whereas some companies use fancy equipment that stores specific bat shapes, Sam Bat uses more of a hands-on approach. The blank is placed in the lathe, while a sample bat is placed in a separate part of the lathe. The bottom bat is then traced by the lathe, which meticulously recreates its shape on the blank. This means, of course, that each player who uses or has used the company’s bats has a sample bat that is needed each time more bats are made. There’s an enormous rack of samples that covers much of an entire wall, and each player’s name is written on the sample barrel in Sharpie. Take a look at this photo of Kipnis’ samples:

This means that one of these sample bats is put into the tracing part of the lathe each time new bats are made for the Cleveland Indians all-star second baseman. Super cool.

Here are some of Melky Cabrera’s samples — and a mysterious sample labeled with “Melky” and “Bautista,” perhaps from when the two players were teammates in Toronto:

So, what does this setup on the lathe look like? You’ll be happy to know that I have pictures. As Kevin was showing me the samples, Al Maione came in to make some bats. He’s the company’s director of pro production, which means that he oversees bats made for big leaguers. Last time I visited, Al was making some bats for Andre Ethier. This time, he’d just received an order from Kipnis and was about to get started on turning some bats that would soon be on their way to the Progressive Field clubhouse. Take a look at the following shot:

Kipnis’ sample bat is at the bottom of the image, after being set in place to be traced. The blank, meanwhile, is above. As Al turned on the machine, the sample was traced, as you can see here …

… and the blank was turned into a bat to match the sample:

It’s obviously a highly precise process, which is why Kevin and Al were amused to show me a bat that had been recently sent to Sam Bat with a note attached from a 12-time all-star and nine-time Silver Slugger:

In what might be argued as another case of Manny being Manny, Ramirez had apparently taken a sharp implement and shaved down the handle of one of his Sam Bats, as you can see here, and was requesting that the company make him some bats with this handle profile:

The only problem is that because the work was done by hand, the handle was now wildly uneven. It might be hard to see in the above photo, but there’s a decent-sized indentation made in one section of the wood that isn’t repeated elsewhere — and you can imagine that Sam Bat isn’t too keen on producing a bat with such a glaring issue.

After checking out where the bats are sanded and buffed, we moved to the paint room. To me, it’s absolutely fascinating that a company that produces bats for major leaguers actually paints them by hand, but that’s exactly what happens here. After multiple coats of paint are applied, the bats are dried. Then, the barrel is laser etched (last time I visited, the wording was stamped on) and the bat sticker is put in place. Here’s a shot that shows a bunch of bats waiting to be shipped out:

There’s an interesting cross section of bats in the above photo. Those on the right side of the photo, including the stubby one, were ordered for an upcoming wedding to give as gifts to the groomsmen. The bat in the front middle is for Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Domingo Santana, while those to the left side of the image are for Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jose Osuna. The bats on the left side with the black handles and light-colored barrels are for Miami’s Ozuna. If you look carefully, you’ll see some pink barrels in the background — those are special bats for Mother’s Day.

On our way out of the factory, we passed a series of racks where boxed bats were awaiting shipment. The name on this box caught my eye:

Because the box had yet to be sealed, Kevin actually let me pull out one of the bats and, seconds later, I was standing with a brand new bat that would soon be in the hands of Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado:

It’s not every day that you get to hold a bat that will eventually (and perhaps has already by now) been swung by a potential future hall of famer, right?

I also got the chance to hold a bat that was about to be shipped out to Josh Naylor:

He was a first-round pick of the Marlins in the 2015 draft and was traded to San Diego in the Andrew Cashner deal. He’s a Canadian, so he’s someone I’ve followed over the years. Less than two weeks after I checked out his bats, Naylor tweeted this:

Awesome, huh?

Although I could’ve hung out and played with Machado’s and Naylor’s bats for a while, there were other bats to hold. The final stop on our tour was the batting cage area, which is a new addition since my last visit. The angle of this photo makes the area look pretty standard …

… but this one, which shows the backdrop of thousands of bats and blanks, definitely makes this spot unique:

As you might expect, there was a chance to use some Sam Bat products in the cages. There were several five-gallon pails full of bats, and I had the choice of which lumber I wanted to try. Kevin snapped this shot of me looking very excited on my way to the cage:

It’s been a long time since I hit in a batting cage — likely 15 years or more — so I didn’t know what to expect. The machine was set to an average velocity, but because it was closer than the usual 60 feet, 6 inches away, it took me a little time to get my timing right. I opted to let the first pitch go to assess the speed, swung and missed on the second, fouled off the third and connected solidly on the fourth. All told, I hit for 10 to 15 minutes and had a blast. Plenty of embarrassing swings and misses, but lots of square contact that made me feel good. Here’s a shot of me preparing for a pitch …

… and one of me beginning my swing:

When you watch professionals take BP, they only take a handful of swings in a session — 10, maybe — before rotating out for a short break while a teammate hits. I didn’t have anyone else hitting with me, and a span of 10 to 15 minutes swinging maybe every 15 seconds is exhausting. I couldn’t resist snapping this shot of how sweaty I was after I stepped out of the cage, which was moderately embarrassing when we returned to the office to say hello to company president Arlene Anderson and I was wiping my face like I was in the Sahara:

Kevin ended up spending more than 90 minutes with me, and I can’t say how much I appreciate the entire experience. My thanks to Kevin, Arlene and Sam Bat for making this happen.

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Houston Astros – September 21

After an exceptionally long travel day getting to Texas and a whirlwind tour of Globe Life Park in Arlington, it was time to take a short flight from Dallas/Fort Worth to Houston, and get ready for Astros games on back-to-back nights. My flight between the two cities was short and before long, I was hopping in a cab outside George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston for what turned out to be about a $75 (in Canadian dollars) cab ride to my airport. Stupid exchange rate.

Of course, my temporary frown over the fare was turned upside down when I was dropped off in front of the Westin Houston Downtown, which I’d quickly realize was one of the best hotels I’ve ever visited. I’ll share some details and photos about my hotel stay in this post and my next post, but let’s start by discussing the hotel’s location. Well, it’s a short discussion, really — it’s across the street from Minute Maid Park, home of the Astros! I’ve said it before, but I LOVE hotels that offer a ballpark view. I mean, I’m nuts about them. I’ve been fortunate to stay at a number of hotels that offer this feature over the years, so I knew I’d be in for a treat in Houston. Of course, your guest room has to be facing the ballpark, so I held my breath as I made my way up the elevator, down the hall and into my room. I hurriedly ran to the window and saw …

downtown-houston-view-from-westin

… a nice view of downtown Houston but no Minute Maid Park. Not the end of the world, right? I thought about my situation for a minute and although I’m not a complainer, I returned to the front desk to see if there was a way I’d be able to get a room on the ballpark side of the building. The desk clerk checked but revealed that all those rooms were booked. A little discouraged, I returned to my room and looked around. I’d been so crazed to run to the window when I first arrived that I didn’t realize I had a corner room.

Corner rooms = two walls with windows.

I swung open the drapes on the newfound window and, ta-da, here was the view:

minute-maid-park-room-view-from-westin

Slightly too bad that there was a church steeple in the way, but I had a spectacular view of Minute Maid Park and, with the retractable roof currently open, I could see some of the seats and part of the video board inside the stadium.

So, so awesome.

I had some time to kill before the game, so I ordered a chicken Caesar salad and a couple of bottles of water from the cafe on the ground floor of the hotel and scarfed them down while enjoying my awesome view. Minute Maid Park’s allure was too strong to keep me in my hotel room for much longer, so I quickly gathered up my camera stuff and headed over to the park. First, though, I snapped this shot in the hotel lobby to show you just how swank the scene was:

westin-houston-downtown-lobby

I was hit with a wave of 90-degree heat when I stepped out the door of the hotel, but even the mugginess couldn’t dampen my excitement at the scene before me:

minute-maid-park-from-westin-houston-downtown

This shot, for the record, is from the valet parking area of the hotel and shows that when I said the ballpark and hotel are across the street from one another, I wasn’t exaggerating.

After my missed flight a couple days earlier meant that I had to cram two days’ of sightseeing at Arlington’s Globe Life Park into one visit, it was a huge relief to know that I had two full days to check out the area inside and outside Minute Maid Park. When I crossed the street, I turned around to take this shot of the hotel from the outside …

westin-houston-downtown-front-day

… and then it was full steam ahead to check out Minute Maid Park. When the park was built prior to the 2000 season, it carefully incorporated Houston’s Union Station, which opened in 1911 and was named to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1977. You’ll see inside the Union Station ballpark entrance shortly, but for now here’s a plaque that connects the old train station with the ballpark:

minute-maid-park-union-station-sign

I was excited to see a wide variety of baseball-related features around the park. Some were somewhat subtle, like these baseball stitching effects in the concrete:

minute-maid-park-sidewalk-baseball-stitches

And others were perhaps more noticeable, including a variety of plaques in the sidewalk that were recognizing past Astros greats:

minute-maid-park-nolan-ryan-plaque

 

The left field entry to the park was a fun hub of things to see. There were a bunch of plaques …

minute-maid-park-outside-plaques

and a small-scale baseball field, complete with statues:

minute-maid-park-outside-diamond

 

And if you decided that you’d enjoy sitting and watching the imaginary action on the field, there was a perfect spot for you:

minute-maid-park-outside-stands

I checked out everything in this area for a little bit and it was still early enough before the game that I was essentially the only fan around. After being satisfied that I’d seen everything around the left field entry, I retraced my steps and began walking down Texas Avenue, which is the street on which the ballpark’s home plate entry is located. Much of the walk was lined with baseballs:

minute-maid-park-balls-sidewalk

Here’s what the home plate entrance looked like:

minute-maid-park-home-plate-gate

And here’s a shot of the famous tower structure that’s so highly visible from the outside of the park:

minute-maid-park-tower-outside

After I took this shot, I wandered over to the season ticketholder parking lot and the diamond club entrance, which was guarded by a security guard standing in the full sun and chugging on a 2L bottle of Dr. Pepper. I’m not sure he was getting the hydration that he thought he was. Anyway, I took this panorama from the parking lot, which is partially cut off along the bottom because the lot was lined by bushes that prevented me from getting back far enough:

minute-maid-park-outside-panorama

By now, I was starting to get really hot and I figured I had the option of asking the security guard for a swig of his Dr. Pepper or heading to the Union Station entrance and enjoying some air conditioning before the park’s actual gates opened. I chose the latter and a few minutes later, I was standing here:

minute-maid-park-union-station-entrance

With a bit of time to kill before I could get inside the park, I was happy to see that there were plenty of things to see while I waited. There were a ton of awesome displays of game-used gear and other Astros-related artifacts that were a blast to browse. Here’s a shot (pardon the glare) that shows some game-used uniforms:

minute-maid-park-houston-astros-game-used-jerseys

A display that notes the connection between the Astros and the space program:

minute-maid-park-space-items

The #132 jersey, for example, was taken into space aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2010. Awesome!

And, finally, the game-used jersey and cap that Mike Fiers wore during his no hitter at Minute Maid Park exactly a month before my visit:

houston-astros-mike-fiers-jersey-no-hitter

Once I’d perused all the displays and wandered around the room a little more, I was ready to line up to get inside the ballpark. I spent 20 minutes standing in line behind a local Little League team that was taking part in some pregame thing on the field, and then, at 5 p.m., I entered my 11th MLB park and 57th park between the majors and minors!

The Union Station entrance puts you roughly in the left field corner, so I hustled toward the field and was greeted with this sight:

minute-maid-park-houston-texas-flag

(No confusion about which state I was visiting, right?)

As you can see, the roof was thankfully closed. I was happy for the opportunity to see it open from the hotel window earlier, but given the day’s heat, had no suspicion that it’d be open for the game.

The scene on the field was as follow: The Astros were nearing the end of their batting practice and the visiting Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were getting ready to hit. Here’s what the scene looked like in panorama form from the left field foul pole:

minute-maid-park-panorama-left-field-corner

Upon taking this photo, I faced a big-time dilemma about what to do next. I love standing and watching batting practice (and seeing if I can snag a ball) but it’s hard to think about staying put when there’s an entire stadium to explore. I reached a compromise with my internal conversation by watching BP for a few minutes from this spot …

minute-maid-park-bp-view

… and then setting out to begin exploring Minute Maid Park. If you’ve seen the ballpark during TV broadcasts, you might recall the cool-looking arched structure beyond the fence in left field and left-center. It’s a standing-room area for fans during the game and immediately behind it there’s a wide walkway that runs from the left field gate area over to center. It’s a fun spot to be during BP and during the game — I got to experience both — because long home runs smack off the facing of the wall above you, which a) makes a super loud noise and b) creates a scramble below as all the fans try to grab the ball when it falls into the seats. Anyway, located in the seventh arch moving from left to right is the Home Run Pump, which tallies all the Astros home runs since they moved into Minute Maid Park. It’s a popular spot to stand during games, but since it was still about two hours before first pitch, the area was mostly isolated when I took this photo:

minute-maid-park-home-run-pump

After moving on from the Home Run Pump, I stood above Tal’s Hill, a unique (and ridiculous) feature in straightaway center:

minute-maid-park-tal's-hill

For anyone who’s wondering the #7 painted onto the hill was in honor of longtime Astro Craig Biggio, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.

I watched a few more minutes of batting practice from this spot, enjoying the hubbub of activity on the field:

minute-maid-park-center-field-bp

Next up on my stop, as I made my way down the concourse from center field to right field, was the team’s game-used and autographed memorabilia stand:

minute-maid-park-game-used-store

If I could describe this spot in one word, it would be: OhmanIneedtobuyeverythingherebuthowwillItakeithomeontheplanewithme?

I love collecting game-used stuff, as you might have read in previous posts, so I desperately wanted to buy something to remember my Houston visit — especially when I saw that lots of the stuff was more affordable than I would’ve expected. The only problem was that I hadn’t checked any luggage on my flight, so my two carry-on bags were as full as I could make them. Hmmm. What to do? Fortunately, I had two days to decide.

Here’s a cross-section of some of the cool things for sale, ranging from not very affordable — a Nolan Ryan signed jersey for $700:

minute-maid-park-nolan-ryan-autographed-jersey

To pretty darned affordable — dozens and dozens of batting practice-used jerseys for $50:

minute-maid-park-game-used-bp-jerseys

There were lots of other neat things, too, like this game-used first base with lots of cool wear:

minute-maid-park-game-used-base

And a whole host of bats:

minute-maid-park-game-used-bats

I considered my first visit to the stand a recon mission; I took stock of everything for what turned out to be multiple later visits, and then continued on my walk. When I got around to behind home plate, I saw that the Little League team I’d been standing behind was now on the field watching BP. You can see them in front of the first base dugout in this panorama:

minute-maid-park-panorama-first-base-plate

I also grabbed a shot of myself in this same spot …

minute-maid-park-malcolm-field

… before moving over to the area directly behind home plate to take the following panorama:

houston-astros-behind-home-plate-pano

At a handful of parks, security prevents you from accessing the seats behind home plate, even during BP. I was pleased to see that wasn’t a factor at Minute Maid Park. In fact, every staff member — ushers, security, etc. — I met was exceedingly courteous. Other teams could learn a thing or two from watching Houston’s staff, let me tell you. Case in point — here’s the cross-aisle in front of the Insperity Club:

minute-maid-park-seats-behind-plate

Fans were free to walk through this area before the game with no harassment from anyone. I can think of several parks off the top of my head that you can’t even dream of cutting through such an area.

I continued my walk and enjoyed taking in all the sights. It was awesome to know that I had two days to explore the stadium; no stress over trying to see everything and plenty of time to take it all in. As I walked around, I was loving the design of Minute Maid Park and, in particular, the arches. They definitely give the park a cool, vintage feel. I grabbed this shot of myself in front of some the arches and one of the park’s signs:

minute-maid-park-malcolm-sign

Eventually, I made it all the way back to the seats in the left field corner where I’d began my journey. This shot shows you the small seating section in this area, known as the “Crawford Boxes,” some of my beloved arches and the signs above that would rattle loudly when hit by batting practice home runs:

minute-maid-park-crawford-boxes

With the Angels now hitting, I wanted to find a spot in the front row behind the dugout to see the action and take some photos. Again, accessing these seats was easy and laid back; no overzealous security checking peoples’ tickets or getting people in trouble for leaning against the dugout. (The latter sounds ridiculous, but I’ve experienced it.)

Here’s a shot I got of several Angels waiting while Albert Pujols took his turn in the cage:

minute-maid-park-angels-bp

Each time after hitting, Pujols would stand on the opposite side of the cage so any photos I took of him were pretty obstructed. But, when he wrapped up his session, he made his way  semi-close to me to sign some autographs for the fans on the field:

minute-maid-park-albert-pujols-autographs

I stood behind the dugout for as long as the players were on the field, and once they moved into the clubhouses, I was on the move again, too. Since I’d already made one circuit of the main concourse, I took a climb to the upper deck where I captured the scene in this panorama:

minute-maid-park-panorama-behind-plate-upper-deck

I actually spent a little while in the upper deck just relaxing. There was a spot with a nice blast of air conditioning, so I enjoyed just hanging out and watching the scene unfold before me. The stadium was slowly starting to fill, so it was cool to see people making their way into the various sections and watch the grounds crew do its thing.

Eventually, Houston starter and eventual 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel made his way from the dugout toward the bullpen to begin his pregame throwing, so I scrambled back down to the main concourse and hustled over to find a spot close to the ‘pen. On my way, I paused briefly to snap this shot of the living roof that makes up the batter’s eye at Minute Maid Park. I haven’t seen anything like this before, I don’t think:

minute-maid-park-batters-eye-green-roof

The crowd wasn’t very thick around the home bullpen, so I was able to get a spot in the front row to watch Keuchel toss the ball around in the outfield for a while:

dallas-keuchel-houston-astros-long-toss

When he moved into the bullpen, I shifted my position slightly and found a great spot directly behind his catcher so I could take some cool straight-on photos. If you look carefully at this first one, there’s a random piece of Dubble Bubble on the mound in front of the rubber:

dallas-keuchel-houston-astros-bullpen-gum

Soon enough, Keuchel kicked the gum away; you’ll see that it’s no longer present in this photo I took a couple minutes later:

dallas-keuchel-houston-astros-bullpen

I watched the entirety of Keuchel’s bullpen session and when he headed toward the dugout a few minutes before first pitch, I found a spot in left-center where I snapped this panorama in the top of the first inning:

minute-maid-park-panorama-right-center

The first few innings breezed past, in part because the view from this spot was so perfect. Eventually, I abandoned my spot to find a seat in right-center. The overhang of the deck above provided a cool view — you could basically just see the field. I also liked the vintage-style scoreboards hanging from the ceiling:

minute-maid-park-right-center-field-view

Pretty soon, it was time to go hunting for something to eat. I’d been checking out the options during my initial walk around the concourse and, boy, was I impressed. I was also a bit of a loss — there were so many enticing items to consider. The concession stand that intrigued me the most was called Street Eats and the menu looked delicious:

minute-maid-park-food-selections

Here were the choices:

Chicken Waffle Cone: Waffle cone stuffed with mashed potatoes, fried chicken and drizzled with honey mustard and sprinkled with green onions.

Texas Hold ‘Em: Texas Toast with smoked pulled barbecue chicken, coleslaw and fried jalapenos.

Brisket Curly Fries: Curly fries topped with brisket, queso, queso fresco and green onion.

If you have the choice, which one would you go for, and why? Feel free to let me know in the comments below. As far as I was concerned, the Chicken Waffle Cone was the clear-cut winner, so that’s what I ordered. Unfortunately, the staff at Street Eats was struggling, to put it mildly. The Chicken Waffle Cone proved to be the big seller at the time, and it was nearly 25 minutes until I got mine. Ridiculous, really, but all was forgiven when I was handed this monstrosity:

minute-maid-park-food-chicken-waffle-cone

How does that look? Pretty incredible, right? Part of me wondered if — given the novelty nature of the item — it wouldn’t taste that great, but it was absolutely awesome. The fried chicken, which I’d originally suspected might be the weak link of the dish, were meaty and perfectly cooked. The potatoes were tasty and the tangy taste of the honey mustard and green onions topped everything off perfectly. I ate everything that was spilling out of the top of the cone with a fork, and then when I was left with just a waffle cone filled with mashed potatoes, I walked around the concourse eating it like an ice cream cone in order to get a few laughs.

After eating, the game was already in its late innings, so I did as I often do — put my camera away, found a seat with a perfect view of the action, put my feet up and enjoyed the rest of the game. The late innings of a game can often feel melancholy, but I certainly didn’t have any such feeling as I knew that I’d soon be headed back to a great hotel and the next day, I’d be doing everything over again. As soon as the final out took place, I hopped out of my seat, found the stadium exit across from my hotel and was looking at the exterior of the Westin at night:

westin-houston-downtown-front-night

And, I’m thankful to say, I was relaxing in my superb room about two minutes later — and eagerly anticipating my second day in Houston.

Cincinnati Reds – May 25

Did you read my last blog post about my visit to Great American Ball Park and my meeting with a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame? I sure hope so, but if not, you can check it out here.

I was scheduled to catch a second game in Cincinnati on May 25 on this road trip, and unlike the previous day’s evening game, this one started at 4 p.m. I’m not usually a huge fan of the 4 p.m. start time, but on this day, it worked out well. I blogged in my hotel until around 11 a.m., and then checked out, loaded my car and drove about a block to find parking for the day. Fortunately, I was able to score a $10 parking lot, which seems pretty impressive given that it was a block from the ballpark. How many other cities can boast this? Boston, I’m sending a somewhat evil eye your way.

Because I was essentially at Great American Ball Park more than four hours before it opened, I decided to check out a couple other sports-related things in the area. My first stop was a largely deserted Paul Brown Stadium, home of the NFL’s Bengals:

paul-brown-stadium-cincinnati-bengals

Before my next stop, I stopped at a Jimmy John’s a couple blocks from the ballpark and bought a sub, which I ate right next to the re-entry gate, which is the gate I referenced in my previous post:

great-american-ball-park-re-entry-gate

After eating, I took the very short walk to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, which is connected to the team shop. I’d read about the HOF during the previous day’s visit, and decided to hit it before I left town. The hall had a special autograph exhibit, in which it had featured all but 15 players from the Reds history. Think about that for a second. The team’s history dates back more than a century, and in that time, thousands of players have suited up for the Reds. This was the single most impressive autograph collection I’ve ever encountered. I’m going to write a separate blog post about it, but in the meantime, here’s a photo that shows how many of the autographs were displayed:

great-american-ball-park-reds-hall-of-fame-autograph-exhibit

I spent more than an hour in the museum before buying another standing room ticket …

great-american-ball-park-ticket

… and heading over to the long lineup at the front gate. The day’s giveaway was an MLB Network drawstring bag, and as is typically the case when there’s a good giveaway, there were lots of people eagerly waiting:

great-american-ball-park-main-gate-panorama

Upon getting through the gate and getting my bag, I headed straight for the left field seats to watch batting practice. This was my view during the 20 or so minutes I watched the Cubs hitting:

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Yes, I’m sitting down with my feet up on the seat in front of me. Why? Because in those 20 minutes, not one ball entered the left field seats. Perhaps this is part of the reason the Cubbies are 14 games out of first place. Given that this BP session was much like watching paint dry, I decided to go down to the field level seats on the third base side. I wasn’t sure what security would be like, and when I sauntered past a guard and descended toward the field, I heard him say something behind me. Ugh. I turned around, expecting to be asked to leave or show my ticket, and said, “Pardon?” He responded with, “How’s it going?” WOW! I’ve apparently put up with too many years of Rogers Centre ushers. Imagine an usher asking how you’re doing, rather than trying to pull a heavy on you? Unbelievable.

Anyway, it was good to get down to field level, especially when Alfonso Soriano walked past less than a minute later:

alfonso-soriano-bp

It’s hard to see it in the photo above, but instead of having his name stitched into his glove, Soriano has “El Monstruo.” Now, I didn’t take Spanish in high school, but I’m guessing that means “The Monster.” One more note on Soriano — last year, I toured the Sam Bat factory, which is the company that makes bats for “El Monstruo” and many other MLBers. You can read about that awesome tour here.

Watching BP is fun, but I always get a kick out of infield practice. And from my vantage point next to the Cubs dugout, I had a great view of the action. Here’s third baseman Luis Valbuena making a throw:

luis-valbuena-chicago-cubs

I hung out there until BP wrapped up, and then went all the way up to the upper deck, where I’d also explored a day earlier. As the grounds crew worked to get the field ready, I took the photos to make up this huge panorama:

great-american-ball-park-panorama-third-base-side

Next, I stopped to see the Machine Room bar and the Power Alley Patio, the latter of which is pictured below. It’s a group picnic area, but what a spot to watch a ballgame!

great-american-ball-park-power-alley-patio-view

When the game began, I found a standing room spot on the first base side of home plate and just hung out and watched the action. From here, I had a pretty clear view of the plate, which allowed me to get shots like this one of Starlin Castro fouling off a pitch:

great-american-ball-park-starlin-castro-foul-ball

Reds manager Dusty Baker:

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And Soriano — you’ll notice he’s holding his Sam Bat:

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Turns out that very photo of Soriano and his Sam Bat might’ve been the last photo taken of the bat. On the next pitch, here’s what happened:

alfonso-soriano-broken-bat

A quick note about Reds fans — they’re extremely passionate and both games I attended in Cincinnati had huge crowds. I took this photo to show just how packed the ballpark was:

great-american-ball-park-fans

(The photo sort of reminds me of the heavy crowd I captured last season at Fenway Park. I took a similar photo in this post.)

Next, I took a walk around the concourse where I ran into a good exchange between three drunken fans and a quickly growing contingent of the Cincinnati Police Department. Here’s the abridged version:

Drunken woman mouths off at other fans. Fans mouth back. Back-and-forth arguing ensues. Security and cops are summoned. Friend #1 of drunken woman tries to get between her and cops. Bad idea. He gets told to back off. He ignores request. He gets taken to the ground and handcuffed. Friend #2 whips out his cellphone camera in attempt to be a hero and document the “police brutality.” Cop doesn’t like Friend #2’s fast movement and draws and points his Tazer. Cop says, “Reach into your pocket again and see what happens.” Friend #2 tries to gain sympathy from the crowd that has gathered. No one is impressed. Friend #1 gets taken to jail. Drunken woman and Friend #2 get kicked out of ballpark. I continue on my walk.

One of the features about Great American Ball Park that continuously caught my eye was the view. Don’t get me wrong — the view inside the park is great, but the view outside the park is spectacular. I love being up high in a ballpark and being able to look out over the city. Because the park is next to the Ohio River, the view is impressive:

great-american-ball-park-panorama-looking-toward-river

Did you click on the above panorama? It looks better when it’s big. Back to the game: In the sixth inning, I got this cool picture of Todd Frazier. On this hit, he drove in Votto to tie the game 2-2:

todd-frazier-hit-against-cubs

That sixth inning proved to be the difference for the Reds, who scored four runs in the frame and won 5-2. Aroldis Chapman closed out the game once again, fanning two batters in the process.

Once things had wrapped up, I made the very quick walk back to my car and after getting caught in the traffic jams caused by the Taste of Cincinnati event, which was taking place downtown that weekend, made the short drive to my hotel for the night.

This time, I was staying a little outside the city, but still just an eight-minute drive from Great American Ball Park. My hotel was the Kingsgate Marriott Conference Center at the University of Cincinnati which, as you might guess, is on the university’s campus. Despite being so close to the city, the campus is very green, which was cool to see. In fact, here’s the view out my window:

kingsgate-marriott-conference-center-at-the-university-of-cincinnati-view-out-window

The staff members I dealt with at this hotel were hugely helpful and friendly, and even offered me a complimentary drink from the cooler in the snack area. As far as the room, I had a nice, big room with lots of natural light, as it had windows on two sides. The room amenities were up to the usual standards of the Marriott chain — comfy bed, desk, big TV, large bathroom, and so on. This hotel currently ranks seventh among Cincinnati hotels on Tripadvisor. Here’s a look at the room from the front hallway:

kingsgate-marriott-conference-center-at-the-university-of-cincinnati-room

And the desk and TV:

kingsgate-marriott-conference-center-at-the-university-of-cincinnati-desk-and-tv

If you’re a baseball fan visiting Cincy for a Reds game, I definitely recommend this hotel, especially if you enjoy staying slightly outside the city but not overly far away from all the attractions. The hotel is just a few minutes from two cool University of Cincinnati stadiums — Nippert Stadium, home of the Bearcats football team and Marge Schott Stadium, home of the baseball team. I didn’t make time to visit both stadiums, but wish I had. Nearby sports facilities aside, the Marriott Conference Center at the University of Cincinnati is close to a long list of eateries; there’s a Papa John’s less than a mile away and after getting settled into my room, I ordered a pizza while I blogged and watched a ballgame on TV to round out a perfect day. If you aren’t into fast food, the hotel has a pair of eateries — an upscale restaurant called Caminetto and a casual bar called the Bearcat Lounge.

The next morning, I got up early and punched Bowling Green, KY, into my GPS. The adventure continues!