After two outstanding days watching the Durham Bulls at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, I set my sights on the small North Carolina town of Zebulon, home of the Carolina Mudcats, on June 28. This wouldn’t be a day that required a lot of travel — Durham and Zebulon are only 50 miles apart.
Instead of going straight to Zebulon, I first did a bit of baseball-themed sightseeing in Durham and Raleigh, making stops at three notable universities. My first stop was Duke University, which is located in Durham. My primary reason for visiting was to see the baseball field, but as soon as I got onto the campus, its picturesque nature quickly made me realize that I should stick around for a bit. I enjoyed driving around the tree-lined streets until I found a parking spot, and then took a long walk around the campus — concentrating on the area around the athletic facilities, of course.
My first stop was the baseball facility, Jack Coombs Field:
I arrived between games of a youth tournament, and took a few minutes to walk around the field before climbing up to the top of the grandstand to snap this panorama:
My next stop was just a short walk from the baseball facility, and it’s one that you’ll know if you’re a collegiate sports fan. Cameron Indoor Stadium, home of Duke basketball, is arguably the most famous NCAA basketball facility in the country. It’s beautiful from the exterior, but doesn’t exactly scream “sporting venue” — and if not for a couple of signs, I think I’d have likely missed it:
Cameron Indoor was absolutely outstanding. I’m not remotely a basketball fan, but this is a facility with a ton of history. It opened in 1940, and had a seriously historic vibe — wooden doors, narrow staircases, etc. As seemed to be the theme for my sports sightseeing, there was a youth event taking place, so I watched for a couple of minutes and then continued on my way:
Before I left the campus, I stopped to check out Duke University Chapel. At 210 feet tall, it’s a tough building to miss, and it’s also very close to Cameron Indoor Stadium. I didn’t bother going inside, but I was deeply impressed with the beauty of the exterior of this building:
My next stop was just 10 miles down the road, and served as the other half of one of college sports’ best rivalries — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I quickly made my way to Boshamer Stadium …
… and went inside to look around. Once again, I’d arrived between games of a youth tournament, so the concourse was pretty crowded with players, parents and, I’m guessing, college recruiters. I walked along the concourse until I reached the upper edge of the seating bowl, and then snapped this photo of the pristine field:
Believe it or not, my NCAA baseball sightseeing wasn’t done just yet. While I was excited to get to Zebulon to see the Mudcats, I first made the short drive from Chapel Hill to Raleigh to check out North Carolina State University. It was another absolutely beautiful campus, and it wasn’t long before I found the athletic facilities. I hope you’re sitting down, but there was another youth sports tournament taking place, so Doak Field at Dail Park was full of action. Yet again, I arrived between games — don’t ask how I managed to keep doing this — and after snapping this shot of the exterior of the ballpark …
… I walked inside and took this panorama:
After a short walk around the NC State campus, I headed to my hotel in downtown Raleigh. There are places to stay in Zebulon, but many more choices in Raleigh, the capital city of North Carolina. I opted to stay in Raleigh because I wanted to do some sightseeing the following day, and Zebulon and Raleigh are only about 25 miles apart. Given all of the campus visits that I’d made, I only had time to check into my hotel — the outstanding Residence Inn Raleigh Downtown, which was easy to get to and put me in a beautiful and highly walkable part of Raleigh — and then head to Zebulon.
Five County Stadium opened in 1991 as the home of the Carolina Mudcats of the Southern League. That team existed from 1991 through 2011, before moving to Florida and becoming the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. The team that I was seeing shares the Mudcats name, but is a completely different franchise. It plays in the 10-team Carolina League (Class-A Advanced) and has been in existence in Zebulon since 2012. Got all that?
The first thing that I noticed as I approached Five County Stadium was the Mudcats water tower, which jutted well above the treeline:
What an impressive sight, right? This begs a question — do you know of any other MiLB teams that have their logos on water towers? I can’t think of one, so leave a comment below if you’ve seen one.
After parking my car, I walked around the ballpark to snap this photo of one of the home plate gate. Definitely some neat architecture, but I think this area could benefit from some Mudcats signage, don’t you?
Instead of entering right away, I proceeded along the driveway that wraps around the ballpark to check out other sights. As is often the case with 1990s-era parks, there wasn’t a lot of things to see and do around the park’s perimeter. I made my way toward the right field corner to see if I could take a lap around the park, but was greeted by a “No Trespassing” sign and this is as far as I got:
That was fine, though. After just a few minutes outside on this 90-degree day, I was more than ready to get inside and find some shade. I went back to the home plate gate, walked inside the park and went right down to field level behind home plate to snap this panorama:
Some parks of this era make the mistake of having enormous seating sections. The issue with this idea is that when then crowd is light, the park really looks dead because the empty seats are so visible. That wasn’t the case here, fortunately. I loved the small seating sections around home plate, consisting of just four rows, which is a concept that a lot of the newer small parks are adopting. In this sense, Five County Stadium was ahead of its time:
I watched batting practice for a few minutes in the shade, and then decided to start properly exploring the ballpark. My first stop was the left field corner, where I had this view of the field:
As you might suspect, this area was completely devoid of shade, and the heatwave that North Carolina was experiencing during my visit made any unsheltered area less than hospitable after a few minutes. While I was enjoying watching BP from this vantage point, I soon opted to return to the covered area behind home plate for a few minutes. I decided to head up to the upper deck next, where I took this shot:
You’ll notice not only the action on the field, but also the different seating options that Five County Stadium provides. In addition to the small field-level seating section, there’s a larger upper deck (red seats) and a separate seating deck down the line (green seats). Looking at the latter two seating sections in the same shot should give you an idea of just how steep the red upper deck seats are — something that is often another sign of a 1990s-era ballpark. Everyone has an opinion about steep seating decks, but I tend to like them because you always feel close to the action.
I stood in the shade provided by the suite level for a few minutes, and then descended back to the main concourse and took a walk down the first base line. Here’s a shot from the base of the general admission seats close to the foul pole, looking down the line toward home plate:
My next stop was once again the concourse behind home plate. The big knock on ballparks of this era is that they almost always have enclosed concourses. Virtually all new MiLB parks, of course, have open concourses so that you can always see the game as you walk around. Like the small seating sections, the concourse at Five County Stadium seems to have been a bit ahead of its time. While it’s indeed placed under the upper deck, there are pillars around its outer edge instead of a solid wall. This means that as you walk through the concourse, you can still mostly see the field of play:
Here’s another look at the concourse:
It’s a setup that really works, and that definitely differentiates Five County Stadium from other parks of its age. The natural light coming from the direction of the field (on the left of the image above), as well as the openings on the upper right really make the concourse bright and inviting.
After a walk through the entire concourse, I once again braved the sun by heading down the third base line to an elevated party deck in the corner:
I was really impressed with the bird’s-eye view of the field that this party deck provides. I’ve often found that party decks at smaller MiLB parks tend to be at field level, and while that can certainly be appealing, being elevated in this manner is pretty sweet, too. By the way, I’m seeing more and more of the team-logo metal seats across the minor leagues. It wasn’t too long ago that these seats were an anomaly, but I’m now seeing them almost everywhere I go. (Also, I majorly need to get my hands on a couple of these at some point!)
Since I’d now spent some time in each of the seating sections, my next stop was back behind home plate to watch batting practice for a bit. This is something that I always like to do, and while watching it from the field or from the outfield are my favorite spots, it was simply too hot on this day to be out in the open. I opted for this shaded spot from which I could clearly see the action in the cage:
When BP wrapped up, I once again returned to the upper deck — this time, to check out Cattails Restaurant, which is found above the first base line. It’s a climate-controlled environment (definitely a plus during my visit) with a sizable food and drink menu, as well as comfortable seating options. Here’s the view of the field from Cattails:
Suite-level restaurants are nothing new at MiLB parks, but it’s rare to see one of this size at a Class-A Advanced facility. Eateries of this nature are far more common at Triple-A parks; Syracuse’s NBT Bank Stadium comes to mind.
Remember how I mentioned that the upper deck at Five County Stadium is steep? Here’s photographic evidence, which I documented after leaving Cattails:
Instead of going back down to the concourse next, I made my way around to third base side, where I took this photo to show the position and size of Cattails:
Next, I headed toward the upper deck seats behind home plate. I not only wanted to photograph the view from this spot, but also grab a seat in the shade for a few minutes. The gates had opened by this point, but there wasn’t a single fan in the upper deck other than me. I found a seat from which I took this photo …
… and then relaxed in the shade for about 30 seconds before a family climbed up the steps to my left and made its way toward me. I asked if I was in the family’s seats; sure enough, I was. What are the odds?
I sheepishly got up and left the area, returning to the concourse and waiting for the players to come out. Soon enough, that’s exactly what happened, and I went down the first base line to the visitors bullpen area. There, I watched Potomac Nationals catcher Alex Dunlap perform some drills with Potomac’s pitching coach:
On my walks around the concourse earlier, I’d been checking out the concession stands to decide what I might want to eat. Much of the fare at Five County Stadium is standard — hot dogs, nachos, burgers, popcorn, and so on. As you know, I like to find something unique as often as I can, and that’s exactly what I encountered at a concession stand on the first base side. This is a catfish po’ boy sandwich, and it was absolutely delicious:
The breading was light and crispy, and didn’t have that old oil taste that is too common at ballparks. The fish was flaky and not too fishy. There was a semi-spicy sauce on the sandwich, but it didn’t overwhelm the taste of the fish. I had been allured not only by something unique to eat, but also the connection to the team name — the Mudcats moniker refers to catfish, so it was exciting to find a catfish dish on the menu. And it was good enough that if I hadn’t been so hot, I’d have been tempted to eat a second one.
Once I’d eaten, I went down to field level on the home side to watch the Mudcats warm up. This was a Copa de la Diversión night, so the home team was playing as the Pescados de Carolina. (This was my second Copa game of the season; you might remember that I saw the El Paso Margaritas in action back in May.) As is always the case with the Copa games, the team wore funky uniforms. Here’s starting pitcher Noah Zavolas in his Pescados jersey:
With the pregame ceremonies beginning, I went to the upper deck and found a spot to watch the exchange of the lineups, the anthem and the top of the first inning:
What a view! And did you notice the water tower beyond left field? So good.
In the first frame, a player on Potomac — I think it was second baseman Cole Freeman — hit a foul ball that soared over the suite level and out of the ballpark. I didn’t think about rushing out to look for it, given that there were still lots of fans trickling into the stadium and I figured there was a very good chance that it would be picked up. After the end of the first, however, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to go take a look for it. I left via the home plate entrance, took just a couple of dozen steps, and there was the ball sitting in an open area of the grass. I was very surprised to see it, especially given that there were fans passing by just a few yards away, but I was happy to grab it to add to my collection:
With the foul ball — the 15th foul ball that I’ve collected over the years, for the record — safely tucked in my backpack, I returned to the ballpark and took a spot down the first base line that offered this view:
I watched about an inning from this spot, and then took a walk through the concourse, visited the team shop and found a spot on the third base side to watch the remainder of the game. The evening was still warm, but the heat of the sun has subsided to some degree, making for a perfect night of baseball in a ballpark that is better than I expected it to be. There are certainly some ballparks that are flashier in North Carolina, but if you’re planning a visit to this state, don’t shy away from leaving yourself a day to go see the Mudcats.
If you’ve read the details of my first baseball road trip of 2012 by now, you’ll know that I’ve been saving the best story for last. But first, a little background.
My trip would include a stop at Harry Grove Stadium, home of the Frederick Keys, but this visit would be extra special. Finally, I’d get the chance to meet Keys outfielder Jeremy Nowak, who I’ve been in touch with since last December. The full story is at this link, and I definitely recommend you check it out before proceeding. It’s a definite baseball feel-good story.
Obviously, I was pretty pumped to meet Jeremy. I’ve been following his progress closely in 2012 and he’s having a career year. In addition to being named to the Carolina League All-Star team, he’s been among the Keys’ statistical leaders all season. In fact, despite a stint on the DL earlier in the season, his 68 hits put him first among the entire Baltimore Orioles farm system, as you can see from this stat tracker on the O’s website:
I’d kept in touch with him on Facebook before departing on my trip, so he knew I’d be showing up at the Keys game against the Carolina Mudcats on May 23. (You can read about that visit here.)
The weather throughout the afternoon of the game was miserable enough that at times, it looked like the game would be called off before it even began. Still, I hoped to spot Jeremy on the field — or in the players’ parking lot, at worst — at some point to say hello.
Shortly before the scheduled start of the game, the Keys took the field and it wasn’t long until I spotted #11:
Despite the weather, the game was indeed on, and the Keys began to get warmed up. I took a ton of photos of Jeremy, but I’ll just share a few here so I don’t look like a demented stalker:
At the end of the warmup, I stood at the fence and when Jeremy looked up, we sort of made eye contact and he came over to say hello. Even though the game was fast approaching, he was enormously friendly and it was awesome to finally meet him. I wanted to get a photo with him, and we decided to meet up again after the game.
Jeremy was batting third and hitting from the left side, so I moved over to the seats above the visitors’ third base-side dugout to get some pictures of him at the plate:
He struck out during his first at-bat and after I spent the top of the fourth inning in the broadcast booth being interviewed about TheBallparkGuide.com by Adam Pohl, I raced back to field level in time to see Jeremy hit a single in the bottom of the inning:
And when Michael Flacco doubled two batters later, Jeremy moved up to third base:
As the game progressed, the weather got miserable. Don’t get confused — I was still having the time of my life, but the rain and darkness made the quality of my photos quickly deteriorate. Jeremy came up again in the fifth inning, and this time, I was eating a late dinner in a seat down the first base line where I had this view:
Then, with runners on second and third and one out, and the the Keys trailing 2-0, Jeremy blasted a Kyle Blair pitch over the fence in right field! It was on a line and hit the billboards above and behind the outfield fence hard enough that it bounced back onto the field, where Mudcats right fielder Anthony Gallas scooped it up and tossed it to the Frederick bullpen. From there, a Keys reliever flipped the to ball to a couple fans who’d run to the area.
When I saw the ball take off, I jumped out of my seat and thought how it’d be so cool to run behind the fence, grab the ball and give it to Jeremy after the game. (The home was his second at the High-A level.) But when I saw it come back on the field and eventually make its way to the fans, I forgot about it and just stood up and cheered. I probably should’ve run toward the Keys dugout to get a picture of Jeremy crossing home plate, but I think I was in enough awe that I just stood and clapped. Eventually, I snapped out of it and got this rainy photo of him heading toward the dugout after scoring:
I was still pumped, so I emailed my wife a quick message:
JEREMY JUST HIT A HOME RUN!!!!!!!!!
And my wife, who cares about baseball as much as I care about molecular biology, responded with:
Jeremy had one more at-bat (a strikeout in the two-run sixth) and as the rain intensified, the game was called in the seventh. Final score: Frederick 7, Carolina 2. In other words, Jeremy’s three-run bomb scored the game’s winning runs.
One of the neatest features about Harry Grove Stadium is that after the game, the players exit the field, walk up a set of stairs at the end of the seating bowl and cross the concourse to their clubhouse. Naturally, I was waiting to congratulate Jeremy and shake his hand. When I spotted him, I went to meet him with a huge smile on my face and told him congrats. He shook my hand quickly and said, “That’s your ball.”
Then he disappeared as I stood there starting to suspect what was happening.
He was referring to something he wrote in his letter to me back in December. Here’s a close-up of what he said:
I’d long since stopped hoping I might get the ball; to me, the big prize was not only meeting him, but seeing him hit a game-winning home run for the Keys.
Minutes later, Jeremy returned with a ball in his hand and a fan trailing behind — only the fan was carrying a bat that I knew was Jeremy’s. It turns out that he’d given the fan one of his bats in exchange for getting the ball back.
This time, it was Jeremy who approached with a huge smile and handed me the ball, which he’d also signed for me. I was completely speechless for a moment as I stumbled to remember to say thank you. After Jeremy and the other fan, Jason, told me the story of the ball/bat exchange, I took a photo of the two of them with the bat:
And then got a photo taken of Jeremy and me:
The three of us stood and chatted for a minute, and Jason asked, “Are the two of you friends? How do you know each other?” In a moment that almost seemed scripted, we both responded at the same time, “It’s a long story!”
Soon enough, Jeremy headed into the clubhouse and I hung out on the concourse for a bit, where I took this photo of the ball:
I’ve since taken these better shots of it:
You know how you sometimes build something up in your mind and then the actual event falls short? And other times, it’s pretty much what you expected. This game and its events absolutely blew me away and were far better than I could’ve dreamed. I can’t imagine what will top it — perhaps catching Jeremy’s first MLB home run when he’s playing for the Orioles!
Thank you, Jeremy, for not only the ball, but for being so accommodating. One of Jeremy’s relatives told me prior to meeting him that as good a ballplayer as he is, he’s a better person. I can say that in addition to playing the game at a very high level, he’s also an athlete who treats his fans well. He certainly didn’t need to give me the ball, and I appreciate him giving away one of his bats to get the ball back. It means a ton.
As always, please check out The Ballpark Guide to help plan your upcoming trips and keep an eye on this blog as I gear up for my second road trip of the summer. You can also follow me on Twitter or send me an email to keep in touch.
It’s fitting that my 100th post on this blog is about an outstanding ballpark visit and one that I’ve been looking forward to for months. I began an exciting May 23 with a trip to Wilmington, DE, to watch the Blue Rocks take on the Potomac Nationals at beautiful Frawley Stadium. And after the game was done, I zipped quickly to Frederick, MD, where the plan was to watch the Keys in an evening game.
I arrived extremely early — before 3:30 p.m. for the 7 p.m. game. The Keys were graciously providing me with a media pass for this game, and when you’ve got a pass hanging around your neck, you can come and go as you please. So, I wanted to take advantage of as much time at Harry Grove Stadium as possible. Plus, as you’ll know if you’ve read this blog, this game was my chance to finally meet Keys outfielder Jeremy Nowak. (I’ll include a photo of him in this post, but I’m going to write a separate post about meeting him. It was that awesome.)
When I pulled into the ballpark, the parking lot was almost empty, save for the players’ cars and staff vehicles. I’m almost certain I was the first fan in the area:
Harry Grove Stadium has a large pavilion in front of the main gates, but there wasn’t anything happening just yet:
(I should say the pavilion has one of the coolest features I’ve ever seen. You know those fake rocks that are actually speakers for you to place in your garden? The garden here has these speaker-rocks that play the team’s radio broadcast. I love when a team thinks of little things like this that make a difference.)
I quickly picked up my media pass at the will call window:
And then took a photo of the pass:
I took a quick peek inside the ballpark to see that Jeremy was in the starting lineup. Sure enough, he was hitting third, where he’d been hitting for the previous several games:
As you probably know if you’ve read other accounts of my travels, I like to start each visit with a walk around the outside of the park. There’s always the opportunity to find a baseball, of course, but the tour also provides different perspectives on the park. So, I headed down the pathway to the right of the main gate:
See the red fence in the above photo? The visiting Carolina Mudcats were hitting in a cage here because the uncooperative weather meant the tarp was on the field. The fence was difficult to see through, but the thwack sounds emanating from behind it were unmistakable. When I got halfway along the fence, I saw this:
The ball must’ve somehow flown out of the batting cage, despite all the protective netting. I picked it up and was pumped to see it was an Official Carolina League ball:
This is the first Carolina League ball in my collection, which now includes balls from eight leagues. For a complete rundown of some of the coolest balls I’ve collected on my travels, check out this blog post.
After finding the ball, I stuffed it in my backpack and continued walking toward the outfield, where I could see the visitors on the tarp-covered field:
I scoured the area outside the center field fence for any balls that might’ve been hit in a previous batting practice session or game, but didn’t come up with anything. But when I made it to the left field corner, where I could see the Mudcats with ease …
… I saw another Carolina League ball, which I grabbed. Afterward, I made it back to the pavilion in front of the park, where there still wasn’t much going on:
So, I decided to head in and tour around. I would be meeting assistant GM Adam Pohl for a tour later on, but in the meantime, I took the opportunity to scout out the nearly-empty ballpark. As you can see here, the sky had quickly become extremely dark and foreboding, and I wondered if the night’s game would even get started:
You can tell from the time on the scoreboard that there was still a ton of time to wait until the game’s start time:
I spent the next while touring the park, taking in sights such as the batting cage area:
The suite level:
And the empty seating bowl …
… before the sky opened up and it began to rain. As the rain fell around me, I retreated to this row of seats, which was protected from the elements by the overhang:
I started to get the impression that not a pitch would be thrown, but I kept my fingers crossed and sent out Tweets like this:
And, eventually, this happy one:
Eventually, I met up with Adam in the team’s office and we started our tour. While I was still in the office, I snapped a quick picture of the framed jerseys of former Keys Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters:
The tour itself was great. I always love meeting baseball people and talking about the ballpark and the game. Adam was really proud to point out a number of accessibility improvements made at Harry Grove Stadium over the recent years, including large, open spaces on the concourse for wheelchairs:
As they always seem to do, the tour flew by, and before long, Adam had to go to the press box to continue getting ready for the game. We agreed to meet in the radio booth at the top of the fourth inning for my on-air interview. Adam is also one of the team’s broadcasters, so I looked forward to speaking with him again.
I was anxious for the Keys to come out onto the field, but used the time to take photos of some of the park’s attractions, including a great kids’ area that includes inflatable games:
And a merry-go-round, almost identical to the one at Bowie’s Prince George’s Stadium:
Soon enough, the Keys hit the field, and I spotted Jeremy:
And the video board in left-center came to life, which boded well for the evening:
It certainly wasn’t a perfect day for baseball, but after Miss Maryland shot-putted a ceremonial first pitch toward home plate …
… we were ready to play ball!
It turns out that I saw a lot of the Keys last year when they were members of the Delmarva Shorebirds. I visited Arthur W. Perdue Stadium in June and saw Nowak, Mike Flacco (brother of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe) and several others. Here’s Flacco:
Richard Zagone got the start for Frederick. Check out his high leg kick:
I decided to spend the second and third innings sitting behind home plate, where I enjoyed this view:
In the top of the second, Carolina’s Delvi Cid smashed a pitch over the fence in left-center, and while I was tempted to run and see if I could find it, I didn’t want to be all soaking wet from rummaging through the grass and out of breath when I got to the broadcast booth for my interview. Still, I wondered if the ball was sitting out there, just waiting to be claimed.
Before long, it was up to the broadcast booth to reconvene with Adam and talk about my website and my visit to Harry Grove Stadium. It was a lot of fun and went by quickly. We had our photo taken together afterward:
Like the Wilmington Blue Rocks, the Keys graciously provided me with a media meal voucher, so I had my choice of dinner once the interview was done. First, though, I ducked out the main gate and hurried toward the area beyond the outfield fence to look for Cid’s ball. I ran stealthily through the soaking wet grass …
… which I regretted quickly, and then behind the fence where I looked all over for the ball …
… but couldn’t find it. I guess someone had gotten there before me.
When I got back inside, I took a quick photo of the Carolina League Championship Trophy, which the Keys won last season:
And then, it was time to eat! Unfortunately, many of the concession stands were closed by now (it was around the sixth inning) because the crowd was very thin and the rain was picking up again. I’d hoped to try something unique, but settled for a pair of hot dogs, which were a welcome reprieve, given how I was cold and wet:
There wasn’t much baseball played after I finished my dinner. A heavy downpour began around the seventh inning, and the game was called after seven innings were complete. The Keys were on top handily, 7-2. As for getting to meet Jeremy, it was awesome. I’ll have a blog dedicated to that soon. I hung out for about 20 minutes after the rain delay began, taking a series of pictures to make up this panorama:
When it became clear that the game wasn’t going to resume, I hit the road. Although the entire night was great, I was quite wet at the end, so I was looking forward to getting to my hotel. Fortunately, I was staying at the Hampton Inn Frederick, which is located just a few minutes from Harry Grove Stadium. This is one of those nights that I wouldn’t have been up for driving a half-hour to my hotel after the game, so if you’re visiting Frederick for a Keys game, I’d definitely recommend you stay at this hotel. Here’s how it looks from outside:
When I checked into my room, I was super pleased at how it looked — large, clean and with a king-sized bed, sofa, desk and flat-screen TV:
The room’s bathroom was also amazing …
… and despite the hotel’s close proximity to I-270, it was very quiet. As an added bonus, there are a ton of eateries (which are a staple of every baseball road trip) within walking distance, including T.G.I. Friday’s and IHOP. It’s the perfect spot if you’re in Frederick for a baseball road trip.