Tagged: Carolina Mudcats

Meeting Jeremy Nowak

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:

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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.

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Frederick Keys – May 23

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:

Woo hoo!

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.

As always, please check out my website, TheBallparkGuide.com, and follow me on Twitter.