Tagged: Eastern League

Binghamton Rumble Ponies – May 17

The last time I visited Binghamton’s NYSEG Stadium was in July of 2011, and the experience wasn’t very memorable. I found the ballpark to be old and a little dreary and, despite my visit taking place on Independence Day, it wasn’t an overly festive time.

As a result, I didn’t made a point of revisiting Binghamton in the years since, despite it being a little over an hour from Syracuse, which is the closest minor league park to where I live and a city I’ve visited repeatedly for ballgames.

A lot has changed in Binghamton over the last couple years. The team was bought in December of 2015 and rebranded as the Rumble Ponies in 2016, and the ballpark has gone through a lot of changes, too. I’d seen some exciting pictures online of the new ballpark elements and they were enough to compel me to book a return trip to Binghamton and attempt to rewrite my experience from 2011.

I’m glad to say it’s been fully rewritten.

The recent additions give this Eastern League ballpark a whole new feel. Not only are there plenty of admirable physical changes, but the rebranding of the team seems to have injected a new enthusiasm into the fan base and overall community, too.

I arrived in Binghamton in the early afternoon of May 17, did a tiny bit of sightseeing and then pulled into the parking lot of NYSEG (New York State Electric and Gas, for those wondering) Stadium about 4 p.m. for that evening’s 6:35 p.m. start. During my last visit, I recalled seeing fans hanging out in the parking lot in the hopes of snagging a batting practice home run ball, so I wanted to give that experience a shot, too.

It didn’t take long — all I had to do was exit my car, walk across the parking lot, and there were a pair of scuffed-up Eastern League balls sitting on the asphalt. I picked this one up and photographed it …

… and an instant after grabbing the second one, which was closer to the street, a resident of one of the houses across the street began shouting at me and waving her hands. I couldn’t tell what she was saying, but it was obvious that she wanted the souvenir. I wasn’t going to hurl the ball 100 feet to someone without a glove, so I jogged over to the sidewalk and tossed it to her.

Then, I returned to the parking lot not necessarily to try to get another ball, but rather to just enjoy the scene. The outfield fence was open in one spot, so I was able to stand back at the edge of the pavement and peek through to the field:

A moment later, I saw a man coming across the parking lot straight toward me. “I wonder what this is about,” I thought. It turns out that the man was John Hughes, the team’s new owner. He asked if I was the baseball blogger visiting town and wanted to welcome me to Binghamton. We talked briefly about some of the changes to the park, which John was eager for me to see once I got inside. This wasn’t my only encounter with the owner — over the two games that I attended, he approached me four separate times to ask how my visits were going.

After speaking to John, the inside of the park was beckoning. I decided to take a quick walk around the exterior and get inside. My first stop was Gate 1 in the right field corner, which has had a huge facelift since my last visit. I think you’ll agree that this is a sharp-looking spot to enter the ballpark:

Next, I headed to the gates behind home plate, where I snapped this shot:

If you take a look at this image from my 2011 visit, you’ll note that this area looks largely the same, with the exception of the color of the NYSEG Stadium sign and, of course, the Rumble Ponies emblem.

I couldn’t resist turning the corner and taking a walk down a side street for a short stretch so that I could once again get a glimpse of the field. From where I stood, I could see players from the visiting Altoona Curve playing catch …

… and this sight was more than enough to draw me into the park. I decided to enter through Gate 1 in the right field corner. That’s where I entered during my last visit, and I was anxious to see the multitude of changes in this area. This is the view I had upon stepping through the gate:

What a great sight, right? There’s a lot going on in this picture. The Roundabout BBQ Pit concession stand on the right side has been hugely improved since 2011, and the benches and wide pavilion area are new, too. In the distance, you’ll see an awesome party deck, which is perhaps the biggest recent addition to the ballpark. Just out of sight to the left is a big children’s play area with inflatable attractions, while this structure stands to the right:

It’s brand new, too, and houses the ballpark’s batting cages. They weren’t currently in use, given the sunny 90-degree weather.

Another awesome new feature in the right field corner is the picnic area directly behind the fence. As you’ll see here, the fence has a chain-link section so that fans sitting in this spot can watch the game:

I used the term “picnic area” because there are picnic tables, but this isn’t a group area that you need to reserve. It’s open to any fan in the stadium, and I enjoyed time in this location during both games I attended. I decided to hang out in this spot for a few minutes to watch BP. Although I was pumped to continue walking around the ballpark and seeing the sights, it’s always a treat to watch BP just a few feet from the field.

A minute or two after I approached the fence, a long fly ball carried an Altoona outfielder over in my direction. He caught the ball, threw it back to the infield and then turned to me and said hello. I was a little surprised, given that I’ve watched BP a million times with very few players actually initiating conversation, but I said hello back and noted that the player was Connor Joe, the 30th-ranked prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates system. I also snapped this shot of Joe as he walked back to his position:

I stood in the area for another minute or two before proceeding to the party deck down the first base line. It’s one of the nicer decks I’ve seen at the Double-A level — half-tables along the fence, two rows of full tables behind, string lighting overhead and Rumble Ponies-themed furniture all combine to make this spot a winner:

With the exception of the game staff, NYSEG Stadium was still virtually empty at this point, so it was fun to just stand on the quiet party deck and enjoy a few minutes of BP. Before long, though, I wanted to check out the home plate area. Altoona was still hitting at this point, so I spent a bit of time standing on the cross-aisle where I had this view:

The ballpark’s seating situation is pretty straightforward. There’s a cross-aisle that separates two levels of seating — the field-level section consists of nine rows throughout most of the park and six rows behind the two dugouts. Behind the field-level seats is the cross-aisle, and then there are 14 rows that make up the upper level of the stadium. Here’s a sense of what this all looks like while empty:

If you’re wondering about the location of the concourse, it’s under the seats. This isn’t a ballpark feature that I particularly like, given that you can’t see the action on the field when you’re getting your food (although I should note that NYSEG Stadium has a number of TVs throughout the concourse that can keep you informed about the game), but it’s a reality of many older stadiums in the minors.

I walked the length of the cross-aisle until I got just past third base, and then took a ramp down to an open area down the third base line. This was a spot I recalled from my last visit, and I wanted to see how it now looked. Unlike the drastic changes to the right field corner, the left field corner was largely the same as in 2011 — and that suited me just fine. As you’ll see from this next photo, this spot is a prime area for snagging long foul balls, so I made a mental note to spend at least an inning or two in this area once the game began:

I watched BP for a couple minutes from this spot before electing to search for some shade. If you look at the above photo, you’ll see several rows of shaded seats at the top of the seating area, so that’s where I headed next. After about an hour out in the sun, the shade was a welcome relief. I would’ve been happy to just sit and enjoy the breeze, but given that BP was still taking place, I could get some shade while also enjoying this view:

Just about perfect, right?

I spent long enough in the shade to cool down a little, but wanted to check out the new kids area before the gates opened. I knew that once fans were inside the park, this spot would be a popular attraction, so I wanted to snap a shot of the new attractions while the area was still quiet. This is how the kids area looks:

Three fun inflatable attractions for the youngsters, and cool Rumble Ponies-themed benches for their parents:

Shortly after I took the above photos, the gates opened and fans began to head inside. BP was now done, but I sat at one of the picnic tables in the right field corner to just soak up the scene. The grounds crew was preparing the field, families were starting to congregate around the kids area and the smells wafting through the air from the nearby Roundabout BBQ Pit concession stand were starting to get me hungry. Before I ate, I wanted to see if I’d be able to find a baseball that was hit during BP. A quick look around the right field corner turned up nothing, so I made the walk over to the left field corner in hopes of changing my fortune. As I arrived, a staffer was busily picking up a couple balls that were sitting on the asphalt and tossing them into the bullpen. After he left, I decided that I’d take a look under some of the picnic tables in the area to see if anything was missed — and it wasn’t long before I found this beauty:

Balls in the minor leagues aren’t often marked, so it was cool to see this one doctored up with a “B” for Binghamton.

(Off the top of my head, the only other marked MiLB baseball that I’ve come across over the years was from the Staten Island Yankees. Interestingly enough, I snagged that ball in June of 2011 on the same trip that I first visited Binghamton, and you can see a photo of that ball and read about how I got it here.)

My next priority was to grab something for dinner before the game. My pregame tour of the concession stands showed lots of interesting food choices and a better selection than my last visit, and I was drawn to the BBQ concession in the right field corner. I wanted to try a chicken spiedie, which is a sandwich that is popular in Binghamton and throughout Central New York. The chicken is marinated, grilled over charcoal and served on a roll. Among other things, the concession stand sold a chicken spiedie and a chicken spiedie deluxe.

I’ll give you one guess which one I went for.

The deluxe version came with your choice of toppings, and I opted for bacon relish and jalapeno spread. I took my food all the way back over to the quiet left field corner, where I snapped this photo …

… and sat down to eat at one of the picnic tables. The chicken’s flavor was delicious, thanks to the tasty marinade and the cooking method. I found it just a little dry, though, and the toppings were a little on the sparse side, giving the overall sandwich a dry consistency. I would order the sandwich again, but I’d keep my fingers crossed that it’d be a little juicier. Either way, it’s always fun to try a local specialty at the ballpark, especially when it’s something I haven’t previously eaten.

Since I was in the area, I decided to see if I might be able to find another baseball. A quick glimpse under each of the picnic tables and the hilly area beyond turned up nothing, so I shifted my attention to a small hut behind the corner of the bullpen. The area was a little difficult to access, but it wasn’t roped off, so I reached behind the hut and discovered this:

Here’s the neat thing about this baseball — I think it might be a home run ball from an actual game. As you can likely tell from the photo, it’s in way better condition than an average minor league BP ball. It’s been mud rubbed and doesn’t have much wear, leading me to believe that it was hit during a game. And, because it was behind the bullpen in fair territory, I think that it’s a home run. Of course, there’s no way to tell for sure — and there’s no way to know who might’ve hit it.

But, before my visit, the last home run hit to left field at NYSEG Stadium was back on May 2 — a first-inning shot by Akron RubberDucks infielder Todd Hankins in a 5-4 Binghamton win. I’d expect that a ball sitting out for nearly two weeks would’ve been waterlogged, but this one wasn’t. Then again, the ball was up against the shed and likely protected from the rain.

We’ll chalk it up to a ballpark mystery, I guess.

There was nothing mysterious about what happened next — the players took the field for their pregame warmups, and I went over to the fence to watch. One player who caught my eye was Altoona shortstop Kevin Newman. While his teammates were stretching, he held a bat and posed for some photos for an on-field photographer:

I watched the Altoona guys for a few minutes and then decided to head over to left field to watch the Rumble Ponies. It’s always fun watching warmups from field level. The players are just a handful of feet away at times, which is conducive to taking photos. Here’s Binghamton outfield Champ Stewart, who’d play a role in my ballpark experience later on:

As the warmups went on, I made a quick stop at the Dippin’ Dots stand on the first base concourse. I’d noticed it earlier and, given the heat of the evening, I was eager for a cool snack. Plus, you could buy Dippin’ Dots in Rumble Ponies colors — blue and red — so that was hard to pass up:

Incidentally, I tweeted the above photo with a crack about Sean Spicer and his apparent disdain for Dippin’ Dots, and the ice cream company retweeted me and started following me on Twitter.

I finished my dessert after the top half of the first inning, and then went down to the paved area in left field. As I noted earlier, this spot felt like foul ball heaven, and I thought I’d stand a good chance to snagging one if I was patient.

Patience, it turned out, wasn’t necessary.

I arrived in the spot as Stewart, the Rumble Ponies leadoff hitter, was digging in. On the second pitch he faced, he launched a long fly ball in my direction. It sailed well over my head, clanged off the picnic area and I snatched it up quickly:

Hmm, that was easy.

The next batter, infielder Luis Guillorme, made contact with the first pitch he saw and the ball had a nearly identical trajectory to Stewart’s foul — over my head, off the picnic area and into my waiting hands:

This all happened in the span of little more than a minute, which was enough to attract the attention of the Altoona bullpen, whose players jokingly heckled me. I remember clearly thinking that with two foul balls in the first inning, it might be possible to snag five, six or even 10 fouls by the end of the game. I can’t help but admit that I thought about the notoriety this feat might gain on Twitter — but then I snapped back to reality when another fan approached me because he recognized my T-shirt, which I’d posted on Facebook before my trip. One of the things that I really enjoy about my baseball road trips is meeting other fans, especially those who have traveled extensively, too. This particular fan, PJ Harmer, has been to a ton of stadiums, including many that I’ve visited. We had a great time over the next three innings comparing notes on places we’ve been and talking baseball.

I should also note that not another single foul ball came remotely near where we were standing. PJ suggested that he might’ve been a bad luck charm, but whatever the cause, it was odd to have such a foul ball drought after snagging two from back-to-back batters in the first inning.

After PJ and I said farewell, I headed straight for the gate and exited NYSEG Stadium — not to leave for good, but rather to snap this shot of the stadium’s exterior:

Then, I went back inside to grab a seat up high down the first base line. It was a cool spot, giving me a nice view of not only the action as the sun set …

… but also of the new party deck that now had the overhead lights on:

I didn’t end up sitting in the spot for long. The sunset was extremely bright, and while it made for a nice backdrop to the ballgame, it washed out the field a little (and definitely made photography a challenge). I decided to relocate to a spot behind home plate, where I enjoyed this perfect view:

At the start of the seventh inning, I moved into a seat in the first row behind home plate, where I got to watch Binghamton infielder L.J. Mazzilli, son of longtime MLBer Lee Mazzilli, hit a two-run home run:

For the eighth inning, I sat in one of the bar seats in left field, and took a spot in the seats behind third base for the ninth inning:

After the game, I was glad that I didn’t have far to travel to get to my hotel. I’d been at the ballpark for more than five hours and I’d spent about five hours driving to Binghamton, so I was more than ready to relax. My lodging for the night was the Holiday Inn Binghamton, which is less than a mile from NYSEG Stadium. That meant that just a few minutes after pulling out of the ballpark parking lot, I was standing in the hotel’s parking lot:

The hotel is located in the heart of the downtown, directly across the street from the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena, home of the American Hockey League’s Binghamton Devils, just a short walk from a number of eateries, and on the banks of the Chenango River. In fact, I could see the river from my room:

Speaking of my room, it was perfect — a big two-room suite with a king-sized bed, living room, fridge and microwave and two TVs. The hotel also offers free parking, which I find to be a rarity with downtown hotels, and free Wi-Fi. Here’s a shot of the bedroom …

… and one of the living room area:

Another cool thing about this hotel? It’s the official host hotel of the Rumble Ponies, which means that rehabbing Mets players stay there and the team in town to play Binghamton also stays there. The next morning, I saw a handful of Altoona players in the lobby just before they boarded the bus for the short ride over to the ballpark. The hotel offers baseball packages for fans — you can book a package that includes accommodation, tickets to the game, free breakfast and a baseball-themed gift upon checking in. This is definitely the spot that I recommend when you visit Binghamton on a baseball trip, and it’s the spot I’ll be staying whenever I visit again.

I was in bed before midnight — a rarity on my baseball trips — and not just because it’d been a long day. The Rumble Ponies were hosting the Curve in a 10:30 a.m. matinee the next day, and I’d be in attendance before I headed back home.

New Hampshire Fisher Cats – April 16

After waking up to a wet, dreary day on April 15, I hoped the view out my hotel window would look different on April 16.

It did:

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Different. Just not better.

Yes, my friends, that’s snow covering the field of Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. Snow. In April. Hmm.

The New Hampshire Fisher Cats had a 10:35 a.m. game scheduled, which I’d planned to catch and then hit the road for the eight-hour drive home. I was still slated to join Tom Gauthier on the team’s radio broadcast in the fifth inning but, like a day earlier, the fifth inning was looking hypothetical at best.

The team had yet to make an official announcement about the likelihood of the day’s game, so I spent the first part of my day getting packed for the trip home and taking a few more photos. I wrote extensively about the outstanding hotel I was visiting, the Hilton Garden Inn Manchester Downtown, in my previous two entries, so I won’t rehash all the details here. I will, however, tell you the hotel has a home plate-shaped hot tub — on this morning, though, it looked a tad chilly:

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In fact, everything out my window did. Here’s the view directly below my room:

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That’s the batter’s eye on the left side, the hotel’s outdoor eatery, The Patio, on the right side and I think you get the rest of the picture. It was a snowy day.

Soon enough, the Fisher Cats announced on Twitter that the start of their game would be delayed. No surprised there, but now I faced the decision of whether to wait to see if the game would ever begin or to pull the plug on my trip and start the drive home.

I anxiously kept an eye on the field in the hopes that the snow would melt quickly. By about 8:30 a.m., you can see things were looking slightly better:

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Apparently, I wasn’ t the only person interested in the condition of the field. About 8:50 a.m., a member of the Fisher Cats came out, stood on the bullpen mound for several seconds and then headed toward the dugout:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-player-snow-field

A little while later, I watched the visiting New Britain Rock Cats’ bus leave the ballpark, obviously after dropping off the team. That was a good sign; if the bus was still hanging around, it’d be an indicator that the powers that be weren’t expecting the game to be played.

At 10:20 a.m., the scene out my window looked a lot more optimistic, but it also seemed clear the game wasn’t going to begin any time soon:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-snow-melting

I made the decision to check out of my hotel, load my car and take a walk through the ballpark and see if any staff member could provide an estimated start time. As I waited for the elevator to ride down to the lobby, I took a bunch of photos to make up this panorama:

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It’s the scene out the hotel’s front-side windows and provides a great view of downtown Manchester, don’t you think?

After scraping the layer of ice off my car, I took this last shot of the hotel …

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… and then walked into a very icy Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. The sun was taking care of the field rather nicely, so the grounds crew was working to make the concourse and seats safe for fans. There was plenty of ice to be melted and snow to be shoveled, as you can see here:

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I took a quick walk through the concourse — check out the icy footprints — and decided there’d be no way the game would be played any time soon:

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I had one last priority before getting in the car: I wanted to visit the ballpark’s team shop to use the gift card that was part of the gift basket I received upon checking in two days earlier. I bought a pair of Fisher Cats athletic pants and as I was ready to leave, ran into Tom and told him I’d decided to go home. As we talked briefly about the weather, Fisher Cats and Bowling Green Hot Rods owner Art Solomon stopped to talk to Tom. I was the third wheel, but it was neat to meet someone who’s had a big impact on Minor League Baseball.

After saying bye to Tom, I hopped in the car and drove a few blocks to Gill Stadium, which was built in 1913 and hosted the Fisher Cats in 2004 before their current park was built. I couldn’t get into Gill Stadium, but I took this cool-looking panorama from across the street:

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And then, it was time to close the book on a great first trip of the season, although I would’ve enjoyed better cooperation from the weather. Still, an exciting ballgame Monday night and two nights in an awesome hotel was a memorable start to my baseball season and I can’t wait to hit the road again. I’ll leave you with one final photo that I took on the drive home — it’s a sight you don’t typically see during baseball season:

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If you enjoyed reading this blog post, I’d love to tell you how you can support my future baseball road trips. If you shop on Amazon or MLB Shop, your purchases can help fund my trips without costing you an extra cent. Please take a moment to look at this page and thank you in advance for your support!

New Hampshire Fisher Cats – April 15

I knew the first day of my trip, April 14, would be a tough one to beat. Why? Rather than try to summarize it here in a sentence or two, here are all the details in blog form.

All caught up? Good. On to day two.

Like the baseball nerd I am, I woke up the morning of April 15 and ran to the window of my hotel room to see the view:

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Yep, Northeast Delta Dental Stadium was still there.

The tarp wasn’t new — I’d watched it go on the night before — but the dreary-looking day was. After enjoying temperatures close to 75 degrees on Monday, it was now in the 40s with rain in the forecast.

Fortunately, I had all day to work on my blog and enjoy my hotel. As I said yesterday, the Hilton Garden Inn Manchester Downtown is outstanding. It ranks very high on my all-time favorite hotels list (what, you don’t have one?) and it’s the perfect choice for baseball fans. In my previous post, I talked about the hotel’s proximity in relation to the Fisher Cats ballpark, so I won’t be a broken record. Instead, I’ll tell you that the hotel is within walking distance of a ton of places to eat, and if you’d rather stay close, its on-site restaurants, Pavilion and The Patio, are outstanding.

In fact, everything I’ve experienced about this hotel has been awesome. You saw some photos in my last blog post, but here are some others that show just how great my suite was. Here’s the living room area (with ESPN on TV, of course):

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And the entrance/kitchen area:

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Some more facts about the Hilton Garden Inn Manchester Downtown: It has free parking, free Internet and an indoor swimming pool and athletic center. Its downtown location is perfect for not only the baseball game, but also for those interested in checking out the city’s other attractions or taking a jog along the banks of the Merrimack River. Each hotel staff member I encountered was hugely friendly and, while I don’t know when I’ll get back to Manchester, I definitely know that I’ll make this hotel my choice again.

After breakfast, I returned to my room to hear the sound of rain smacking off the windows — not exactly a promising omen for the evening’s 5:35 p.m. game:

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I settled down at the desk and started working on my blog, which is what I did for most of the day. And, yes, I made frequent visits to both my windows to look down at the ballpark. Sometime after lunch, I noticed action on the field in the form of two New Hampshire players playing catch in the pouring rain:

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Throughout the afternoon, I watched on Twitter as a ton of major league and minor league ballgames in the Midwest and on the east coast were canceled due to rain and cold weather, but the Fisher Cats still hadn’t made an announcement about that evening’s game. Part of me hoped this meant they planned to play, but a bigger part of me knew this idea was largely unrealistic. Either way, the team announced late in the afternoon that the game was still on, so I packed up my camera gear and walked into the park about 4:15 p.m. At that time, there was no sign of the Fisher Cats, and a single Rock Cats player was stretching by himself in the light rain:

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I was still almost certain there’d be no game this evening, but there’s no better place to be than a ballpark — even when the weather’s bad. I climbed up to the park’s suite level and took this shot looking back toward the main gate:

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While I was in this spot, I took this panorama that shows the rainy scene:

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If you’d seen my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I was supposed to be interviewed on the Fisher Cats radio broadcast during the game. I escaped the rain for a bit to meet the team’s broadcaster, Tom Gauthier, in the press box. This was the scene as I waited to cross paths with him:

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The radio booths are on the left side, facing the field, and you can see various notable newspaper front pages and pictures of Eastern League alumni decorating the walls. The black trays on the right side contain each team’s roster, game notes and the starting lineup — great reading material that I always grab when I’m in any press box. I eventually met Tom and he invited me to join him for the fifth inning — or, the “theoretical fifth inning” as we called it. We also decided that if the game was indeed rained out, I’d join Tom during the fifth inning of the following day’s matinee game.

Once I’d talked to Tom for a few minutes, I went back down to the wet concourse and watched some New Britain players play hacky sack. Not something you see at the ballpark every day:

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It was now about 20 minutes before first the supposed first pitch, the park was still almost empty …

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… and so was the home dugout:

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Shortly before 5:30 p.m., a small group of Fisher Cats (including catcher Yusuf Carter, the key figure in yesterday’s blog post) came out to get warmed up. Just as I made my way down to field level to watch the proceedings, one player came out and said something to the group — obviously, telling them the game was canceled. It didn’t take long for them to quickly retreat to the dugout and eventually the clubhouse. Designated hitter Brad Glenn (#44) and Carter seemed just slightly happy that they didn’t have to play in the rain:

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Within a minute or two, the field was empty but a moment later, a pair of Fisher Cats came out to play catch in the drizzle:

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I watched them for a few minutes …

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… before deciding to get out the rain and make the short walk back to my hotel. I was back in my room by 6 p.m., so I had the whole evening open. I filled it by grabbing dinner at Outback, which is less than 10 minutes from the hotel, and then crashing in front of ESPN until bed — while keeping my fingers crossed that the weather wouldn’t affect Wednesday’s morning game.

If you enjoyed reading this blog post, I’d love to tell you how you can support my future baseball road trips. If you shop on Amazon or MLB Shop, your purchases can help fund my trips without costing you an extra cent. Please take a moment to look at this page and thank you in advance for your support!

New Hampshire Fisher Cats – April 14

Yesterday was one heck of a day. It began for me at 4:30 a.m. and ended with my involvement in some photos I took being shared with nearly half a million people.

Here’s how it happened:

The drive from my house to Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, home of the Eastern League’s New Hampshire Fisher Cats, takes almost exactly eight hours. And while it seems a little nuts to get up so early and leave my house shortly after 5 a.m. for a 6:35 p.m. game, I couldn’t wait to get to my destination for my first live baseball game of the season.

I’ve seen the Fisher Cats at home twice in the past, and both times I’ve stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Manchester Downtown. That’s where I’m staying again, and I can’t imagine visiting Northeast Delta Dental Stadium without staying at this hotel. Its major perk is its field-facing rooms, and as soon as I checked in and opened my door, I dropped my luggage and dashed straight to my window to take this photo:

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Heaven!

This is absolutely the hotel for you during your visit to Manchester. You can’t beat its location, of course, but staying here saves you having to pay to park at the game and you’ll be back in your room before many fans are even on the highway. I’ll have plenty more details about the hotel in the blog posts about the rest of my visit, but here are a couple photos in the meantime. I was lucky enough to get a suite, which has a huge living area and a separate bedroom, each with windows facing the field. Here’s the bedroom:

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And before I get ahead of myself — like I did with my rush to look out my window — I have to share a big surprise. Look at this gift basket I was given upon arriving:

hilton-garden-inn-manchester-gift-basket

It’s got several types of snacks, two Fisher Cats foam fingers, free breakfast vouchers, a greeting card and even a $25 gift card to the Fisher Cats team shop. Now, the latter was a special gift because the hotel knew about my ballpark travels, but if you quote the “baseball package” upon booking a room in this hotel, you’ll get something similar upon check-in — as well as a field-facing room, free breakfast vouchers and more.

I spent some time at my window watching the Fisher Cats play catch and perform various on-field drills, before deciding to grab my camera and take a short walk around the entire ballpark/hotel complex — something I hadn’t fully done on my two previous visits. My first stop was the park’s ticket office, where I picked up my media credentials for the three-game series. Special thanks to Tom Gauthier and the Fisher Cats for taking care of me. Next, I took this photo of the ticket office and the hotel:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-ticket-office

The wind had picked up like crazy, but the weather was otherwise warm and such a nice change from the cold back home, so I started down this path that runs between the ballpark and the Merrimack River:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-pathway

When I reached the end of the path, I had the option of turning to continue my way around the rear of the ballpark or take a footbridge across the river. Here’s what I decided:

manchester-merrimack-river-bridge

Despite occasionally wondering if the wind would blow me over the railing, I had a great view up river and down river, and snapped a bunch of photos to make this panorama looking back toward the ballpark:

manchester-nh-bridge-panorama

The lack of leaves on the trees actually improved the visibility, as you can see here:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-hilton-garden-inn-from-bridge

See the huge blue and white roof above the Northeast Delta Dental Stadium sign? That’s the Verizon Wireless Arena, home of the American Hockey League’s Manchester Monarchs.

After taking a ton of photos, I partially retraced my steps and continued my walk to the rear of the ballpark. Here’s the road leading down to the field, directly behind the Fisher Cats bullpen:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-back

The walk took about 45 minutes, and I was soon back in my room watching the proceedings below. It’s such an enormous treat to have this vantage point. Most minor league parks don’t open their gates until batting practice is over, but a field-facing room provides an outstanding view of what you wouldn’t normally get to enjoy. But your room isn’t the only spot from which you can see the field. The Hilton Garden Inn has an outdoor eatery called The Patio, which is located directly between the hotel and the outfield fence. Grab a spot here during BP (or even during the game, if you don’t want to buy a ticket) and you’ll truly have a rare experience. I could see batting practice was about to begin, so I hustled downstairs and out to The Patio. Batting practice didn’t happen during either of my previous visits, so I was pumped to have to chance to watch it — and hopefully snag a ball or two. This is the view from the hotel hallway looking out toward The Patio …

hilton-garden-inn-manchester-patio-inside

… and here’s what I was looking at upon getting a spot at the fence:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-hilton-garden-inn-the-patio

I was curious to see how many BP home runs would land on The Patio or even hit the hotel. Both are located in left-center, and while a player would need a good blast to reach either, I certainly expected to see some action. Sure enough, a few balls came my way. Some smacked off the hotel’s brick so hard that they bounced right back on the field, while others found a gap and bounced toward the parking lot. There was a neat camaraderie between the players standing in the outfield and the few fans watching BP. Whenever a ball looked like it would be a home run, the players would turn and yell “Heads up!” to make sure no one was caught unaware.

This happened a handful of times on balls that weren’t that close to me, but the next home run, smacked by Yusuf Carter, sailed directly over my head and hit the hotel with a tremendous crash. The sound indicated that it must have rattled off a window, but when I turned to look for the ball, this was what I saw about 10 feet behind me:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-hilton-garden-inn-broken-window-1

WOW!

The people on The Patio were shocked, and members of the Fisher Cats who’d heard the glass exploding were hopping up and down trying to see the damage over the outfield fence. Soon enough, a hotel employee came to photograph the window:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-hilton-garden-inn-broken-window-photographing

And then more curious onlookers arrived. I talked about what had happened with the hotel’s executive chef and a maintenance staff member, and asked how often this happens. “Never,” they said, surprisingly. They said one home run ball had once landed in the bar area and broken some glass, but as far as they knew, the hotel hadn’t ever had any broken windows. They were more surprised that upset, so I took this shot as we all stood there:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-hilton-garden-inn-broken-window-2

The home team’s BP wrapped up at this point, and I grabbed one more photo before weighing my options:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-hilton-garden-inn-broken-window-3

Although I was having a blast outside, I thought that given the rarity of this moment, I wanted to be the first person to tweet it out. I ran back to my hotel room, transferred my photos to my laptop and sent a couple tweets about the incident with some photos of the broken window. Several people retweeted the images, and I soon headed back down to watch the visiting New Britain Rock Cats take batting practice. Fast-forward to midway through the game, and I started getting notifications like crazy on Twitter. Turns out the MLB Fan Cave had picked up on the story, tweeted out my photos (with credit to me, happily) …

mlb-fan-cave-tweet

… and even written a short blurb about the incident, featuring my tweets, which you can find at this link. The Fan Cave shared this story with its 422,000 followers, and my pictures were then retweeted a couple hundred more times to even more people. So exciting!

Anyway, back to the Rock Cats batting practice: After no home runs in the first few minutes, I decided to see if I could find some leftover balls hit by the Fisher Cats. Remember the balls I mentioned that had rolled toward the parking lot? It didn’t take long for me to find them:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-bp-balls

Now, with a handful of balls to add to my collection, I decided to head inside the ballpark. I took this quick shot of my media pass …

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-media-pass

… and a few seconds later, I was standing on the concourse looking back toward the hotel and the scene of all the excitement:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-hilton-garden-inn-manchester

Given my previous visits to Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, I didn’t have much exploring to do, but I still wanted to take my customary first lap of the park to see what was new since I was last here in 2011. Here’s the scene in panoramic form from the first base side:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-rf-panorama

Did you see the Samuel Adams Bar & Grill two images ago? That was my next stop. I hadn’t previously visited this eatery, which boasts an 85-foot bar, a bunch of TV screens and an extensive menu, but it was great. Its walls were loaded with not only images of New Hampshire baseball stars like Chris Carpenter, but also autographed photos and other neat baseball stuff:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-samuel-adams-bar-grill

There was still some time before first pitch, so I poked around the park, taking photos here and there. Remember those foam fingers in my gift basket? I’d carefully placed them on my window ledge before heading down to the game, and they were visible from the park’s seats:

hilton-garden-inn-manchester-foam-fingers

Soon enough, players began to appear and I was excited to see New Hampshire’s starter Deck McGuire. He’s a 2011 first-round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays and I headed to the bullpen area down the first base line to watch him warm up. Here he is during long toss:

deck-mcguire-long-toss

And here’s Carter, the source of all the earlier excitement:

yusuf-carter-new-hampshire-fisher-cats

Carter has a neat story. He’s the nephew of 1993 World Series hero Joe Carter and although he appeared at several levels of the minors between 2005 and 2011, he played independent ball in 2012 and 2013. And he’s obviously got some pop.

Once McGuire had finished warming up with Carter …

deck-mcguire-yusuf-carter

… I spent the next while photographing Fisher Cats players as I waited for first pitch. When the game was underway, I grabbed a spot on the third base side and took photos like this one, of Fisher Cats slugger Brad Glenn:

brad-glenn-new-hampshire-fisher-cats

And the Rock Cats hulking first baseman Kennys Vargas, who’s 6’5″ and 275 pounds:

kennys-vargas-new-britain-rock-cats

In the top of the second inning, Rock Cats outfielder Reynaldo Rodriguez crushed a home run to left-center. I was seated pretty far from where I saw the ball leave the field, but still decided to wander over to the area and see if I could track it down. It took me a good couple minutes to reach the spot I expected to see the ball; sure enough, there it was on the asphalt between the Samuel Adams Bar & Grill and the hotel. I zipped down a set of stairs and grabbed it:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-reynaldo-rodriguez-home-run-ball

My first thought was to see if the home run was notable for Rodriguez, and then see if I could return it to him. I put the question out on Twitter and heard back from several people saying that while it was his first of the season, he’d already hit a bunch at Double-A. In fact, he’s quite a slugger. He hit 21, 16 and 18 home runs, respectively, over the previous three seasons in the minors. I figured this one wouldn’t be special to him, so I decided to keep it for my collection. For the record, this is the third home run ball in my collection.

Next, I hung out behind home plate for half an inning …

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-behind-home-plate-panorama

… and then set off to look for something to eat. In my previous two visits to New Hampshire, I enjoyed seafood for dinner — clam strips during my first visit and clam chowder during my second. This time, however, there was no sign of these items on the menu, which is disappointing. There were a handful of new items, which I’ll likely explore tomorrow. For my first game, though, I decided to keep things simple with a pair of hot dogs:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-food-hot-dogs

After three innings, I was puzzled to see the Fisher Cats weren’t taking the field to start the fourth. In fact, the umpires and both managers were having a conference at home plate, and they were soon joined by a member of the grounds crew. My initial thought was that because of the crazy wind, bad weather was in the forecast. Perhaps some lightning was in the area? Turns out it was lighting, not lightning, that was the issue. I hadn’t realized it, but the stadium lights in right-center weren’t on, and it was getting dark enough that this was now an issue:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-lights-out

Soon enough, part of the lights came on, and another set of lights responded by turning off. This was the pattern for 35 minutes, and I was slightly concerned the game would be postponed. I wasn’t the only one — McGuire, who’d given up just one hit (the home run) through his three innings of work, also looked concerned as he stood in the dugout:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-deck-mcguire-delay

The Fisher Cats bullpen members weren’t too upset. They resumed the game they’d been playing earlier — a sort of baseball-themed curling, in which they’d each toss balls off the bullpen mound and see whose could land closest to the bullpen plate:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-fisher-cats-bullpen-curling

When the action resumed on the field, it was a big relief. Not for Glenn, though, who took a pitch in his thigh during his first post-blackout at-bat:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-brad-glenn-fisher-cats-hbp

I spent the rest of the game walking around the ballpark, taking photos here and there and enjoying the game and even the scenery outside the park. Here’s a look at the dark Merrimack River with the city’s lights behind it, for example:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-merrimack-river-night

The Fisher Cats won 3-2, thanks to a two-run home run by Ryan Schimpf in the sixth inning. I didn’t get the ball, though I did get this photo of the eventual post-game high-fives:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-fisher-cats-win

Although the game was over, my evening wasn’t. I was excited to get back to my room and answer the ton of Twitter messages that had come in about Carter’s BP home run — and, yes, take more shots out my window.

Here’s the scene at about 10 p.m.:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-night-1

Again at 10:30 p.m.:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-night-2

And again at 11:20 p.m.:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-night-3

And finally, at 12:50 a.m. once all the stadium lights were off:

northeast-delta-dental-stadium-night-4

As I said, one heck of a day.

If you enjoyed reading this blog post, I’d love to tell you how you can support my future baseball road trips. If you shop on Amazon or MLB Shop, your purchases can help fund my trips without costing you an extra cent. Please take a moment to look at this page and thank you in advance for your support!

Just a Few Days Left

I’ve said before that while Opening Day is a big day for me, I really get excited when it’s time for my first road trip of the baseball season. Fortunately, that day is just about here.

About 5 a.m. on Monday, I’ll hop in the car for the drive to Manchester, N.H., home of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. I’ll be seeing three games at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium — Monday through Wednesday, April 14 through 16. All three games are against the New Britain Rock Cats.

I’ve been to Northeast Delta Dental Stadium twice before — once in 2010, on my very first summer of travels for The Ballpark Guide, and again in 2011. I’m returning not only because I’m anxious to see one of my favorite ballparks, but also because I get the awesome opportunity to be interviewed on the air during the game broadcast on April 15 by Tom Gauthier, the voice of the Fisher Cats. And the fact that I’m a Toronto Blue Jays fan doesn’t hurt either, as the Fisher Cats are the Double-A affiliate of the Jays.

I’ll also be staying at the outstanding Hilton Garden Inn Manchester, which is located just over the left field fence. As in previous visits, I’ll have a field-facing room so I can enjoy the ballpark even when I’m not inside it.

Here’s the panoramic view out my window during my first visit, which you can read all about here:

panorama-from-hilton-garden-inn-window

And here’s a scene from my second visit during pregame warmups from The Patio, an outdoor eatery at the hotel at which you can eat, watch batting practice and snag home balls:

hilton-garden-inn-patio

(To read the blog post about my second visit, just click here.

Finally, here’s a look at the hotel and its field-facing rooms, taken from the third base seats at the ballpark:

hilton-garden-inn-from-park

It’s shaping up to be a great trip and, as always, I’ll be tweeting and blogging along the way. Planning to be at any of these games? Send me a tweet and we’ll meet up and say hello.

If you enjoy reading about my baseball road trip adventures and want to support them, there are a few ways of doing so — you can read about them here at this link. If you shop on Amazon, for example, you can help my road trips without it costing you an extra cent. And you’ll even get a shout out on Twitter or here on my blog, too! Thanks for your support and I’ll talk to you next week from Manchester.

Reading Fightin Phils – July 11

For the third consecutive day, I stayed within the Philadelphia Phillies system on this road trip. After checking out the Phillies Short-Season A and Triple-A affiliates (Lehigh Valley and Williamsport, respectively), I traveled to Reading, PA, to check out the Fightin Phils, who play in the Double-A Eastern League. The who, you might ask? The team’s been known as the Reading Phillies since 1967, but during the offseason, management made a number of changes that included a name and logo change.

I was anxious to explore Reading’s FirstEnergy Stadium on this trip. The park opened way back in 1951, but the team has consistently made upgrades to give the park a historic feel with modern-day perks. Best of all, I’d get an awesome opportunity to check out the entire park with director of PR Eric Scarcella, who had not only given me a media pass for my visit, but had also arranged to give me a tour once I arrived. I hung out around the press box to meet up with Eric, and snapped the photos to make up this panorama, which should give you an idea of how things look:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-pressbox-panorama

The first stop on our tour was a huge plaza outside the first base stands that was very reminiscent of Fenway Park‘s Yawkey Way or, more aptly, Citizens Bank Park’s Ashburn Alley. At FirstEnergy Stadium, this area opens early and fans can grab some food, catch some live entertainment and even play carnival-style games. Here’s what the area looks like from the opening:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-pavilion-area

From there, Eric took me outside the park to check out the recent renovations to the front gate area. The brick walkway is full of plaques recognizing different inductees from throughout the team’s history. If you’ve been a fan of the Phillies (or should I say a phan of the Phillies?) over the last half-century, it’s pretty likely that your favorite players once suited up in Reading. Here’s a plaque honoring a trio of 1987 Reading hall of fame inductees with a couple names you’ll surely recognize:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-hall-of-fame-plaque

Eric was more than generous with his time and we kept a pretty good pace throughout the tour because we had so many spots to hit. Up next was the main concourse, which is absolutely awesome. It’s under the stands, and while this type of concourse can occasionally seem dark, damp and dingy, that’s not the case in Reading at all. In fact, when you walk through this area, it feels like you’ve just stepped back in time. The signs are hand painted to really give the area a vintage feel — much in the same way as some parts of Fenway Park. Here’s a concession stand, for instance:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-concourse-concession-stands

On top of the concessions, the concourse is also lined with historical displays. If you want to know virtually every detail about the history of baseball in Reading, take a wander through here and you’ll soon be a walking trivia machine. Here’s one example of the year-by-year data:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-historical-displays

Once Eric had given me a crash course on the team’s history, we followed the concourse up the area behind the third base line and took this ramp:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-ramp-third-base-side

To the right of this ramp, we stopped in the ’67 Club, a picnic area with this view:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-67-club

Then, it was farther along the walkway and over to this awesome deck area in the left field corner:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-left-field-deck-area

This deck is an absolutely perfect place to enjoy the game. It’s got standing room areas, bar-style tables and, my favorite, boxes like this one:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-left-field-seating-box

I think if I was visiting FirstEnergy Stadium with a handful of people, I’d push pretty hard to buy tickets in one of these boxes. Wouldn’t you?

As we checked out the sites, I couldn’t help but try to keep an eye on the field. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats were taking batting practice, and balls were thudding into the area all around us. Want proof?

firstenergy-stadium-reading-bp-balls

Those balls weren’t the only ones I saw. There were at least eight or 10 others in various spots throughout the deck. Although I left most of them where they saw, I couldn’t resist grabbing one for my collection:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-batting-practice-ball

Eric had already spent more than half an hour with me and there was still lots to see. We retraced our steps back down to the concourse, where I snapped this photo to give you an idea of what it looks like when it’s empty:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-empty-concourse

Our next stop was the party deck area in right field, which has this view:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-right-field-corner-view

But as great as the view is, it’s not the prime spot in this area. You know the swimming pools in Miami’s park? Check out Reading’s version of this style of “seating”:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-swimming-pool

By now, Eric had spent about an hour with me and soon had to get back to his pre-game responsibilities. First, though, he took me to two last spots in the park, starting with the team shop. I’ve found on my travels throughout the minors leagues that team shops at MiLB parks vary considerably. The one at FirstEnergy Stadium, however, is one of the nicest I’ve visited. In addition to an enormous selection of Fighting Phils stuff — including a ton of their various jerseys — I was impressed with the Mitchell & Ness wall of retro Phillies gear:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-team-shop-mitchell-ness

Equally impressive, albeit for another reason, was a pair of lockers dedicated to a couple former Reading stars — Ryan Howard and Darin Ruf. Each locker was loaded with a bunch of game-used gear, plus some other neat items:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-team-shop-locker-displays

Just when I thought our tour was over, Eric led me through a door into the team’s offices, where I not only spotted this Mike Schmidt signed jersey …

firstenergy-stadium-reading-mike-schmidt-jersey

… and raised an eyebrow about this Taylor Swift plaque. Turns out that Swift grew up just a few miles from Reading and still has ties to the area. In fact, long before she became a household name, she sung the anthem before a game at FirstEnergy Stadium:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-taylor-swift

Once Eric and I said our goodbyes and he went to get ready for the game, I went back out to the seating bowl and contemplated my next move. My brain was swimming with all the information Eric just dropped on me, and I was pumped to get wandering around and see all the sights again. It made sense to start outside, so I went back through the gates (which were now open and full of people streaming in) and checked out the front of the park, which I captured in this panorama:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-panorama-outside

I also got a closer look at the two ostriches outside the front gates. We all know that ostriches are extremely fast and have big eggs, but did you know they can stand up to nine feet fall and weigh more than 300 pounds? Neither did I. (That’s comparable to Shaq, by the way.) I learned this information by talking with the staff member handling the pair of birds. The two are female, as males would be too aggressive toward fans. One last interesting tidbit: During the season, the two ostriches live at FirstEnergy Stadium in a pen behind the outfield fence. Here’s one of them checking me out:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-ostrich

Next, I went back into the plaza behind the first base stands to capture this panorama, which shows just how happening the area is:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-plaza-panorama

I got back to the seating bowl just in time to see a few Fightin Phils heading to the field. One of the best parts of FirstEnergy Stadium is just how close you can get to the players. I mean, this concept is common throughout the minors, but it’s at a different level in Reading. The home team’s clubhouse is just behind this door …

firstenergy-stadium-reading-home-clubhouse-door

… and before the game, the guys cut across the concourse and through a walkway to the field. You’re close enough to touch the players although, as with the ostriches, I suggest keeping your hands to yourself. Here’s one player making his way toward the field:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-players-entrance-path

It was neat to see a handful of Fightin Phils up close, but as a Jays fan, I was more interested in seeing the Fisher Cats. I raced through the concourse and got to the spot outside the visiting clubhouse just in time to see a bunch of New Hampshire players pass by:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-visitors-entrance

After watching most of the guys walk by, I saw 2012 first-round draft pick Marcus Stroman leave the clubhouse in his street clothes. He was carrying a clipboard, so he was obviously tasked with charting pitches for the game:

marcus-stroman-reading-concourse

That’s him in the plaid shirt with the New York Rangers cap, and the two guys walking in front of him are also members of the Fisher Cats. I’ve followed Stroman’s path through the minors and can’t wait until the “Stro Show” takes the mound for the Jays.

Anyway, wanting to confirm my theory that Stroman was charting pitches, I trailed him through the concourse until he took his seat behind home plate:

marcus-stroman-sitting-reading

I moved out to the left field deck for the anthem and the first inning, and then set my sights on dinner. When I asked Eric about the park’s notable eats, he recommended the Churger — a burger, slice of cheese and a chicken breast on a roll. If this had been the first day of my trip, I would’ve wolfed down this sandwich, but having eaten ballpark food for several days, I decided to get something lighter. Not healthier, mind you, but lighter. When I’d passed through the concession area earlier, I was intrigued with the several varieties of gourmet hot dogs, and decided to pick the Chooch Dog, named after Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz. It features chili, shredded mozzarella cheese, coleslaw and hot sauce. And it looks like this:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-food-chooch-dog

OK, so it might not look that great, but it was tasty. A little tough to eat, which reminded me of the Pops Special hot dog I ate back in April at Syracuse’s NBT Bank Stadium.

Once I finished eating (and finished glaring at the drips of hot sauce that were mocking me from my T-shirt), I found a camera bay-type area on the third base line and started to take a bunch of action photos. As much as I love touring new parks, I really enjoy taking action shots — especially since I upgraded my camera. I’ll continue to upgrade my lenses over time but, for now, I’m pretty happy with the shots I’m able to get. Here’s Fisher Cats second baseman Ryan Schimpf:

ryan-schimpf-new-hampshire-fisher-cats

(You’ll notice a large sign for the Churger in the background, mocking me.)

Fightin Phils third baseman Maikel Franco:

maikel-franco-reading-fightin-phils

And New Hampshire DH Gabe Jacobo who, in his first game after being promoted from High-A Dunedin, had a three-hit game that included a home run and two runs batted in:

gabe-jacobo-new-hampshire-fisher-cats-on-deck

His home run came just a moment after I captured him on deck, and from my spot next to the New Hampshire dugout, I had a great view of Jacobo shaking hands with Fisher Cats manager Gary Allenson:

gabe-jacobo-new-hampshire-fisher-cats-home-run

I spent several innings in this spot and shot dozens more action photos before taking another walk through the stadium. I soon came across Stroman, and snapped this photo of him:

marcus-stroman-in-stands

Speaking of the Fisher Cats, they were en route to a 5-1 win, thanks (in part, at least) to Jacobo’s blast). As the game progressed, I decided to make a lap around the outside of the park, as I hadn’t had a chance before the game. One of the neat things you’ll notice outside FirstEnergy Stadium is a giant brick wall, which gives the park a really neat, retro feel:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-brick-wall

After a full lap, I went back inside, found a seat and watched the remaining few innings before packing up and heading to my hotel. Although I was in Reading, I decided to drive on to Allentown, PA, for the night. I’d been in Allentown for the previous night’s IronPigs game, but heading back to the city made sense geographically. The next day, I was driving on to Little Falls, N.J. to see Jeremy Nowak play again, and Allentown was right on my way. Before long, I got to my hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn Allentown – Bethlehem Airport. I love staying in Hilton Garden Inns. I’ve done so a number of times in the past and the Allentown hotel was as great as I’d expected. I didn’t take any photos upon arriving, but the next morning snapped this one of the outside of the hotel:

hilton-garden-inn-allentown-bethlehem-airport-outside

The room was great and had all the amenities I’ve grown to expect at a Hilton Garden Inn — comfy bed, desk, sitting chair, fridge, etc. Here’s a look at the room from the front hallway:

hilton-garden-inn-allentown-bethlehem-airport-room

And here’s the scene looking back toward the door:

hilton-garden-inn-allentown-bethlehem-airport-room-1

The next morning, I went down to the hotel’s main level and swam for about half an hour in the indoor pool, which I often love doing on my baseball road trips. Afterward, I hopped in the car and checked out the surrounding areas. One of the perks of staying in this hotel is the neighborhood. Not only is the hotel close to the highway, it’s also close to virtually anything you’d need. It’s across the street from a Target, which I visited for some snacks and a couple packs of baseball cards, and eateries including Five Guys, Dunkin’ Donuts, Friendly’s, Sonic, Waffle House, Starbucks and more are within walking distance. And if you’d rather eat in the hotel, it has a neat feature I don’t recall encountering in the past. A Red Robin sits across the parking lot from the hotel, and you can order things off the Red Robin menu for room service. Pretty cool, huh?

I’d definitely recommend the Hilton Garden Inn Allentown – Bethlehem Airport when you’re staying in the area, and this will definitely be the place I visit next time I’m back. Up next, though, I’d head back to New Jersey for the first time since 2012. This time, I’d be checking out some indy league action!

Harrisburg Senators – July 8

One of the things I love about baseball road trips for The Ballpark Guide is that every day seems to have something special.

On day one, I threw out the first pitch in Auburn.

On day two, I watched Derek Jeter rehab in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Day three began early with a trip to Harrisburg to watch the Eastern League’s Senators host the Bowie Baysox at Metro Bank Park. When I planned this road trip, my priority was getting to State College on the evening of July 8, which meant most of the day would be wide open. But when I saw the Senators were playing a rare noon game, I knew I could pull off another two-city doubleheader.

I got to Metro Bank Park about 10 a.m. and when I pulled into the parking lot, I explained to the attendant that I was picking up a media pass and asked if I was on the media parking list. “Don’t worry,” he responded, “we don’t start charging for parking until 10:30 a.m.” Awesome! What a great perk for Senators fans — come early, check out the area around the park and save a couple bucks. More teams should do this.

Although I explain a lot about Metro Bank Park in the fan guide on my website, I’ll remind you that one of the coolest things about this park is its location. It’s on Harrisburg’s City Island, which means you get to cross a bridge (or swim, if you’re really dedicated, I suppose) on your way there. Once I parked, I took a walk along the pedestrian bridge that runs between downtown Harrisburg and the island:

metro-bank-park-pedestrian-bridge

I picked up my media pass that Terry Byrom had left for me (thanks, Terry!) and decided to take a walk around the entire park before entering. Here’s the first shot I took after getting my pass:

metro-bank-park-front

From the island, you have a pretty good view of Harrisburg, including the Pennsylvania State Capitol building, which is the big dome on the right:

harrisburg-skyline-from-city-island

When I was walking back toward Metro Bank Park from the point of the island, I noticed this banner of former Senator Bryce Harper:

metro-bank-park-bryce-harper-banner

Last time I was in Harrisburg in 2011, Harper was still playing Class-A ball in Hagerstown and hadn’t even made it to the Senators. And now he’s taking part in the MLB home run derby.

After my lap of the park, I decided to go inside and check out the action. The noon game meant no batting practice, but the players on both teams were on the field. Before I focused on the players, though, I wandered through the nearly empty park. Metro Bank Park has some awesome seating options that are definitely worth considering if you plan to visit. There are bar seats in a couple spots in the outfield and a boardwalk behind them. Here are the seats in left-center:

metro-bank-park-bar-seats

In the washroom, I noticed the Senators are one of a handful of MiLB teams that put the logos of their league rivals in the urinals. I took a photo of one, thinking it would be cool to share. But upon looking at it just now, I figured no one wants to see a close-up view of a urinal. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

As I continued throughout the stadium, a shirtless man roaming through a patch of lilies outside the park caught my eye. You know when someone is acting suspicious and it just rings an alarm for you? That’s what was happening here and I stopped and watched as I tried to figure out what he was up to. Soon enough, I realized he was trying to find foul balls. Fair enough. But to avoid suspicion, it seemed, he was also halfheartedly weeding the flowerbed. Bizarre:

metro-bank-park-guy-looking-for-balls

One of the neat things about getting into a park early is the proliferation of players wandering around. By now, they’d finished their on-field stretching and many were sitting or walking through the concourse talking on cellphones. As I approached the Senators clubhouse, I saw a handful of players but a sign recognizing the 2011 flood caught my eye. I actually blogged about that flood at the time, which you can check out here. Much of the park was underwater and this sign noted how high the water was in the park’s lower level:

metro-bank-park-flood-sign

It reads: “September 2011 Flood: High Water Mark” and the line has to be nearly six feet up the wall. I remember reading that both clubhouses were completely full of water, and quickly noticed the park’s elaborate water-tight doors now covering the home clubhouse door:

metro-bank-park-clubhouse-water-proof-doors

The ballpark has an upper concourse boardwalk and a lower concourse. The boardwalk is more fun to walk along, but the lower level has its perks, too. One of those perks is standing next to the road bullpen and watching the action from just a couple feet away. You’re so close you can hear the ball zip past you. By the time I reached the bullpen, Bowie starter Tyler Wilson was just about to start throwing. I waited for a few minutes and then was able to get shots like this one:

tyler-wilson-bowie-baysox

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll know one of the things I enjoy doing on my road trips is capturing moments you don’t notice on TV. Sometimes they’re funny and sometimes they’re a subtle reminder of life in the minor leagues. As I stood behind the Bowie bullpen after the anthem, I shot this photo:

metro-bank-park-bullpen-phone-box

It’s reliever Chris Petrini’s glove sitting on the bullpen phone box, but the thing that caught my eye was the bottle of water sitting in the box. In the majors, players often have climate-controlled bullpens, but that’s not the case in the minors. Whoever had this bottle of water stashed it here to keep it out of the glaring sun.

After the first pitch, I sought out something to eat. During my last visit, I sat in the all-you-can-eat seats, so I didn’t try anything at the other concession stands. This time, I settled on some wings at Arooga’s Wing Shack. I’m not usually a fan of boneless wings, but chose them instead of traditional wings to avoid too much of a mess:

metro-bank-park-food-aroogas-wings

The sauce was really tasty but the chicken was far too breaded for my liking. One neat thing about Arooga’s is if you like a particular type of sauce, you can buy a bottle of it in the Senators team shop. I love when teams make smart decisions like that.

I spent the first inning in the shade in a picnic area in center field, and then made my way down to the box seats on the third base side to take some action shots. Here’s Bowie’s Seth Loman fouling off a pitch:

seth-loman-bowie-baysox

Unfortunately, that was as far as I got. A minute later, a light rain started falling. About 30 seconds after the light rain, the skies completely opened up and I ran — along with dozens of other fans — to the team shop where I looked out and had this rainy view:

metro-bank-park-rain

The view lasted just a few more seconds. The umpires postponed the game right away and the players scurried out of sight. Given the darkness of the sky and intensity of the rainfall, I weighed my options. If the game had a substantial delay, which looked likely, I’d have to leave early to get to State College. On the other hand, as the last game before the Eastern League all-star break, the officials might just decide to postpone the game and resume it in the second half of the season. As much as I hate leaving games early, I decided to hit the road and start the rainy drive to State College. The rain delay in Harrisburg lasted about 90 minutes, so I’m not too heartbroken with my decision to leave.

Check back soon to read about my State College experience, which included more rain, a foul ball and a tour around Penn State’s Beaver Stadium!