Tagged: Eastern League

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!

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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!

Milestone Trip Coming Up!

It’s road trip time again!

On this trip, I’ll be …

– Throwing out the first pitch at a New York-Penn League game;

– Visiting my 50th different ballpark since 2010;

– And once again seeing Jeremy Nowak, who was the center of the coolest adventure I’ve encountered since starting The Ballpark Guide.

Sound good? I’d sure say it does, and I’m absolutely pumped to kick it all off!

On Saturday morning, I’ll be packing up and hitting the road once again for my fourth baseball road trip of the season and second trip of at least 10 days. On this 10-day trip, I’ll see 11 games in 10 cities across three states and will be having a ton of exciting adventures along the way.

Here’s the schedule:

Saturday, July 6: Jamestown Jammers at Auburn Doubledays 6 p.m.

Sunday, July 7: Lehigh Valley IronPigs at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders 1 p.m.

Monday, July 8: Bowie Baysox at Harrisburg Senators 12 p.m.

Monday, July 8: Mahoning Valley Scrappers at State College Spikes 7 p.m.

Tuesday, July 9: Auburn Doubledays at Williamsport Crosscutters 7 p.m.

Wednesday, July 10: Pawtucket Red Sox at Lehigh Valley IronPigs 7 p.m.

Thursday, July 11: New Hampshire Fisher Cats at Reading Fightin’ Phils 7 p.m.

Friday, July 12: Trois-Rivieres Aigles at New Jersey Jackals 7 p.m.

Saturday, July 13: Chicago White Sox at Philadelphia Phillies 4 p.m.

Sunday, July 14: Chicago White Sox at Philadelphia Phillies 1:30 p.m.

Monday, July 15: Hickory Crawdads at Lakewood BlueClaws 7 p.m.

The excitement begins in Auburn, N.Y. at Falcon Park. Way back in July of 2010, on my first-ever road trip for my website, I visited Falcon Park to watch the Auburn Doubledays and loved the experience. Here’s a pre-game picture of me in front of the park:

falcon-park-malcolm

Although I don’t normally make a point of making repeat visits to ballparks, Doubledays general manager Jason Horbal sent me a tweet a couple months back out of the blue and said he’d enjoy showing me the changes made to Falcon Park since my last visit. We exchanged Tweets and emails and I’m super pumped to say I’ll be throwing out the first pitch before the Doubledays host the Jamestown Jammers.

I’ve wanted to throw out a first pitch for a long time, and although I’ve got a few butterflies in my stomach about doing this item on my baseball bucket list, it promises to be exciting. I’ll also get the chance to be interviewed during the game’s radio broadcast, if all goes according to plan and I’ll post further details closer to the game as they come available.

That’s a pretty good start to the trip, don’t you think?

Well, I’m also pumped for day two when I visit Moosic, PA to see the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. I visited PNC Field in 2011 and the park was closed for the entirety of 2012 for a major renovation project. Now that it’s open again, I’m excited to see the changes.

Day three promises to be a full day with two games in two cities. First, I’ll visit Harrisburg’s Metro Bank Park again. I wasn’t planning to include Harrisburg on this trip, but when I saw the Senators will play a matinee game within easy driving distance, I decided to visit the Eastern League park I last saw in 2011. Here’s the glorious view I had for part of the game:

harrisburg-senators-hat

Right after that game wraps up, I’ll hop in the car and zip to State College to watch the Spikes. I’ve heard good things about Medlar Field at Lumbrano Park, which is also the home field for Penn State’s baseball team. The State College game will be a milestone ballpark visit for me — the 50th different park I’ll have visited for a game since 2010, so I’m excited for that.

The next day, I’ll stay in Pennsylvania to check out the Williamsport Crosscutters, another NYPL team. The Crosscutters play at Bowman Field, which is one of the oldest parks in baseball. Williamsport, of course, is also home to the Little League World Series, and I plan to check out the parks used in that tournament if I have enough time.

When I was originally planning this trip, I thought I’d take an off-day on July 10 to catch up on blogging and rest, but after noticing the Lehigh Valley IronPigs are home, and considering how much I enjoyed my trip to Coca-Cola Park last season, I’ve decided to visit again for another game in this beautiful facility. Here’s a panorama I shot before the game:

coca-cola-park-outfield-panorama

A day later, I’ll visit Reading’s FirstEnergy Stadium, a ballpark that has somehow eluded me despite seeing several games around the state over the last couple years. I haven’t read too much about FirstEnergy Stadium, so I’m anxious to check it out.

On Friday, July 12, I’ll take my first sojourn outside affiliated ball when I travel to Little Falls, N.J., to watch the New Jersey Jackals host the Trois-Rivieres Aigles. I’m excited for this game because Jeremy Nowak is playing for the Aigles this season and it’ll be awesome to see him again. I saw him with Delmarva back in 2011 and Frederick in 2012. In both games, he hit a home run, so I have my fingers crossed that he hits another at the game I attend.

On Saturday morning, I’ll step up to the big leagues and drive to Philadelphia for two Phillies/White Sox games over the weekend. Citizens Bank Ballpark will be the eighth MLB stadium I’ll have visited since 2010 and I also plan to do a bunch of touristy things in Philly.

The last game of my trip will be a quick jaunt to Lakewood, N.J., to see the Lakewood BlueClaws in action. Last May, I drove about eight hours to Lakewood to kick off a road trip, only to end up missing the game because it was canceled due to rain. My fingers are crossed this visit will be a little sunnier.

I’ve got a ton to do before I set my sights on Auburn on July 6, but in the meantime, I’m still counting down the days until I hit the road. I’ll be blogging along the way, as always, as this trip’s lighter schedule means I should do a better job at getting each blog post up in a timely fashion. As always, you can follow me on Twitter for the latest updates and if you enjoy reading about my adventures, please visit The Ballpark Guide and consider making a small contribution to my travels — even a few bucks goes a long way and is hugely appreciated.

Otherwise, your visits to the website also support my trips, and if you’re planning your own baseball road trip in July, check out the site and see if I’ve written about any parks on your schedule. I promise you’ll learn something new that’ll help you get the most out of your visit.

Akron Aeros – May 20

Monday morning began with a big decision to make. I got up at 6 a.m. and was working at my computer when I saw something on Twitter that caught my eye. The Cleveland Indians were playing a noon game to wrap up their series against Seattle. Hmmm. I planned to be in Akron for a 7 p.m. Aeros game, and Akron is just a short drive from Cleveland. It’d be very possible to do the Tribe game from noon to 3 p.m. and still get to Akron in plenty of time.

I sprang into action, getting changed and quickly getting my room packed up. But then I decided to put a little more thought into it. It was only day four of my 13-day road trip, and I didn’t want to burn myself out. Last spring, I did three straight days of two-city doubleheaders (two games in two cities) and was a zombie by the end. It was a fun trip, but so rushed that it was tough.

So, I regretfully decided to stay at my hotel, continue blogging and forget about visiting Progressive Field. After all, I’ll be there again next week when I visit the Social Suite!

I blogged till shortly before noon, and then drove into Cleveland to see Lake View Cemetery. I visited this enormous cemetery back in 2011, but wanted to check it out again. It’s the burial site of Ray Chapman, a former Indians player who’s one of only a couple MLBers to die after being hit by a pitch. Chapman is a member of the Indians Hall of Fame and has a big plaque in his honor at Heritage Park. I’m not normally one for visiting cemeteries, but I wanted to find his headstone and share it on here. The 285-acre graveyard is enormous, but because many of the notable people buried there are marked with signs along the road, I figured it’d be a piece of cake to find Chapman’s plot. Boy, was I wrong. I drove in circles for about half an hour until my GPS screen looked like an Etch A Sketch that needed shaking. I decided to end this little adventure without finding Chapman’s site; if you’re really curious, you can see a picture of his headstone on his Wikipedia page. The cemetery, by the way, does have some neat sights. President James Garfield is buried there, as are John D. Rockefeller and Eliot Ness.

Afterward, I made the short trip to Akron and checked into my hotel. I was staying at the Courtyard Akron Stow, which is just outside Akron. The hotel is next to the highway, which makes accessibility a breeze. I was checked in and relaxing five minutes after pulling off the highway. Here’s the outside of the hotel:

courtyard-akron-stow

And here’s the room that awaited me:

canal-park-akron-aeros-room-inside

This room had two queen-sized beds, a sitting area, a desk and a plasma-screen TV. It was a perfect setup, too. I sat at the desk to work on my blog and turned to TV toward me to keep an eye on ESPN. Doesn’t get better than that. The staff I encountered was extremely warm and friendly and this is definitely the hotel I recommend if you’re visiting Akron to watch the Aeros — and especially if you’re coming from Cleveland the day before.

Remember how close I said the hotel is to the highway? Look at the view out my window:

courtyard-akron-stow-view-out-window

(By the way, I could barely hear the highway and it certainly didn’t disrupt my sleep; there was a card in my room saying that if the highway disturbed me, I could request to move to the other side of the building — pretty accommodating, if you ask me.)

You can also see the nice courtyard outside my window. In terms of location, the Courtyard Akron Stow is just minutes from a million places to eat and shop. It’s within walking distance of a Skyline Chili and McDonald’s, and a very short drive to the Graham Square Plaza, which has a Walmart for snacks and a Subway, Applebee’s, Red Lobster, Chipotle and a ton more options. I actually stopped here on the way to the hotel and grabbed a Chipotle. You definitely have a long list of choices.

I spent about an hour in the room before loading up and heading to Akron for the evening’s game. Canal Park is located in downtown Akron, and while the team doesn’t have an “official” parking lot, parking is readily available. In fact, parking is free downtown in any lot after 6 p.m., which is perfect. I got to the area around 5 p.m., and parked in a garage that was free for the first hour. It can’t get any better than that — by the time the second hour rolled around, parking was free everywhere. The lot I picked was just across the street from the park, and when I emerged from the garage and crossed the street, I was looking at the back of the video board:

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Canal Park has a nice brick and iron design, but looks inconspicuous from the street. In fact, if you’re just walking along the sidewalk, the park looks like storefronts in certain areas. But then, you come to a spot like this:

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There are even a number of gates through which you can see the field. I didn’t spend long watching the action through the gates; the Aeros were providing me with a press pass and I found the admin office and got hooked up. Thanks, Adam Liberman!

After getting accredited, I went through the office to the concourse and got my first proper look at the inside of the ballpark:

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Beautiful. There was still a good chunk of time until the gates opened, so I made a huge circuit of the entire park and would up in the right field bleachers to watch BP. The video board was just to my right, and it was outstanding:

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Like in Cleveland, Akron’s board was huge, full of good info and really well run. One of the neat features in this area is the stacked bullpens. I’ve seen this idea a few times throughout my travels; Lehigh Valley’s Coca-Cola Park comes to mind. The bullpen on the left belongs to the home team and the one on the right, which is a few feet higher, is for the visitors:

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As BP got close to finishing, I went down to field level and captured the visitor’s dugout:

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Then, it was over behind home plate to take the photos to make up this panorama:

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When the gates opened at 6 p.m., I walked over to the left field corner to see a thin stretch of the Ohio and Erie Canal, which runs directly behind the park. I’ve visited some parks that have nearby rivers, but this was neat to see and the area is really well kept:

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I decided to go down to field level to watch the players warming up, and en route, a ball caught my eye:

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Because the park was already open and there were fans milling around, I didn’t have a moral dilemma about adding this one to my collection.

This next photo might look as though one player’s sleeping, but I can assure you he was just getting his back cracked by a teammate:

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I’ve said before that I love the subtle things you notice during ballpark visits. As a trainer was loosening up Giovanny Urshela’s legs, teammate Jesus Aguilar snuck over and gave Urshela a wicked zap on the backside with stretching band. Urshela reacted as anyone would — with a wild swing at his teammate. It was all in good fun, as the two guys were playing catch five minutes later.

I watched the first inning from behind home plate and pretty much had my choice of the seats. Canal Park wasn’t exactly hopping this evening. Here’s a look at the stands along the first base line in the first inning:

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The lack of people didn’t concern me, as I don’t need a huge crowd to have a good time at the ballpark. Plus, I wanted to tackle the 3 Dog Night without making a scene. The 3 Dog Night is one of Canal Park’s signature dishes, although I was really impressed with the overall choices available at the park’s concession stands. Still, I wanted to eat the food that’s most notable, so I ordered one. It’s a hot dog stuffed into a split bratwurst stuffed into a split kielbasa. When the server handed it to me, I thought, Ugh. It was enormous and as I still had to load it up with sauerkraut, onions and mustard, it didn’t look very appetizing. Heck, it didn’t look much better once I’d loaded it up:

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Here’s a photo with my baseball that puts the 3 Dog Night in perspective:

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I retreated to the privacy of the bleachers to devour the meal, but sat stunned for a couple minutes with the beast on my lap. I had no idea how I would tackle it. Luckily, I had a plastic fork in my backpack and the availability of the piece of cutlery gave me the courage to begin. Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed. Now, this isn’t to say don’t try the item — you might love it — but it didn’t do it for me. It was so big that I basically had to eat it in segments, and individually, those segments didn’t taste great. The hot dog tasted like a hot dog, but the brat and kielbasa just tasted like giant hot dogs. I gave it a valiant effort for a few minutes, but tapped out shortly thereafter. Next time I’m in Akron, I’ll be sampling something else.

Eating even a few bites of that meal meant that taking another walk was a good idea, so I went over to the third base seats to take some action shots. Here’s Bowie starter Tim Bascom, who went four innings and got a no-decision in his team’s 4-3 win:

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And here’s a close play at first involving Bowie’s Brandon Waring and Akron’s Roberto Perez:

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The game was entertaining; Akron led 1-0 but trailed 3-1 before scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth to push the game to extras. Bowie, which managed just seven hits in 12 innings, went ahead for good in the 12th to get the win.

Next up, Columbus!

MLBlogs Top 100 and More

If you’re reading this post, thank you.

Thanks for checking out this blog, whether this is the first time you’ve stopped by or you’ve been reading about my adventures for years. Due to your readership, I’m thrilled to say that The Ballpark Guide placed 13th in the MLBlogs Top 100 for 2012, which has earned me this snazzy logo:

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You can see this logo on the top of the menu on the right side of the page, where it’ll remain for the duration of the year. Back in 2011, I placed 34th, so I’m ecstatic about the jump up to the 13th spot. I normally finish between 10th and 15th in MLBlogs’ monthly rankings during the season, but slip back a bit during the off-season, as I’m obviously not taking baseball road trips. All this to say that an overall finish of 13th is really exciting. I’ve got my sights set on a top 10 spot in 2013, so please keep checking back. Also, if you click the Top 100 banner on this page, you’ll get a list of the top 100 MLBlogs, and you’re certain to find some great blogs to follow, regardless of where your baseball interests lie. There’s not a day that goes past in which I don’t read at least someone’s MLBlog, and there’s a lot of excellent content to enjoy.

Although 2012 was a great year for The Ballpark Guide, 2013 has been off to an exciting start, too. As some of you know, I studied journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, and in the current issue of the school’s alumni magazine, there’s a photo and short write-up about me! Here’s the cover of the magazine, which features Muhammad Ali, one of my all-time heroes, which makes it extra exciting:

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The write-up about me is in the Class Notes section, which is the section I always enjoy reading most. It contains various updates from different alumni:

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Neat, huh? The photo above is one from Cleveland’s Progressive Field, during my visit on August 8, 2010.

But wait! I’ve got one last neat thing to share. A few months ago, a Portland, Maine law firm called Troubh Heisler got in touch with me because its staff had seen my fan guide to Hadlock Field, home of the Eastern League’s Portland Sea Dogs, and liked the panorama shot I’d taken. The law firm was in the midst of revamping its website and wanted to use the picture, given that it wanted banner shots of Portland scenes and the fact that it’s the Sea Dogs’ law firm.

So, if you go to the Troub Heisler website, you’ll see scrolling photos at the very top. Wait for a few to pass and you’ll eventually see the one I took. Or, if you’d rather see it right here, here it is:

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And if you click the “Resources” link on the home page, you’ll come across a list of community resources and you’ll see The Ballpark Guide is under the “Special Recognition” header. Pretty exciting!

Anyway, thanks again for all your readership and comments. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that if you enjoy this blog, please check out The Ballpark Guide and tell your baseball-loving friends about it if you can. I know I’ve said it before, but your visits to my website help me pay for my trips, and I really appreciate all your support.

Here’s to an exciting 2013!

New Britain Rock Cats – August 16

After my great experience on August 15 at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium, I spent the morning of August 16 writing this blog post before checking out of the hotel. The drive to New Britain, CT, is between two and three hours, but I added a few stops to check out some sights for a future blog post. It turns out that my timing was perfect, because I got to my new hotel right around the 3 p.m. check-in time.

To see the New Britain Rock Cats, I’m staying at the Hampton Inn and Suites Hartford/Farmington, which is just outside New Britain and only about 12 minutes or so from the ballpark. And it’s an amazing hotel! It’s very close to the highway, which is especially ideal if you’re checking in after you’ve watched the ballgame. Who wants to be driving around looking for a hotel when there’s a great one just off your route?

Here’s what it looks like from the outside:

And I was excited to see that when I got inside, the inside looks even better. My room is absolutely amazing. It’s a huge suite and my favorite part is the desk/TV area. Instead of a traditional desk with a TV nearby, check out this setup:

Here’s the room from another angle:

Needless to say, this is definitely the place to stay when you’re in town to see the Rock Cats. I’m thrilled that I am here and next time I return, I’ll absolutely stay at this hotel again.

Once I checked in, I blogged a bit and then packed up and headed over to New Britain Stadium. The game was at 7 p.m. and I arrived shortly before 5 p.m. to buy my ticket:

A ticket, you ask? While it’s temping to completely go off here, I’ll just say that, yep, the Rock Cats didn’t give me a media pass. They’re the first and only MiLB team this year that has not done so. It’s not for a lack of trying — I emailed them three separate times and each time, the team didn’t bother getting back to me. Every other team I’ve visited or will visit this summer has been hugely accommodating, so it’s annoying that the Rock Cats can’t be bothered helping me out when my blog/website are going to help them out.

All right.

The exterior of New Britain Stadium, which opened in 1996, isn’t particularly eye catching. But it’s got a  unique feature that I really like. This is the front of the park:

And this is what I’m talking about — check out all the MLB  and Eastern League team logos (the parent club sits above the Eastern League club). I really like how this looks and think it does a great job of tying the two leagues together:

Because I was early and unable to get in the park to look around, I decided to check out the area beyond the outfield fence, as I could hear that batting practice was on. It took me a minute or two to walk back there, and another minute or two to see these:

Yes, a pair of Eastern League balls!

(I’m amused that when I hold two balls in this manner, my hands look oddly wide.)

Boy, was it hot back in this area, and really swampy, too. There were a ton of frogs croaking and jumping about and while watching our for soakers, I shot a couple videos of my ball-hunting adventures that I’ll upload to YouTube at some point.

Anyway, I stuck around for nearly a half hour and managed four balls. The home run fence is extremely tall, and I figured its height would be offset by a smaller field. Nope. It’s 330 down the lines, meaning it takes a heck of a shot to get a ball out of the park.

Soon, I wandered back to the front of the stadium and close to 5:30 p.m., the lineups at the main gate were long. This could mean one of two things — the gates would open an hour and a half before the game, or there was a giveaway. Turns out the answer was both! From my understanding, gates normally open an hour before the game on weekdays, but there was some sort of Whiffle ball game with radio personalities taking place before the game, so people got in early for that. And the day’s giveaway was a fleece blanket, which is neat. I’ll post a photo of it later on.

There were lots of things going on in the main concourse area, which is located under the seating bowl. I quickly saw the Legends Diner concession stand, which is adorned with photos of Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, Joe Mauer and David Ortiz in their Rock Cats uniforms. Not a bad list of alumni, right?

In fact, a ton of notable MLBers have passed through New Britain at one time or another. If you click on this photo, you’ll be able to see many of the names:

Here’s a panorama from behind home plate while the Whiffle ball game was taking place:

It was one of those things that would no doubt be a total blast to play, but was awful to watch — non-athletes swinging and missing and occasionally hitting the ball all the way to the mound. So, I only did hung around for a moment before continuing my tour.

New Britain Stadium has the weirdest box seats I’ve ever seen. They’re not standard fold-down seats; instead, they look like those plastic high chair seats you get when you visit a restaurant with a toddler. If you’re wondering, their comfort level was on par with a standard stadium seat:

Although my lack of a media pass meant nothing was stopping me from getting some autographs, I didn’t bother. Lots of kids, however, were getting players to sign around both dugouts:

One of the things I love about MiLB parks is how close you get to the action and the players. You’ll always hear funny comments and notice things you’d never see on TV or in an MLB stadium. One guy on the home team (I’m not sure who because his name isn’t on their roster) had paper clips clipped to the cuffs of his pants as a makeshift way of hemming them.

I hadn’t eaten much throughout the day, so once the first inning began, my stomach’s growls meant it was time to get dinner. Nothing jumped off the menu as incredibly unique (although New Britain Stadium has a very impressive beer list), so I went with a kielbasa and sauerkraut on a bun:

It was tasty, but because it has been sitting wrapped up for some length of time, the bun was soaking wet with sauerkraut juice. For a beverage, I took advantage of a cool feature that is mostly common at MLB parks. If you sign up to be a designated driver, you get a plastic cup and two vouchers for free drinks. So that’s exactly what I did:

I spent much of the game on the third base side with this view:

And for much of that time, I was utterly obsessed with the pitch speed indicator on the outfield fence. My camera’s batteries (and spare batteries, argh) were dying, so I didn’t take any photos, but the indicator was hilarious. In the bottom of the first, I was amused to see that Richmond starter Chris Gloor’s fastball was normally only registering between 82 and 84 mph. At first, I thought he just didn’t have much of an arm, but then, the speeds started to get really weird. The bulk of his pitches showed up as being in the 70s, he had a handful more in the high 60s and went as low as 59 mph. He topped out with a pair at 88 mph. Basically, the pitches were all over the map and the difference between a 59 mph off-speed pitch and an 88 mph fastball should be apparent to the eye. But it wasn’t. Something seemed to be up.

In the next inning, things got even more hilarious/weird. New Britain’s Andrew Albers hit 96 and 97 in the inning, and threw one that registered 03. Was this meant to be 103 mph? It couldn’t be, because it was a breaking ball. A moment later, he was hovering in the high 50s, and the hilarity just basically went on from there. A couple innings later, the indicator stopped showing anything at all. Obviously, it had been on the fritz the entire game, or else some villain had taken over and was trying to confuse everyone.

I wonder if perhaps the Rock Cats had been spending their time trying to fix the indicator over the last two weeks instead of responding to my emails.

During the majority of my ballpark visits, I spend most of the game on the go. I’d been able to get all the photos I needed early on, so it was fun to just hang out in one spot for a big block of innings and enjoy the ballgame. Toward the end of the game, though, I moved behind home plate for a short while …

… and then way up to the top of the bleachers on the first base side:

After the game, I’ve got to say I was excited to return to the hotel. When I got back, I went to the pool and swam for about a half hour, and then watched ESPN HD while blogging. Pretty darned perfect! (You have to remember that as a Canadian, ESPN is a commodity.) This morning, I worked on my blog for an hour or so before working out in the hotel gym. And forgetting my room access card in the process. Oops.) I’m going to miss this place when I check out!

The drive to Norwich, CT, is less than an hour away, so I’m planning to make a few stops here and there before checking into my next hotel, which is where I’ll likely be when I publish this blog.

Altoona Curve – May 24

The morning of Thursday, May 24 came very quickly. It was the final day of my road trip, and given that I’d averaged about four hours of sleep per night over the last few days, the 5:30 a.m. alarm was a bit of a jolt. But if there’s one thing that makes me move quickly in the morning, it’s knowing there’s a baseball game to attend.

I was in Frederick for the night after the previous day’s Keys game, and my day would begin with a two-and-a-half hour drive to Altoona. The Curve, who are the Eastern League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, were playing a 10:30 a.m. game, and I’d arranged to have a stadium tour with Mike Passanisi, the Curve’s director of communications. The tour was scheduled for 9 a.m., which meant I wanted to get on the road by 6:15 a.m. or so. The route from Frederick to Altoona includes many small back roads, and the drive was painfully slow. I can tell you I was thrilled when this appeared ahead of me:

Yep, Peoples Natural Gas Field, straight head! I ended up being 10 to 15 minutes late to our tour because of ridiculous traffic, so I parked quickly in the parking garage behind the outfield fence …

… and hustled along the sidewalk to get to the stadium as quickly as I could:

And, ta-da!:

When I picked up my media pass, I went upstairs to the press box, where I had this view while I waited for Mike:

Mike arrived a few minutes later, and despite his busy morning, made time to take me around the stadium and show me all the highlights. We checked out a few of the suites, including this one:

And then went down to the field, which never, ever gets old:

After we were on the field, we went through the tunnel to tour several places most people don’t get to see. But you will now! We went through the batting cage/training area, where a number of Curve players were getting loose:

I took a picture of this funny sign posted outside the room above:

We then went into the press conference room, which definitely has similarities to the rooms in MLB stadiums:

I was tempted to sit at the desk and shout, “No comment!” but decided to repress that urge so the tour could continue.

Next up were the home and visitors’ clubhouses, which were outstanding. Both were full of players, so I obviously didn’t take any photos, but it was definitely a highlight to see. Afterward, we climbed up to the concourse where I documented the team’s 2010 Eastern League championship banner:

A banner with the team’s 2005 opening day roster:

(Sorry, but as a Jays fan, I need to point out Rajai Davis and Jose Bautista.) This banner was part of a series around the concourse of each opening day roster in the Curve’s history. It’s the first type of display I can recall, and I think it’s a great way to pay tribute to past teams and players. Really cool. The concourse is also lined with banners of past stars, including Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen. I love how the banner combines a picture of him then and now — really smart:

The tour zipped right along, but it was great talking about the stadium’s features with Mike. I’ll be highlighting more of them when I write the official fan guide to Peoples Natural Gas Field for TheBallparkGuide.com.

After our tour, I went up to the second deck on the third base side to capture the stadium in panorama form:

If you missed the roller coaster behind the right field fence, look again. It’s not part of the ballpark, but it’s still one of the coolest features you’ll see at any park. The roller coaster is part of Lakemont Park, an amusement park just beyond the ballpark’s fences. The roller coaster you see here …

… is called the Skyliner, and it’s one of four in the park. The park’s crown jewel is the Leap-the-Dips coaster, which opened in 1902 and is the oldest in-use roller coaster in the world.

After being up top, I continued wandering and captured a shot of the sign out front of the park:

Mike said the new logo on the sign was just a week old (Peoples Natural Gas Field was called Blair County Ballpark through last season) and the new sign isn’t completely finished. Soon, bricks will be added to make the sign more in line with the ballpark’s design.

By this time, Mike had re-appeared on the field with a Curve player who was fielding questions from fans over the PA system. It was a neat thing to see — fans asking about his favorite subjects in school, his favorite holiday, etc., certainly improves the player/fan connection. I definitely think more teams should do this:

As I continued walking, I spotted the players’ parking lot behind the first base side of the stadium:

With, of course, a Range Rover:

Range Rovers seem to be the popular choice among ballplayers. In fact, I wrote a blog entry a while back about players’ vehicles, and it’s a fun read.

I then changed direction and headed down the third base concourse, where I stopped to check out the team’s “Road to the Show” alumni board:

Here’s a close-up of a couple years:

I also checked out the Rail Kings party deck  in the left field corner, which offers a great view of the park and also includes small TVs built into the fence so that you can watch the game broadcast or check out how the Pirates are doing:

The bleachers in left field also provided a perfect view, and I decided I’d spend a few innings out here once the game started:

The kids’ area at Peoples Natural Gas Field included inflatable games …

… and arcade-style attractions:

I went to check out the team’s store down the third base line:

And as the game began, captured this quick shot of the ballpark’s impressive scoreboard:

All this walking worked up an appetite, so after spending the first inning in the outfield bleachers, where I had a close-up view of the team’s mascot Al Tuna (get it?) …

… I decided to get some breakfast/lunch. Mike had earlier recommended the Curverogie, a new menu item for 2012:

While this sandwich is certainly excessive, it was delicious. It wasn’t skimpy on the ham, and while the perogie sort of got lost, the ham, cheese and onions were tasty:

After eating, I documented my media pass, as I’ve been doing during each stop on this trip:

Then, it was time to find a seat along the third base side so I could capture some of the action on the field. Here’s Altoona starter Shairon Martis, who was solid through six innings and got the win:

And Curve third baseman Jeremy Farrell, who’s the son of Blue Jays manager John Farrell:

Before long, it was time to hit the road. I had to sneak out of this ballgame a little bit early so I could drive the four hours or so north to Buffalo for that night’s Bisons game at Coca-Cola Field. I absolutely hate leaving a game early, but sometimes it’s necessary to fit into my schedule. All in all, it was a great visit to Altoona. The park, built in 1999, is fantastic and if you’re in the area, it’s definitely a must visit.

Up next is the story of my visit to Buffalo later on May 24.