Tagged: El Paso Chihuahuas

El Paso Chihuahuas – May 6, 2019

One of the best things about my visit to El Paso and the three Chihuahuas games that I attended was how different each day was. When you’re attending games over three straight days at a single ballpark, there’s always a chance that things will be a little repetitive — but I’m happy that wasn’t the case here.

Day one was all about presenting the team with a plaque for winning my Best View in the Minors competition.

Day two was a chance to tour the ballpark and enjoy the game (and the food) like I normally do.

What was on the agenda for day three?

I’m glad you asked.

My last Chihuahuas game of this trip was all about spreading the word about the Best View competition, my website, blog and baseball travels in general, and I had a number of people who graciously helped me in that regard. I ended up booking a trio of interviews, all of which took place on May 6 in a true back-to-back-to-back fashion.

Before the interviews began, however, I needed to spend a little time on the hotel pool deck enjoying the view. Doing so was a popular pastime on this trip, as it was impossible to tire of looking at beautiful Southwest University Park while hanging out in the equally beautiful El Paso weather. Here’s a shot that my wife snapped of me mid-morning:

You might notice that I’m wearing my Stars and Stripes road trip tee, which you can buy here.

After a bit of relaxing at the hotel and a bit of tourist stuff, the baseball portion of my day started with a 4 p.m. visit to the ESPN El Paso studio, located about 12 minutes from Southwest University Park. Steve Kaplowitz, host of the afternoon drive show, had agreed to have me on to talk about the Best View competition, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. I’ve been fortunate to do a ton of interviews on various teams’ game broadcasts overs the years, but this was the first time that I’d ever visited a radio stadium studio to sit in with the host. And that definitely had me dealing with a case of the nerves.

Anyway, I met Steve shortly before 4 p.m., and he decided that instead of leading the show off with my interview, he’d do a segment talking about the Kentucky Derby controversy from two days earlier. That suited me just fine, because I got to hang out in the studio and watch Steve go to work. I was absolutely in awe about what a professional he was. We were shooting the breeze about baseball just seconds before the show began, and he seamlessly switched into his radio voice and began the show by talking about horse racing. Absolutely amazing. It was a thrill to sit across the desk from him and listen to his Derby discussion while being simultaneously excited and nervous for my segment to begin.

After the first commercial break, he introduced me and we were off and running. I’m happy to say that my nerves only lasted a couple of minutes, and I soon felt a lot more at ease because of Steve’s easygoing demeanor. I’d initially figured that I’d be on the air with him for maybe five or 10 minutes, but Steve graciously had me on for two segments — maybe about 20 or so minutes altogether. And if it weren’t for me having to run off to my next interview, he’d actually hoped to keep me on until the top of the hour! We covered a host of topics, including Best View, my thoughts on El Paso and Southwest University Park, baseball road trips in general, ballpark food — and I even took some listener questions. At one point, I mentioned that my wife and I were enjoying the sightseeing around El Paso, and Steve asked, “You didn’t leave her sitting in the lobby, did you?” I gulped and admitted that she was actually sitting in the car in the parking lot. Steve quickly told his producer Adrian to go summon my wife to the studio, so off Adrian went while Steve and I continued talking baseball. A few minutes later, there was a commotion at the door and Adrian told Steve that he’d brought my wife in, but that she didn’t want to enter the studio for fear of making me nervous. By now, I was over my case of the nerves, but my wife had seen me fretting on the way to the studio and I guess she didn’t want to throw me off. Anyway, there was a hilarious back-and-forth exchange — all of it on the air — and she decided to hang out in the lobby while we finished our segment. The time with Steve flew past, and I’m really thankful to him for having me on.

During the commercial break, Steve snapped this shot of me …

… and then a staffer brought my wife in, and she took this shot of Steve and me:

Steve had to obviously get ready for returning after the commercial break, so after another brief moment of conversation, my wife and I headed out of the studio, where I got this photo taken:

Then, it was straight into the car and back on the road toward the ballpark for my next interview. Interview #2 was with longtime Chihuahuas broadcaster Tim Hagerty. Instead of having me on that evening’s game broadcast, Tim decided to interview me off the air with the plan of using our conversation as filler material when needed throughout the season. He noted that he’d always looking for fillers for rain delays, and that my interview might air multiple times over the course of the season. That sounded perfect to me, so I met Tim in the lobby of the ballpark and we headed up to the radio booth to get underway.

Tim and I talked for probably 10 minutes about a wide range of baseball and ballpark topics, and the time together just flew past. Understandably, he soon needed to get back to prepping for the game, so I got this quick photo with him …

… and then it was time to meet up with Nathan Nunez. He works in the team’s broadcast and media relations department and hosts the Fear the Ears podcast. Nathan and I found a quiet place to sit and talk on the suite level, and chatted about — you guessed it — Best View, ballparks and baseball trips for more than 10 minutes. If you’re interested in hearing that podcast episode, you can check it out here.

Nathan and I grabbed this photo before we said our goodbyes …

… and then for the first time in almost an hour and a half, I had time to relax for a minute.

Of course, that didn’t mean that I chose to grab one of the comfy chairs in the air conditioned suite level. Nope, I was ready to walk around the concourse in search of my next adventure. First, though, I met up with my wife, who’d been chilling at our hotel since we got back from the radio station and had since walked over to the ballpark. I should divulge that she’s not a baseball fan, and when we travel, she’ll normally go to one game with me and find other things to do on the other days that I’m at the ballpark. She’d admitted to me a day earlier, however, that after spending the night at Southwest University Park on May 4, so could, “Sort of see” what I like about visiting ballparks. To my surprise, she opted to hang out at the park with me on this night. As such, my goal for this ballpark visit was simply to enjoy the game and the atmosphere — and maybe point out a few things that might increase her enjoyment of baseball. Each of my two previous games had been busy in their own ways, so I thought that a low-key evening would be a fun way to wrap up this visit.

We headed to some seats in the shade in the upper deck for part of the pregame, and enjoyed this view as the grounds crew prepared the field and the players got warmed up:

Then, we went up to the suite level to enjoy the view from behind home plate — which, after all, was the reason for our six-day trip to El Paso:

After enjoying that view for a few minutes, we went back out to the second deck, where I noticed Tim on the video board talking about the upcoming game:

We grabbed some seats in the left field corner for the anthem, watching this impressively large flag on display in center field …

… and then enjoyed the first couple innings of action from that spot. It turned out to be a good place to be. The slugging Chihuahuas were putting on a hitting clinic. They launched six home runs en route to a 15-0 victory, but some of the round trippers were absolute bombs. See the word “Shamaley” on the bottom of the video board?

Austin Allen hit one ball off the bricks directly below it. Not long afterward, Josh Naylor smoked a ball through the structure above and onto North Santa Fe Street outside of Southwest University Park.

One player on Salt Lake who I was excited to see was Ty Kelly, whose name you might recognize from stints with the Mets and Phillies. I’ve been following his career since 2012, when he and my buddy Jeremy Nowak were teammates on the Frederick Keys. They were both Carolina League all-stars that season, and Kelly moved up through the minor leagues and made his MLB debut with the Mets in 2016. I don’t believe that I’d seen him play in person since 2012, so I was excited to see him again. We were sitting fairly far away for each of his at-bats, so here’s a picture of him on the video board:

After taking a lap around the concourse and checking out the team shop for a bit, I decided to grab something to eat in the second half of the game. I wanted to find something unique, and one particular item at one of the home plate concession stands jumped out at me — Churwaffles and Chicken. This dish consisted of four mini cinnamon sugar waffles alongside a couple of chicken tenders, with the whole thing topped with maple butter sauce:

The chicken was excellent, but the waffles weren’t my thing. I think of waffles as fluffy, and these were definitely not that. It’d probably not a meal that I’d be in a hurry to order again, but I’m glad I checked out something different. I washed it down with a horchata, which Nathan had enthusiastically recommended to me earlier. This was the first time that I’d ever had this drink — which is made with rice milk and has flavors of vanilla and cinnamon — and, to my surprise, it was served in a vessel the size of a yogurt tub:

It was really tasty, albeit very sweet, and there was no way I could get through all of it. This was definitely a beverage that I’d order again, though — although I wouldn’t mind if it were available in a smaller serving. (For the record, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever made that statement about ballpark fare.)

We’d hung out at field level in the right field corner while I ate, and I wanted to close out our Southwest University Park experience by watching the remainder of the game from a new vantage point. Earlier in the evening, I’d seen that the Big Dog House high above right field wasn’t very crowded, given that it was a Monday night, and wanted to check it out. This spot had been renovated since my visit three years earlier, and it looks really swanky. We were escorted up by a super-friendly staffer named Tony who handed me a batting practice baseball, which I somehow neglected to photograph. He gave us a nice tour of the space, which looked like this …

… and then we grabbed a spot on the couch where we enjoyed this view:

Given how the balls were flying on these evening, I had big aspirations to snag a home run in this spot, but that didn’t happen. (We did see a couple more long balls hit, though.)

And that’s how our last Chihuahuas game ended — enjoying this beautiful park from one of the poshest seating sections that I’ve ever encountered in the minor leagues.

The entire visit to El Paso was absolutely outstanding, and I’m so appreciative of everyone who played a part. Thanks so much to the Chihuahuas — especially Angela, Brad, Tim and Nathan — as well as Veronica and Maegan at Visit El Paso, who were super at helping to set up this trip, and Steve and Adrian at ESPN El Paso. Each of you augmented my trip in your own way, and I’m very grateful.

Given that I live 2,300 miles from El Paso, I don’t know when I’ll be back to the Sun City.

One thing’s for certain, though — I’m already looking forward to returning.

Advertisements

El Paso Chihuahuas – May 5, 2019

When I think about all of the experiences that I’ve had at more than 200 baseball games at 70+ ballparks, it’s hard not to consider the Best View in the Minors plaque presentation on the field on May 4 in El Paso to be the most memorable. A chance to walk on the field between innings in front of a Saturday night sellout crowd is an experience that I’ll never forget.

You might think that this meant my subsequent games at Southwest University Park would be a letdown, but I’m happy to report that wasn’t the case — not by a long shot. On May 5, I had plenty of reasons to be excited about returning to this beautiful ballpark. First and foremost, this would be my first Copa de la Diversión game experience. If you aren’t familiar with the Copa series, it’s a huge promotion in the minor leagues that has 72 teams involved this year. Translated as “Fun Cup,” the Copa promotion is an opportunity to celebrate Hispanic culture — and it’d be an understatement to say that I was pumped about being in El Paso on Cinco de Mayo for the first Copa day of the 2019 season.

The game was scheduled for a 1:05 p.m. start, the weather was absolutely perfect and, at about 10:30 a.m., I set out from my hotel to take a walk around Southwest University Park before entering — something that I hadn’t done a day earlier. I started by walking down North Santa Fe Street, which is only a handful of blocks in length but is home to a variety of attractions, including the ballpark. Here’s the view from the sidewalk with the ballpark on my right:

I continued down the street and turned around at the far end of the ballpark to snap this photo of its Wall of Champions:

Most teams display their successes inside of the park — and, for the record, there’s another similar display on the outfield fence — but I think it’s a neat idea to tout the team’s prowess in a spot that passing motorists and pedestrians can see. As you can see in the image above, the Chihuahuas have had a lot of success. They’re only in their sixth season, but already have a Pacific Coast League championship, a pair of conference titles and four division crowns.

One thing that I frequently enjoy during my ballpark visits is checking out ballparks from unusual angles outside. Sure, it’s always cool to snap a photo or a panorama from outside of the main gates, but I also think it’s interesting to find a bizarre angle from which to shoot. One noteworthy thing about this ballpark is that while it’s surrounded on three sides by streets, the fourth side is comprised of a railway line. (Several times throughout the game, trains will go past. And, sometimes, foul balls will leave the stadium and land on the train tracks.) Anyway, there’s a walkway along the rail line, so I followed it and snapped this shot of the ballpark — complete with a freight train rumbling past at the time:

After a full lap around the outside of the park, I entered via the Durango Street office entrance — pausing to snap this photo of the Best View plaque already on display beside the reception desk:

I was thrilled to see it there, and happy that it wouldn’t be gathering dust on some bookshelf or filing cabinet inside the administrative offices where fans wouldn’t be able to see it. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t return to this area a few additional times over the course of my visit just to see it there.

Once I’d checked out the plaque for a moment, I went up to the quiet concourse and headed toward the outfield. A day earlier, I hadn’t done my usual amount of pregame touring, so I definitely wanted to take advantage of that on this day. Players from both teams were playing catch down the lines as I made my way around to center field to capture Southwest University Park from this angle:

I enjoyed this view for a few minutes, and then continued on my lap around the concourse until I got to the right field corner. This part of the park is really enticing, and it also plays a key role in the view that fans get from home plate. This area is home to a pair of structures — one with four levels and another with three levels — that are connected by a pair of walkways. The second and third levels are known as the City Hall Grill and Sun Kings Saloon, respectively. Both are eateries with a variety of drink and food items and good views of the ballpark. The fourth level, the Big Dog House, is absolutely one of the most impressive seating areas in all of the minor leagues. I’d had a chance to tour these areas when I visited El Paso three years earlier, and was eager to check them out again — especially since the Big Dog House had since gone through a major renovation. I made my way up to the Sun Kings Saloon and sat in the shade for a few minutes with this view in front of me:

This area was completely quiet because the gates hadn’t yet opened, and while it was tempting to remain there for a while longer, I soon decided to continue my walk around the ballpark — opting to visit the Big Dog House a day later. The next spot that I headed — another place that I’d neglected to check out a day earlier — was directly behind home plate, down at field level:

From here, you can clearly see the right field structure that I’d visited a few minutes earlier, as well as my hotel in left-center. As impressive as the view was, I was equally impressed by the seating immediately to my left. Check out this area, known as the Dugout Club, that offers fans a suite-style experience just inches from the field of play and the home dugout:

In the image above, you might have noticed a number of staff members in red shirts — 11 of them, to be precise. The gates were about to open, and they were meticulously wiping down each of the seats. That’s the norm at a lot of ballparks, but I was impressed at just how carefully they were working. I even watched one staffer patiently wiping up and down each of the rungs in the railings between sections. I’ve been to my share of MiLB ballparks that don’t get this TLC, and it shows. It’s this largely behind-the-scenes work that easily makes Southwest University Park one of the cleanest parks, MLB or MiLB, that I’ve ever visited.

Soon enough, the gates opened and the players returned to the field — this time, wearing their El Paso Margarita uniforms. I made a beeline toward the home bullpen in foul territory to snap some pictures of what one might reasonably call the loudest uniforms in the history of baseball. Here are catcher Austin Allen, pitcher Dillon Overton and bullpen coach Akinori Otsuka:

You’ll notice that Otsuka was wearing a Margaritas umbrella hat, which was the day’s stadium giveaway. For the record, he wore it for much of the pregame warm-ups, and only swapped it for his regular cap when the anthem was played. (By the way, if his name sounds familiar, he’s the former MLBer who saved 32 games for the Texas Rangers in 2006.)

It’s always fun watching players get warmed up, and the scene in front of me seemed even more lively because it was easy to tell that the players were having a blast in their bright uniforms. There were a lot of smiles as they got together, stretched and began to play catch — and definitely some laughs as they spotted Otsuka in his umbrella hat. As Overton and Allen began to throw, I positioned myself behind the catcher and took shots like this one:

I watched the players for a few more minutes, and then decided to go grab some food. As you might remember, I hadn’t eaten a ballpark meal the night before, so I was determined to make up for it during this visit. I’d been impressed with Southwest University Park’s menu when I visited three years ago, and while it’s always tempting to try items that I’ve previously enjoyed, I generally like to mix things up. El Paso might not be known for its pizza, but as silly as it may sound, I’d spotted a Peter Piper Pizza billboard a day earlier and had been thinking of pizza on and off ever since. I decided that my first meal of the game would be a pepperoni slice, which you can see here:

I was absolutely blown away by how good this pizza was. It was piping hot with a nice, thin crust, and there was a generous helping of cheese. It was difficult not to go back for another slice immediately. Of course, I needed something to wash the pizza down, and opted for a cold drink that worked well with the Copa theme. The team was selling margaritas for $2. The city of El Paso lays claim to inventing this drink, so I felt that it was an appropriate beverage on this hot, sunny day:

If you find the image above to look tantalizing, here’s another shot that is a bit more … amateurish. As I held the cup and moved it to get a good angle for some photos, I failed to initially realize that I’d tipped the cup too far forward and was pouring the drink on the concourse in front of me. Oops:

I wrapped up my meal just before the national anthem was about to begin, and went back over to the bullpen area to watch the players. While there, I noticed that El Paso’s Sammy Solis was also wearing his own umbrella hat. I was curious to see what he’d do with it when the music started to play. Here’s your answer:

When the game began, I spent the first few innings doing what I love best — checking out the ballpark and the action on the field from different vantage points and just generally soaking up the atmosphere. Eventually, I made my way to the upper deck down the first base line, where I was able to keep my eye on Chihuahuas’ right fielder Josh Naylor:

Because I always have my eye out for Canadian-born players, I’ve enjoyed following his career since he was drafted by Miami in the first round of the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft. (And I even got a chance to hold one of his bats before it was sent to him back when I toured the Sam Bat factory.) Anyway, Naylor has been a wrecking ball for the Chihuahuas this season — and has since been called up to San Diego. Before the call-up, he hit .299 with 10 home runs and 35 RBI in 45 games. And he’s only 21 years old.

After watching the game from the upper deck for about an inning, I set off to find something else to eat. I didn’t really feel like a hot dog, so I browsed the multiple concession stands around the concourse to look for something that caught my eye. On unique item that sounded appealing was called Diablo Fries, named after the El Paso Diablos franchises that played at various times for nearly 100 years in El Paso. This dish consisted of a serving of fries topped with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, diced jalapenos and nacho cheese — although the latter was more like queso, which was definitely a good thing, given how I generally feel about nacho cheese. Here’s the meal:

I have to say that it was pretty darned tasty. I’m not the biggest fry lover, but these were crisp and seasoned well, and the Cheetos and jalapenos provided some nice spice without being so hot that they melted my face. It’s definitely a meal that I’d recommend for fans who are visiting Southwest University Park.

Of course, I needed something cool and refreshing to drink with a spicy meal, so I grabbed a green apple slushie from the Slush’ae concession stand on the first base side. I’d had a couple of slushies from that stand during my last trip, and they were perfect. The green apple flavor, I’m pleased to say, was just as good as the lemonade and mango varieties that I’d previously had:

Once I’d eaten, I knew that I needed to get out of the sun for a bit. El Paso averages more than 300 days of sun per year, which is absolutely incredible. Where I live, we had snow up until about three weeks before I left for this trip, so I wanted to avoid getting a sunburn. There are plenty of spots around the ballpark in which you’re in the full sun, but there are also fortunately a number of other places where you can catch some shade. I went back down to the concourse and browsed in the team shop for a bit, and then went and found a shady spot down the third base line where I watched a bit more of the game out of the sun.

As the game progressed, I decided to once again head back to the upper deck on the first base side, and not only because it provided a good view of the action. Since I’d finished my slushie, it had been on my mind to the point that I wanted to try another. Perhaps not the best dietary choice, but the sweet, fruity flavor and the chill of this beverage made it a perfect companion during this ballpark visit. This time, I opted for the cherry flavor, and it was also delicious:

I polished this drink off shortly before the game concluded, and spent the rest of the time until the final out on the outfield concourse where I could watch the game and keep an eye on the action in the visitors bullpen. This spot also allowed me to leave the park quickly so that I could get back to my hotel, pick up my wife and head off for some more sightseeing and dinner.

After dinner, we returned to the hotel and immediately went out to the pool deck and hung out with this view of the ballpark:

Over time, the scene changed to look like this …

… and, eventually, this is what we were looking at:

After two excellent yet dramatically different days at Southwest University Park, I was already looking forward to the excitement that the next day would bring.

El Paso Chihuahuas – May 4, 2019

At the conclusion of the fourth inning of the May 4 game between the host El Paso Chihuahuas and visiting Salt Lake Bees, I left where I’d been sitting, wove my way through the crowded concourse and took the elevator down to the clubhouse level.

Checking out the various areas of a ballpark while the game is going on is nothing new to me. Going down to the clubhouse level, however, is something that I rarely do — especially once the game has begun. But this wasn’t any old game. Two days earlier, I’d traveled 12 hours and nearly 2,300 miles to El Paso — a city with warm weather and warmer people — for a big reason. The reason for my visit to this West Texas city was to present its Triple-A team with a plaque for winning the Best View in the Minors competition that I ran last year. If you’re new to this blog or perhaps didn’t hear about the competition, here’s a quick rundown.

When I visit different ballparks, I like to watch the game from as many vantage points as possible — and that usually includes spending an inning in the seats behind home plate. When I sit in this spot in any park, I always make a point of appreciating the view. To me, the view isn’t just about watching the game itself. Rather, it’s about taking in what sights are within view in the distance. In downtown ballparks, the city’s skyline is often visible. At other parks, you can see forests, mountains, bodies of water and more. I’ve always found that the right view from home plate can augment my ballpark visit, and I know many of you feel the same way. And that was the impetus behind the Best View competition. It gave you, the fans, a chance to decide which MiLB park offers the best view from home plate — and you overwhelmingly chose El Paso’s Southwest University Park. As part of the competition, I’d promised to visit the winning city to present the team with a plaque this season.

Back to the night in question. After taking the elevator down to the clubhouse level, I walked through the tunnel toward the home dugout and stopped just short of entering it. The field of play was just a few yards in front of me, roughly at waist level, and the familiar sounds of a professional dugout was nearby — the semi-muffled sounds of the stadium PA in the distance. The shouts of encouragement and claps from the dugout. The click-clack of metal cleats on cement. The dull thud of baseball bats being placed in their holders.

Here’s a quick peek at how things looked in front of me:

I hadn’t made the journey through this tunnel merely to enjoy the sounds, though. Rather, I was alongside Angela Olivas, the Chihuahuas’ senior director of marketing and communications and Brad Taylor, the team’s general manager, both of whom played a major role in my visit to El Paso. Angela, who was outstanding in coordinating a number of elements related to my visit and the presentation, had arranged for me to present the Best View plaque to Brad on the field during at the start of the sixth inning. I was also joined by my wife, who was attending this game to capture the presentation on video.

Our meetup just behind the home dugout at the end of the fourth inning meant that we had a whole inning until our moment on the field — and that was a major thrill for me, as I got to enjoy this time in this behind-the-scenes location. As I chatted with Angela, Brad and, eventually, the team’s on-field host Andy Imfield, I also noticed that my pregame jitters about going onto the field were quickly dissipating.

It turns out that the fifth inning was a bit of a marathon. Sixteen batters, seven runs scored and three mound visits meant that the inning took a long time to complete; I’d guess it was close to half an hour. That suited me just fine, because it lengthened our time spent in this area. I was constantly enjoying the sights and sounds, but was especially excited to see that the tunnel in which we stood was steadily busy, too. Left-hander Sammy Solis, who has pitched in nearly 150 games in the big leagues, went back and forth a few times in anticipation of entering the game in the sixth inning. Catcher Austin Allen, who was DHing for the Chihuahuas, made a few trips past us — presumably to get some swings in at the batting cage just a handful of yards behind where we stood. Outfielder Boog Powell, midway through his three-hit game, chatted with Brad for a moment.

Eventually, when the fifth inning came to an end, someone said, “We’re up,” and our contingent went up the dugout steps, turned left and walked along the warning track in front of the Chihuahuas dugout. As Brad and I positioned ourselves on the grass, facing the crowd, I heard the PA announcer say my name and explain the reason for my visit. The in-stadium video camera operator positioned himself in front of us, and Andy gave me a cue to wave once I was on the video board in right-center field. The whole time, team photographer Jorge Salgado snapped photos; those that you see here are courtesy of him.

Here’s Brad and me while the competition was being announced …

… and here’s me waving once I was on the video board:

On cue, I presented the plaque to Brad …

… and we then posed for another picture before heading off the field in time for the inning to begin:

(By the way, you might have noticed that I was wearing one of my new The World Needs More Baseball T-shirts. If you want to buy one of my shirts, you can click here.)

Thanks to my wife, I’m excited to be able to show you the presentation as a video. Check it out here:

*****

My visit to Southwest University Park on May 4 hadn’t begun with my walk through the clubhouse-level tunnel, of course. Nope, I’d arrived at the park several hours prior with the goal of enjoying the environment in anticipation of the plaque presentation that would happen later on. After arriving in El Paso late on the night of May 2, and spending all of May 3 doing touristy things, I was more than ready to attend a ballgame. That’s partly because this ballpark wasn’t just in my mind for much of my stay in El Paso — it was also within sight. We were fortunate to stay at the Courtyard El Paso Downtown, a new hotel that is across the street from the ballpark. Not only were we able to see Southwest University Park from our room’s window, but the hotel also has a pool deck on the fifth floor that offers this view of the park:

Absolutely perfect, right?

If you were to make a guess at how much of my trip I spent standing on the pool deck and admiring the scenery, the correct answer would be, “A lot.”

Fortunately, by the time 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 4 rolled around, I no longer had to just look at the park from afar. It was time to make the short walk over. First pitch wouldn’t be taking place for another 2.5 hours, but I wanted to get into the park good and early and enjoy its environment. Plus, I was feeling a little anxious about presenting the plaque, and figured that if I wandered around the ballpark for a while, it’d help to relax me a bit.

Of course, relaxing in the beautiful Southwest University Park was as easy as it gets. After a slow walk around the concourse, I went to the outfield grass berm and snapped this photo …

… and then hung out in this spot for a few minutes:

Neither team was hitting, which was a bit of a surprise to me. Part of the reason I’d gone to the park so early was to watch batting practice, but with little happening on the field beyond the usual pregame field prep, the park was still quiet. That was fine with me, as it gave me a chance to just enjoy the environment; my first two ballpark visits of the season, as you might recall, didn’t exactly offer favorable weather.

While I was in the outfield, I took some time to photograph the plaque before I presented it. Here’s one of those shots:

After taking the above shot, I carefully packed up the plaque in its bubble wrap-lined box and secured it in my backpack again. I’d been careful while traveling with it two days earlier, and the last thing I wanted was to chip it in the couple of hours that remained until I was due to turn it over. Upon doing so, I snapped this shot of myself with the video board — which was incidentally showing the live broadcast of the Kentucky Derby — in the background …

… and then continued to explore the park a bit more. On the upper level, I noticed an addition since my last visit — the Section 211 Patio Suite. It was added two seasons ago, and offers a private experience for groups. Check out the cool faux-foliage surroundings:

This suite has three different types of seating — stadium seats, tall chairs and, my personal favorite, this comfy sectional:

As much as I’m not a “suite guy,” because I prefer wandering around ballparks rather than remaining in one specific area, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm too hard to have me watch a ballgame in this cool spot.

Once I’d checked out the suite, I went down to the main concourse to meet up with Angela, who gave me a rundown on how the plaque presentation would go. I’d meet her at the end of the fourth inning, we’d go down below the ballpark and meet up with GM Brad behind the home dugout, and then go out onto the field between innings. Sounds just about perfect, right?

By now, the ballpark’s gates had opened, so I met up with my wife who was playing the role of photographer/videographer for this ballpark visit.

The evening’s promotion was First Responders Night, so we went over to the plaza in the right field corner to check out some of the sights. There were police motorcycles and a police car, but the big attraction for me was an FBI SWAT team’s armored vehicle. I had the opportunity to not only climb inside of the vehicle, but to also hold one of the SWAT team’s shields — which I can attest was much heavier than expected:

Soon after I decided that I probably wouldn’t cut it as a SWAT officer, we set out in search of something to eat. I made the uncharacteristic move of declining dinner on this evening. Sorry, folks. I was a little anxious about the upcoming plaque presentation, and didn’t want to put anything in my stomach. My wife, non-queasy about said presentation, was hungry and asked me for a food recommendation. During my visit three years ago, I’d been really impressed with the Juarez Dogs concession stand on the first base side, so that’s where we headed. She opted for an impressive hot dog called the Memphis Meets Mexico Dog. It consisted of an all-beef hot dog wrapped in bacon, topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce, coleslaw, pickles and pork rinds. Any time you can have pork three ways in a meal, it’s a good day, right? Here’s how this hot dog looked:

Even though I’d decided not to eat a proper meal — something that I’d make up for in my subsequent visit to Southwest University Park — I knew I needed to celebrate the plaque presentation after it was done. At several points throughout the game, my wife and I had spotted other fans walking around with a drink that caught our attention, and we knew we had to seek one out to buy. Shortly after we returned to the concourse following the presentation, we made our way to the Frutas Locas concession stand on the first base side and bought a drink known as a pinas locas. Behold:

It consisted of an entire pineapple filled with pineapple juice and fresh pineapple rings. The red sauce is called chamoy, which is a Mexican condiment that is both salty and spicy. And the straw that you see is wrapped in dried fruit and rolled in chili powder, making for even more spice with the drink. I wasn’t sure about all of the spice at first, but it quickly grew on me and I appreciated the contrast that it provided to the sweetness of the fruit. If you’re ever in El Paso, you might decide to order this drink for its Instagram appeal — but I bet that you’ll enjoy the taste, too.

It was fitting to wrap up this ballpark visit with an enormous, novelty pineapple drink, because this was a day that was sweet in a lot of ways.

I’ve got so many people with the Chihuahuas to thank:

  • Angela for so skillfully organizing the event, as well as fielding what probably felt like a million questions from me leading up to it;
  • Brad for receiving the award;
  • Andy for giving me the cue to wave and for writing the script that was read over the PA;
  • Jorge for snapping the awesome photos that you see here; and
  • The Chihuahuas fans who voted, shared and otherwise supported the Best View competition last season — and who made me feel exceedingly welcome in their city.

About 12 hours after this game ended, I’d be back at Southwest University Park for the team’s first Copa de la Diversión day, in which the Chihuahuas would suit up as the Margaritas in what are probably that loudest uniforms I’ve ever seen. A big blog post all about that experience will be coming very soon.

El Paso Chihuahuas – May 17

After the outstanding first day I had in El Paso, I was eager to get my second day in town started — and I wouldn’t have to wait too long. The Chihuahuas were hosting the New Orleans Zephyrs in an 11 a.m. game, so I planned to get to Southwest University Park between 9 and 9:30 a.m.

First, though, it was time to check out one of El Paso’s top restaurants. The plan was to again meet up with Leesy McColgary from Visit El Paso to have breakfast at L&J Cafe, a restaurant that you’d hardly notice from the outside but that is ranked third on TripAdvisor’s list of top El Paso eateries.

When I exited the DoubleTree Downtown El Paso to meet Leesy, I was amazed at how cool and fresh the morning air was. El Paso has virtually no humidity, and while I’d found it hot a day earlier, it was downright chilly in the morning, which I certainly welcomed.

As I waited, I was excited to look at Southwest University Park just across the street from my hotel:

southwest-university-park-from-hotel

Soon enough, Leesy arrived and we were off to L&J Cafe. It’s a favorite spot for locals — so much so that when we arrived about 15 minutes before the restaurant opened, there was a lineup outside. On a Tuesday. Here’s the outside of the restaurant:

el-paso-l&j-cafe-outside

Since we were a little early, we took a quick tour of the historic Concordia Cemetery, which is something that I’ll blog about in an upcoming post.

While the breakfast choices on the menu looked good, I’m not a huge breakfast guy — and, besides, the other examples of traditional Mexican food were making my taste buds tingle. I decided to forgo the idea of a traditional breakfast and, instead, order an enchilada platter with a combination of red and green sauce. This, ladies and gents, was my breakfast, and it was absolutely delicious:

el-paso-l&j-cafe-enchilladas

And, in case I needed more, Leesy suggested that we order some sopaipillas, which are fried pastries served with honey:

el-paso-l&j-cafe-sopaipillas

They were much lighter than I expected and definitely something I’ve craved a few times since.

This was one of the best overall meals I’ve had in a long time, and I can assure you that L&J Cafe will be on my agenda whenever I make it back to El Paso. Once I finished eating, Leesy dropped me back at my hotel and I waddled over to Southwest University Park, eager to get my second visit underway.

My first visit a day earlier had included a private tour and a lot of ballpark exploring, and frankly it was nice to know that during my second visit, I could do a little more focusing on the game and just enjoying the view. Doing so isn’t always possible when I only have one day in a city, so I was once again thankful for having two days in each city on this trip. Before I grabbed a seat and relaxed, though, I had an exciting experience — I was meeting up with Felix Chavez from the El Paso Times for an interview. I’ve done a handful of newspaper interviews over the years, and as a longtime journalist myself, it’s always fun to be on the “other” side of the interview. I met Felix outside the press box as soon as I arrived, and we chatted for several minutes about my baseball travels, blog/website and, of course, my impressions of Southwest University Park. It was super enjoyable; I’ve occasionally been interviewed by disinterested reporters, but it was clear that Felix was curious about my adventures, which made the process really pleasant. (By the way, you’ll see his story at the end of this post.)

Felix also had a surprise for me — one of the Times‘ photographers was there, and he’d be following me around for a while to take some photos of me to run with the story. I met the photographer, Victor Calzada, after my interview, and we headed down toward the concourse. I was impressed with Victor’s ethical approach to taking my photo. I asked him how he wanted to set me up, and he told me that he didn’t want anything that was staged. Instead, he asked me to do my thing and he’d be a “fly on the wall” behind me for 20 or 30 minutes. It was definitely a new experience to walk around a ballpark and have someone following me to snap photos, but Victor was such a natural that it made everything easy.

This is the first shot I took at the ballpark on this day …

southwest-university-park-video-board

… and as I looked at the video board through my camera’s viewfinder, I could hear Victor snapping off shots in the background.

Since I’d taken so many ballpark shots a day earlier, I primarily wanted to focus on action shots during this visit. I love grabbing a spot close to the field and shooting the players, so that was my main goal today … and Victor was always just a few steps behind me. I began by going down to field level on the first base side, where I took some shots of New Orleans warming up. Here are outfielder Kenny Wilson, a former Toronto Blue Jays prospect, and infielder Elliot Soto:

new-orleans-zephyrs-warm-ups

Even though my focus was on player shots, I still couldn’t resist documenting the beauty of Southwest University Park. It’s one of those places that looks great from every angle. I walked along the outfield concourse and snapped the photos to make up this panorama:

southwest-university-park-outfield-pano

While I was there, I noticed that the grass berm was much more full than it had been a day earlier:

southwest-university-park-grass-berm

Because it was a morning game, there were a bunch of school groups in attendance, and many of the kids had clearly flocked to the berm.

As I did a day earlier, I went down to the El Paso bullpen to take action shots of the Chihuahuas’ starting pitcher warming up. On this day, it was Daniel McCutchen, and I got a bunch of photos that turned out well, including this one:

el-paso-chihuahuas-daniel-mccutchen

Once he finished tossing, I made my way behind home plate snapped this panorama just before the anthem that shows just how beautiful this ballpark is:

southwest-university-park-anthem-pano

I forget exactly when Victor and I parted, but I think it was during the first inning. In any case, he took some great shots of me doing my thing, as you’ll see at the bottom of this post. As the first inning got underway, I found a spot in the front row above the dugout on the first base side, which gave me a great place to shoot the action.

One of the fun things about watching baseball at the Triple-A level is seeing all the guys you recognize from MLB stints, so you’ll likely see some players throughout the rest of this post that you’ve seen on TV in the big leagues.

Here is New Orleans’ Robert Andino …

new-orleans-zephyrs-robert-andino

… and here is El Paso’s Josh Satin, each of whom has played parts of multiple seasons in the bigs:

el-paso-chihuahuas-josh-satin

It was wonderful to sit in the front row on a hot, sunny day and shoot the action. There were a few empty seats on each side of me, so I wasn’t cramped at all as I shifted left and right to snap my shots, like this one of Manuel Margot jumping out of the way of a pitch:

el-paso-chihuahuas-manuel-margot-batting

Chris Reed making a pick-off move:

new-orleans-zephyrs-chris-reed-pick-off

And Margot swiping second base a pitch after the pick-off attempt:

el-paso-chihuahuas-manuel-margot-second-base

Here’s something interesting that I noticed: Reed, the New Orleans starter, is 6’3″, but has a squat delivery to the point that he looks much shorter just before he releases the ball. Don’t you agree?

new-orleans-zephyrs-chris-reed-delivery

As for Margot, he proved himself to be impressive on the base paths, promptly stealing third base, too:

el-paso-chihuahuas-manuel-margot-third-base

There was plenty of action at home plate, too. Here’s El Paso’s Hunter Renfro about to connect on what ended up being a home run …

el-paso-chihuahuas-hunter-renfroe-swing

… and celebrating with teammate Alex Dickerson just after crossing home plate:

el-paso-chihuahuas-hunter-renfroe-home-run

Here’s a funny shot I snapped of Rocky Gale experiencing the definition of chin music:

el-paso-chihuahuas-rocky-gale-chin-music

And this is a better shot of the El Paso catcher connecting on a pitch a moment later:

el-paso-chihuahuas-rocky-gale

(I always love when I get a shot just as the bat meets the ball!)

Here’s another of Wilson, who is on his way to the New Orleans dugout after hitting a home run:

new-orleans-zephyrs-kenny-wilson-scoring

After a couple innings of shooting, I decided to get back to walking around the ballpark. Remember this shot of the nighttime view of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez that I took from the upper level of the park a day earlier? This is how the scene looked in the daytime:

southwest-university-park-looking-over-to-juarez

Next, I went down to the front row behind home plate for an inning of action. Shooting through the netting rarely yields outstanding photos, but the overall view from this seating area was certainly enjoyable:

southwest-university-park-behind-net

By now, it was past noon and although the thought of a ballpark lunch was appealing, I was way too full from my breakfast. I was a bit disappointed to miss the opportunity to sample something else of the Southwest University Park menu, but that’ll just have to wait for another visit.

Speaking of food, I was continuously noticing fans with frozen drinks — which made sense, given the hot temperature. I’m a sucker for frozen lemonade and other such products, so I made my way to the “Slush’ae” concession stand down the first base line. Now, I’d been particularly intrigued by the yellow and red combination of slushie that I’d seen countless fans drinking, and I wanted to give it a try. I scanned the available flavors and, for some inexplicable reason, decided that the mystery color combination had to be pink lemonade. (This, despite the fact that red and yellow do not equal pink. Maybe the heat was getting to me.)

Anyway, I was handed this …

southwest-university-park-pink-lemonade-slushie

… and while it was delicious and chilly, it didn’t satisfy my curiosity for the red and yellow product that continued to be enjoyed around me.

As I took this photo …

southwest-university-park-view

… I said to myself, “Time for another slushie,” and returned to the same concession stand where I’d been less than 10 minutes earlier. “Back again?” the server asked me, with a smile on her face. I explained my predicament and she handed me what is arguably the most unique ballpark drink I’ve ever had:

southwest-university-park-mango-slushie-chamoy

You’re looking at a mango slushie. Pretty standard, right? Yes, but here’s where the twist comes. The red stuff on the top and bottom of the cup is chamoy sauce, which I certainly hadn’t heard of. It’s a Mexican sauce made of pickled fruit (typically apricot or plum), and the taste is difficult to explain. You’d expect gooey red sauce to be super sweet, but that isn’t the case. It’s sort of a combination of salty and sour, if that makes sense. You can choose how much chamoy sauce you want added; since I was a newbie, the server gave me a small amount, but I saw people who’d obviously asked for a heap of it.

The intrigue didn’t end with the chamoy sauce. It’s hard to clearly see the straw in the above photo, so take a look at this one:

southwest-university-park-mango-slushie-straw

The red stuff wrapped around the straw is flechazos, which is a dried fruit that’s not unlike what is often called “fruit leather.” It’s sweet, chewy and delicious. The twist, though, is that the flechazos-covered straw is rolled in chili powder, which gives you a unique spiciness that you certainly don’t expect when you’re having a frozen fruit drink.

The slushie was outstanding, and something that you should definitely seek out whenever you visit Southwest University Park. I’d definitely order it again, maybe even twice.

Once I slurped down the slushie and gnawed the chili and flechazos off my straw, I headed back down to the front row behind the dugout to take some more action shots — and just in time. Nick Wittgren, who I’d talked to a day earlier during BP, had just taken the mound, and I was anxious to photograph him in action:

new-orleans-zephyrs-nick-wittgren

I also took another shot of him on the way to the dugout after one efficient inning of work:

new-orleans-zephyrs-nick-wittgren-walking

It took him just six pitches to get three outs. He was called up to the majors a week after this outing and picked up his first career MLB win a little over a week later.

Wittgren’s efforts aside, his Zephyrs fell to El Paso. And, unlike a day earlier, when I’d slipped out early to enjoy the last bit of the game from my hotel’s roof deck, I had a front-row seat for the final out and the post-game high fives:

el-paso-chihuahuas-win

As the fans began to filter out of Southwest University Park, and I followed suit, I was definitely sad to be leaving. Although I’d had two full and awesome days in El Paso, they’d gone by very quickly. Still, as much as I was sad to be leaving this beautiful ballpark, I was looking forward to taking a walk around the city and then hanging out in my hotel room, so that’s what I did for the afternoon and evening. There was a short rainfall late in the afternoon, and a nice rainbow right outside my window:

el-paso-rainbow

The next morning, I woke up early in advance of my drive to Midland. First, though, I needed to track down some copies of the El Paso Times to read the story about me. I walked over to the Times building, but it didn’t open until 8 a.m. and I wanted to be on the road well before then. So, I took the opportunity to snap this photo of me in front of the newspaper’s building …

IMG_0169

… and then found a gas station and bought five copies of the newspaper. “You know they all say the same thing, right?” said the clerk when I flopped the stack of papers down on the counter.

I eagerly flipped through to the sports section and was shocked to see my story as the top item. Here’s a scan of the front page banner:

el-paso-times-front-page.jpeg

And the front of the sports page:

el-paso-times-sports-front.jpeg

And, finally, the turn on the third page of the sports section:

el-paso-times-sports-inside.jpeg

If you’re interested in reading the story, you can click the above images to enlarge them.

Special thanks to everyone who helped make my visit to El Paso so memorable. I can’t wait to return!

Next up, a doubleheader at Security Bank Ballpark, home of the Texas League’s Midland RockHounds.

El Paso Chihuahuas – May 16

The good: I woke up on May 16 knowing that I’d be spending two days in El Paso, seeing the Pacific Coast League’s Chihuahuas play at the beautiful Southwest University Park and staying in an awesome hotel across the street from the ballpark.

The bad: My alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. that morning.

The ugly: The weather that had caused a rainout a day earlier had intensified into one of the strongest storms I’d ever seen and I had an early morning flight to catch.

Time to get things started.

I’d gotten myself organized the night before, so I was out of my hotel before 4 a.m., into my rental car and peering through the windshield (with the wipers on psycho mode) at the dark and rain-ravaged streets of downtown Corpus Christi a few minutes after the top of the hour. My hotel was only 10 or 15 minutes from the airport, but the drive was one of the most harrowing I can recall — steering with one hand, holding my GPS with the other and gritting my teeth when I’d hit places that had an inch or two of standing water on the road. I was glad to pull into the airport about 4:30 a.m. — even if it meant getting completely soaked on the walk between the rental car drop-off lot and the terminal.

“Quite a storm,” said the cheerful lady when I checked in at the Southwest desk. “We’re hoping to fly out this morning.”

Uh, hoping? Turns out that my apocalyptic view of the storm wasn’t exaggerated. Corpus Christi got something like five inches of rain overnight, many roads throughout the city were closed and a fellow passenger in line behind me heard that people in certain areas were being evacuated from their homes.

Of course, I wouldn’t have to worry about any of this silly weather in the desert climate of El Paso — but I’d have to get there first. With some time to kill, I hung out in the quiet airport …

IMG_0098

… and was delighted a short while later to learn that my 6:30 a.m. flight was still scheduled to depart on time. Soon enough, I boarded the flight and had this view:

IMG_0099

A little over an hour later, though, the view had dramatically improved:

IMG_0100

I took the above shot of the mountains through the window of the El Paso International Airport shortly after touching down and, as you can imagine, I was very pleased to see the clear skies after the previous day’s rainout.

I picked up my rental car and made the short drive to downtown El Paso to check into my hotel. It was still only mid-morning (there’s an hour’s difference between Corpus Christi and El Paso) but my hotel room was free, so I was thrilled to be able to get in and relax a little. I was staying for two nights at the DoubleTree Downtown El Paso, which is an absolutely fantastic hotel and the perfect spot to stay for baseball fans visiting El Paso. As I wrote earlier, it’s basically across the street from Southwest University Park and many of the rooms face the field. Mine didn’t, but I had a great view of the city and of the mountains beyond:

IMG_0104

I’d planned to have a short nap after arriving, but when I settled into my room and saw a bunch of welcome goodies from Destination El Paso (the city’s tourism department) I got too giddy to sleep. There were some delicious treats that served as a late breakfast for me, as well as this:

IMG_0105

Wow!

Speaking of Destination El Paso, I was scheduled to visit with Veronica Castro, the director of tourism development, and Leesy McCorgary, the digital marketing manager, to learn more about the city — and, of course, talk some baseball. We visited Anson 11, a restaurant within walking distance of the DoubleTree, and I ate a delicious plate of pork belly nachos with kimchee slaw, avocado and smoked mayo:

IMG_0106

You could certainly say that my visit to El Paso was off to a good start.

After lunch, we took a walking tour of the city’s downtown area and checked out a number of interesting sights, and I was thoroughly impressed with the downtown area. El Paso is an interesting city, seemingly equally influenced by Texas and Mexican culture. It’s right on the border with the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, which has often made headlines for its astronomical murder rate. El Paso, however, is exactly the opposite — it has repeatedly been named the “Safest City in America,” and I could see why. I did a ton of walking all around the downtown area during my visit, both with Veronica and Leesy, and on my own, and I was struck by how clean everything was and how safe it felt. El Paso is definitely in my sights for a return visit.

Anyway, after checking out some of the downtown sights, I was paired up with Angela Olivas, the Chihuahuas’ director of marketing and communications, for a one-on-one tour of Southwest University Park. (The day just kept on getting better and better!)

Beyond the insider information that I always get on my tours, one of the best things is getting access to areas I’d never otherwise see — even with a media pass. Our tour began in the bowels of the ballpark and we soon made our way through the tunnels into this grounds crew area, which is somewhere I wouldn’t have explored on my own …

southwest-university-park-grounds-crew-area

… and then out onto the field!

southwest-university-park-on-field

No matter how many times I get to stand on a professional baseball field, it’s always a thrill. I routinely find myself bending down to touch the grass and kicking at the dirt just to feel it.

Sometimes, a tour’s visit to the field is short. This time, however, we spent several minutes out there while Angela explained the top-notch job that the team’s grounds crew does. You can imagine, given the desert climate, that it’s a big challenge to keep the field in pristine shape, but as you can see from these photos, the grass looked sensational.

By the way, how cool are the structures in right field? Here’s a closer look, and you can rest assured that you’ll see lots more photos (including the view from inside) later on in this post:

southwest-university-park-big-dog-house1

One of the neat features that Angela pointed out while we stood on the field is Southwest University Park’s Peter Piper Pizza Porch, which is also known as the “blue monster” as a tip of the cap to the Green Monster at Fenway Park:

DSC_0532

This one isn’t quite as tall, but it’s an awesome feature and has seats above it, just like its green counterpart.

Before long, the tour continued through the tunnels below the ballpark. Check out how bright and clean everything was:

southwest-university-park-tunnels

We went past the home clubhouse …

southwest-university-park-chihuahuas-clubhouse

… and into an area called the “Dugout Club.” It’s a posh spot that the season ticket holders can access. Now, it’s nothing new for a team to provide swank surroundings for those who support the team in this manner, but the Dugout Club area has an awesome feature that I hadn’t ever seen before — a private viewing area of the indoor batting cages!

southwest-university-park-batting-cages

Players use these cages before the game when it’s either raining (not very often) or so hot that they don’t want to hit on the field (likely more often). Can you imagine how cool it’d be to stand at the window and watch indoor batting practice? And, as cool as that vantage point is, here’s something else that was impressive — season ticket holders’ access to the seating bowl:

southwest-university-park-behind-home-plate

(Can you tell that I’m just a tiny bit excited about my visit to El Paso? I sure hope so!)

After checking out the Dugout Club, we continued through the tunnels past the umpires’ locker room …

southwest-university-park-umpire-locker-room

… and eventually out to the concourse, where Angela led me toward the group decks in right field:

southwest-university-park-big-dog-house

This multi-level area was ultra impressive. Here’s how one of the seating/dining areas looks before the doors are rolled up at game time:

southwest-university-park-group-deck

On the wall opposite from the roll-up doors, there were dozens of artifacts related to the long history of baseball in El Paso:

southwest-university-park-party-deck-artifacts

(In the above picture, did you notice the baseball-themed women’s bathroom sign on the right side?)

We then visited another of the enclosed seating decks in this area …

southwest-university-park-party-deck-seating

… before going out to the stadium-style seating at the front of the structure:

DSC_0551

As you can see, this area provided an outstanding view of the entire ballpark, and gives those who book space here an awesome atmosphere.

Next, we descended to the bottom of this structure to check out the visitors’ bullpen. Whereas the home bullpen is in foul territory on the third base side (pretty standard in the minor leagues) the ‘pen for the visiting team is in this area behind the right field fence and below the party decks:

southwest-university-park-visitors-bullpen

It was built this way to allow fans to have close-up access to the visiting team — not only from the concourse, but also from the sidewalk outside the ballpark! In this next shot, you’ll see the field, the bullpen, the concourse and the sidewalk (and street):

southwest-university-park-bullpen-walkway-sidewalk

So many teams design their parks so that passing pedestrians can’t see any of the action, but that’s obviously not the case here, and I think it gives the facility a friendly vibe. Just a few steps from the bullpen, there’s another nice seating area. The seats here aren’t reserved; they’re on a first-come, first-served basis, and are obviously a hot commodity among fans who get to Southwest University Park as soon as the gates open:

southwest-university-park-right-field-field-level

And speaking of hot, there’s a great place for kids to cool down on sweltering days, and that’s the splash pad in center field. Water shoots through a bunch of jets in the ground to keep kids feeling refreshed, and I was contemplating going over and lying on third base, given the heat:

southwest-university-park-splash-pad

There’s also a sizable baseball-themed play structure in the area …

southwest-university-park-play-structure

… but my favorite center field attraction is the grass berm that offers this view:

southwest-university-park-grass-berm-pano

Once we were done checking out the berm (and I was done catching imaginary home runs in my mind), Angela took me over to the exclusive seating section on top of the Peter Piper Pizza Porch:

southwest-university-park-deck-view

Next, we went back through the clubhouse and road an elevator to the club level. We passed through this upscale eatery …

southwest-university-park-suite-bar

… and entered the press box, where I enjoyed this spectacular view:

southwest-university-park-home-plate-view

Now, I know that each ballpark offers a unique view, and there are some sensational ones throughout the minors. It’s always hard to compare, but this one is definitely among my favorites of the 50+ parks I’ve been to. (Did you notice my hotel just to the left field side of center?)

Here’s the scene as a panorama:

southwest-university-park-home-plate-pano

As we left the suite level, I was looking over toward Ciudad Juarez, and Angela explained what I was seeing. In this photo, you can see two arched bridges. There’s such heavy traffic between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez that one bridge is for people going one direction, and the other is for those coming the other direction:

southwest-university-park-bridges-day

After a tour that lasted more than 45 minutes, Angela and I parted and I met up once again with Leesy to do a little more sightseeing, which I’ll write about in an upcoming blog post. Soon enough, I was back enjoying my hotel room — in particular, the air conditioning and the view.

A couple hours later, I made the short walk back to the ballpark, this time using my GoPro to document the sights. I’ll have a video put together to share very soon. Anyway, I was eager to check out the view from behind home plate again, and can you blame me? Here’s how things looked now that the visiting New Orleans Zephyrs were hitting:

southwest-university-park-behind-home-plate-view

And of course, I couldn’t resist taking this shot of my hotel:

southwest-university-park-doubletree

(If you’ve followed my blog for a long time, you’ll know my love affair with hotels that face ballparks, and you’ve probably seen more than a few shots like the above.)

Wearing my GoPro on a chest harness (and looking like a major minor nerd), I went out to spend some time on the grass berm in center. I didn’t have my baseball glove with me on this trip, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until I could snag a home run ball. True enough, just a couple minutes after arriving, this Pacific Coast League ball landed nearby and I grabbed it:

southwest-university-park-pcl-baseball

A moment later, I got the attention of New Orleans pitcher Nick Wittgren, who has since been recalled to the Miami Marlins, and tossed it to him. And I’m pleased to say that I got this cool moment on video, thanks to my GoPro and chest mount.

After throwing him the ball, I asked Wittgren what it was like playing in such heat. To my surprise, he actually turned around and walked over to me, and we chatted for several minutes. I told him all about my travels, and we compared some of the different ballparks we’ve both visited. A short while after he and his teammates wrapped up BP, I sent him a quick tweet and was surprised to get one back from him just a few minutes later:

IMG_0606

Even though the field was now empty, I couldn’t resist hanging out on the berm. No, I didn’t think I’d get a home run ball; I just was loving the vibe out there:

southwest-university-park-grass-berm-pano

There was still more than an hour before the gates were set to open, so I had 60-plus minutes to enjoy this breathtakingly beautiful park all on my own. Once I’d stayed on the berm for a bit, I shot this photo of my shadow on the field …

southwest-university-park-malcolm-shadow

… trying to recreate this photo that I took in Jamestown, N.Y. a couple seasons ago. What do you think? Pretty similar?

Given the thoroughness of my tour with Angela, I wasn’t in a hurry to run around and take a million photos before the gates opened, which I customarily do on my ballpark visits. While I did indeed take some shots, I mostly just wandered around for the next hour and enjoyed the sights. Occasionally, I’d hear the low rumble and high-pitched whistle of a freight train, so I went to investigate. Here’s a shot that I took from the landing of the stairs up to the upper deck:

southwest-university-park-above-concourse

You can clearly see the train tracks on the left side of the image, and you’ll also note that they’re pretty darned close to the ballpark. In fact, the gap between the concourse and the tracks is netted off to prevent foul balls from hitting any passing trains. I’ve certainly seen parks that are close to the tracks, but this is about as close as you’ll ever get — and the trains rumble past very regularly, so you’ll definitely see lots of action.

Once the gates opened, my first stop was one of the two team shops at Southwest University Park. This one is located behind home plate (the other is in right field) and it’s very impressive. My favorite feature was the enormous wall of caps:

southwest-university-park-hat-wall

Before long, the players hit the field, so I went down to the third base side to watch El Paso’s starting pitcher, Jeremy Guthrie. He, of course, has had a long major league career, so I wanted to take a bunch of shots and shoot some video of the righty getting in his pregame tosses. The location of the home bullpen means that you’re just a couple feet from where the pitchers warm up. See what I mean?

jeremy-guthrie-el-paso-chihuahuas

From here, I also had a good view of some of the El Paso position players. Here’s third baseman Diego Goris:

deigo-goris-el-paso-chihuahuas

Center fielder Manuel Margot:

manuel-margot-el-paso-chihuahuas

 

And catcher Rocky Gale:

rocky-gale-el-paso-chihuahuas

I stayed in that area through the National Anthem, and then relocated over to the top of the blue monster for the top of the first inning, where I had this view:

pano

Between the top half and bottom half, I bolted over to this spot and enjoyed this wonderful view:

southwest-university-park-home-plate-scene

Once the first inning was in the books, it was time to eat. It’d been a long time since lunch, and I’d done more walking than on any single day during this trip, so I was definitely hungry. There were tons of good-looking options in front of me, and I wanted to get something that was unique to the area. With that in mind, I opted for the Chihua Dog — an all-beef hot dog wrapped in applewood smoked bacon, topped with pinto beans, pico de gallo, jalapenos, guacamole and mayo:

southwest-university-park-chihua-dog

Delicious? Yes!

I ate the hot dog from a seat along the edge of the upper deck concourse, where I had this view:

southwest-university-park-second-deck-view

In the top of the third, I snapped this amusing image of the video board:

southwest-university-park-video-board

Did you catch what I found funny? If so, post it in the comments. (Clicking to enlarge the picture will help your chances of spotting what I’m talking about.)

I ended up staying in this spot for a few innings. The view was great, there was a pleasant breeze that helped to counteract the heat and the usher for my section, Quincy, was among the friendliest ushers I’ve ever come across. I told him all about my travels, and we had fun talking about the various parks we’d each been to. As the sun began to set, I snapped some shots to make up this panorama, which I’m really happy with:

southwest-university-park-upper-deck-pano

Although the hot dog had strangely filled me up, I was eager to sample something else with local ties. I almost never drink alcohol, but I couldn’t resist a margarita — El Paso claims to be the place where this drink was invented, although there are also cities that make a similar claim. Either way, it’s a popular drink in this city, and the one I ordered was perfect:

southwest-university-park-margarita

(And, yes, I did manage to spill salt on my thumb before I took this photo. Oops.)

I spent the next few innings walking around the park and enjoying it from various vantage points. I wasn’t feeling pressured to take a ton of photos; I knew this blog post would already have several dozen, and I also knew that I’d be back at the park a day later to do it all over again.

When the sun set, I was interested in checking out the view outside the walls of Southwest University Park and, in particular, seeing Mexico.

Here’s a shot that shows Ciudad Juarez in the distance:

southwest-university-park-mexico-view-night

And another that shows the two bridges after dark:

DSC_0751

Next, I went down to field level in right field to watch a bit of the action with this view:

southwest-university-park-field-level-night

In addition to wanting to see a bit of the game from this unique spot, I also wanted to hang out around the New Orleans bullpen, given that there was now starting to be some action in it. Here’s what it looks like in the dark:

southwest-university-park-visitors-bullpen-night

Pretty cool, huh?

I’d hoped that Wittgren would be warming up so that I could watch him throw, but he was settled on one of the benches between a pair of teammates:

nick-wittgren-new-orleans-zephyrs

After watching a Zephyrs pitcher warm up, I went back to the grass berm to shoot this nighttime panorama:

pano

At the top of the eighth, I did something I rarely do — I left the ballpark and went back to my hotel.

But I have a good reason, I promise. The DoubleTree has a rooftop pool and patio area on the seventh floor that faces the ballpark. I’d checked it out earlier and had grand aspirations of standing on the deck in the dark and watching the last inning or so of the ballgame, and then having a swim. Sounds perfect, right? That’s exactly what I did, although I didn’t bother taking my camera to the pool, so you’ll have to trust me on this. It was amazing to see the game from this one-of-a-kind location, and then jump into the pool and splash around while listening to the post-game sounds coming from across the street. I had the entire area to myself, too, which made it even better.

After my swim, I went back to my room and checked out the view a little more. In this photo, the bright light that appears to be floating in the air is actually an enormous star on Franklin Mountain:

el-paso-star

It’s a famous feature in El Paso that is managed by the chamber of commerce. People can pay a fee to have the star lit on certain nights. For example, if it’s your wedding anniversary, you can arrange to have the star lit in your honor, and also have your message posted on the chamber’s website. A pretty cool feature, I think.

Given that I was up at 3:30 a.m., I hit my bed about five minutes after taking this photo, already excited for my second day in El Paso.