Tagged: International League

Durham Bulls – June 27, 2019

On my first day in Durham, I’d hurried from the airport to my hotel and then straight to the ballpark. My experience a day later would be completely different. I began my second day in Durham by spending a few hours working on a blog post about the previous day, and then met up with Veda Gilbert from Discover Durham for lunch.

She chose a spot within walking distance of my hotel called Bull City Burger & Brewery, which prides itself on using local beef and making its burger toppings (and buns) from scratch. That sounded perfect to me, and I opted for a burger topped with house-made pickles and pimento cheese:

It was absolutely outstanding — and served as good fuel for the two-hour walking tour of the city that followed. We hit a number of interesting and historical places as we made our way around Durham’s downtown, but there’s one spot in particular that I think you’ll like. If you read yesterday’s post, you’ll know that the Durham Bulls moved from Durham Athletic Park to Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995, and have called it home ever since. Fortunately, DAP still stands, and it was the biggest highlight on our walk. This is the park where the Bulls played from 1926 to 1994 and, of course, where the movie Bull Durham was filmed:

There was a showcase tournament taking place at the time …

… but we were able to enter a check out the historic ballpark for a bit:

It’s easy to make an argument that this is the most famous minor league park in the country, so I’m very happy that I had a chance to visit it:

I could’ve sat there and watched the action for a long time, but there were plenty of other interesting sights to see around town. One of the other downtown attractions that we visited was the famous statue of Major the bull, which is a popular spot for photos. Here’s me making an attempt at the “bull horns” hand signal:

After a really interesting tour of the American Tobacco Historic Area …

… I went back to my hotel, enjoyed some air conditioning for an hour or so, and then made the short walk over to DBAP. A day earlier, I’d been intrigued by the gate that opened into the outfield concourse, and had followed it rather than taken my usual lap around the outside of the park. On this day, I made it my top priority to check out the exterior of the ballpark from all angles. After walking behind the office buildings that are situated beyond right field, I turned right and made my way down Jackie Robinson Drive, which runs behind the first base side. Here’s the side of the ballpark from that spot:

One thing that really caught my eye in this area was the Victory Garden, which is situated between the ballpark and the sidewalk. I’ve seen lots of ballpark gardens that supply veggies and herbs to the ballpark’s food services team over the years, but this one’s a little different. The Victory Garden is a partnership between the Bulls, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, and the produce goes to local families in need. This garden produces more than 2,000 pounds of food a year, and together with some other similar gardens around the area, helps to feed 60,000 people each month. I enjoyed walking through it and noting the unique plants — in addition to all of the veggies that you’d expect to see, there were other crops such as a fig tree and some okra plants. Here’s a look at one section of the garden:

After checking out the garden, I arrived at the picturesque plaza in front of the main gates, where I snapped this photo …

… and then went inside. By now, batting practice was taking place, so after a quick lap of the concourse, I grabbed a spot in a semi-shady area and watched for a bit:

I hung out in this spot for about 10 minutes, before moving down the line to continue watching with this view:

As I stood in that area, I noticed something that I’d missed a day earlier. If you look at the following photo …

… do you see the low, gray building in the distance with the horizontal slot-style windows? That’s the Durham County Detention Facility. The stadium’s PA and crowd noises can get pretty loud, and I wonder if those who are jailed in the facility can ever hear the game. I’m assuming that the jail doesn’t have a lot of windows that open, but I’d still be curious if the sound from outside gets in at all. I can’t imagine much being worse than jail, except for perhaps being behind bars while hearing the exciting sounds of a ballpark!

I was glad to be spending a second day in Durham not only for the chance to enjoy DBAP again, but also to see the special jerseys that the Bulls were wearing on this night. The team was honoring the Durham Tobacconists, which was the name of the franchise when it was founded in 1902. The Tobacconists played in the North Carolina League and only made it as far as July before the league abruptly folded. Here’s a picture of pitcher Ricardo Pinto in his Tobacconists uniform:

When BP concluded, I continued walking around the concourse and taking in the various sights. Here’s another thing that I’d failed to notice a day earlier — temporary netting that was draped over the railing and attached to spikes in the warning track to protect the video board during batting practice:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a setup in all my travels. Sure enough, a couple of Bulls employees began to remove the netting shortly after I took the above photo.

If you read my previous post, you might remember that I mentioned a pop-up mini golf course that was located adjacent to the ballpark. Here’s a view of it in the daylight, and I think you’ll agree that it’s pretty appealing:

The Bulls and the city have done a really good job of making the area around DBAP really appealing. Throughout my visit, it was clear that there were people who had come down to the area just to hang out, and not necessarily with plans to attend the game. It wouldn’t be long before the mini golf course — and a bunch of restaurants in the area with patios — were full of people enjoying this late-June night, and it made for a really fun vibe around the ballpark.

While I was in the left field corner, I went over to the Blue Monster to watch the grounds crew pack up the protective netting. As they worked, the Monster’s door (I always call this the “Manny Ramirez door”) was open, as you can see here:

Seeing the door open gave me an idea, so I followed the concourse past a concession stand to the end of the Blue Monster, and was able to lean in and see behind it. If you look at this photo, you’ll see the light coming from the open door:

The manual scoreboard operators work in this space, albeit well on the other side of the door. One day, I tell you, I’ll get to help out with a manual scoreboard during a game!

After the grounds crew tucked the protective netting safely behind the fence, I continued walking around the park and went over to the right field side. There, I snapped this photo of this impressive seating section:

Wherever I walked, it seemed as though there was a unique and appealing place to hang out and watch the game, and this was just another example. Kudos to the Bulls for going beyond the standard stadium seats to give fans a variety of fun seating choices.

Sensing another big crowd — especially with the special Tobacconists uniforms in use — I decided to grab dinner soon after the gates opened. Pizza might not be the most original pick at a ballpark, but I’d seen a LOT of fans carrying slices around a day earlier. This had to be a good sign, so I headed for the Pie Pushers Pizza concession stand and checked out the menu. Beyond the standard slices, there was a good selection of unique options. But, I always feel that the best way to evaluate a pizza is with a slice of pepperoni and cheese, so that’s what I ordered:

While it wasn’t the best ballpark pizza that I’ve had, it was pretty good and definitely worth checking out when you visit DBAP.

As I’d done a day earlier, I grabbed a Rita’s Italian Ice as a post-dinner way to beat the heat:

This time, I opted for the blue raspberry flavor, which was a poor choice. I’ve obviously yet to see a blue raspberry in the wild, which should’ve been a warning. This flavor basically just tasted sweet, so I think I’ll stick with better choices such as strawberry, cherry or lemonade in the future.

Once I’d eaten — and furiously rubbed my lips with the back of my hand so it wouldn’t appear as though I was wearing blue lip gloss — I went down to field level on the third base side to watch the visiting Norfolk Tides warm up. Here’s starting pitcher Luis Ysla:

One of the things that never gets old about visiting minor league ballparks is just how close you can get to the players. It’s one of the most appealing things about MiLB games, as far as I’m concerned. I stood fewer than 10 feet from Ysla throughout his entire warm-up, which is far closer than fans can get at most of the MLB parks.

When the game began, I grabbed a spot behind home plate that provided this view for the first inning:

I spent the second inning in this standing-room spot …

… and later went to this spot in straightway center, using the edge of the batter’s eye to block out of the sun as it set beyond the third base line:

For the last half of the game, I continued watching an inning here, an inning there, and loving the overall design and feel of DBAP. It’s a park that I didn’t know much about before arriving, but that has quickly climbed toward the top of my favorite MiLB ballparks list. I can’t wait to return, whenever that may be.

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Durham Bulls – June 26, 2019

Exactly 12 hours after my alarm rang to start Day #1 of my nine-day baseball trip, I walked into Durham Bulls Athletic Park for the first time. I’d made the 815-mile trip using four different methods of transportation — an airport shuttle, two flights, a rental car and a whole lot of steps — and was thrilled to visit my 72nd different ballpark since 2010.

About half an hour earlier, I’d checked into my hotel — the Aloft Durham Downtown — and quickly realized that this is a perfect hotel for the baseball traveler. In addition to being close to DBAP, it has a ticker on the walls of the lobby that displays MLB scores! How perfect is that?

If that’s not perfect enough, being able to see the ballpark and its iconic “Hit Bull Win Steak” bull from the window of my room was definitely a sign that I was in the right place:

After checking in, I dropped my suitcase off in my room, quickly changed into a road trip tee and headed over to the ballpark. The hotel and the ballpark are both key features in Durham’s American Tobacco Historic District, an urban renewal neighborhood that is one of the must-visit spots in this city. It’s the type of area in which you can easily spend a large chunk of day shopping, eating and sightseeing. These were things that I’d do on my second day in town; first, though, I was intent on getting over to the ballpark as quickly as possible.

I’ll admit that DBAP wasn’t a park that I knew a lot about before I arrived in town. Sometimes, I do a lot of advance reading about parks before I visit, but that’s not what I did in this case. It can be fun to be a little in the dark, so to speak, because that can help to make the experience more exciting.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll likely know that I tend to take a walk around each ballpark’s perimeter before entering, but that wasn’t the path that I took during this visit. Instead, I was allured by a sidewalk that headed up toward the base of the large bull, so followed it and was surprised to see that the gates were open:

The ballpark’s actual gates don’t technically open until an hour before first pitch — 6 p.m. in this case — but I’d stumbled into an area of the park that is accessible well in advance of that. The sidewalk that I was on quickly turned into an outfield concourse situated above the ballpark’s 32-foot Blue Monster and, when I walked to the railing, this was my view:

I LOVE when teams make community-friendly decisions like this. This gate closes once the game begins, but until then, people are free to walk through this area — from the left field foul pole to about straightaway center — and enjoy the view. More teams need to make parts of their parks accessible like this. I mean, I can think of a lot of ballparks that use privacy slats in their exterior chain link fences and other similar methods to ensure that people from the community can’t even look into the ballpark. Being able to walk through a part of the concourse before the gates open, or perhaps even if you aren’t going to the game, is absolutely outstanding.

On the other side of the concourse is a huge sports bar called Tobacco Road. It was still quiet at 4 p.m., but it got gradually busier and by the time the game began three hours later, it was packed with people enjoying food and drinks while they watched the game. Here’s a shot that shows the restaurant, the field and the concourse that people can use before the park’s gates open:

There were a couple of other fans in the area, but it was still mostly empty. I headed over to center field, where I took this panorama …

… noted the attractive batter’s eye …

… and then snapped this shot of myself:

I continued along the concourse, noting how the look of the office buildings in the area matched nicely with the ballpark:

(By the way, how amazing would it be to work in one of these buildings?)

Downtown ballparks can have a lot of challenges “fitting” in with their environment, but it’s very clear that DBAP does that well. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The ballpark was designed by Populous, which is most widely known for designing the outstanding Oriole Park at Camden Yards and essentially rewriting the book on not only how ballparks should look, but also how they should fit within their neighborhoods. DBAP opened in 1995, three years after Camden, and it’s visually evident that the same visionaries were behind both projects.

I continued along the concourse until I came to this gate that prevented me from walking any farther:

The concourse that you see beyond the gate is set behind the seats in right field, and very much reminds me of Eutaw Street in Baltimore. After standing near the gates and enjoying the scene for a moment, I retraced my steps past Tobacco Road and toward the iconic bull. Another gate in this area prevented access to the main concourse of the park below me, so I exited and made my way down Blackwell Street toward the main gates. After picking up my credential, I snapped this shot of the team’s retired numbers:

You’ll notice that Crash Davis’ #8 is one of the six numbers retired by the team. He, of course, was the inspiration for Kevin Costner’s character of the same name in the 1988 movie Bull Durham. What you might not know, however, is that the real Davis hit .317 while playing for the Bulls in 1948.

I obviously had to snap a photo with it:

Blue Jays fans may also enjoy noting the retired #25 of current Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo. He served as the skipper of the Bulls from 2007 through 2014, winning a pair of International League championships and one Triple-A title during that span.

Next, I walked around to the plaza in front of the main gates, where I took this photo:

What a beautiful looking park! The fountains, dual staircases and brick design combine to make this one of the most stylish MiLB park entrances that I’ve ever come across.

After a short browse through the team shop, I road an elevator up to the concourse. Check out the signage inside of the elevator:

The concourse at DBAP is under and behind the seating bowl, which is perhaps the only less-than-perfect design feature of this ballpark. I love concourses that are open to the field, and I think that most MiLB fans feel the same way, but I also feel that there are both right and wrong ways to approach enclosed concourses. This one was definitely built the right way — tall ceilings, wide walkways and with lots of natural light, you won’t mind spending time in this area. Plus, if you’re concerned about missing the game, there are a bunch of TVs to ensure that you can always keep your eye on the game. After a short walk through the concourse, I made my way through one of the tunnels to the seating bowl …

… and was immediately impressed with what I saw. Take a look at how wide this cross-aisle is:

The small seating sections and wide cross-aisle mean that it’s easy to get around this part of the park. So, unless you need to head to the concourse to buy food, you can get where you want to go without being out of sight out of the game.

I decided to start checking out the inside of DBAP by walking toward the left field foul pole, so I headed in this direction …

… and soon stopped at field level to snap this panorama:

Eventually, I got close enough to the bull that I was able to take this photo of it:

This bull isn’t the one that you might recognize from the Bull Durham movie. That bull, which moved from the old Durham Athletic Park in 1995 when the team relocated to DBAP, was damaged in a 2007 storm. This one is a recreation — Bull #2, for lack of a better term. Its eyes light up and it snorts during home runs and wins, but it was still quiet at this point.

From this spot, I watched batting practice for a few minutes before heading the opposite way along the cross-aisle toward the right field corner. Here’s the view from the opposite end of the concourse that I’d spotted through the closed gate earlier:

And here’s a look at the Blue Monster and the bull, where I’d stood only a few minutes ago:

Next, I walked around to the grass berm in center field to take this panorama …

… and then continued back to the right field corner to do some preliminary food research. DBAP has an extensive menu and it was no surprise to see some Carolina barbecue available for sale. What was a surprise, however, was just how impressive the Smokehouse Barbeque concession stand looked. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into the design of this concession stand, including the use of barn board, tin and the vintage lights. Check it out:

Just after I took this photo, an usher approached me. I’d seen him picking up BP balls in the outfield seats earlier, and he now was carrying a handful of them. He asked me if I was looking for a ball. I replied that I wasn’t, and he asked if I wanted one anyway. He said that he keeps a few to give out to kids once the gates open. “Big kids, too?” I asked, and he laughed and handed me one that I photographed after he continued on his way:

While I was in the area, I continued to check out some of the interesting and appealing spots for fans to hang out. The White Street Picnic Area in the right field corner seems to answer the age-old question, “Why have a standard party deck when you can have a three-level one?”

Another neat spot that I noticed was a private party area called the Lowes Food Landing. With couches and bar-style seating, it shared a lot of common traits with other party areas that I’ve seen around the minor leagues, but with one exception — the concession stand was a stylishly finished shipping container:

Next, I went back down to the enclosed concourse to take another walk through the part of it that I’d missed earlier. One attraction that I noticed was an on-site brewery from the Bull Durham Beer Company:

I’ve seen a handful of MLB parks with breweries (Coors Field and SunTrust Park immediately come to mind) but I can’t immediately think of another brewery inside of an MiLB facility.

After walking the length of the concourse, I went up to the suite level to check out the PNC Triangle Club, an upscale suite area that looked like this:

It also offers an outstanding view of the action, all from a climate-controlled space that was definitely appealing on this 86-degree day. Here’s the view, through glass, from behind home plate:

I spent a few minutes to enjoy this view, drink a bottle of water and to cool off for a little bit, given that I’d already been walking a lot in the full sun. Then, it was time to head back out into the heat and continue exploring the ballpark. I went along the concourse toward the right field foul pole, and then walked down to the front row of the outfield seats to continue watching BP. This was the view to my right — check out the sweet front-row seats in this area:

This type of seating arrangement is found in many minor league parks, but I don’t know if I’ve seen it make up the front row of the outfield as it does in Durham. Often, it’s found on party decks. Another really creative idea from those who designed DBAP.

I decided not to spend too long in this area. It was extremely bright, and while I could follow most of the hit balls through the air, there were definitely some that I couldn’t track — and standing in the front row of right field is never a good spot to be when you can’t see what’s coming toward you. After a ball that I’d lost in the sun clanged off the picnic deck several yards to my left, I knew it was time to find another spot to check out. I retreated to the concourse to watch the remainder of BP, and then made my way around to left field to check out the Blue Monster up close:

Once the gates opened, I had a sense that this game would be well attended, so I wanted to grab some food before the lineups got long. I originally headed to the Smokehouse Barbeque concession with the hope of grabbing some Carolina barbecue, but nothing on the menu caught my eye. There were lots of pulled pork dishes, and while I’ll eat pulled pork if I have to, it’s not something that I’m all that keen about. The wide selection of concession items throughout the park meant that I wouldn’t be thwarted, so I made my way to the Gonza Tacos Y Tequila stand in the left field corner — a place with eye-catching signage and a food truck-style vibe. After scouring the menu for a moment, I chose a pair of soft corn tacos that were filled with braised beef short rib meat, cilantro, roasted corn-poblano salsa and spicy creme fraiche:

There were only a coupe of people ahead of me in line, so my order came quickly, and I took it up to the top of the Blue Monster and grabbed a comfy seat while I ate. The tacos were very good, and I appreciated the variety of ingredients. They weren’t cheap, though. The two tacos cost $10, and it only took about three bites to eat each one.

I’d added a bit of some delicious hot sauce before eating, so that meant that I needed to look for something cool and refreshing after I finished. The answer was a strawberry Rita’s Italian Ice, which I’m always a sucker for. I took my cup all the way out to the outfield seats and enjoyed cooling down while I ate it:

After eating, I went down to the front row of the seats and took a look around. Something that caught my eye were the video boards in the outfield fence. In particular, I noticed how far back they were from the rest of the fence. I don’t know if I’ve seen this setup before; video panels are always protected by some sort of cage, but it seems to me that they’re not usually set back this far:

One of the things that I love about visiting different ballparks is noticing the small details that I might not pick up during a game broadcast, and this fence/video panel situation definitely falls into that category.

Speaking of the outfield fence, let’s take a moment to pause and appreciate how outstanding the Blue Monster is:

One thing that’s unique about DBAP is that the park’s video board is a part of the fence. There’s no large video board elsewhere in the park, which is highly unusual by MiLB standards. I think including it in this location just adds to the unique and innovative nature of this ballpark. You’ll also notice a manual scoreboard, which always boosts the visual appeal of a ballpark in my books. Throw in the home run bull, a sports bar and tons of seating/standing choices on top of the Monster, and you’ve easily got one of the coolest features throughout all of the minor leagues.

I figured that I needed to spend some time in this unique outfield area now that the game was underway, so that’s exactly what I did. I watched a little of the action from this spot …

… and then stood at the railing on the Monster for a bit, where I could look right down to see Durham left fielder Joe McCarthy:

Between innings, I snapped this shot of myself with the bull:

I spent a couple of innings in that spot and then decided to go find another vantage point from which to watch. The sky beyond the right field corner had turned a nice shade of blue-orange-purple, so I opted for a seat down the third base line where I could enjoy this amazing view:

About half an inning after taking the photo above, I stood up to stretch between innings and noticed an equally appealing sky over my left shoulder. Check out this shot:

That’s the Lucky Strike water tower rising above the American Tobacco district, and the area in the bottom right is a pop-up mini golf course that many fans were playing before, during and after the game.

I watched the remainder of the game from this vantage point, and then made the easy walk back to my hotel through the balmy Durham night after the game concluded. The appeal of the area around the ballpark made me want to stay out and explore more, but after a long travel day and about 16,000 steps, I was ready to get off my feet and call it a night. My plan to explore Durham wouldn’t have to wait long, however — I had an exciting walking tour planned for the following afternoon.

Buffalo Bisons – April 19 and 20, 2019

What has 700 miles of driving, three scheduled games and only two actual innings of baseball?

My first road trip of 2019, that’s what!

If you follow my adventures on my various social media channels, you’ll know that the 2019 season didn’t exactly get off to a baseball-filled start for me. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a good time in Buffalo in my quest to see some baseball at the newly named Sahlen Field.

April road trips — in the northeast, anyway — can be really hit or miss. This is the fourth time I’ve taken a trip in April, and each one has involved frigid cold, rain, snow or a combination thereof. My visit to Buffalo didn’t involve snow, but it was extremely heavy on the cold and the rain.

I left my house early on the rainy morning of April 19 with the plan to get into Buffalo around lunchtime, do some sightseeing, check into my hotel and then head over to Sahlen Field before batting practice began. Those plans changed dramatically when I got to Niagara Falls, Ontario, and was stuck in one of the worst traffic jams I’ve ever encountered. How bad? Well, it took me about two hours to cover a distance of one mile as I approached the Rainbow Bridge from Ontario to New York. It sounds implausible, I realize, but I can assure you that it’s true — after all, I had little to occupy me during this time other than watch the suggested arrival time on my GPS.

Frustrations about traffic aside, I was glad to finally cross the border, make the short drive to me hotel and check in. There wasn’t any time to unpack or get settled, though. After I took this photo of a nice pond outside of my window …

… I headed back to the parking lot and hopped back into my car to make the short drive to Sahlen Field.

It’d been raining virtually the entire day, and I was pretty sure that the Bisons game that evening against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders would be rained out. Nevertheless, the Bisons Twitter account made a few tweets that suggested the team was still hopeful to play.

I pulled into the ballpark’s parking lot a couple of minutes after 4 p.m. under drizzly conditions, and made my way through the lot toward the security gate to pick up my pass. From the parking lot, I had my first glimpse of the field …

… and it was no surprise that the tarp was on and not a player was in sight.

Still, I was excited to get my first ballpark visit of what is going to be a very exciting 2019 season underway — and to also check out this ballpark for the first time since 2012.

After picking up my pass, I walked through the tunnel beneath the stadium, rode the elevator up to the concourse and immediately went to the upper deck to snap this bird’s-eye view of Sahlen Field:

By now, as you might have noticed in the image above, the RailRiders pitchers were playing catch in left field. That didn’t mean that the conditions were dry, though. I was surprised to see the group of them out there, given that the rain was falling steadily. I watched the action for a few minutes under the overhang of the roof above the top rows of the upper deck, and then descended to the main concourse to have a look around. The gates were still about 45 minutes from opening, which meant that things were pretty quiet. This is how the concourse on the first base side looked:

And how did things look on the third base side, you might wonder? Good news! I’ve got a picture for you:

I wandered around the lower and upper concourses for a bit, which was fine, but I really wanted to be out near the field. Unfortunately, the rain was still coming down, and while I’m not made of sugar, I’m also not a huge proponent of standing in the rain. Taking photos is difficult because of how quickly raindrops get on the camera lens — which was definitely an issue because of how hard the wind was blowing — and I hate having raindrops on my glasses.

After another lap of the concourse, I went back out to the covered area in the upper deck to check how hard it was raining. The verdict? It was still raining hard, as evidenced by this photo:

I’ve been around baseball long enough to know that this game was not going to be played, despite my hopes to the contrary. That said, I figured that if I was at the ballpark, I might as well have something to eat. If the name Sahlen Field isn’t familiar to you, you might know this ballpark by its former name, Coca-Cola Field. Or the name before that, Dunn Tire Park. Or North AmeriCare Park. Or Pilot Field. Yep, it’s had a few names over the years. In any case, the park was renamed this past off-season, with the naming rights bought for 10 years by the Sahlen Packing Company — a meat processing company based in Buffalo that has been around for 140 years. As you might expect, the Sahlen name means that the ballpark’s concession stands sell Sahlen hot dogs — which seemed like a fitting first meal of the season for me. I grabbed a hot dog, topped it with mustard and went out to the covered seats on the third base side to snap this photo:

It was a tasty meal, and its warmth was highly welcome on this chilly day.

After eating, I went back up to the upper deck and stood behind home plate to snap this panorama of the scene:

I took the photo above at 5:41 p.m., which meant that the game’s scheduled start time of 6:05 p.m. was obviously not going to happen. The Bisons had made a Twitter announcement saying that the start time would be pushed back, but that they still hoped to play.

It’d already been a long day for me, and I would’ve wagered a heck of a lot that not a single pitch would been thrown that night. So, I made the executive decision to call it an evening. After one more lap through the park, I returned to the parking lot and headed back to my hotel. Not a characteristic move for me, I realize, but the idea of standing in the cold, wet and rainy conditions for much longer without any baseball to watch had lost its appeal. Shortly after I got back to the hotel, I checked Twitter and, as expected, the game had been postponed.

I spent my evening watching some baseball on TV and got to bed early in anticipation of a long day of baseball the following day, as the Bisons and RailRiders had a doubleheader scheduled.

***

Saturday, April 20:

The first thing that I did when I woke up on Saturday morning was lift the blind of my hotel room window to check the conditions outside. To my dismay, it was still raining, albeit lightly. This wasn’t much of a surprise, given that the forecast was calling for rain all day Friday and Saturday, but I was hopeful things would look a little drier. It was all well and good to lose the first game of my road trip to rain, but I definitely didn’t want the doubleheader to be a wash.

Feeling a little discouraged by the crummy weather, but still eager to get back to Sahlen Field, I once again made the short drive downtown and parked my car in the lot behind the outfield fence a little after 10 a.m. The doubleheader was scheduled to start at 1:05 p.m., and while I knew there wouldn’t likely be any batting practice, I wanted to be at the ballpark just in case anything exciting happened.

Since I hadn’t done so a day earlier, I decided to take a full walk around Sahlen Field. There was some sporadic drizzle at times, but the conditions at this point were mostly dry — although the 42-degree temperature and heavy winds made for less-than-ideal conditions. Determined to make the most of my visit, I walked across the parking lot and followed this path behind the outfield fence:

Before I ascended the stairs that you see in the image above, I peeked through a chain-link fence that was a few yards behind the outfield fence:

Once I got to street level, I started up the third base side where I stopped to take this panorama …

… and then continued a little farther before stopping to snap the ballpark from this angle:

After a full lap, I looked through to the field and saw that the tarp was still in place and that no one was around, so I decided to take advantage of the quiet morning by walking a few blocks to KeyBank Center, home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. My mission was twofold. I’d never previously checked out the arena, so I was interested in seeing it. And, if the team shop just happened to be open, I knew I could browse through it for a few minutes to warm up. I’m happy to report that I had success on both fronts. After snapping this photo of Alumni Plaza …

… I entered and spent about 10 minutes getting warm inside of the team shop.

Soon enough, it was time to brave the elements once again, so I made the short walk back to Sahlen Field, pausing to snap this cold-looking photo before I went in:

As I’d done a day earlier, I entered via the security gate adjacent to the parking lot, made my way through the tunnel and went up to the concourse. Then, I went straight out to the cross-aisle behind home plate and took this photo:

Beyond my chilly face, you’ll see a positive sight — the tarp was off! The rain had fully let up by this point, and the grounds crew was starting to prepare the infield.

A minute or so after I snapped the image above, I took this panorama and couldn’t help but smile. I had a pretty good feeling that there’d be some baseball coming up:

You might’ve noticed in the panorama above that the Bisons had come out and were playing catch in right field. The players were thoroughly bundled up due to the cold, but I decided to go get a closer look to see who I could recognize. I made my way along the wet cross-aisle to the party deck in right field, where I snapped this panorama …

… and then went down to the front row to watch the action for a few minutes.

Since it wasn’t currently raining, I decided to take some time to exploring the open parts of the ballpark that I’d neglected to see a day earlier because of the wet conditions. There are some International League facilities at which fans’ ability to spend time beyond the outfield fence is limited, but that certainly isn’t the case at Sahlen Field. In addition to the party deck that I’d visited a moment earlier, there’s a huge picnic area, a grass berm, concessions, bathrooms and a lot of walking space. Granted, there wasn’t much going on in these areas during my visit, but I know that when the weather is good during the summertime, this area is packed with fans and has a lively vibe. Here’s how the view looked from the area a handful of yards behind the fence:

After spending a bit of time walking around behind the fence, I made my way back to the seating bowl. One of the cool Sahlen Field features (which actually reminds me of Frontier Field in nearby Rochester) is that there’s a pedestrian bridge between the seating bowl and the party deck beyond the right field foul pole. It provides a nifty vantage point of the stadium, and that’s where I stood to take this next shot:

I took another lap around the concourse, mainly in an effort to get out of the wind for a few minutes, and then went down to field level in advance of the dog parade that was scheduled for 12:20 p.m. as part of the team’s Bark in the Park promotion. Normally, I have zero interest in such things, but I’d learned that my friend and fellow blogger Rox-Anne and her husband Adam were planning to be in attendance at the game, and I wanted to snap some pictures of them on the field. I wasn’t sure how easy it’d be to spot them, but the miserable weather meant that the turnout of dogs and owners was fairly low, and I quickly identified them and shot some photos like this one:

Shortly after the dog parade ended, the players began filtering back onto the field, so I went down to the front row on the Bisons’ side.

I wasn’t the only one.

While the weather kept the Sahlen Field crowd small, a considerable percentage of those in attendance were gathered down the first base line in anticipation of seeing #1 prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. take the field. I’d be lying if I wasn’t pumped to see him, too. In fact, Guerrero and the other young Bisons’ prospects — namely Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio — were a big part of the reason for my first trip of the season. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to see a number of future MLB stars in the minors — Bryce Harper, Christian Yelich, Billy Hamilton and a whole bunch more — but I’d never actually seen a #1-ranked prospect at the minor league level. (When I saw Harper in 2011, he was actually ranked #2; some guy named Mike Trout was #1.) I was fortunate to see Guerrero Jr. in a Spring Training game in Montreal last season, but there’s nothing like seeing top prospects in the minor leagues — and I was eager to see him emerge from the dugout.

Before that happened, however, there were plenty of other Bisons to see up close. When I was last at a Bisons game, they were affiliated with the New York Mets. The Toronto Blue Jays became the parent club in 2013, and while I’d seen the Bisons on the road since that change, the lifelong Blue Jays fan in me was especially excited to see them at home. David Paulino was scheduled to pitch for Buffalo, so he and catching prospect Reese McGuire were the first players to make their way down the line. Here’s McGuire after he finished stretching …

… and here he is standing directly below me:

A moment later, some familiar-looking players caught my eye as they posed for some photos behind home plate. I was obviously a couple hundred feet away, but managed to snap this photo:

Before long, pitcher Danny Barnes made his way to the bullpen bench. I was excited to see him not only because he’s played more than 100 games in the big leagues, but also because I got his autograph all the way back in 2011 when he was with the Lansing Lugnuts. Anyway, Barnes was tightly gripping a cup of coffee, which I’m imagining provided a little warmth against the chilly winds, as he sat down right below me:

The other relievers soon made their way to the bullpen area, and I watched the goings-on below me while keeping an eye trained toward the Bisons’ dugout.

During this time, I casually watched an interaction between a player and a couple of young fans that I think bears sharing. The player, who I’m not mentioning by name, was chewing tobacco while he warmed up. Smokeless tobacco is banned in the minor leagues, but that doesn’t mean that a lot of players don’t do it. Anyway, when the two young fans called out to the player, he raised his glove to his face, removed the dip, discreetly dropped it on the warning track and ground it into the clay with his cleat — and then made his way over to engage with the two youngsters. In an age in which we’re very quick to take to social media to speak poorly about professional athletes, I was impressed with how this particular player obviously wanted to portray a positive image before he approached the kids.

Soon enough, Bichette was the first of the future superstars to emerge, running onto the grass behind the infield to begin the process of warming up:

It wasn’t long before the man who’s made countless headlines in recent weeks — he made his major league debut last Friday in Toronto — ran onto the field to considerable applause:

For the next 10 or so minutes, I had a blast watching the Guerrero, Bichette and their teammates getting loose not far from where I stood:

I continued to snap some photos during the anthems, including this one of Bichette, Guerrero and Roemon Fields:

I took some post-anthem photos, too, capturing this one of Bichette playing catch …

… and this one of Guerrero Jr. telling what appeared to be a humorous story to teammate Richard Ureña, who was just out of frame to the right:

As first pitch approached, a lot of the fans who’d flocked to the front row to watch the warm-ups went back to their ticketed seats, and I moved in to get a better view of the action. It wasn’t long before Bisons hitting coach Devon White took his spot in the first base coach’s box, and I was excited to snap some photos like this one:

White, of course, was someone I closely followed as a kid. He patrolled center field at SkyDome for the Blue Jays from 1991 to 1995, winning six Gold Gloves and two World Series titles in that span.

When I visit a ballpark, I’m normally more interested in the ballpark than the game, and am happy for the game to be somewhat of an afterthought as I explore the facility. On this visit, though, I was eager to watch the Bisons’ top prospects get their first at-bats, especially since the game a day earlier had been postponed and I was a little concerned about how the weather might jeopardize game two of the doubleheader. I settled into a spot behind the end of the dugout and watched Bichette lead off the bottom of the first:

A couple of batters later, it was Guerrero Jr.’s chance to step to the plate …

… and he drew a walk:

While Biggio batted, I kept an eye of Guerrero Jr. as he took his lead off first base:

Did you notice anything in the background? More rain!

It had started to drizzle again, and the sky was dark in places. Not a good sign of things to come.

At the end of the first, I set off in search of something to eat. The Bisons have dramatically improved the concession options since I was last in town, and I was eager to try something new. I opted for an order of Pizza Logs, which consist of cheese, pepperoni and pizza sauce inside of a wonton-like wrapper:

The Pizza Log company is based just outside of Buffalo, and I always like to try local fare when I’m able. They were better than I’d expected, and way better than a pizza pocket if you’re making that comparison.

The rain wasn’t appearing to lighten up, so I moved to a covered area behind home plate after I ate:

You might be thinking, “Hey, I don’t see any rain in the image above.” If so, I can assure you that it was indeed drizzling, although the sky had lightened up a little.

I decided to run up to the upper deck for the third inning, and here’s how things looked once that inning began:

To quote Carl Lewis when he botched the national anthem back in the day: Uh-oh.

The sky completely opened up, sending the teams scrambling for their dugouts — and prompting the video board to change to a message that could aptly sum up my weekend in Buffalo:

Again, the team indicated on Twitter that it had hopes of resuming play, but the forecast told a different story. I decided that I’d make the most of the rain delay by exploring Sahlen Field a little. I started by going back down to the tunnel under the concourse, where I saw the Bisons’ clubhouse …

… and the batting cages, which were understandably quiet at this point:

I hung out around the cages for a bit, chatting with one of the security guards and secretly feeling hopeful that some players would show up to hit. That didn’t happen, so I went all the way up to Consumer’s Pub at the Park, which is a full-service restaurant on the ballpark’s mezzanine level. As you might expect, given the shelter and warmth that it provided, it was absolutely packed. I checked out the view of the field from this area, which was impressive, and kicked myself for not visiting earlier in the day.

As was the case a day earlier, I faced a decision. The team was suggesting that more baseball might be played later on, but my Spidey-sense was telling me otherwise. And when I noticed about half a dozen Bisons staff members heading to the parking lot, I knew that the probability of one more pitch being thrown was extremely low. By this time, I’d been out in the cold for more than four hours, and had pretty much had my fill of being frozen and wet. As I’d done a day earlier, I took a gamble that there’d be nothing more to see during this visit, and headed out of Sahlen Field. As I left via the right field corner, I turned back once more to take a last look at the rainy park:

Indeed, I was right. As had happened a day earlier, the Bisons officially called the game shortly after I left. I hadn’t expected this day to wrap up so early; with a doubleheader scheduled, I was originally counting on being at the ballpark from about 10 a.m. until probably 6 p.m., and that left me with a big block of time to fill. I gave some thought to doing some sightseeing around town, but most of the attractions I’d earmarked before my trip were outdoors, and the idea of spending more time outside was unappealing. I decided to grab some food and head back to my hotel to hang out for the rest of the evening. That proved to be a good decision, because my hotel was a fun place to be. I’d booked this stay at the Hyatt Place Buffalo/Amherst, and chose it because of my familiarity with the Hyatt Place brand — a brand I’ve visited in several different major league and minor league cities. Here’s the hotel from the outside:

Each of the guestrooms at this hotel is divided into a sleeping area and a living space, and I knew that with a lot of time to kill, I wouldn’t feel cramped in my room. Check out the large sitting area, complete with this L-shaped couch that was perfect for reclining on while I watched an afternoon baseball game on TV:

This hotel is located about 15 minutes from Sahlen Field, in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst. It gives you the best of both worlds — you can make the short, easy drive downtown, but not have to deal with the inconveniences of staying downtown. In addition to its huge rooms and convenient location, it offers a stylish lounge with an impressive 24/7 menu, an extensive breakfast area, an outdoor fire pit, a clean and modern athletic center and a lot more. The Hyatt Place Buffalo/Amherst was a good choice for a baseball road tripper like me, and definitely the place I’ll choose when I next set my sights on Buffalo. If you’re planning to see the Bisons in action this season, I’d highly recommend this hotel as the place to stay.

Triple-A Championship Game – September 18, 2018

What’s on your baseball bucket list?

One item that has been on my list in recent years is the Triple-A Championship Game. It pits the winner of the International League against the winner of the Pacific Coast League in a one-game showdown held each September at a neutral site. Every time that the host city is announced, I keep this game in mind as I’m planning my trips, and I’m happy to say that I was able to check out this game as my last game of 2018.

My final trip of the season consisted of four days in Milwaukee. But, instead of flying straight home after my time at Miller Park, I took a detour to Columbus to see the best of the IL and the PCL square off. As I was planning this trip, I was happy with how easily things came together. The flight from Milwaukee to Columbus was only $139, and it was kinda/sorta in the same direction as home, so I figured this wasn’t an opportunity that I could miss.

September 18 began with another 3:30 a.m. alarm, followed by a drive to the airport to catch an early flight. There weren’t any direct flights from Milwaukee to Columbus, which meant that I had to fly to Atlanta for a 65-minute layover and then onto Columbus. That was fine, though, and even upon losing an hour due to a time zone change, I was in Ohio before noon. The early arrival meant that I could pick up my rental car, grab some lunch and then check into my hotel early in the afternoon so that I could relax for a couple of hours before heading over to Huntington Park.

Throughout the day, I was excited to get back to this ballpark. I’d only been there once in the past — a visit back in 2013, which you can read about here — and was really impressed with it. Plus, the excitement of the Triple-A champ being crowned meant that this was anything but a regular minor league game. After a couple of hours relaxing in my hotel room, I made the short drive to Huntington Park, parked cheaply a few block away and was soon looking at this sight:

It was still about an hour before the gates were scheduled to open, but I was pleased to see a handful of fans already milling around at each entrance, including the home plate one pictured above. I’ll admit, though, that I had no idea what to expect in terms of the crowd, given that this was my first time at an event of this type. I soon made my way around to the center field entrance, and there were a handful of fans already lined up in this area, too. Here’s how this spot looked as a panorama:

I wasn’t feeling a big need to be the first fan into the park, so I took the next little while to hang out in the shade. I also spent some time standing with some other fans along West Nationwide Boulevard, which runs beyond left field. Batting practice was taking place, and I knew there’d be a chance that some baseballs would leave the ballpark in this area. I didn’t manage to catch anything, though, so I soon went back to the center field gate and waited in line. As soon as the gates opened, I headed directly to the seats in right field, and saw that the PCL champion Memphis Redbirds were hitting. The major thing that struck me, however, was the use of temporary netting above the outfield fence:

I’ve never seen such a thing in the outfield at any of the stadiums I’ve visited, and thought this was a strange site. As expected, it was taken down before first pitch, and while I can understand the team’s efforts to protect fans, I also think the idea of preventing people from catching BP baseballs is something that would’ve likely bothered a lot of people in attendance. I was pretty indifferent to the whole thing — just surprised, mainly — and, besides, I don’t think I could’ve fit a baseball into my carry-on suitcase even if I’d wanted to. (For the record, there were a few balls that soared above the netting and landed in the bleachers, much to the delight of the fans who were obviously hoping for a souvenir.)

Next, I went over to the grass berm in left-center and snapped this photo of the video board, which was currently displaying the Redbirds and Durham Bulls lineups. A couple of noteworthy things in this next shot — more netting in the foreground, and a neat Triple-A Championship Game flag flying high on the left of the image:

Before leaving the outfield area, I decided to spend some more time watching BP from a vantage point I found that wasn’t obscured by the netting. I’d gone up into this picnic area, which was currently unoccupied …

… and from there, I had this view of the field:

I figured that if one of the Memphis right-handed hitters pulled the ball a little, it might stretch into foul territory and end up landing near where I stood. That didn’t happen, but I still enjoyed hanging out in that area for a few batters.

Next, I started to make my way down the third base side toward home plate, and stopped to look back and snap this photo of the netting above the fence:

Has anyone else experienced a ballpark with temporary outfield netting for BP?

I decided that it was now time to eat, and I knew exactly what I was going to get. While I like switching up my ballpark meals as much as possible, there was no way that I was missing out on some ribs from the City Barbeque concession stand. I’d tried them during my previous visit in 2013, which happened to be a “Buck-a-Bone” promotion, and really enjoyed them. I don’t normally eat so early upon arriving at the ballpark, but I wondered if concession stand lines might be long later on, and wanted to take advantage of a quick bite now. The City Barbeque stand is in the right field corner, so I made my way around home plate and was happy to see no lineup at the concession stand when I got there. A moment later, I was happily seated in the third base seats munching on these:

The ribs were every bit as good as I’d remembered them, and while ribs aren’t generally the first type of barbecued fare that I’d order, this is a must-eat item at Huntington Park, as far as I’m concerned. Crispy bark, good smoky flavor and not too much fat = my definition of perfect ribs.

After eating, I went around to the seats behind home plate to watch a few minutes of batting practice from this vantage point:

You’ve got to admit that the home plate view from Huntington Park is outstanding. I love seeing the city skyline, and that includes Nationwide Arena (home of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets) which you can see in the distance on the foul side of the left field foul pole.

The next spot that I visited was the two-level home run deck in right field, which you can actually see on the right side of the panorama above. It’s a spot that groups normally reserve, but there didn’t appear to be a group that had booked it for this game. I spent a few minutes enjoying this view …

… and then shifted my attention to the AEP Power Pavilion:

This is one of the most unique seating selections that I’ve encountered in the minor leagues so far, and while you’re a considerable distance from home plate — as the creative markers on the building will point out — I think it’d be outstanding to watch a game from those bleachers under the “480” sign. Unfortunately, the upper level of this structure appeared to be closed on this occasion, so I’ll have to wait a little longer to explore it.

Despite all the exploring (and eating) that I’d done so far, first pitch still hadn’t happened. By now, BP had wrapped up and the grounds crew had prepared the field, so I went down to the third base line to snap some photos of the Redbirds warming up. Given that I’d only seen four PCL teams in action up to that point, I was excited to check out the Redbirds in the flesh feathers, so to speak. Here’s infielder Alex Mejia warming up:

And here’s outfielder Randy Arozarena playing catch:

Finally, here’s outfielder Lane Thomas:

I grabbed a spot in the seats on the third base side for the pregame ceremonies …

… and then went over to the first base side of home for the first inning:

I spent the next inning or so just wandering around the park and enjoying the various sights. I spent a decent amount of time in the team shop, which is on the ground floor of the AEP Power Pavilion. In particular, I was checking out a number of game-used items, including lots of cleats and promotional jerseys. (No pants, though!)

Then, I met up with a Twitter friend who runs the Minor League Promos Twitter account, which is one of my favorite Twitter follows. (I’m not mentioning his name here because I get the feeling that he likes to stay at least somewhat anonymous.) We’d made plans to meet at this game, and I spent a couple of innings sitting with him in the outfield bleachers. It’s always fun to meet another baseball nut, and I really enjoyed hearing some of his stories about his various baseball trips and asking him questions about his super-successful Twitter account. I hope our paths will cross again at some point.

After he and I said our goodbyes, I went over to the grass berm, where I had this view:

Later on, I returned to a spot in the outfield bleachers, where I had a good view of this sprinkler system malfunction:

And that’s where I spent the remainder of the game, watching the Redbirds beat up on Durham — which was the defending champion — by a score of 14-4.

I didn’t waste much time hurrying out of the park as soon as the game wrapped up, and was back to my hotel and into bed for some overdue sleep not much later.

Instead of flying home the next morning, I’d booked a second day in Columbus as a precaution in the event that the championship game got rained out. I spent the following day doing a few bits of sightseeing around the city, including touring the Ohio State University campus and checking out the sports facilities. Here I am in front of Ohio Stadium, the 100,000+ seat football facility:

The following day, I was once again up at 3:30 a.m. to begin my trip home, thus wrapping up an outstanding 2018 season of baseball travel

Bring on the 2019 season!

Charlotte Knights – August 29, 2018

My third day in Charlotte included another evening Knights game at BB&T BallPark, but before I headed to the ballpark, I had another sports facility to visit. A day after using some spare time to visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame, I made the short walk over to Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers. It’s only a block away from the ballpark, and offers daily tours. The tour that I took was only $6, and was very extensive — including a visit to field level, the visiting locker room, several luxury suites and more locations around the stadium.

After the tour, I grabbed a sub on the short walk back to my hotel and took it up to my room to eat. In my previous posts, I noted how conveniently located the Hilton Charlotte Center City was to not only the ballpark, but also to the other sports venues that I wanted to see. This is definitely the hotel that I recommend when you visit Charlotte on a baseball trip, and not only for its location. For more on the hotel, check out the bottom of this post.

As I did a day earlier, I walked over to BB&T BallPark between two and two-and-a-half hours before first pitch, which would once again give me plenty of time to explore. Even though I was eager to get inside, I spent a few minutes walking around the park’s exterior and looking at it from different angles. I took a handful of shots, but I’ll share just this one — this image of the main gates from across South Mint Street, which separates the ballpark from the picturesque Romare Bearden Park:

A moment after taking this photo, I entered the park and decided to go right up to the home run porch in right field — a place that I’d visited a day earlier, but in which I wanted to spend a little more time. In this spot, I snapped this shot:

You can see a bit of Romare Bearden Park behind me and, of course, some of the city skyline that never gets old. You might’ve also noticed that I’m wearing one of my stars and stripes road trip T-shirts shirts — the first time I’d worn it, actually — which you can buy here if you’re interested.

Batting practice hadn’t taken place during either of my first two visits to BB&T BallPark, so when the players emerged onto the field and started to gather around the cage, I left the home run porch and walked over to a spot just above the first base dugout, where I had this view:

I didn’t do much walking around during BP. Instead, I mostly hung out in various spots behind home plate and just enjoyed the scene in front of me. Shortly before the gates were due to open, I made my way over to the area immediately inside of the main gates. The Knights were welcoming longtime MLB pitcher Steve Avery for an autograph signing, and I wanted to see him up close for a few minutes. You probably know Avery’s name — he was a key member of the talented Atlanta Braves pitching staff of the early 1990s — and while he didn’t get the same acclaim as teammates Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, Avery ended up winning 96 ballgames in his career and was a part of Atlanta’s 1995 World Series-winning team.

Avery spent the last few minutes before the gates opened chatting with Knights staffers and even signing a few autographs for them …

… and as soon as fans entered the stadium, they quickly lined up next to him. I’m not sure how long he spent signing, but it had to be at least half an hour, and I’m sure that a few hundred fans left BB&T BallPark that night as happy owners of Avery’s autograph.

While Avery signed, and the grounds crew prepared the field after the completion of BP, I set off in search of something to eat. I always find that it can sometimes be difficult to choose my meal during my last visit to a ballpark. Even after visiting the previous two days, there were still a lot of menu items that sounded appealing — and that meant that the pressure was on to find something good. After excellent cheesesteak nachos during my first visit and an interesting but awkward hot dog on Day #2, I went in a different direction and bought a hamburger. This wasn’t any ol’ burger, though. It was called the Dragon’s Breath Burger (I’m assuming to pay homage to the enormous dragon near the batter’s eye) and it promised to be spicy.

The spice came in the form of habanero pepper relish and jalapeno pimento cheese. I decided to go grab a quiet seat in the outfield to tackle this burger, and I’m glad I did — it would’ve been awkward for any fans in busier sections of the ballpark to witness my tears.

This was easily the hottest freaking thing I’ve ever eaten at a ballpark, and probably one of the hottest things I’ve ever had in my life. The jalapeno pimento cheese wasn’t noticeable because of the heat of the habanero relish, which seemed to essentially just be a generous spoonful of finely diced habanero peppers. You can see plenty of the relish (in orange) in this image:

So, how hot is a habanero? I actually grow them in our garden, and know that a fraction of one pepper will nicely spice an entire pot of chili, for instance. It felt as though there was at least one full pepper on this burger, which put it well past the point of being “nicely spiced.” In terms of metrics, a jalapeno pepper can register as high as 10,000 units on the Scoville scale, but a habanero can get as high as 350,000 units. It’s about as hot a hot pepper you can find before you get into the “ridiculous” range with ghost peppers, Carolina reapers, etc. All of this meant that even a valiant effort from me wasn’t enough to finish this burger. After just a couple of bites, I was sweating, hiccuping, my eyes were watering and my nose was running.

I regretted not being able to finish the burger, but each bite was agony. I generally like spicy foods, but this meal was just too much for me.

After unfortunately tossing the rest of the burger, I blew my nose several times as though I was in the midst of a mid-January head cold — which might’ve seemed bizarre to any onlookers, given the pleasant August weather. Then, I walked over to the Charlotte bullpen area to watch the Knights get ready. As you can see here, they were wearing their throwback uniforms, which are clearly inspired by the old unis of their parent club, the Chicago White Sox:

I watched the warm-ups from field level, and then headed over to the team shop — known as “The Knights Armor Shoppe” — to browse for a bit before first pitch:

I was actually inside of the shop when the game began, but soon went back out to the concourse and once again made my way around to the third base side for the first couple innings of action. Here was my view in the bottom of the second:

For the rest of the game, I spent time in a bunch of places — an inning in the outfield, an inning on the home run porch, an inning on the grass berm, and so on — and, of course, I closed out the game by hanging out on the third base side of home plate where I could take in the view as the evening turned to night, wrapping up three outstanding days in Charlotte.

As I noted, the three days in Charlotte were really augmented by the caliber of my hotel. I always love choosing the hotels that I’ll visit on my baseball trips, and I’m glad I chose this one. From the moment I checked in to the time that I left, I enjoyed everything about this hotel — even though I was on the go so much that it didn’t feel as though I spent a lot of time there. Take a look at the image of the check-in area …

… and here’s a shot of a guest room identical to mine; I used a photo from the hotel’s website because it looked better than the ones I took:

The room was absolutely perfect. A really comfortable bed, free Wi-Fi that was really fast, free bottled water, a mini fridge and more, with everything spotlessly clean, were all things that I appreciated about my room at the Hilton. Every day of my trip was long and full, so it was always nice to have a comfortable hotel room with all the amenities I’d ever need to return to each night. It will definitely be the hotel I choose whenever I get back to Charlotte.

The end of my visit to Charlotte wasn’t the end of this trip, fortunately. About 12 hours after leaving BB&T BallPark, I’d be waiting in line at Charlotte Douglas International Airport to catch a flight to my next destination.

Charlotte Knights – August 28, 2018

My first day in Charlotte gave me a chance to thoroughly explore the beautiful BB&T BallPark, and from the moment I walked out the gates that evening, I felt eager to get back to the park a day later. Fortunately, I didn’t have to sit around twiddling my thumbs. I spent much of the morning of Day #2 in Charlotte at the outstanding NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is just over half a mile from the ballpark. Afterward, I grabbed a late lunch at Five Guys, returned to my hotel for a few hours until it was time to head over to the ballpark.

My hotel, the Hilton Charlotte Center City, was one that I’d been eyeing up well in advance of booking the trip to Charlotte. The pictures on the hotel’s website impressed me, as did its central location to everything that I planned to see and do during my visit. Part of the way I spent my time between the hall of fame visit and leaving for the ballpark was wandering around the hotel, which offers a lot to see and do. There’s a huge atrium with a gift shop that I browsed for a bit, and the hotel is also connected to a state-of-the-art YMCA, which I visited, too. One of my favorite features was the plaza outside of the main entrance, which you can see in the photo that I shot through one of the hotel’s windows:

This was a popular spot for guests to sit outside and eat, and the numerous fountains and water features looked cool both during the day and at night.

I really enjoyed staying so close to the ballpark that I was able to walk to it from my hotel. I find that when you’re driving to a game, you’re busy watching traffic, following your GPS and looking for places to park — and that isn’t exactly conducive to enjoying the environment or the overall experience. Making the short walk from the Hilton Charlotte Center City to BB&T BallPark each day gave me the ability to really take in the sights of the city, and something that might sound so simple really boosted my overall enjoyment of my visit to Charlotte.

On my way to the ballpark, I cut through Romare Bearden Park — a five-acre park directly across the street from BB&T. It’s a beautiful space with lots of places to sit, as well as an awesome view of the city’s skyline, and the expansive lawn would make a perfect spot to play catch before heading to the ballgame. Here’s part of the park’s lawn with the ballpark situated just a handful of steps away:

I entered the ballpark about two hours before first pitch, which would once again give me ample time to explore and take in the park’s many features before the gates opened. During my visit a day earlier, I’d been so enthralled with the view that I think I was a little distracted when it came to noting some of the park’s other features. I was determined to change that during my second visit. I began by talking a slow walk around the concourse, which was gloriously empty and looked like this at the time:

As you can see, BB&T BallPark uses an open concourse that is pretty much the norm for newer minor league parks. It’s a design feature that is absolutely integral to the fan experience, in my mind. Wherever you’re walking, you can keep an eye on the field. Even if you have to wait in line at a concession stand for several minutes, you can always see the action on the field. This is such a positive upgrade over the 1980s- and 1990s-era ballparks and their enclosed concourses that cause fans to be oblivious to the action when they’re anywhere but in their seats.

You might have also noticed the standing room spots with the attached bar-style structure along the edge of the concourse — another key design feature at BB&T. A lot of parks only have railings in this area, and while these places are fine to stand, it’s nice to have the bar to hold your food, purse, souvenirs or whatever you’re carrying. I also like that the bar and railing is several feet back from the seats in this area, because no one likes sitting with a fan standing immediately above him or her.

The next place I checked out was the bleacher area in left field. I’d spent a bit of time there a day earlier, but wanted to visit again. There’s no debating that the best seats in the house at BB&T BallPark are behind home plate and on the third base side, but another nice place to watch the game is this bleacher section. You’re nice and close to the field, of course, and when you turn to your left, you’ve got a perfect view of the Charlotte skyline. If you’re visiting with kids, this spot is also a good one because it’s only a short walk over to the kids’ play area, which is located just to the left of the batter’s eye:

From where I stood in the left field seats, I had a good view of the seating situation in right field. It’s another good attribute at BB&T BallPark. I love the small seating sections on the concourse level and the home run porch section, both of which you can see in this photo:

Home run porches are pretty common at MLB parks, but any time that an MiLB team makes a point of including one, I’m always excited to see it. The porch at BB&T is an intimate space, with just a single row of seats and some standing room immediately to the rear of the seats.

After staring at the home run porch from afar for a moment, I decided to make it my next stop. Here’s an image that shows the view of the field from the front row …

… and here’s a shot that I took after turning to my right:

Here, you can see the five rows of outfield seating, which I love. More and more new MiLB parks are making a point of having small outfield seating sections, and I think that it works well. The size of these sections means that they’re more crowded (compared to a larger section having the same number of fans dispersed throughout it) and that creates a fun energy, especially when the team is playing well.

I spent a few minutes on the home run porch, mainly just enjoying the view. I’d stand at the railing and look at the empty field in front of me, and then turn and marvel at the city skyline behind me. When I decided to continue on my journey, I descended to the main concourse and wandered over to the dugout suites. They’re located on the first base side of home plate — if you look carefully, you can see them in the second-last photo — and are comprised of stadium seating, bistro tables, lots of standing room and a pair of indoor suites:

I snapped this shot of myself …

… while I stood next to the dugout suites and watched the grounds crew get the field ready. Then, I moved around the dugout suites until I was immediately behind home plate, about 10 rows from the field. From that spot, I took this panorama of the scene in front of me:

There was no batting practice on this day, but that didn’t mean that things would stay quiet for long. After a few minutes, the visiting Durham Bulls came onto the field and some began to stretch and play catch, while a pair of pitchers took the bullpen mound and threw side sessions. I made my way through the seats in the lower bowl over to where they were throwing, and watched for several minutes:

After a while, I felt a little conspicuous watching the bullpen sessions. The gates hadn’t yet opened, so the seats were completely empty — except for me standing just a few rows from the field. No one was paying me any mind, but I soon decided to continue on my way. I took one more slow walk around the concourse and, once the gates opened, went to the berm in left field. As you can see in the photo below, the picnic area was now occupied:

The grass berm is a neat spot to hang out, and is easily one of the largest seating sections of this type that I’ve ever encountered in all my travels. The odd thing about it is that the view of the field from this area is really obstructed. While you can position yourself to peek through the picnic section and see most of the game, doing so is more than a little awkward. My assumption is that the berm is more of a place to go to hang out than it is to follow the game.

As I did a day earlier, I decided to grab dinner before first pitch. I normally wait until the game gets going, but I was hungry enough and tantalized by the BB&T BallPark menu. This time, I went to one of the hot dog stands, where I grabbed Homer’s Citrus Dog:

It consisted of an all-beef hot dog topped with beef brisket, orange soda coleslaw, grilled green onions and horseradish. Each of the individual components tasted good on its own, but that was the problem — this hot dog was so huge that it was impossible to bite everything at once. I’d nibble some of the coleslaw off the top, pick up the loose brisket pieces and eat them and then eventually take a bite of the hot dog and bun. Don’t get me wrong — everything was tasty, but the need to eat the individual components on their own made this a hot dog that wasn’t memorable for the right reasons. I’ve had a few ballpark meals like this over the years. In an effort to be as creative as possible, a team’s culinary staff comes up with an impressive concept — but one that is very difficult to eat, and that makes it fall a little short, unfortunately.

I spent the first inning and a half of the game standing on the concourse on the third base side. As I’d discovered a day earlier, this spot provides arguably a better view of the city skyline than a spot behind home plate, so I wanted to make sure to enjoy some time there before it got dark:

If you read my post about my first game at BB&T BallPark, you might remember that I’d unsuccessfully tried to flag down Knights outfield Ryan Cordell to say hello. He was the college roommate of my buddy Danny Grauer, so I wanted to surprise him by telling him this news. I once again missed him before the game so, like a day earlier, I positioned myself in the center field seats after leaving the third base side in the hopes of somehow getting his attention between innings. Again, I came up short, but I was able to snap some photos of him, at least:

Speaking of photos, here’s one that you might enjoy. It’s a shot of the picnic area and, most importantly, part of the city skyline as the sun was setting:

I don’t mean to go on and on about the skyline view at BB&T, but it’s such an impressive sight that I needs to be enthusiastically mentioned.

Since I’d been walking or standing almost exclusively since I entered the ballpark more than two hours prior, I decided to grab a seat for a bit. I scanned the park to find somewhere new, and opted for a seat down the first base line:

It didn’t offer a city skyline view, but it gave a good view of the action and put me in a position where I thought there might be a chance of snagging a foul ball. Maybe an inning after I took this spot, I noticed a fan nearby make eye contact with me and approach. It turns out that he recognized me by my shirt, and he took a seat next to me. His name was Greg, and he’s a big baseball fan. We talked about BB&T as well as some other ballparks over the course of about an inning, and then snapped this photo before he departed:

It’s always nice to meet fellow baseball fans during my trips, and an unexpected and deeply humbling thrill when someone recognizes me from social media or elsewhere online. If you notice me at any game, please make a point of coming up and saying hello.

After Greg and I parted ways, I took another lap of the concourse and spent some time in the team shop. Its air conditioning provided a reprieve from the heat, which I appreciated. In addition to a handful of reasonably priced game-used bats — which I didn’t buy only because it’d be a hassle to take on the airplane with me — I also noticed a bin of game-used balls:

This type of souvenir is a fixture at MLB parks, but I don’t often see it in the minors and am always glad when I do.

Later on, I returned to a seat near where I’d been sitting when Greg had approached me …

… and once again had hopes of snagging a foul ball. Just a few batters after I sat down, a player hit a curving foul that ricocheted off a seat about 10 seats to my left, but bounced completely away from me before I could grab it. Lack of a foul ball aside, I really enjoyed this spot and remained there until the end of the game. Then, less than 10 minutes later, I was back in my hotel room and already anticipating my next day in Charlotte.

Charlotte Knights – August 27, 2018

The alarm on my iPod rang at precisely 3:30 a.m. on August 27, signifying the start of a day that would take me from Ottawa, Canada, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to kick off a six-day baseball trip. I’d traveled to Ottawa the afternoon before and booked a hotel next to Ottawa International Airport to make the start of my first day of travel a little easier. Normally, I have to get up mega early to travel to the airport for early morning flights, so waking up at 3:30 a.m. actually represented a chance to sleep in a little. I caught the shuttle to the airport outside of my hotel about 30 minutes after my alarm went off, and cleared customs to begin waiting for my first flight of the day just a short while later.

The first leg of my trip was a 6:05 a.m. flight to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, which is an airport that I first visited back in 2015 when I spent more than seven hours there after missing a flight to Texas. Killing seven-plus hours in any airport is a drag, but I actually enjoyed the time that I spent at the Detroit airport enough that I always transfer through there when there’s a chance. Since I’d had an early start to the day, I was ravenous when I got off the plane in the Motor City at 7:44 a.m., and made a beeline to a Chick-Fil-A where I grabbed a chicken biscuit with two hot sauces and a lemonade for breakfast. My layover was a little more than two hours (much better than seven, right?) so after eating, I went to find a quiet gate and grabbed a seat to wait for my flight to Charlotte:

Boarding that flight proved to be a bit of an adventure. I was in the final boarding group and had a terrible seat in the back row of the airplane. When I finally boarded and got all the way to my spot, it was clear that all of the overhead bins were full, meaning that there wasn’t any room for my carry-on bag. This meant that I had to fight my way back up to the front of the plane through an aisle that was filled with people, and embarrassingly ask for my bag to be gate checked.

“Didn’t fit, huh?” asked the Delta gate attendant who’d earlier commented on my Tabasco T-shirt and told me I was “hot stuff.”

“Nope,” I replied, “and I got all the way to the back of the plane before I realized there wasn’t any room. Not my lucky day, I guess.”

She responded with a sympathetic smile and told me that she’d give me some good news. I watched as she tapped her keyboard a few times, printed a new boarding pass and handed it to me with a wink. When I got back onto the plane and headed for my new seat assignment, I quickly realized that she’d moved me into a seat that had an empty seat beside it — the only one on the plane, other than the one next to my recently vacated back row seat. Things were looking up.

My flight touched down in Charlotte just before noon, and I made my way to the bus station outside of the airport. I often rent cars when I travel, but a little research led me to learn that public transit would be smarter for this visit. There’s a bus route between the airport and the Charlotte Transportation Center, which is only a couple of blocks from the hotel I’d booked, so forgetting about a rental car seemed to make the most sense.

The hotel that I’d booked for this stay, the Hilton Charlotte Center City, proved to be a perfect hotel for the baseball traveler. In addition to being so close to the city’s major transportation hub, it was also within walking distance of BB&T BallPark — as well as a number of other cool tourist attractions that I’d visit over the course of my stay. I was thankfully able to check into my room well in advance of the regular check-in time, and when I got to my room and looked out the window, I could actually see the transportation center. It’s the turquoise-roofed structure:

After checking into my room, I walked just a few minutes to a Panera Bread to buy a salad for lunch. Veggies aren’t in huge supply on my baseball trips, so I figured I’d get a few greens into me while I had the chance. I took the salad back to my room, ate it and relaxed for a couple of hours, and was soon back outside and headed toward the ballpark. Less than half a mile separates the hotel and the ballpark, so it was a short walk but one that gave me an opportunity to see a few sights around the downtown area.

BB&T BallPark opened in 2014 and has frequently made headlines for not only the exceptional city view that it offers fans, but also its overall beauty — and I couldn’t wait to check it out. I arrived a couple of hours before the gates opened, and before I went in, I took a few shots from the exterior. This is the main gate, and I think you’ll agree that it looks pretty awesome:

I took a partial walk around the ballpark, noting the banners that recognize past Knights stars …

… before entering and going up to the press box, where I met with Tommy Viola, the team’s V.P. of communications. He gave me a quick overview of the park before getting back to his pregame duties, and that left me free to begin wandering around. As I mentioned earlier, the crown jewel of BB&T BallPark is its view. I have to admit that when I launched the Best View in the Minors competition last season, I was pretty sure that this ballpark would win. It didn’t, but there’s no knocking the fabulous view that Knights fans get to enjoy all summer. All that said, I wanted to get out to the seating bowl right away to take in the view, so that’s what I did:

It’s funny, because as impressive as the view looks in this photo, it’s far better in person. Standing behind home plate and looking out at the city skyline — much of it new and resplendent — almost seemed to take my breath away. That might sound like a dramatic reaction, but I can tell you that it was a truly dramatic scene.

There was a big part of me that was eager to begin checking out the ballpark from top to bottom, but another part of me wanted to just stand there and take in that view. And with three days in Charlotte, I knew that I’d have plenty of time to explore BB&T BallPark, so I hung out behind home plate for about 10 quiet minutes, just enjoying what I was seeing.

Soon enough, the allure of taking a lap around the concourse was too strong to ignore, so I set out toward the left field foul pole to begin a full lap. I was pleased to see how the concourse wrapped around the entire park. It’s something that is more and more common with newer parks these days and, in my mind, it’s integral to a 10/10 ballpark experience. While I was on the outfield concourse, I snapped this photo of Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, poking over the upper edge of the ballpark:

I love when different sporting venues are close together, and these two venues are just a block apart. (I’m not much of a football fan, but I took an outstanding stadium tour later during my stay, so look for a blog post about that sometime in the future.)

Before I left the center field area, I went down to the front row of the outfield seats to take this photo:

A lot of MiLB parks have traditional aluminum bleachers in the outfield, but I like what the Knights have done here. These aren’t typical stadium box seats, of course, but they’re a nice upgrade over bleachers, don’t you think?

I stopped walking for a moment again when I got all the way over to the right field foul pole, turning back toward center field to take the following photo:

And here’s a shot of the still-quiet home plate area shortly before batting practice began:

When BP got underway, I went down to the front row behind home plate to snap this photo:

Then, I went up to the concourse on the third base side, which gave me this view of the city’s skyline:

If you’re visiting BB&T BallPark next season and are trying to decide where to buy tickets, I definitely recommend sitting on the third base side. The view from behind home plate is outstanding, but even more buildings are visible when you’re on the third base side. Tickets anywhere in this area give you one of the best views in all of baseball — and that includes the big leagues — as far as I’m concerned.

Speaking of being concerned, see that gray cloud in the image above? It soon moved over the ballpark and started to sprinkle, so the grounds crew hustled to tarp the field. I moved up to the edge of the concourse to get some shelter, and stood there until the rain passed. You’ve got to admit that even with a tarp covering the infield, the view was pretty darned good:

I’m happy to report that the rain cleared just as quickly as it had arrived, so it wasn’t long before the tarp was gone, the sky was blue and the gates were open. I took another walk through the park about 15 minutes after the gates opened and noticed a pair of baseballs in the seats down the third base line. One was an MLB ball in decent shape, and the other was an International League ball that had definitely seen better days:

Soon afterward, I decided that it was time to grab some dinner. The airport breakfast and the Panera Bread salad were the only things that I’d eaten all day, and I’d scouted out the BB&T BallPark concession lists online before my visit and knew there were lots of tantalizing choices. I started with order of Philly cheesesteak nachos, which were a new menu item at the start of the season:

For $8.50, I was hugely impressed with the amount of steak piled up on the chips. The volume of steak isn’t necessarily apparent in the photo above, but I can assure you that there was a lot of meat. And the cheese was a cut above what I’d expected, too. It was more like proper cheesesteak cheese than nacho cheese, which helped make this meal a winner and one of the better things I ate all season.

After eating — and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t able to finish the nachos — I wandered over to the grass berm behind the Piedmont Natural Gas Picnic Area in left field. From there, I snapped this panorama:

This is an interesting feature at BB&T BallPark. It’s fairly far back from the field, and the view from this area is partially obstructed, but it’s a cool place to hang out. It was pretty quiet when I took the above photo, but the crowds picked up throughout the evening. It was a Bark in the Park night, so there were tons of dogs with their owners, as well as people on blankets and kids rolling down the hill.

By the time I’d finished wandering around the berm for a bit, the game was about to begin. I took another lap of the concourse so that I could stand behind home plate for the national anthem, and then snapped this shot during the first at-bat of the game:

I’d snapped the following photo of the left field bleachers just before the anthem, and noticed that they were still this sparsely populated midway through the first inning:

I thought I might stand a reasonable chance of snagging a home run baseball if one came my way, so I hurried out and grabbed a front row seat for an inning. No home run balls were hit, so I moved toward center field a bit to give myself a good view of Knights outfielder Ryan Cordell. Before the game, my buddy Danny Grauer (you might remember me meeting him at an Ottawa Champions game a couple of seasons ago and taking in a Norfolk Tides game with him earlier in 2018) had sent me a message to let me know that he and Cordell were college roommates at Liberty University. I’d hoped to catch Cordell during BP to say hello, but wasn’t able to do so. So, the best I could do was watch from afar and hope that he’d maybe come over to the warning track while playing catch between innings, thus giving me the chance to yell down to him.

That didn’t happen, unfortunately, so after an inning or so in that spot, I was on the move again. I caught a little bit of the action from the third base concourse where I had this gorgeous view …

… and then watched a fun between-innings promotion on the video board from across the field. As part of the Bark in the Park festivities that were going on, staffers speared blobs of peanut butter on opposite sides of a large piece of glass, and then a pair of dogs raced to lick it off:

Midway through the game, I grabbed a large unsweet tea from the McAlister’s Deli concession stand, which really hit the spot on a hot evening:

Then, in the bottom of the sixth inning, I grabbed a seat on the third base side of home plate where I could watch the rest of the action with this outstanding view:

As always, the first day of my trip was a long one, but one that offered plenty of excitement. And a lot of that excitement was knowing that I’d be back at BB&T BallPark twice more before leaving town.