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.
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.
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.
I woke up in Norfolk, VA, on the morning of Tuesday, May 29 to the sound of heavy rain.
It wasn’t really a surprise.
Since I’d arrived in Norfolk the previous afternoon, it had rained without reprieve, and I’d be lying if I said I was concerned that I might not get to see a single Norfolk Tides game on this trip. The plan for this trip was to get to Norfolk on Monday, attend the Tides games on Tuesday and Wednesday, and cram in whatever sightseeing I could manage when I wasn’t at the ballpark.
Of course, Mother Nature seemed to have different plans, dropping more than three inches of rain on the city on Monday night. It actually rained so hard at times that I couldn’t get any TV reception in my hotel room, which was definitely a first for me.
By 10 a.m. on Tuesday, though, the rain had stopped and the forecast seemed to improve — making me cautiously optimistic that I’d actually get a chance to see some baseball on this trip.
After some really good sightseeing around the city, I got to Harbor Park around 3:30 p.m., roughly three hours before first pitch. By now, the conditions were dry and the forecast looked fine, and I was very relieved.
Harbor Park is the 67th professional/affiliated ballpark that I’ve visited since 2010 and the 53rd different Minor League Baseball park that I’ve been to. It’s also, for those keeping score, the 10th different International League park at which I’ve seen at least one game. It’s always exciting to visit a ballpark for the first time, and this visit was no exception. I was immediately impressed with the look of Harbor Park from the outside — and I think the following photo does a good job of showing the eye-catching design from just outside the front gates:
As you might’ve noticed in the above photo, there wasn’t much going on outside due to my early arrival time. That was just fine with me — I was just thankful that the rain hadn’t interfered with this ballpark visit. I decided to walk through the parking lot to the right of the main gates, and soon made it to a large plaza area outside the first base entrance:
Did you catch the propeller statue? It’s just one of many nautical-themed sights in and around Harbor Park. The Elizabeth River is immediately beyond the outfield fence at this ballpark, and Norfolk is just a short drive from Virginia Beach. So, yeah, lots of nautical stuff to see.
While still in this area, I snapped the following photo of the gates and the ramp that led up to the concourse level:
My favorite thing in that image? The small ticket office nestled below the ramp. As is the norm, there was a large ticket office beside the main gates, but I thought the inclusion of this other office was a cool touch.
The river was just over my right shoulder as I took the above photo, and I wanted to get a little closer to check it out. Norfolk and the entire Hampton Roads area is dominated by shipbuilding/repairing/naval industry, and that was evident within sight of where I stood outside Harbor Park. This next photo shows an enormous dry dock that belongs to Colonna’s Shipyard. There’s a huge boat from New York City being repaired in it:
Unfortunately, that was as close as I could get to the water. The space behind Harbor Park was completely fenced off, so I gave up on further explorations in that area and took the long walk around the front of the stadium toward the third base entrance and left field corner. Before I got there, I came across another cool sight — a light rail system with a stop adjacent to the Harbor Park parking lot. The train, known as “The Tide,” travels to several areas through Norfolk, but I think it’s awesome that it stops next to the ballpark. It wasn’t long ago that I was in Minneapolis, marveling at the light rail system that carries fans to Target Field, but I think this might be the first time I’ve encountered the opportunity to travel to a minor league ballpark by train:
I continued on my walk across the parking lot until the elevated railway bridges that I believe give Harbor Park one of the most iconic views in the minor leagues came into view. If you’ve seen any picture of Harbor Park over the years, you’ve almost certainly noticed the pair of bridges that point skyward beyond the outfield fence. From where I stood at the far edge of the parking lot, I could see them clearly:
Curious to see how close I could get to them, I headed to my left to a small railway platform that serves Amtrak’s Norfolk Station (which is separate from the light rail station I showed you earlier). I walked the length of the platform toward the bridges before being thwarted by a sign, but I still had a nice view of this iconic Norfolk sight:
Speaking of other Norfolk sights, it was time to get inside Harbor Park to officially be able to cross ballpark #67 off my list. I entered via the main gates, which open into a lobby that houses the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame. I took a couple minutes to browse the many plaques recognizing people from all different sports, and then eagerly climbed a set of stairs to the concourse, hurried across it and snapped this shot:
How’s that for a view? Sure, the clouds weren’t looking all that friendly, but I was thrilled to be inside the stadium and excited to start checking out all of the sights.
I started by going up to the press level, which offered a similarly impressive view. I then descended back to the concourse and began to walk around — starting with a walk down the third base side. I was relieved to quickly identify the Hot Dog Nation concession stand, which I’d read about in advance of my trip and wanted to visit once the gates opened up. After perusing the menu for a moment, I continued all the way down the concourse to the group party deck known as The Virginian-Pilot Picnic Area. It’s new for this season, and I noticed the mild smell of new paint in the air — a definite sign of just how fresh this area is. This is how the picnic area, which can accommodate up to 500 people, looks from the edge of the cross-aisle:
And here’s the view from the edge of this section:
As is always the case with group areas at minor league ballparks, you can’t buy tickets in this section unless you’re buying as a group. But, I later learned, when there’s no group that has booked the section for any given game, it’s open to all fans — and that’s definitely a fan-friendly feature.
I spent a few minutes wandering around the picnic area, in part because it offered a nice view of the field, and in part because it provided me with some much-needed shade. Even though the sky was overcast, the humidity this close to the ocean was tangible, and cooling off under the roof of the picnic zone soon had me feeling refreshed and ready to continue exploring. Instead of retracing my steps along the concourse, I took the opportunity to get closer to the field by walking along the cross-aisle. I think the following photo gives you a good idea of the seating setup at Harbor Park — essentially, two different levels of seating on the lower section, a suite level above, and an upper deck down the lines.
I followed the cross-aisle all the way around the park until I ended up in the party deck immediately behind the right field foul pole. This one contained a bar and a bunch of bar-style seating, and provided this view of the field:
From there, I could also see the railway bridges and the river, as well as the remnants of a dock that once held a popular Norfolk concert venue that was demolished in 2011 after being severely damaged during Hurricane Isabel:
I realize that this area might not look that hot, but I liked it because it was neat to think about a who’s who of popular music playing just behind the ballpark over the years. I also appreciated the rugged appearance of the area, although I can imagine that the Tides management would love an opportunity to develop this area into usable space at some point in the future.
Speaking of management, my next stop was back in the press box where I met up with Ian Locke, the team’s longtime director of media relations. He offered me a tour of the ballpark, and you know I wasn’t about to turn it down. Even though I’d been to several spots around the park over the last hour or so, hearing Ian’s inside information and insight on these areas really augmented the visit for me — thanks again, Ian!
We began our tour immediately outside of the press area, which provided this view of downtown Norfolk. As you can see, the ballpark is conveniently located to the major arteries running through the city, and the view of the city’s skyline — including the Ferris wheel in the distance — was perfect from this spot:
Next, we headed somewhere that I’d hadn’t previously been — one of the team’s suites. This one is the swankiest in the ballpark, and even featured a vaulted ceiling:
As you might expect, it provided an excellent view of the field, including the railway bridges — one of which was currently descending as we stood in the suite:
Before my visit, I’d strangely always assumed that the bridges remained up. I had some idea in my head that they were historic bridges that were no longer used and were set to the upper position to create a cool backdrop behind Norfolk Park, but Ian assured me that they were fully functional. (And I definitely saw them go up and down multiple times over my two visits the ballpark.) I’m not really sure how I came to my erroneous conclusion, other than the fact that the bridges were always pointing skyward in any photo I’d ever seen of Norfolk Park.
We next visited another suite on the opposite side of the park, taking a few minutes to step out into the seats on the balcony in front of it:
This is the setup that many MiLB suites offer, and it’s a cool design. You can enjoy some food and A/C indoors, while also watching the game’s broadcast on TV. And, when desired, you can grab a seat outside to really get the traditional ballpark experience. Talk about the best of both worlds.
Ian took me through the left field picnic area I’d visited earlier and then all the way over to Hits at the Park, a buffet-style restaurant in an enclosed area in the right field corner. It seats 225 people, has a nice-looking bar with multiple TVs and gives fans a pretty extensive buffet — all for less than $20 for adults. Most notably, this is where fans can take the Salute to Pork Challenge, one of the most notable eating challenges in the minor leagues. What does this eating challenge feature, you might ask?
- Four pulled pork BBQ sliders
- Four four-ounce Cajun-smoked sausages
- A dozen pork wings
- Bacon and chili cheese tots
The whole thing weighs about five pounds, and if you can successfully conquer it in an hour, you win tickets to a future Tides game and get your photo on a wall of fame inside the restaurant. Should you fail, your photo goes on the wall of shame. There were far, far more photos on the latter, thus convincing me that I didn’t need to partake in any pork-fueled eating challenges on this visit.
The last stop on our tour was probably my favorite. Ian took me out to the roof to the left field side of the press box, which provided an awesome view of the field and everything beyond it (including the slightly foreboding skies — yikes):
I’ve been fortunate to be able to get up to the roofs of several ballparks over the years, and it’s always a thrill. And Ian told me to feel free to visit the roof as much as I wanted throughout the game, so that’s definitely something I made a mental note to do.
After Ian and I said our goodbyes, I went back down to the concourse level to grab dinner. As I mentioned earlier, the Hot Dog Nation concession stand was on my radar, and one of the noteworthy dogs in particular had my eye. I ordered the Oriole Dog, which pays homage to the Tides’ MLB parent club and one of the popular food choices in Baltimore. It consisted of a hot dog topped with macaroni and cheese and crab meat. I’ve had mac and cheese on hot dogs on a few occasions, but never with crab, too. This was definitely one that I was excited check out:
I definitely give the Tides food services team credit for a cool idea, but it felt a little flat for me. The hot dog itself had a squishy texture instead of the snap that I look for. The mac and cheese was tasty, but the crab was cold — and I got a big piece of shell in my first bite. I think that a few minor tweaks, like heating the crab and maybe seasoning it with Old Bay, would make this hot dog a definite winner.
I’d taken the hot dog to the upper deck, and as soon as finished eating, I went back down to the concourse and made a beeline over to the Tides bullpen in the right field corner. The party deck is directly above the ‘pen, so it provides a perfect spot for watching the Tides pitchers warming up. I spent several minutes watching starter Tim Melville:
And then, once the game began, I spent the first inning in the picnic area in left field in the hopes of snagging a home run ball — something that didn’t happen. There weren’t any fans in the area, so I could’ve theoretically hung out there for a long time in the hopes of getting a baseball, but you know me — I’ve always gotta be on the move. I decided that I’d take Ian up on his offer to visit the roof, so I took the stairs back up to the press level and walked out on the roof on the third base side. Here’s how it looked as I got there …
… and here’s the view of the field from the edge:
I snapped off a handful of photos, and then was content to just hang out in the unique spot and enjoy the game. I ended up staying on the roof for an entire inning, and then went back down to the concourse to visit the team shop — and enjoy a bit of the air conditioning to cool off from all the walking I’d been doing.
After another lap of the concourse, stopping here and there to watch the game from different angles, I went back up to the press level and went to check out the roof on the first base side. From here, I was enjoying looking into the visitors dugout, and there are a couple of things worth pointing out:
For starters, check out the length of the dugout. Harbor Park’s dugouts are longer than average, and Ian told me why. When the park was being built, the team discussed where fans like to sit at games. The consensus was that many fans enjoy sitting behind the dugout, so why not make them longer than they’d otherwise be? It’s a win-win for the fans and for the players. The other noteworthy thing is that there isn’t any netting over the dugouts here. (Woo hoo!) I asked Ian about it, since netting has become the norm in baseball, and he said the nets will be up before much longer. I think it’s cool that I got to experience Harbor Park before that.
After watching a bit more of the game, I snapped this picture …
… and soon afterward, noticed a baseball that had obviously been fouled back onto the roof, and was happy to grab it:
I love the black smudge where it smacked the roof.
A moment after stuffing the ball into my backpack, I headed to the door that led off the roof, turned the knob, and … nothing. It was locked.
I assessed the situation. There wasn’t another way off the roof that I was aware of, at least without acting like Spider-Man. Hmmm. I knocked on the door — normally at first and then loudly, but I knew it was largely futile. On the other side of the door, there was a long hallway with a bend in it, and that meant that no one would likely be within earshot. Plus, anyone who might’ve heard the knocking would’ve been working — the radio/TV rooms and stadium operation rooms were not too far away, but their doors were shut and their staffs were busy. I walked back out the roof to think about my choices. All things considered, at least I was trapped in a good spot to watch the game. But, I legitimately needed to figure out a way off the roof. Thankfully, I thought to send an email to Ian. The Wi-Fi was spotty in this part of the park, so it probably took me 10 minutes to get a connection and actually send the email — but I eventually did … and a short while later,
my knight in shining armor Ian showed up and rescued me.
The rooftop misadventure had worked up an appetite, so I headed along the concourse in search of something else to eat. I don’t always eat two meals at ballparks, but given that I was concerned about a rainout the following day, I wanted to sample another concession stand. There’s a barbecue stand down the third base side that I’d checked out earlier, and it looked promising. I arrived in maybe the fifth inning, and was told that the stand was just about to close. Fortunately, I was able to order a brisket platter, which I took over to one of the picnic tables on the concourse:
The platter consisted of a good helping of brisket, along with two sides and coleslaw. The only sides still available when I placed my order were baked beans and green beans, so I narrowly missed the opportunity to have my second serving of mac and cheese of the day. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very impressed with this meal. The baked beans were fine, the green beans were very soggy — which I can chalk up to the stand about to close, I guess — and the brisket contained far too much fat for my liking.
Underwhelming barbecue did little to dampen my enjoyment of the evening, though, and I soon found myself back on the roof — the third base side, with the unlocked door, for those keeping score — where I took this photo during the game’s late innings:
After a bit of time up top, I watched the last bit of the game from the seats behind home plate, where I had this view:
Just minutes after the final out, I hopped into my rental car and headed back to my hotel. On the drive, I figured that if the next day’s game ended up being a rainout (spoiler alert — it wasn’t) I’d crammed an awful lot into my first Harbor Park visit, and I was thrilled with the overall experience.
It’s impossible for me to understate how much I dislike talking about the weather, hearing about the weather and thinking about the weather.
That said, weather did play a major factor in this week’s trip to Syracuse, so it’s going to come up a time or two in this blog post.
Weather is, of course, the biggest obstacle to face during April baseball road trips. I’ve been rained out, snowed out and shivered for hours in ballparks during games in the first month of the season. It’s probably smartest to wait until May to take a baseball trip, but when you’re eager to get your road tripping season underway, games in April are ever so tempting.
I scheduled three days in Syracuse a few weeks back because the Chiefs schedule was favorable — there were games Monday and Tuesday night, plus a bonus matinee game on Wednesday that I could attend before the three-hour drive home. As the trip approached, though, and winter returned to not only where I live in Canada, but also to New York and several other states, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t concerned about seeing any baseball on this trip.
We got hit with an ice storm on the weekend before I left, which meant that I had plenty of scraping to do before I could even see out my car windows enough to get on the road. The ice had turned to rain by the time I pulled out of my driveway at 9 a.m. on Monday, and I made it all the way to Syracuse without ever turning the windshield wipers off. I checked into my hotel about 2 p.m., and figured that there’d be no way the Chiefs would host the Indianapolis Indians at 6:35 p.m., so I vigilantly checked Twitter for updates on the game’s status. Big kudos to the Chiefs for canceling the game in a timely manner. Even though I love going to any ballpark, the idea of standing around in the rain for an hour or two, only to then hear that the game has been postponed, isn’t that appealing — and this is especially true when it’s 35 degrees!
The postponement meant that the Chiefs and Indians would square off the following afternoon, April 17, and even though snow was in the forecast for that day, I was hopeful I’d get to see at least some baseball.
With game one of the twin bill scheduled for 4 p.m., I pulled into the NBT Bank Stadium parking lot two hours early and parked, and then took a quick and chilly walk around to enjoy the stadium from the exterior. Here’s the first picture I took:
If you think that the conditions look cold in this image, you’re definitely right. The temperatures remained in the 30s and the constant wind made it feel much colder than that. I approached the gates and snapped this shot, which I think looks cool:
I then entered the stadium, went up to the concourse level and was excited to see the field for the first time. I figured that batting practice wouldn’t be taking place, and I was correct. The tarp was on the field and there were flurries in the air, but I was happy to be in the ballpark:
I’ve been to NBT Bank Stadium enough that I didn’t feel a huge need to run around and start taking in all the sights. That said, there were some new additions since I last visited in 2015, so I wanted to check them out. One big and noticeable difference is that five of the seating sections in the upper deck are now tarped off. I’m sure management is never thrilled about having to do this, but I commend the Chiefs on using five different tarp images, including three of the team’s logos. The use of these tarps, rather than just plain ones, add to the look of the park. Here’s a panorama from the corner in left field. You can see three tarps in the foreground and two across the field:
The biggest addition since my last visit — and one I’m sure that management is excited about — is the Jim Beam Party Deck beyond right field. I’ve always felt that the one knock on NBT Bank Stadium has been its lack of outfield seating, which is fairly common among parks of its age. I always love a ballpark that has a concourse that wraps around the entire field, and while that’s not the case in Syracuse, the addition of an expansive party deck that allows you to hang out in the outfield is a big upgrade. Here’s how the deck looks from above:
And here’s how the view from this area looked just a few minutes after the Indians took the field and began to play catch:
The party deck is an appealing hangout. There are picnic tables and bistro tables, as well as a wide railing along the entire front edge of the deck to comfortably hold your food and drink. The deck can accommodate up to 300 people and booking it for your group includes an all-you-can-eat menu. Here’s one more view of the deck:
I watched a few minutes of Indianapolis’ warmup from this area, and then headed back toward home plate when it became evident that the infield tarp was about to be removed — something that is always a welcome sight for baseball fans. After it was gone, I was excited to see the field for the first time:
There were just a few snow flurries in the air before and after the tarp removed, but nothing of concern. The temperature and the wind, however, were bitter. The open concourse at NBT Bank Stadium is perfect because you can always see the field as you’re walking around or waiting in line at the concession stands, but it wasn’t providing much refuge from the wind. Once the gates opened, I hurried into the team shop not just to browse the items, but also to enjoy the warmth — it was definitely the warmest spot in the park. I spent about five minutes in the shop, and then went back outside to brave the elements. In a few minutes, the players would be heading back out to the field, and I wanted to see them come out. As the Indians came out, the flurries started to pick up. The scene felt pretty bizarre, and I could tell that as cold as the players were, they were also a little amused by the weather conditions. Here’s Indians infielder Kevin Newman (who was one of two players who talked to me about my shirt last year in Binghamton) surrounded by flurries as he played catch:
An here’s outfielder Jordan Luplow (who I saw hit a walk-off home run on the last day of the Jamestown Jammers franchise back in 2014) who was wearing ninja-style gear to keep the wind and cold at bay:
By the time starting pitcher Nick Kingham toed the bullpen rubber — after I overhead him joking that his water bottle might freeze — the flurries had intensified:
The increasingly poor weather initially had me concerned about the game getting underway, but as quickly as the snow would worsen, it would then lighten. As first pitch approached, no sort of delay seemed to be imminent. Here’s how the scene looked just four minutes before the game began:
Did you notice the emptiness of the stands? So did I — in fact, I’d never been to a game that was this sparsely attended. Then again, this was the coldest game I’d ever been to, and the only one with snow. I hardly blame Syracuse residents for staying at home on this afternoon. I should note, in fairness, that most of the fans who were at the game were up on the concourse to get shelter from the flurries. That said, I estimate fewer than 100 people were at the game.
As the game began, I headed out to the party deck to enjoy the view of the field from this new vantage point:
Playing right field for the Chiefs was Alejandro De Aza, who’s suited up for more than 800 MLB games in his career. It was clear throughout the contest that he was having a hard time with the snow while he tracked down fly balls. A couple times after making catches, I saw him shaking his head, wiping at his eyes and muttering something in Spanish.
While I was super hopeful of a home run being hit to right field, I also knew that the cold air made that less likely to happen. Being the only fan on the party deck, I would’ve easily been able to track down any balls hit over the fence, but if you know me, you know that I don’t stay put in any given spot for too long. After the top of the first inning, I decided to head back down the concourse and go to the upper deck, where there wasn’t a single other fan. During my 2013 visit, I snagged a pair of foul balls in the upper deck, and I knew I’d have another one without having to wait too long. The second batter for the Chiefs, Adrian Sanchez, hit a foul ball that landed a section away from me, and I was able to easily retrieve it:
You might notice the lack of flurries in the photo above. That’s how the game’s early innings went. There’d be thick flurries, followed by clear conditions — the one constant was the bitter cold.
In the second inning, I took advantage of a brief lull in the flurries to grab dinner. A few of the concession stands at NBT Bank Stadium were closed, likely due to the weather and the small crowds, but that was fine with me. As part of the team’s Taco Tuesday promotion, there was a kiosk in the concourse selling three beef or chicken tacos for $8. I opted for the former, and the staff member told me that I was the first one to buy them on this day — and, by extension, on the season, given that this was the team’s first Taco Tuesday promotion of 2018. The tacos were tasty, and about on par with the soft tacos from Taco Bell. They were definitely something that I’d enjoy ordering again:
While I was eating, another foul flew up toward me. This one was off the bat of outfielder Rafael Bautista, and because I was still the only fan in the upper deck, I was able to walk over and pick up the baseball with tacos in hand:
Shortly after I finished my dinner, the flurries once again picked up. I made my way over to the upper deck on the third base side, where I shot some snowy action pictures, including this one of infielder Kevin Kramer:
During another short lull in the flurries, I headed to the Dunkin’ Donuts concession stand on the third base side — another new addition since my last visit — and bought a hot chocolate, which I enjoyed in the upper deck:
The flurries intensified to the point that there was a 20-minute delay in the game after three innings. The grounds crew covered up home plate and the mound, but didn’t use the big tarp to cover the entire infield — a positive sign, to be sure, that the delay would be short. I spent the delay trying to thaw out in the Hank Sauer Room, a private party room in the right field corner that I’d never previously entered. The Chiefs were gracious enough to open the room for fans looking for some relief from the cold, and there were a handful of fans hanging out in there for some warmth. After the delay, I went back out to the concourse and any warmth that I’d enjoyed in the party room was quickly gone. The temperature was still in the 30s, but the fact that I’d been outside for several hours had finally caught up to me. Although I was wearing warm gloves whenever I could, my hands were bare when I was updating Twitter and taking photos. In fact, my hands got cold enough that typing quickly and accurately were a challenge.
The hot chocolate may have warmed me a little, but I was still freezing when I went out to the party deck at the top of the sixth inning. Luplow, the second batter, blasted a pitch that sailed just a few yards to my left. Off the bat, it looked very much as though it would be a home run, but it ended up hitting the fence a foot or two from the top and caroming back past De Aza. Luplow had himself a triple, De Aza had flurries in his eyes and I just missed out on getting a home run ball. Here’s a shot that I took just before Luplow’s hit; you’ll notice the flurries in the air:
I figured that was as close as I’d come to a home run ball, so I went back down the concourse and watched a half-inning from behind home plate, pressing my body up against one of the pillars in an attempt to keep out of a wind a bit. For the seventh inning, I once again retreated to the shelter of the Hank Sauer Room, where this was the view:
When the first game of the doubleheader wrapped up, I was anticipating waiting 30 or so minutes for the second game to begin — and I planned to stay in the warm spot that I currently occupied for the entirety of the break. Just a few minutes later, however, a staff member arrived to tell me that management had opted to postpone the second game, as the weather was getting colder and the flurries were once again picking up. There was already a 10:30 a.m. game scheduled for the following day, so the postponed game would be tacked onto the end of that game to make another doubleheader. That suited me just fine, but instead of heading straight for the gates, I had one mission to fulfill.
Earlier in the game, I’d seen Indians outfielder Austin Meadows, the top-ranked prospect in Pittsburgh’s system, hit a foul ball into the seats in front of one of the suites on the third base side. I hadn’t seen anyone retrieve it, but I also didn’t want to go into this area if there were people in the suite. As the fans filed out of the stadium, I went up to the upper deck and quickly found the ball:
Afterward, I just stood for a few minutes to enjoy the snowy scene in front of me. I knew that it’ll likely be a long time before I’m at another snow game, so I couldn’t resist just marveling at the unique nature of this day. Here’s how the field looked after the game:
The flurries were still coming down hard when I left NBT Bank Stadium, prompting me to take this shot …
… and I couldn’t resist grabbing this one, too:
Next, I hopped into my car, put the defroster/heater on high, and shivered for a few minutes while the windows defogged. Then, I pulled out of the parking lot and headed toward my hotel. A quick glimpse of the stadium over my shoulder prompted me to pull over and get out to shoot the following photo from afar. Funny enough, the flurries weren’t coming down quite as hard at this moment, and the scene looked peaceful. When I travel to Syracuse for baseball, I always get a thrill turning left off NBT Bank Parkway onto Tex Simone Drive and seeing NBT Bank Stadium through my windshield, and seeing it now with snow on the ground was definitely a scene that I’ll remember for a long time:
As soon as I snapped that photo, I got back into my car and was back to my hotel less than five minutes later. For this trip, I was staying at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Syracuse Destiny USA:
It’s one of the city’s newest hotels and gets its name from being across the street from Destiny USA, the sixth-largest mall in the U.S. A day earlier, when the Chiefs game was rained out, I walked around this expansive mall for about and hour and grabbed some dinner that I took back to the hotel. I did the same on this night, after thawing out for a bit, and ended up visiting the mall four or five separate times during my stay. If you’re headed to Syracuse for a Chiefs game, I can’t recommend this hotel enough. If you’re a big shopper, there’s no better hotel in the city. Or, perhaps you’re a baseball fan and your spouse isn’t — you can head to the game and she could head to the mall.
Another cool point for baseball fans — this hotel is the official hotel of the Chiefs, which means that the visiting team stays there. I picked up on this fact pretty quickly upon my arrival when I saw staff members in Indians gear and players walking around the hotel lobby with Pirates apparel on. Here’s a look at the lobby:
I always get a thrill out of staying at the same hotel as ballplayers, even if I don’t have any interactions with them, and I’m forever scouting out people and trying to assess whether they’re players or not.
My snowy day at the ballpark was certainly memorable, even if I was uncomfortably cold for most of it. The cold didn’t deter me from heading back bright and early the following morning for a doubleheader, albeit one without fluffy white flakes.
I woke up early on the morning of June 21 thankful that I wasn’t rushing to hop into my car to head to another city for another ballgame. Even though hitting the road is always an awesome adventure, there’s a good feeling that comes with being in the same city for games on back-to-back days, and that was the plan for this short road trip. On my second day, I’d be hanging out in and around my hotel and anxiously awaiting that evening’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders game at PNC Field.
As you might have read about in my previous post, I’d attended a doubleheader at the International League ballpark a day earlier. I’d driven about six hours that day and went to the ballpark right after arriving in town, so I the schedule for June 21 was a little less busy.
The close proximity of my hotel, the Courtyard Scranton-Wilkes Barre, and PNC Field (about seven minutes between the two on foot) meant that I was planning to walk to the game again. In the meantime, I planned to take a short walk over to a big shopping complex just a few minutes away. Here’s a map screenshot of the area to show you where I was and what I was up to:
Other than get some exercise to burn off my ballpark food from the previous night, my late-morning walk had three objectives. The first was to walk to the observation point high above PNC Field, which I’ve marked with the red star. You can see the ballpark below it, as well as my hotel above and to the left. PNC Field has an enormous rock face beyond the outfield fence, which makes for one of my favorite backdrops in the minor leagues. You can drive — or, in my case, walk — to the top of the hill to find a great vantage point for looking down at the stadium. I’ve done this in the past, including one time that I was simply driving past Scranton and wanted to see PNC Field, but it was a neat feeling to walk there this time. Here’s a shot of me at the observation point with a pretty sweet background sight:
I didn’t photograph the next two priorities on my walk — visit Guitar Center, which is located in the Shoppes at Montage complex that you can see on the right side of the map image, and then stop at Panera Bread to buy a chicken Caesar salad to eat back at my hotel:
I was so appreciative of my hotel’s great location. As much as I enjoy driving, it’s always nice to be able to park the car for a few days and do everything on foot. I relaxed for the early afternoon, spending most of it on my laptop at this desk, with ESPN playing on the TV above me:
Occasionally, I’d step out onto my balcony at the Courtyard to enjoy the quiet scene surrounding me and to peek over the trees to see the PNC Field’s light posts. At about 3:30 p.m., I made the short walk down the hill and over to PNC Field, stopping when the ballpark came into sight to snap this shot:
These rails run right up to the edge of the parking lot, and they’re not merely a decoration to support the RailRiders theme. On select game days, fans can ride a trolley from downtown Scranton right up to PNC Field, which has to be one of the coolest ways to get to a baseball game.
Of course, I was perfectly content walking to the ballpark — and perfectly content standing in front of the gates, knowing that I’d soon be inside for another awesome experience:
What I wasn’t content about, however, was that sinister-looking cloud over the right side of the ballpark. It wasn’t something that I’d really noticed during my walk, but when I snapped the above panorama and looked at it on my camera, I was a little unnerved that it might linger and threaten batting practice. Fortunately, the dark cloud soon carried any threat of bad weather away with it, and the afternoon and evening were once again perfect for baseball.
When I walked into PNC Field a day earlier, the visiting Syracuse Chiefs were hitting. This time, I was early enough that BP had yet to begin. This meant that I had an opportunity to watch both teams warming up for a few minutes before the hitting began:
After watching some RailRiders play catch along the third base line, I went over to the walkway above the bullpen, just as I’d done a day before. There, I watched right-hander Brady Lail throwing a bullpen session:
He’d started and won the game against Syracuse two days earlier, so he was simply getting some throwing in, rather than getting prepared to pitch that evening. As I watched the bullpen session, I noticed two unique things about the catcher working with Lail. Can you spot them in the photo below?
First, I thought it was interesting that he was kneeling down, rather than using a standard catcher’s crouch. Doing so obviously makes a lot of sense in the bullpen, and it’s far less detrimental to the knees, but I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed someone doing this in the past. Second, he’s not wearing the usual turf shoes that players commonly wear for warming up. Instead, he’s got on a pair of LeBron James basketball shoes. (For the record, I know absolutely nothing about basketball shoes — I simply zoomed in and saw the LJ logo on the soles.)
By now, the Chiefs BP session was in full swing, so I took a quick lap through the outfield and arrived above the visitor’s dugout on the first base side to watch the action. I stood in the front row at field level to enjoy not only the action in the cage, but also the infield drills that were going on right in front of me. One player I was keeping my eye on was Syracuse first baseman Clint Robinson, who has seen a bit of MLB action but has otherwise been a successful power hitter in the minors for a long time:
From where I stood, I also had a good view of the rock face beyond the outfield wall, and the observation point I’d stood upon earlier in the day. That area, which is partially obscured by the trees in the photo below, is essentially at the base of the building you see peeking above the trees:
This was pretty much how I spent batting practice from the time I arrived until the time it wrapped up — a few minutes at the bullpens, a few minutes at field level, a lap of the ballpark, and repeat. It was absolutely glorious.
Once the gates opened, I made another lap of the concourse to consider some food options that I’d scouted out earlier. As I mentioned in my previous post, the PNC Field concession menu is impressive — and I found that mentally shortlisting a few items and then thinking about them as I walked made it easier to choose a worthwhile candidate. As I cut through the grass berm, my eyes caught sight of a BP ball that had obviously been overlooked by the ushers and even by the fans who were in the park at this point.
It was an easy choice to grab it, but instead of my usual “hand-holding-ball” photo, I wanted to try something different. As you’ll see here, I set the ball up on the rail above the bullpens, and I’m really pleased with how the photo turned out:
Although the ball sighting slowed my pre-dinner lap around the ballpark, it didn’t disrupt my plans on what to eat. I elected for the General Tao Perogies, as I’m a big fan of perogies and seldom see this dish at ballgames. I had grand visions of perogies topped with several of the standard General Tao ingredients, so I was a little underwhelmed when I was handed a container of perogies tossed in spicy sauce:
Fortunately, the meal was good — the perogies were cooked perfectly, meaning that they weren’t too soggy and they weren’t too crispy. The sauce was nice, too, providing a decent amount of sweetness and heat without blowing my head off. What really would’ve knocked this dish out of the park, though, would’ve been some fried chicken pieces, green onions and sesame seeds, like they independent Ottawa Champions do with their Tao Poutine.
After eating, I went over to the RailRiders bullpen to watch the action. By now, starter Domingo Acevedo was warming up in the team’s pinstriped uniform, which looks awesome and must remind players that they’re just a phone call away from suiting up for the Yankees. I snapped a bunch of shots of Acevedo’s delivery, and then checked how they turned out on my camera — and noticed an odd thing. Just as he released the ball, he opened his eyes extremely widely. Case in point:
I figured this might be an anomaly, but as I continued to take photos of the right-hander’s tosses, I noticed it each time. Just as he released the ball, he really opened his eyes. Slightly amused, I continued snapping shots — and noticed this facial expression each time. I took enough shots that I could make a coffee table book called “Eyes of Acevedo,” but I’ll hold off on that million dollar idea for now.
I spent the early innings of the game in a seat down the third base line. I was far enough from the dugout that the netting wasn’t in my way, and I still had a perfect view of the action:
I’d have liked to sit for a while on the other side of PNC Field, but the sun sets directly over the third base side, making it extremely bright for those toward the right field foul pole. Don’t get me wrong — this is a great spot later in the game or during afternoon games, but the sun is just a little too bright for my liking for 7:05 p.m. games.
My next stop was the grass berm for another inning of action. A day earlier, I’d spent some time on the berm in right field, but I elected for center field this time, where I had this great view:
Midway through the game, I went out to the plaza that’s between the two sets of gates on the home plate side of PNC Field. It’s a popular gathering spot with the team shop off to one side, and the abundance of glass used in its design gives it a cool, modern feel:
In about the sixth inning, I set off in search of something to eat again. The perogies were more of an appetizer, as there were just four of them in the order. I found additional sustenance in the form of a cheesesteak sandwich. This wasn’t any old cheesesteak, however. At PNC Field’s “Steak Me Out to the Ballgame” concession stand behind home plate, there was a long list of different cheesesteak variations. My order might seem sacrilegious to a true cheesesteak connoisseur in Philadelphia, but I got a buffalo-style cheesesteak — the usual cheesesteak ingredients, but topped with blue cheese dressing and hot sauce:
Verdict? It was tasty enough, but I’m afraid it didn’t hold up to the cheesesteaks I’ve eaten at Citizens Bank Park in Philly, although the unique toppings were a fun twist.
As dusk fell, I slipped out of PNC Field to take this shot …
… and then settled into a seat on the first base side to watch the remainder of the game at this great ballpark:
Less than 10 minutes after the game’s final out, I was back in my hotel room, where I repeated the agenda from the night before — a late-night swim, watching baseball highlights on TV, enjoying the balcony for a little bit and, finally, hitting the sack to close out a great two days with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.
The last time I visited PNC Field, this happened.
Hard to top, right?
Yes, but as I made the six-hour drive to Scranton on the morning of June 20, I was partly relieved that there was no high-profile MLB rehab scheduled for my visit.
Don’t get me wrong — seeing Derek Jeter from just a few feet away will undoubtedly go down as one of the coolest memories of all my ballpark adventures, but that day was a little crazy. From the focus on Jeter to the enormous crowds, I didn’t have as much of a chance as I’d have liked to explore the then-recently renovated PNC Field.
My latest visit to the International League ballpark, located just outside of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in Moosic, PA, would be my third visit since 2011. The first time I was there, I saw a 1980s-era park in a major need of a facelift. That came in the form of a $40+ million renovation that was extensive enough to cause the team to play on the road for the entirety of the 2012 campaign. The park opened again in 2013, just a few months before I visited, and the transformation was outstanding. Now, I was anxious to return again to see how the changes had held up and what new elements there were.
I normally like to do some sightseeing when I travel, but I was late getting on the road on this day. That meant that when I checked into my hotel at 2:30 p.m., I took just a few minutes to set my suitcase on the floor, throw some food in the fridge and step out onto my balcony to check out the scene. I was thrilled to see the PNC Field lights just peeking through the trees to my left, and even more thrilled to hear some sporadic cracking of baseball bats, indicating that batting practice had begun:
As I did in 2013, I was staying at the Courtyard Scranton Wilkes-Barre, which you’ll read more about later in this post. I’d selected it again not only because I had a great stay last time, but because it’s within walking distance of the ballpark. It’s also within walking distance to a ton of restaurants and stores, and that meant that after parking my car prior to check-in on June 20, I didn’t get behind the wheel again until checking out on the morning of June 22.
The walk from the hotel to PNC Field took seven minutes, which meant that I was standing in front of the park’s main gates well in advance of first pitch — but perhaps not as early as you might think. Instead of preparing for a 7:05 p.m. start, the game was actually slated for 5:05 p.m. The RailRiders were hosting the Syracuse Chiefs in a doubleheader, which always promises to be a good and long day at the ballpark. Despite the beautiful location in which PNC Field is found, there’s not a heck of a lot to see outside the park. While I usually take a pre-entry lap around the ballparks I visit, I simply snapped this shot …
… and then this one of me …
… and then went inside. Having entered through the home plate gates, the concourse was directly in front of me. That meant that after taking just a handful of steps, I was standing at the top edge of the lower seating bowl and surveying the scene as the Chiefs took BP:
Although the 2012 renovation included a long list of changes, my favorite was how the concourse was built to wrap around the entire field, meaning that you can watch the game from beyond the outfield fence. This is one of my favorite features at any park. Above, you can see the elevated walkway above the bullpens in left-center, the grass berm throughout much of the outfield, and the party deck around the right field foul pole. Absolutely perfect.
As you might expect, the allure of taking a long walk around the perimeter of the park was appealing, so I set out by heading down the third base line. I noticed along the way that the RailRiders have signs on the concourse that encourage walking. Apparently — and I would’ve never guessed this — you travel a full mile when you walk around the concourse three times. As I walked, I stopped every few moments to enjoy BP and snap some photos. Here’s one that’s down toward the left field foul pole. You can see the multilevel party deck in the corner, as well as the bullpens beyond the outfield fence, major league style:
When I got close to center field, I stopped again and took this shot, which shows the SWB bullpen in the foreground, as well as a better view of the walkway behind/above it:
It’s always cool to be able to get close to the pitchers warming up in the bullpen, and the unique design of PNC Field means that you can virtually stand atop whoever is throwing — and that gives you a true appreciation for the nastiness of the pitchers at the Triple-A level.
Past the batter’s eye and heading toward left field, you’ll find the HomerZone. This is where the grass berm is the largest, and there are also picnic tables and benches in the area:
My favorite part of this spot is the clump of trees. Not only do they provide some nice shade for fans on the upper part of the grass, but they also tie in well with the natural backdrop behind the field — which you can partly see in this photo that looks more like a community park than a ballpark:
I completed my mile-long lap by making it back to the concourse directly behind home plate, where I spent the next several minutes just enjoying the quiet scene before me and watching the players hit. What did I do next? I took another lap around the field. It might seem a little repetitive, but I prefer walking during ballpark visits over standing around, and another lap meant that I’d have the chance to continue to watch BP, but from myriad angles. Given the heat of the day, I took a break in the aforementioned shade area beneath the trees, which was just perfect. Here’s the view from where I stood:
I also ventured out to the grass berm for a bit just before BP wrapped up, and here’s another view of that great bullpen/walkway area:
The scoreboard clock in the above photo reads 3:58 p.m., which meant that the gates would soon be opening. I hung out on the berm until fans began to appear on the concourse around home plate, and then headed in that direction myself. In the bleachers in the right field corner, I stopped to briefly talk to an usher who was picking up the last few BP baseballs hit into the stands. After we spoke, he headed in the opposite direction. A moment later, I found a ball in the seats. I called over to him and waved the ball as if to indicate that I was going to toss it his way. Instead of preparing to catch it, he walked over and said, “Want to keep it?” I couldn’t resist saying yes, so I had another nicely used International League baseball for my collection:
Because I’d been in such a hurry to get to the Scranton area, I hadn’t even stopped for lunch on my drive. That meant that by 30 or so minutes before the first pitch of game one, I was absolutely ravenous. In my pregame walking, I’d noticed a bunch of enticing-looking food options at PNC Field, and while it was nice to know that I’d have two days to sample several things, the pressure was on to start my culinary experience off right. My first meal of the visit was the Champ Dog, which looked like the most unique hot dog on the menu. The hot dog itself was stuffed with spicy cheese (this was the first stuffed dog I think I’ve ever had) and topped with coleslaw, pulled pork, BBQ sauce and a pickle wedge. This is how it looked:
It was definitely a winner, although admittedly a little challenging to eat because of its size. (Of course, I somehow managed to devour all of it in just a couple minutes, so it wasn’t too difficult to eat.)
First concession item done, I settled into a seat on the first base side to enjoy the first inning. The early start time meant there were weird shadows at play, as you can see in the following shot:
They weren’t interfering with fans’ views or players’ views; they just seemed, well, super noticeable. Another thing that was super noticeable and that irked me more than the slowly moving shadows were the nets over the dugouts. This feature wasn’t present when I last visited PNC Field, but it’s unfortunately starting to crop up around baseball. Look, I’m all for the idea of fan safety, and I hate the thought of someone getting seriously hurt at a ballpark of all places. That said, the seemingly tiny amount of netting has a weird effect of making the action seem dramatically farther away when you’re behind the dugout. One of the great things about baseball is the close connection that you get with the players, which is something you don’t get in many other sports. There’s no real barrier between you and what’s taking place on the field, so whether it’s a pitcher tipping his cap to your applause or an infielder tossing the third out ball into the seats, it almost feels as though you’re part of the game. With the netting up, that’s no longer the case, and I find it sad.
And that’s not a knock on PNC Field — it’s just a comment on dugout netting in general.
After an inning behind the third base dugout and not wanting to stare through the netting any longer, I set out in search of a better view. I found it on the right field side of the berm, which is one of PNC Field’s coolest post-renovation features. The berm wasn’t yet heavily populated — I find that the crowd tends to pick up during the nightcap of doubleheaders — so I figured that if a home run were hit, I’d have a better-than-average chance of snagging it. Here’s the view from the spot I picked:
I wanted to be far enough behind the wall that I could run forward on a short home run, rather than have to backpedal up the hill. I gave this spot two innings — during which time, nothing came remotely close. The decision I faced was to stay in the area longer or continue wandering around the stadium, and the latter prevailed as it always does.
My next stop was a concession stand on the third base concourse for a $2 tallboy of LandShark:
The low price for the beer was part of the team’s Two Dollar Tuesday promotion, and while I rarely drink, it made for a refreshing beverage while I watched the game from the standing-room area above the bullpens in left-center. When I finished the beer half an inning later, I moved just a few paces to my left to watch RailRiders left hander Tyler Webb, who had begun to warm up in the ‘pen. As I said earlier, the walkway above the bullpens gives you an outstanding view of whatever’s going on below you, so I had fun watching him and taking shots like this one:
The lefty’s tossing wasn’t the only thing of interest taking place below me. From my spot, I could see a RailRider in catcher’s gear — I’m guessing he was the bullpen catcher or coach — reviewing scouting reports and heat maps for the Syracuse hitters:
I was able to zoom in with my camera and was impressed with how advanced this stuff was — MLB-caliber scouting reports with all sorts of situational stats and a comprehensive two-page package on each player who stepped to the plate. I’m talking percentage of pitches swung at in the zone, first-pitch swings against right-handers versus left-handers, swings and misses based on different velocities of each pitch type and a whole lot more. Really interesting stuff.
It wasn’t only the RailRiders bullpen that I was enjoying watching. I was also keeping an eye on the Syracuse ‘pen over to my right side — and it was humorously apparent that these two relievers were keeping an eye on me, too:
I moved over to the third base side in time for the bottom half of the seventh inning (MiLB doubleheaders are just two seven-inning games each) and watched Syracuse closer Wander Suero — and his unique prepitch stance — close out the game:
Normally, the last out of any game I attend is a bit of a melancholy affair, but not today. Instead of heading out of the stadium, I got to stick around for the second game of the twin bill.
With a 30-minute break between games, I decided to take another walk around the length of the concourse and then find something else to eat. That exercise was a good idea, too, given that I was headed toward the Ice Cream Sliders concession stand for, you guessed it, an ice cream slider. What is an ice cream slider? Take two cookies of your choice, some ice cream of your choice, make a sandwich out of them and you’ve got the aforementioned dessert. The selection of cookie and ice cream flavors was impressive, and I went with something that you might call unconventional: M&Ms cookies with root beer-flavored ice cream:
Of course, the flavors I selected probably weren’t the best pairing, but the dessert was a winner. I’d never eaten root beer ice cream in the past, but it had an awesome flavor that was virtually identical to its namesake soft drink.
The ice cream and cookies took a while to eat, which meant that it wasn’t long before the players emerged from the dugouts and began to warm up for the doubleheader nightcap. As I was already on the third base side, I went down to field level to see some of the players close up, including outfielder Clint Frazier, who has since been called up to the Yankees for the first time:
Since I’d done so much exploring before and during the first game, I spent more of the second game just watching the action on the field. After an inning or so on the third base side, I returned to the spot above the bullpens for a bit, and and then hung out on the grass berm for a couple more innings. Look how perfect the scene was from this spot:
A little later, I made the short move over to the bar-style seating right behind the right field foul pole, where I had this view:
After another lap around the park, I returned to the above section in the sixth inning. By now, the fans who’d been in this area in the above photo had gone, which meant that I was the only person sitting in the multilevel deck. Ideal for a home run ball, right? Yes, but nothing came my way. That did nothing to dampen a long and awesome day at PNC Field, which had totaled about seven hours.
As the fans filed out of the ballpark’s gates to the parking lot, I quickly cut through the parking lot and took the short walk back to the Courtyard Scranton Wilkes-Barre, grateful for the tiny distance between the hotel and ballpark:
Although I was exhausted, sunburned and full of food (typically, three earmarks of a good day of baseball) I made time for a 20-minute swim in the hotel pool before it closed, and then returned to my room to watch the MLB highlights on TV. As much as the location of this hotel might be the most enticing feature for baseball road trippers, there are a lot of things to like about the Courtyard Scranton Wilkes-Barre. I particularly appreciated the size of my guest room …
… and the balcony, a photo from which you saw earlier in this post. Directly below my balcony, there was a nice outdoor seating area that centered around a fire pit:
(The above two photos were taken in the daylight when I arrived, rather than after the game, as you might’ve guessed.)
After my swim, I sat at my laptop for a while to catch up on some Twitter messages, and then hung out on the balcony for a little while to enjoy the night view — and then it was time for bed in anticipation of another big day in Scranton.