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.
Getting to spend consecutive days watching baseball in any given city is awesome. So, after an exciting first day in Syracuse on June 22, it was great to get up early and enjoy hanging out in my hotel for the day before heading over to NBT Bank Stadium.
The day had a bit of an inauspicious start, though. I took the following photo at 6:30 a.m. and, as you can see, it was rainy and miserable looking:
The forecast was calling for sun and clear skies by game time, though, so I didn’t let the rain dampen my mood. Plus, even with the dreary morning skies, I got to enjoy a great view of the city from the window of my 15th-floor room at the Crowne Plaza Syracuse. By noon, the weather had cleared up …
… and I was looking forward to another perfect day of baseball with temperatures in the upper 70s. The evening’s game was set to begin at 7 p.m. For 7 p.m. games, I usually get to the park between 4:30 and 5 p.m., but I had a couple good reasons to be earlier on this day. Just before midnight the night before, Chiefs assistant GM Jason Horbal had sent me a tweet saying to have someone in the reception area call him when I got to the ballpark so we could catch up. I’d also met Syracuse.com sports reporter Lindsay Kramer during my Monday visit, and he wanted to meet up to interview me for a story he was going to write about my visit. Man, I never need any extra incentive to get to the ballpark, but I certainly had it on day #2 and couldn’t wait to get to the park.
My media pass from a day earlier was still valid — thanks, Jay! — so I entered the Chiefs admin area and ran into Jason right away. He had to speak to someone for a moment, so I hung out in this cool area …
… before he reappeared and I followed him to his office. I didn’t take any photos of his office because, hey, that’s his personal space. But I can tell you that it was amazing — practically a Chiefs/baseball memorabilia museum. Signed balls, game-used bats, random baseball stuff everywhere and a cool picture of Bryce Harper wearing his Chiefs uniform above the desk. We talked baseball for probably half an hour and I was at my baseball nerdiest, asking Jason a million questions about behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on with an MiLB franchise. I heard stories about the recent Dwight Gooden and Lenny Dykstra autograph appearance at NBT Bank Stadium, Nick Swisher’s visit during a rehab stint in May and a whole lot more. Jason’s a great guy. Give him a follow on Twitter and if you’re at a Chiefs game, look for him in the concourse and say hello.
After a while, he understandably had to get back to his pregame duties, but first he led me through the Chiefs offices, into a tunnel, through the Charlotte dugout and onto the field! Let me tell you, there’s no cooler experience than being on the field of a professional ballpark. Jason said to feel free to hang out on the field for as much of batting practice as I wanted and then headed away. Once he left, I took this photo to show where I was standing:
And this is what it looked like in panorama form:
As you can see, there was no action just yet. The Chiefs were due to hit very shortly, though, so I found a spot next to the home dugout, which was still empty:
Before the action began, I took this quick shot of myself with my GoPro:
The first sign of action on the field wasn’t the Chiefs hitting — it was three members of the Knights playing hacky sack. I was pretty impressed with their dedication. I believe they played for over an hour:
From left to right, that’s pitcher Zach Phillips with the sack on his head, pitcher Maikel Cleto and, I think, a member of the training/conditioning staff, although I could be incorrect. Incidentally, Phillips was one of the Knights I saw several times in the hotel lobby over the course of my stay.
Soon enough, the Syracuse players emerged from the dugout tunnel, took the field and started to hit. I was standing on the edge of the warning track beside the home dugout for virtually the entire batting practice, so I had an awesome view. Here’s star infielder Emmanuel Burriss, who was called up to the Nationals just three days after this game:
And here’s Tony Gwynn, Jr., who also made an appearance in my previous blog post:
Sometimes, the Knights’ game of hacky sack got a little crazy. At one point, an errant kick sent the sack into the stands and Cleto had to retrieve it:
As some players hit, infielder Josh Johnson did some running drills:
Although I took a bunch of photos, I was trying to remain as stationary as possible for much of BP, as I once again had my new GoPro strapped to my chest. I took some cool footage of the experience that I’ll be uploading onto my YouTube channel very soon. If you subscribe, you’ll be the first to know when it’s live!
It was an absolute blast watching BP from the field. I’d done it once before, when a guy named Jeter was rehabbing in Triple-A, and this time was awesome, too. If you read my blog regularly, you know how much I enjoy the batting practice experience in the minors, so watching it from just a handful of feet away on Jason’s recommendation was outstanding. Thanks again, Jay!
Before I left the field at the conclusion of BP, I snapped one last picture of Darin Mastroianni’s bat and batting gloves sitting on the tarp next to the cage. It’s interesting (to me, anyway) because Mastroianni’s jersey number with the Chiefs is actually 16, so the number 19 on the end of his bat must’ve been from a different season:
After leaving the field, I walked through the stands over to the Charlotte bullpen area, where the players were now playing catch. I was excited to see pitcher Kyle Drabek, who I saw lots of times between 2010 and 2014 in the Blue Jays system:
I also saw Brad Penny playing catch a day after his start. Even cooler, I noticed Penny running the stadium stairs when I first went out to the field. Pretty cool to see a a 37-year-old pitcher who has made nearly $50 million in his career working so hard to get back to the majors.
By this time, Phillips was done his marathon hacky sack game and was playing catch, too:
I watched the action on the field until the players headed for the clubhouse, and then I, too, found a different place to visit. It was time to hit the press box to meet up with Lindsay to discuss my interview. I met him and we decided to speak later in the game, so I took this photo of the empty field just before 6:30 p.m. …
… and then went to a suite-level observation area that allowed me to capture the scene outside NBT Bank Stadium:
Time to eat? I think so!
The Chiefs have a two-for-one Tuesday special every Tuesday home game, in which you can buy select concession items and get a second one for free. I’d been excited to see what the promotion would feature during my visit, and I pumped that it would be the food I was planning to buy anyway — the “Hofmann Ripper.” This deep-fried hot dog included hot sauce, blue cheese sauce and celery pieces. Sounds good, right? Obviously, I ordered two:
They were tasty. I’m not sure that they were the best ballpark hot dogs that I’ve eaten, but they were certainly among the most creatively designed. The combination of the hot sauce and blue cheese sauce was very chicken wing-esque, and the crunch from the celery was good. If you’re at NBT Bank Stadium this summer, I definitely recommend checking them out at the Chicken Fry Fry stand on the first base side.
Once I’d eaten, I took a bunch of photos to make up this big panorama …
… and then went down to field level in time for the first pitch. Like a day earlier, I found a spot in the front row behind the Chiefs dugout, which gave me a great vantage point for some action shots. Here’s Syracuse starter Taylor Hill, who pitched 5.2 innings of three-run ball:
And Charlotte second baseman Micah Johnson in the process of stealing his first of two bases in the game:
(You can see that Burris had a little trouble getting a handle on the ball!)
And here’s a shot of Chiefs catcher Dan Butler on his way back to the dugout after an inning:
I got this cool action shot of Burris just after he made contact with a pitch that ended up landing foul …
… and this one a moment later on his way to the dugout after lining out sharply:
As I’d been mentioning on Twitter in the days leading up to my Syracuse visit, I’d hoped to get a foul ball during either game. Back in 2013 when I visited NBT Bank Stadium for a doubleheader, I got a pair of foul balls. I didn’t make a real attempt to snag a foul during the first day of my visit this time, though, so I wanted to get a souvenir during the second game. For whatever reason, the crowd on this night was sparse, which meant the upper deck was pretty bare — especially down the lines. See this photo for evidence:
I always find that an easy way to end up with a foul ball is to sit in an empty section if there is one. Even if the ball isn’t hit directly to you, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting there before other fans. So, that’s exactly what I did. I took a seat in the above section just behind the News Channel 9 sign and less than half an inning later, I was holding this foul ball off the bat of Charlotte DH Tyler Saladino:
Funny story about this ball: It landed half a section to my right and a few rows above me, but I got there quickly and grabbed it. There was a kid a couple sections to my left who started running in the general direction of the foul, but he wasn’t even close to entering the section by the time I’d grabbed the ball. A handful of fans in that area booed loudly once I picked up the ball, apparently since I hadn’t chosen to ignore the ball so the kid could grab it. Not because of the booing, I decided right then and there that I’d quickly take a photo of the ball and then walk over and hand it to the kid. As I took the above photo, I noticed who I presumed to be the kid’s father waving his arms to encourage people to continue booing. Hmmm. That was enough of an incentive to convince me to keep it myself.
This is the seventh foul ball in my collection. One day, I’ll have to write a post about all of them.
Anyway, with my mission complete, I met up with Lindsay in the press box for my interview. I took this photo as we talked:
When the interview was done, I headed back down to the concourse when I ran into Jason behind home plate. I think it was the bottom of the seventh inning, and I decided to hang out with him and watch the rest of the game from this spot:
That’s former MLB pitcher Jose Valverde on the mound for Syracuse. He pitched the ninth inning and picked up the save as the Chiefs won 4-3. It was hilarious to watch his disregard for the new pitch clock that’s made headlines throughout baseball in 2015. Simply put, he cares zero percent about it. I was actually laughing out loud a few times. I believe the clock begins its 20-second countdown when the pitcher either receives the ball back from the catcher or steps onto the mound dirt between hitters. In any case, there were plenty of times that the entire 20 seconds had wound down long before Valverde had even taken the rubber. He never got a warning for it, either, so it was a funny game within a game to watch.
Although I was sad to be leaving NBT Bank Stadium when the game wrapped up, I was once again looking forward to enjoying the Crowne Plaza Syracuse for the remainder of my visit. The next morning, I took this panorama out my window …
… before taking my camera and going for a walk around the block to take some more shots. Here’s the hotel from the top level of the parking garage:
And the lobby entrance closest to the garage. There’s also valet parking here, too, if you’re interested:
I don’t know when I’ll visit Syracuse next, but I do definitely know that the Crowne Plaza is where I’ll stay. I was thoroughly impressed with every element of this visit, from the location of the hotel to the in-room amenities to the professionalism and friendliness of every staff member I encountered. If you’re a baseball fan visiting the city — or are just visiting the ‘Cuse for any reason, really — I wholeheartedly recommend this hotel.
The next morning, I checked out of the hotel about 10:30 a.m. and planned to do a little shopping before I made the three-hour drive home. First, though, I wanted to make one last baseball-related stop. I’m always interested in seeing baseball facilities of any type on my trips, and when I saw on the map that I was just a few minutes from Le Moyne College, a school that has an NCAA Div. II baseball team, I knew I had to visit. The college campus was beautiful and quiet. I found the athletic facilities easily, parked my car and took a walk around to check out everything. Here’s a look at the baseball field from just inside the gate:
And the field in panorama form:
After taking these photos, I packed up my camera for good and began the short drive home after an outstanding few days.
I’ll be announcing my next travel plans very soon, so please keep an eye on this blog for details. Thanks for reading!
I’ve never been good at math.
But the reason that I got up on Monday at 5 a.m. for a 7 p.m. baseball game in a city located three hours away wasn’t due to poor math skills. Rather, it was simply due to a love of the game. For me, there’s absolutely nothing better than watching live baseball and it’s tough to get much sleep the night before a trip.
Even though I’d been to Syracuse to see the Chiefs in action twice for The Ballpark Guide (and also visited but ended up being rained out a couple other times) I was excited to get back to town for a pair of games at the start of last week. So, yeah, I was up bright and early and on the road a few hours later. I made a handful of stops on the drive but ended up getting to Syracuse about 2 p.m. I’ve often said that one of the things that boosts the enjoyment of a baseball road trip is staying in a great hotel, and that would be true once again. I’d booked two nights at the Crowne Plaza Syracuse; in past visits to the city, I’ve often noticed this tall hotel and the prominent role it plays in the city’s skyline, so I was excited to check it out. (More on the hotel later in this post.)
Because I arrived about an hour before check-in, I had some time to kill, so I hung out in the lobby and did some people watching. It proved exciting because the Crowne Plaza is the hotel that visiting International League clubs use! The Charlotte Knights were in town to square off against the Chiefs and the Knights players and staff members were coming and going the entire time that I sat in the lobby. It’s pretty easy to spot ballplayers, and I’d estimate that I saw at least 15 players and coaches during the short time I sat there.
At one point, a Knights staffer approached the front desk with a rolling suitcase and asked if the hotel staff could keep the suitcase behind the desk for a player to pick up later. Apparently, he was on a different flight and wouldn’t arrive for a little while. The clerk asked who the luggage belonged to and I perked up my ears as the staffer replied “Chris Beck.” Beck was a second-round pick of the Chicago White Sox in 2012 and has already pitched one game for the ChiSox this season.
Before long, it was time to check in, so I left my spying for another time and went up to my room on the 15th floor. I expected that I’d have a great view of the city and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. Here’s what it looked like:
I didn’t have much time to enjoy the room just yet — I wanted to get over to NBT Bank Stadium good and early, because assistant GM Jason Horbal was providing me with a media pass. If you recognize his name, he’s the former GM of the Auburn Doubledays who give me the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at a game in July of 2013.
I was extra excited to get to the ballpark because I recently got a GoPro that I’ll be using to document my adventures on each trip. It’s going to take me a little time to edit all the footage I shot, but I can promise that I’ve got some cool stuff to share with you.
In any case, I got ready for the game, made the nine- or 10-minute drive over to the park and was standing here with this glorious view before any other fans were in the area:
I always take a pre-entry walk around every park I visit, so I took a tour through the players’ parking lot on the third base side of the main gate and then went over to this path beyond the right field corner:
As I did during my last visit, I walked up the path and along the railway tracks that run behind the park until I could see the field and catch a glimpse of the batting practice that was taking place:
The area directly behind the outfield fence is fenced off, so this is as close as you can get to seeing the field before entering the park. After watching the action for a couple minutes, I retraced my steps to the pavilion in front of the main gate, entered via the admin/office area, took the elevator up to the concourse and was soon looking at the field shortly before Charlotte’s BP session was set to begin. I decided to take a walk down toward the left field corner and it wasn’t long before I found these:
After I took this photo, I tossed these two International League balls into the Syracuse bullpen because I don’t think it’s fair to snag BP balls when the stadium isn’t yet open to fans. Still, they made for a fun picture, right?
I found another ball during my subsequent walk to the right field corner …
… and instead of dropping it into the bullpen, I saw a Charlotte coach approaching so I made a motion as though I was going to throw him the ball. He had his glove under his arm, but he put it on and I tossed it to him from about 30 feet away. When he caught it, he walked over to the fence where I was standing. I noticed he was wearing #34 on his BP jersey, which meant he was Richard Dotson, the team’s pitching coach and a former big leaguer. (In fact, he was an all-star in 1983 and went 22-7 that season.)
“Do you want to keep this ball?” he asked.
“No, I’m good, thanks,” I replied.
He looked carefully at the ball and said, “It’s not one of ours, so you can keep it if you’d like.”
I said that I didn’t need it and we talked for a few minutes about the team’s previous series against Indianapolis and the outstanding baseball weather. Eventually, he walked away and I snapped this quick shot of him:
Dotson was heading toward home plate because the Knights were about to start hitting, so I walked in that direction, too. He went around to the third base side of home plate and I followed his path in the front row of the seats. There, I took this picture of him hitting fungoes to the first base side:
Watching BP is one of my very favorite things to do, and experiencing it in a virtually empty stadium is pretty much as good as it gets. I made the decision to go grab something to eat and watch the proceedings on the field while I munched, but first I took this shot after I spotted a Crowne Plaza banner in the outfield:
The Chiefs have introduced a number of new concession items for the 2015 season and before my trip, I browsed the list and thought about what I wanted to try. I always like sampling original items at the ballpark, so I went with the team’s unique stadium-centric take on chicken and waffles — chicken and funnel cakes:
It included two large funnel cakes, three chicken tenders and a dusting of icing sugar with a side order of syrup.
Overall, the meal was pretty good. I loved the chicken tenders. They had far more chicken than bread, the breading was tasty and they were a perfect texture. I’d definitely eat ’em again on their own. The funnel cakes were a little too crunchy for my liking. I couldn’t skewer them with my plastic fork, so I had to eat them by hand. These are the first funnel cakes I’ve ever had, so I’m not sure if they’re always this way or if these were a little overdone. In any case, it was a tasty meal and something that was different to try, so I’m glad I gave it a shot. While I ate, I set up my GoPro to snap some pictures of me, including this one:
I ate in the upper deck on the third base side and when I was done, went down to field level on the opposite side of the field to watch Brad Penny warming up for the Knights. It was a nice surprise to see that Penny was starting. He’s a 14-year MLB veteran, a two-time all-star and a winner of 121 games in the big leagues. I stood directly behind catcher Kevan Smith while he and Penny played catch …
… and then moved adjacent to the bullpen once Penny took the mound. From just a few feet away, I took pictures like this:
As the end of his warm-up approached, Penny said “One more” to Smith. But after that pitch, he said “One more” again. And again. It was obvious he was trying to work on something/end his warm-up on a positive note, but that some minor detail was a little off. I’m not sure how many times he attempted his final warm-up pitch, but I think it was four or five. Eventually, he said, “$%#&@. I’ll fix it out there.”
With that, Penny proceeded to the Charlotte dugout and I headed around to grab a seat above and next to the Syracuse dugout to take some action shots. The sun beginning to set over NBT Bank Stadium made action shots a challenge — not only were there a lot of shadows to contend with, but the black and white nature of the Chiefs uniforms meant that, from some angles, players were either washed out or too shaded because of the contrast. Nevertheless, I took a pile of action shots, including Syracuse starter Paolo Espino, who pitched seven innings of one-run, five-hit ball:
And Penny, who indeed did “fix it out there,” giving up three hits and no runs in his four innings of work:
Syracuse leadoff hitter Darin Mastroianni was the game’s best offensive player with two doubles, two RBIs and a stolen base. I took this shot while he was taking his lead off third after swiping it in the bottom of the first inning:
Here’s a bonus shot of Mastroianni, simply because he’s one of my favorite players:
He’s a former Toronto Blue Jays draft pick, so I followed his early career when he was in the minors. He’s played for a handful of organizations, including two stints with Toronto, and is a guy who shows an unbelievable amount of hustle and is really a pleasure to watch and root for.
As the game progressed, I continued to take a ton of action shots, including this sequence of Charlotte outfielder Trayce Thompson getting nailed at third after trying to advance from first base on a hit:
Here’s another sequence: It’s Knights second baseman Drew Garcia losing his grip on his bat …
… and a fan tossing it back to him after retrieving it against the fence:
My seat location gave me an awesome vantage point for shooting the Chiefs players on deck, including outfielder Tony Gwynn, Jr.:
And a funny shot of catcher Steven Lerud in mid-spit:
From here, I could also see small details, such as Mastroianni’s name engraved on his bat:
In the fifth inning, I left my seat in favor of an upper-deck spot on the first base side. In this area, I attached my GoPro to the railing in front of me and took a few shots as I watched the game, including this one:
This high location wasn’t a great place for action shots, but it certainly was conducive to cool panoramas like this one, as well as some time-lapse stuff that I shot with the GoPro and will edit shortly:
I watched part of the eighth inning from behind home plate …
… and then moved to the upper deck down on the third base side in time to see one of my tweets featured on NBT Bank Stadium’s video board:
The Chiefs have a promotion in which you tweet about the game, hashtag #GannonChiefsBuzz and you might get your tweet featured on the screen. Well, mine was, and I think this is the first time my Twitter account has appeared on an MiLB video board!
Syracuse won a closely fought game 2-1 and although I was sad to be leaving, I was excited to know that I’d be back at the ballpark in fewer than 24 hours. I was also excited to get back to my hotel, but before I did, I took this shot of the front of the park as the fans were leaving:
I was back at the Crowne Plaza Syracuse before long and excited for a chance to relax, given that it’d been a long day. The first thing I did was snap this shot out my window to show the nighttime version of the first photo in this post …
… and then it was time to relax. I’m really glad I stayed at this hotel. Not only does it have an awesome view of the city, but the fact that visiting teams also stay there is reason enough for any baseball fan to make a reservation when planning a trip to Syracuse. The guest rooms are sizable and stylish — here’s a shot I took of the desk area the following morning:
And see that basket of snacks to the left of my desk? Room service dropped those off to welcome me to the hotel — pretty awesome! Here’s the king-sized bed and sitting area, too:
I’ll get into some of the other details about the hotel in my post about my second day in Syracuse, but let’s talk about the in-room amenities: 32-inch high-def TVs, free high-speed Internet and rain shower heads were my favorite amenities. There’s plenty of on-site parking and the hotel is just a minute off the highway, making it really accessible. Between the guest room perks, the outstanding view, the short drive to NBT Bank Stadium and the opposing players you’ll see throughout the hotel, I definitely recommend the Crowne Plaza Syracuse when you’re visiting the city to see the Chiefs.
I’m excited to say that my 2015 season of baseball road trips will finally get underway on Monday. I’ll be making the drive to Syracuse …
… to see the Triple-A Chiefs in action against the Charlotte Knights for games on Monday and Tuesday (June 22 and 23).
Syracuse is slightly more than three hours’ drive from my home, and this will be the fifth and sixth time I’ll be visiting what’s now known as NBT Bank Stadium. I’ve unfortunately been bitten by the rainout bug in Syracuse on a couple occasions — both taking place during a round-trip visit to the city to catch a matinee game. Here’s a look at my hit-or-miss success with seeing the Chiefs, and you can click the date links to read about each day:
May 3, 2011: Rainout. Drove three hours to Syracuse. Found out the game was cancelled. Drove three hours home.
April 14, 2013: An amazing day! Watched a doubleheader against Lehigh Valley. Awesome tour, tasty food and two foul balls.
July 28, 2014: Rainout again. Drove three hours to Syracuse. Found out the game was cancelled. Drove three hours home.
For starters, I’m obviously hoping for good weather for these two games. Beyond that, I’m just excited to be back at the ballpark. NBT Bank Stadium has an impressive list of new concession items for 2015, so I’ll definitely be giving some of them a try. It might be nice to snag another foul ball or two, too.
As usual, I’ll be tweeting and blogging along the way and can’t wait to share my adventures with you.