Tagged: Lehigh Valley IronPigs

Lehigh Valley IronPigs – July 10

Every player in the Philadelphia Phillies system who suits up for the Short-Season A Williamsport Crosscutters dreams of one day moving up through the minor leagues to Triple-A in Allentown to play for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. It’s a journey that takes some players years to make, while others never get the chance to make it at all. I was lucky to make the jump from Williamstown to Allentown in less than 24 hours.

OK, so I wasn’t exactly promoted through the ranks of the Phillies system, but I was checking out my second Phillies affiliate in two days when I stopped at Coca-Cola Park to watch the IronPigs host the Pawtucket Red Sox.

I got to experience Coca-Cola Park last May, and when setting the schedule for this road trip, I was excited to visit this gem of a ballpark once again.

The IronPigs were hooking me up with a press pass like they did during last year’s visit (thanks, Matt!), so I got to the park a couple hours before first pitch so I could take in all the sights. The team was giving away an IronPigs replica cap at the gate, which meant that shortly after 5 p.m., this was the scene at the right field gate:


Fortunately, I grabbed my credential, entered through the media entrance and a few seconds later, was staring at this:


I love walking into a park and seeing batting practice underway. It’s one of the best moments I get to enjoy on my road trips.

When I make return visits to parks, I’m always curious to see what’s changed since I was last in town. This year, the IronPigs introduced PorkCenter, which you can follow on Twitter. It’s a social media booth with a pile of TV screens and staffers who post regular updates about the team on social media. It sort of brought back memories of my visit to the Social Suite at Progressive Field earlier this year, and it’s a really neat feature. Here’s what the outside of the studio looks like, and if you’re visiting Coca-Cola Park, be sure to check it out. It’s on the concourse on the third base side:


With the park largely deserted except for employees scurrying around, I took the opportunity to take a big circuit of the concourse. One of the things I stopped to photograph was the park’s video board:


It’s one of the nicest-looking boards I’ve seen on my travels. The video portion, of course, is huge, and I love the use of iron in the board’s construction to pay tribute to the area’s iron industry. See the Coke bottle up top? It lights up and moves when the ‘Pigs score a run, which is cool. I love interactive stuff like this that people might not immediately notice.

The Red Sox were taking batting practice, so I stopped on the grass berm in center field for a few minutes to watch the action. From here, I had this great view:


And as I looked around, I caught a glimpse of a pair of home run balls sitting at the base of the batter’s eye. I’m leery about picking up baseballs I find before the gates open, and since there was a little fence between the balls and me, I decided it’d be better to leave them where they sat:


Did you see the giant acoustic guitar on the left side of the panorama above? Martin Guitars, which arguably makes the best acoustic guitars in the business, is located in nearby Nazareth, PA, and this guitar standing area is new to the park this year. It’s got a few places to lean against and watch the game. Check it out:


I’m an avid guitar player, so this perhaps the coolest music-related thing I’ve seen on my travels.

Speaking of cool, I took the opportunity to cool off up in the suite level. It was an extremely hot day and the air conditioned suite level offered a nice reprieve from the muggy heat. It also provided a great view, which I captured in this panorama:


I suppose not everyone who visits Coca-Cola Park gets to experience the suite level, so I thought I’d share a neat photo for you here. One of the interesting visuals you’ll encounter is an enormous timeline of the team’s history, dating back to the team’s move from Ottawa, Canada, before the 2008 season. That moment and dozens of others are mentioned on the timeline, which winds along the hallway:


By now, the gates were open and the park was quickly filling up, so I went back down to the main level of the park and took another walk around. In the terrace in left field, I briefly watched the team’s pre-game broadcast with Matt Provence and Doug Heater being filmed, which was neat:


This area is also home to the Red Robin Oasis, which I saw last year but didn’t study in depth. Turns out, it’s a really fun place to watch the game and enjoy a meal. At first glance, it looks like a group picnic area, which might convince you to steer clear of it. It’s open to all fans, however, and all you need to do is find a table and wait:


Pretty soon, a server will be over to take your order, and as you wait, you can enjoy the game and the Philadelphia Phillies broadcast on numerous TVs throughout the area. The menu here looked great. I didn’t end up eating in this area, but was certainly tempted. Menu items included pierogies, BBQed turkey, chicken skewers, flank steak sliders, burgers and s’mores. I’m getting hungry just thinking of it. Why the heck didn’t I eat here?!

Well, in short, the answer is that I wanted something light tonight. After several consecutive days of pounding heavy ballpark food, I was looking forward to something that wasn’t going to feel like a bowling ball in my stomach. I found what I was looking for at the Aw Shucks concession stand in right field. Now, I don’t want to alarm you, but the following food photo contains a vegetable:


The seasoned corn on the cob is one of Coca-Cola Park’s signature dishes, and I definitely recommend trying it out. My cob was tasty and the seasoning — salt, Parmesan cheese and an assorted spice rub — was delicious. And I have to give the folks at Aw Shucks credit; they even supply toothpicks!

After dinner, my next mission was to find a seat on the first base side and shoot some action shots with my new camera. On the way there, I looked back and saw a couple people using the giant guitar, and snapped this picture to give you a better idea of what the front of the guitar looks like:


Here’s an action shot that only loosely involves the word “action.” It’s PawSox first baseman Drew Sutton in mid-spit:


Sort of gross, but the chances are good if you’ve watched a ballgame in the past, you’ve seen more spits than you care to recall.

Here’s some better action. This is Lehigh Valley catcher Erik Kratz fouling off a pitch:


PawSox third baseman Will Middlebrooks striking out:


And Pawtucket starter Charlie Haeger, one of just a handful of knuckleballers in the minors:


After spending a couple innings behind the first base dugout, I took another walk through the suite level and then made my way back out to the outfield grass berm, from which the park looks awesome at night:


Once I spent an inning with the above view, I returned to the first base side to shoot a few more action shots. Here’s Red Sox third baseman Xander Bogaerts, who had a home run later in this at-bat:


And Tyson Gillies and Freddy Galvis celebrating Galvis’ two-run home run in the home half of the inning:


The ‘Pigs scored three runs in that inning to bring their total to nine, and cruised to a 9-4 win over Pawtucket, thanks to 16 hits from their offense and 11 strikeouts from their pitchers. I had a blast during my second visit to Allentown and a day later, I’d be demoted (well, you know what I mean, right?) to the Phillies Double-A franchise, the Reading Fightin Phils.

Syracuse Chiefs – April 14

Opening Day is the day that most baseball fans circle on their calendars each April, but for me, the day I think about the most is the day of my first live game. When I started The Ballpark Guide in 2010, my first game didn’t come till July. In 2011 and 2012, it was May. This year, however, I wanted to get a game under my belt early, as I’ve got some great trips planned for the spring and summer.

For the last month or so, I’ve been eyeing yesterday’s Syracuse Chiefs doubleheader at NBT Bank Stadium against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. As I wrote in my previous blog post, the Chiefs are the closest MLB/MiLB team to where I live and since visiting in 2010 for a game, I’ve wanted to get back to the Cuse. And though the forecast was calling for a high of about 46 degrees and a chance of rain, I decided to chance it — after all, 46 degrees and a little rain is better than the ice and snow back home, right? Fortunately, I didn’t see more than a few drops of rain on the drive and by the time I got to the ballpark, I was pleased to see this sign:


(It’s much better than the sign I saw when I tried to watch the Chiefs in 2011.)

After parking, I decided to walk away from the stadium to take some shots of this little train platform, appropriately named Chiefsville:


I also wanted to check out the far end of the giant parking lot in front of NBT Bank Stadium. As I walked across the lot, I turned around and took this panorama:


And then I took this shot:


Why? Well, before NBT Bank Stadium opened in 1997, the Chiefs played at MacArthur Stadium, which was located on this site. Minus a three-year window, it was home to the Chiefs between 1934 and 1996, so you can imagine the long list of stars who played here. Although there isn’t a plaque marking the area (at least there isn’t one that I noticed), it’s a neat spot to visit.

Next, I went up to the pavilion in front of the home plate gate to capture the park’s new sign and name:


The NBT Bank Stadium name is new — the name was changed in the off-season from Alliance Bank Stadium. As I’ve said before, I love the look of this ballpark from the outside. I’m a sucker for brick ballparks and the turret concept is cool:


Although I was tempted to grab my media pass and dash inside the park to wander around, I decided to take a little more time outside. I wandered to the corner of the parking lot beyond the right field corner of the field, followed a winding path up to a set of train tracks, wandered along the tracks and balanced on a rail while I took this photo:


OK, time to get inside. I picked up my media pass (thanks again, Chiefs!) and stopped to look at a historical display honoring a bunch of former Chiefs …


… before I hopped in the elevator and rode up to the concourse level. It was just after noon, and with nearly an hour until the gates opened and nearly two hours until first pitch, the concourse was very quiet:


In fact, so too was the seating bowl:


Obviously, with a doubleheader on the schedule, batting practice wasn’t in the cards, and with the cold weather, only a handful of guys were out on the field — all from the visiting Lehigh Valley IronPigs side. You can barely see them in this panorama:


While I was walking around, I noticed a familiar name on a sign — the Ramada Syracuse is not only the hotel I’d visit after the game, but it’s also the official hotel of the Chiefs. I’ll have much more on the hotel later in this blog post, but for now, it was cool to see this sign:


As I continued to walk around and take photos, I got a Tweet from the Chiefs, who’d been Tweeting with me over the last week or so leading up to my visit. The person behind the team’s Twitter account, Desiree Ellison, said she’d give me a tour of the park! Desiree works in the team’s marketing and promotions department, and as I soon found out, she’s a big-time baseball nerd — and I mean that in a completely complimentary way. (It takes one to know one, right?!)

Anyway, the first thing we did on our tour was go out on the field, which is something that never gets old:


We went into the Chiefs dugout where I snapped this picture of the helmet rack:


And, after turning 180 degrees, I took this shot showing manager Tony Beasley’s view:


Then, it was down the third base line to the home side’s bullpen …


… and even the sod farm behind the outfield fence. (I’ll spare you the photo I took of sod growing, but I thought it was neat.) Next, we went into the bowels of NBT Bank Stadium to see the indoor batting cages, which were quiet:


And then up to the press box, which has this view:


See the video board?


It was installed last year and I think you’ll agree it’s a huge upgrade from the board that was in use when I visited Syracuse in 2010.

The tour continued to the second deck, where Desiree showed me her favorite vantage point:


I’d use this spot throughout much of the game, as you’ll read soon enough. The tour was awesome; it’s always impressive to not only learn some interesting facts about a park, but also wander through some behind-the-scenes areas. Thanks so much, Desiree!

After the tour, I decided to check out the team’s souvenir shop, which is notable for having a working train ride the rails above your head:


There was a bit of a group of people in front of me, and after I snapped the photo of the train, I looked down and realized I was standing face to face with Chiefs (and former Toronto Blue Jays) pitcher Jeremy Accardo! He was signing autographs in the team shop so I got him on my game program:


By this time, both teams were out on the field, so I jetted down to field level to take in the sights. I like this shot of Syracuse’s Yunesky Maya, who started game one, warming up in the bullpen:


As I said earlier, it was a chilly day. In the sun, it was all right, but in the shade, it was very cold. It didn’t take long to notice how different guys were keeping warm:


But Syracuse infielder Mike Costanzo had a more traditional method of keeping his hands warm:


I spent the first inning in the lower seats along the first base line with this view:


As you can see, the park wasn’t exactly full, but on a cold day that coincided with the final round of the Masters, some people might’ve chosen to stay at home on the couch. (Mini rant: The Chiefs are the closest affiliated team to my home and if they were closer, I’d be at the ballpark all the time. Support your home team, people! There’s nothing better than live baseball.)

By now, it was after 2 p.m., I’d been up since 6 a.m. and at the park since 11 a.m. I was hungry. Desiree recommended the Pops Special hot dog, so that’s what I went with. It’s a hot dog loaded with mac and cheese, and while I had a similar item back in 2011 at Nationals Park, I was anxious to try it:


The hot dog itself was absolutely the best dog I’ve ever eaten at a ballpark, and while the mac and cheese was a nice touch, it wasn’t quite as flavorful as I’d have liked. Still, it was a delicious meal and it’s something I heartily recommend. I neglected to pick up any utensils, so I ate it without — it’s a good thing the upper deck was so quiet, as I would’ve undoubtedly disgusted any fans around me. Seriously, though, it was very tasty. The NBT Bank Stadium dog was good enough that I’d be interested to eat a plain dog with traditional toppings.

After eating, I moved to my right a little and hung out on a second-level group deck that Desiree recommended and that was empty during the game. I can’t argue that it’s a prime spot — especially given that foul balls were flying in and around this area during the first inning alone, before I got up there. From here, you’ve got not only a nice panoramic view of the park, but no obstructions for photos. Granted, you’re not in the first row at field level, but lots of my shots, including this one of Lehigh Valley starter Ethan Martin, turned out well:


My quest for a foul ball, however, wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped. It was a standoff; I refused to relocate elsewhere, as Murphy’s Law would dictate that as soon as I left the section, a foul ball would land in the area. But in the fifth inning, Canadian Pete Orr came to bat for the IronPigs and fouled off a Yunesky Maya pitch that went off the facing of the suite next to me, bounced twice on the concrete and then into my (winter gloved) hands:


Mission accomplished! I decided to spend the game’s final innings (remember, doubleheader games are only seven innings each in the minors) at field level, and I found a spot next to the Lehigh Valley dugout with this view:


I don’t often sit in this spot at ballparks, but from here, I had a neat angle for shots like this one of IronPigs reliever Jake Diekman:


Diekman didn’t fare too well during his appearance — he went just 0.1 innings and gave up three walks, and when he was pulled, he walked back to the dugout entrance just a few feet to my right with a strange sense of calm. Once inside the dugout, however, he slammed his glove against the bench and didn’t seem too happy as he sat there. The visitors won 5-2, and during the 30-minute break between games, I was on the move again. By this time, I was pretty cold. I’d dressed warmly, but just being outside for that length of time was taking its toll. As I walked around to stay warm, I was glad to find this:


OK, so it didn’t provide refuge from the cold. Actually, I don’t know what it provided refuge from. But it gave me a chuckle.

Before long, the teams came out to warm up for the second game, and I went over to the Syracuse bullpen to watch the warmup of Ryan Perry, who got the start in game two for the Chiefs. I saw him pitch back in 2011 with the Tigers at Comerica Park, so it was neat to see him again. As he was warming up, I could see a colorful tattoo sticking out from beneath his glove. I couldn’t tell what it was from where I was standing, but now that I can enlarge the photo, it looks like a skeleton version of the MLB logo:


I decided to sit in the sun for a bit to get warm, and given that it was shining bright on the first base-side seats, that’s where I ventured. From here, I had a clear view to the plate and could take pictures like this one of Jeff Kobernus, who actually hit a single on this non-textbook swing:


Being in the sun warmed my bones a little, and it wasn’t long before I wondered if I could get a foul ball during the second game; I figured it’d be quite the feat to get balls in games one and two of a doubleheader. I went back to my prime foul ball territory, and in the fifth inning, a foul ball flew back toward the suite level, where it bounced around and landed out of sight. I estimated the ball to be about six suites from where I was standing, and since no one was rushing out from those suites (or any others) to retrieve the ball, I wandered over but the ball had disappeared. I looked for a few moments and wondered what the heck had happened. Then, I noticed that the concrete wall in front of each suite has a drainage hole at the bottom. Could the ball have magically found the hole? I couldn’t tell, so I looked over the fence into the gutter below, and this is what I saw:


So, I blindly reached my hand through the hole into the cold water, felt around and came up with this:


After the Chiefs led the entire game, Lehigh Valley scored late to tie the contest 2-2 and force extra innings. In the bottom of the eighth, Chiefs third baseman Jimmy Van Ostrand got up with the bases loaded and hit a walk-off single:


It was a very full and entertaining day at the ballpark, and as I walked out to my car, I turned and took one last shot of the sunset hitting NBT Bank Stadium:


Fortunately, I didn’t have to drive far to reach my hotel. Remember how I mentioned the Ramada Syracuse earlier? It’s less than three miles from the ballpark, making it the perfect choice for Chiefs fans — no trekking downtown and no driving out to the suburbs to find a hotel. It’s also within sight of the junction of I-81 and I-90, which made getting on the road this morning super easy. I’ll definitely stay here during future visits to Syracuse, and I think it’s the best choice in town for baseball fans. I didn’t have a chance to use the hotel’s on-site amenities, but it’s got a restaurant, as well as a pool and athletic center — perfect for burning off the extra hot dogs you ate at the Chiefs game!

After seeing where the hotel was, I decided to find a supermarket nearby. There’s a Wegman’s about five minutes away, and I always enjoy hitting this brand of store when I’m on my trips, so I made the quick drive to load up on some snacks for the night. If you want something closer to the hotel, Subway, Burger King, Denny’s, a pizza place and an ice cream parlor are all within walking distance. If you need an extra reason to choose this hotel, it’s ranked fourth among Syracuse hotels on TripAdvisor.

When I got back to the Ramada, I took this photo from the outside …


… before heading to my room which was thankfully nice and warm, but also large and inviting — king-sized bed, couch, coffee table and desk, which is where I sat to work on this blog post. I waited till morning to take this shot, which shows the how roomy the room is:


I managed to get about 1,100 words of this blog post written Sunday night while watching Sunday Night Baseball, and checked out just before 7 a.m. this morning. After loading up the car, I took a an early-morning shot of the exterior before hitting the road:


But wait! There’s a little more. If you remember this blog post, you’ll know that when possible, I enjoy checking out collegiate baseball fields. Instead of seeing a collegiate field, though, I stopped at Duffy Fairgrounds, a park in Watertown, NY. Built in 1938, the park has been home to a long list of teams, including the Watertown Pirates (1983 to 1988), and later the Watertown Indians (1989 to 1998), of the New York-Penn League. The park had a classic grandstand, as you can see here:


If you’re wondering, guys including Sean Casey, Brian Giles, Moises Alou, Orlando Merced and Jay Buhner played here during their stint in Watertown. And in 1988, the Watertown Pirates had a 21-year-old first baseman named Tim Wakefield, who hit just .189, began pitching the following season and eventually rode his knuckleball to a pair of World Series titles with the Red Sox. Neat, huh?

One more side note: I was stuck in a long lineup at the border waiting to cross back into Canada, and at one point, I looked out my window and saw this, which shows I was sitting exactly on the line between Canada and the U.S.:


Also, when the border guard asked my reason for being in the U.S., I explained that I’d watched the “Syracuse Chiefs Triple-A baseball team playing a doubleheader.” He responded with: “A Double-A team playing a tripleheader?” I’m guessing he’s not a baseball fan.

Now that my first road trip of the season is in the books, I’m already looking forward. In fact, I’ll have a big announcement this week! As always, you can follow me on Twitter and visit The Ballpark Guide. Your traffic on my website helps support my trips.

First Game(s) of 2013 Just Around the Corner

As far as I’m concerned, the only thing nearly as great as going on baseball road trips is planning them. As soon as the MLB and MiLB schedules are released each year, I spend hours coming up with a number of road trip plans and even a few day trips. I live several hours from the nearest pro ball team, but in the past, I’ve taken day trips to Syracuse’s Alliance Bank Stadium, Vermont’s Centennial Field and Rochester’s Frontier Field. Day trips make for a heck of a lot of driving, but they’re a fun way to kick off the season and get me even more primed for the longer road trips just around the corner.

All that said, I’m very excited to reveal my first game — or more specifically, games — of the 2013 season. On Sunday, April 14, I’ll be in Syracuse to watch the Triple-A Chiefs host the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. And to make things even more exciting, it’s a doubleheader! Since I launched The Ballpark Guide in 2010, I’ve been to two doubleheaders, both of which were in 2011. I saw a Washington Nationals twin bill at Nationals Park and a Lake County Captains doubleheader at Classic Park. But I’ve never been to one in Syracuse, which has a park with a unique design that I think makes it one of the sharpest-looking ballparks in the International League:


Even though I’ve only been to one home Chiefs game, I’ve always wanted to get back to the ‘Cuse. In fact, I tried to kick off my 2011 road trips with a day trip to Syracuse that resulted in a rainout, which you can read about here. Then, last year, I stopped at Alliance Bank Stadium to take a couple photos, including the one below, before continuing on to the rest of my road trip:


Anyway, beyond getting a double dose of baseball to kick off my 2013 season, I’m extra excited to return to Syracuse to document the recent changes to the ballpark. In the off-season, the Chiefs changed the name of Alliance Bank Stadium to NBT Bank Stadium. Of course, there will be new signs to photograph but as it’s been a while since I was inside the ballpark, I’m curious to see what looks different inside. I’m excited to say the Chiefs are hooking me up with media credentials for the game, so I should have an awesome opportunity to explore the park and share a lot of cool photos and stories here on my blog, as well as provide more details for fans on my website.

The forecast for the game is looking darned cold — Weather.com says the high for the day will be just 46 degrees, which might make this unofficially the coldest game I’ve ever attended. But as long the rain stays away, you won’t hear any complaining from me. I’m excited to get in to NBT Bank Stadium before the gates open, scout out some areas that I didn’t see during my last visit, eat a few items off the concession menu, take a ton of photos and just generally hang out in a ballpark for eight-plus hours. As always, I plan to provide Tweets about my adventure throughout the game.

If you’re in the Syracuse area, are planning to visit NBT Bank Stadium on April 14 and want to say hello, leave me a comment below, send me an email or follow me on Twitter. And as always, please visit The Ballpark Guide to help plan your own baseball road trips and support mine. And if you really enjoy following my baseball adventures, please consider making a small donation to keep the road trips going! If you’re a Chiefs fan but won’t be around on April 14, feel free to get in touch to provide any tips about NBT Bank Stadium. Any must-eat concession items? Cool places to see? I’m open to all suggestions.

Media Passes and More

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved collecting ticket stubs from all the various sporting events I’ve attended. Since I started traveling for The Ballpark Guide, I’ve been fortunate to visit more than 40 ballparks. This past off-season, I scanned all my stubs from 2010 and 2011 into a blog post, which you can check out here if you’re interested. (It’s sort of cool to see all the varied designs used by teams.)

This summer, the home teams I’ve seen have been unbelievably hospitable to me and I haven’t had to buy a single ticket. I’ve received media accreditation at every park I’ve visited, which provides such varied benefits as being able to enter early, access the press box, walk on the field and many other great things. An added bonus is that while I don’t get a ticket stub to add to my collection, I get something even cooler – a media pass.

As I continue to plan my next road trip, I thought it’d be fun to take a quick look back at the passes I’ve received thus far, in chronological order.

May 21: Lakewood Blue Claws

This game was rained out, which was a letdown given I’d driven roughly eight hours for it. But even though there was no game to see, I picked up my media pass at the ticket office. It’s simple, but it was exciting because it was my first of the season.

May 22: Lehigh Valley IronPigs

I think I like this media pass best. Perhaps because the IronPigs play at the Triple-A level, the pass is really professional and it also included a nice lanyard from when Coca-Cola Park hosted the Triple-A All-Star Game in 2010.

May 22: Trenton Thunder

Trenton offered up a sharp-looking pass that came with a chain lanyard. As you can see, this one allowed me to access the press box, but not the clubhouse or field.

May 23: Wilmington Blue Rocks

The Blue Rocks’ press pass was simple and not unlike the one from Lakewood. This one gave me access to several areas, including the field. It’s always fun to see my name in print!

May 23: Frederick Keys

There’s no mention of my name or The Ballpark Guide on the laminated pass provided by the Keys, which suddenly makes me wonder if I was supposed to turn it in after the game. Oops.

May 24: Altoona Curve

Altoona’s media pass is really sharp. My information, as you can see, is written in by hand, and I like the retro-style design of this one.

May 24: Buffalo Bisons

I was a little surprised that Buffalo, being a Triple-A team, had a cardboard pass similar to those from Lakewood and Wilmington. I think this is because it’s only a one-day pass, rather than a season’s pass.

July 19: Rochester Red Wings

The Red Wings were the first team this season that didn’t hook me up with a standard media pass, but they essentially gave me the same privileges. The ticket provided access to any section in the park, while the photo pass allowed me to get on the field before the game.

Lehigh Valley IronPigs – May 22

Day two of my first baseball road trip of 2012 began early, although not quite as early as day one, which you can read about here and here. I woke up at my hotel just outside of Trenton, and made the 1.5-ish hour drive north to Lehigh Valley, PA, which is home to the AAA IronPigs. They were playing a matinee game at 10:35 a.m., and it would be the first of two games in two cities for me this day.

I got to the stadium roughly 2.5 hours before game time. I always like to get there early to tour the outside and take in all the sights, but given that the IronPigs were hooking me up with a media pass to this game, I thought I’d use the pass to get in early and check out the stadium before it got crazy crowded with the thousands of school kids who were coming to the game.

When I parked, I noted that the parking lot at Coca-Cola Park is somewhat far away from the park, but quickly saw that if you don’t feel like walking, you can get chauffeured in a golf cart. What a great idea! Here’s the scene as I walked from the lot toward the pavilion in front of the stadium:

I love when teams get the names of the roads around the park changed to baseball words. Coca-Cola Park is at the junction of Home Run Lane and Long Drive:

Off the top of my head, I know that New Hampshire’s Northeast Delta Dental Stadium is on Line Drive, Harrisburg’s Metro Bank Park is on Championship Way and I’m sure there are others, too.

I quickly went to the will call window and picked up my media pass, and then went to the west entrance of the park …

… and walked right in. Now, being so early, the only people around were staff, so I basically had 30-40 minutes to wander the park myself and take in all the sights. It’s hard not to go nuts when you get this opportunity. Yet, I resisted the urge to run and shoot photos like a madman. Instead, I started methodically working my way down the third base concourse, where I saw a number of cool sights, including:

The IronPigs’ alumni wall of players who made it to the Majors:

A mini-putt area:

And a cool tiki bar-style area in left field:

Coca-Cola Park has a concourse that surrounds the whole field, so you can take laps around the park. But when I got to center field, an usher quickly gave me a big “Whoa” and pointed upward. I looked way up and saw this:

Two workers were making a last-minute repair to the enormous Coke bottle atop the scoreboard. It vibrates when the IronPigs score a run, and I’m guessing it needed a bit of tightening or something before it could be deemed operational for the game. Since I couldn’t pass under it, I retraced my steps and headed back down the third base concourse toward the home plate area. When I got to the dugout on the third base side, I turned back to face the Coke bottle and got another view of the repair work:

Wow, so much to see! The park was still empty except for a ton of staff bustling around, so I took pictures of the cool seating area right behind home plate:

The press box:

And even bar chairs complete with IronPigs logos:

Pretty soon, the IronPigs and Louisville Bats came out to stretch, and I took a quick detour into the team’s huge store:

It’s got virtually anything you’d ever want if you’re an IronPigs and/or Phillies fan:

After checking out the store, I went back outside and saw the gates still weren’t open, which meant I still had a great opportunity to scour the park and take in everything. I did just that and before long, hordes of school kids began to stream in. I always have to chuckle about ballgames designed for school outings. If I’d gotten to do this as a kid, it would’ve been great. But what amuses me is how the kids are already bonkers because of they get a day off school, but then you add soft drinks, ice cream and cotton candy to the equation (at 11 a.m.) and the decibels quickly go up. As you can see from this next photo, the multi-tiered picnic area on the third base side was filling up with school groups:

But before the park got too crowded, I took this panorama:

After I’d taken a good chunk of time moving around the main concourse, I figured I’d put my media pass to good use and do some exploring that I wouldn’t otherwise get to do. That meant climbing up to the suite level and seeing what was what. Remember the photo of the seats directly behind home plate? Here’s what they look like from up here:

There’s a group party deck at each end of the suite level and suites all along the level except for the middle, which has a swank bar area. There’s also an aisle that runs in front of the suites, so I ventured along it …

… where I eventually came across a  series of sheets taped to the wall showing the IronPigs’ transactions and roster and the Bats’ roster, as well as a scorecard:

My favorite was this hilarious addition to the transactions sheet:

Once I’d walked through the outside portion of the suite level, I went inside and took in the surroundings, including the bar area in the middle:

And some neat focal points including the jerseys of past IronPigs who’d made the AAA All-Star Game:

An eye-catching timeline of the team’s history:

Baseballs mounted to read LV:

And plaques for the team’s pitcher and hitter of the year:

I ducked back outside for a minute, just in time to see media relations director Tim Doohan on the video board:

Tim was the person who not only hooked me up with my media pass, but also was very accommodating before (and during, as it turned out) my visit. I took this picture so I could recognize him if I saw him. (It turns out he doesn’t look pixelly in real life!)

I’d seen enough upstairs for the moment, so I zipped back down and basically retraced my steps from earlier. I always find that when you make additional passes through different areas, you notice things you missed earlier. One of these was a clever photo board featuring photos of IronPigs fans wearing their team gear in different spots across the globe. You name it, and there was an IronPig fan there at some point:

In center, I watched both starting pitchers warm up. Coca-Cola Park has a unique bullpen setup. They pens are stacked, which is different than most MiLB pens, which are either located down the lines or else in each corner. One interesting thing I noticed was that the visitors’ portion had an open chain-link fence while the home side’s had a barrier over the fence. Here’s the dividing line:

Being 6’3″, however, means that I can see over most obstacles, so I was able to take a few pictures of Lehigh Valley starter Dave Bush, who’s won more than 50 MLB games in a career dating back to 2004. I always enjoy watching pitchers from up close. He was spending a lot of time fine-tuning his breaking ball, and it was filthy. Bush is in the first picture and in the second one, he’s joined by catcher Tuffy Gosewisch, who hit a foul ball that I caught last summer in Erie’s Jerry Uht Park:

Soon enough, it was time for some big pre-game ceremonies …

… and then, time to play ball!

I saw that the standing room area in right-center wasn’t too occupied, so I headed there to watch the first inning, and I couldn’t resist documenting my media pass:

By now, I was hungry so I took a walk to the outfield concession stand and ordered the All Star Sandwich, which is pastrami, cheese sauce, coleslaw and fries on a bun:

The benefit to this sammie is that it contains every food group — meat, processed cheese and deep-fried stuff. At least I think that’s what the food groups are, aren’t they? The sandwich was good. Not quite enough to crack my top 10 all-time ballpark food list, but it was tasty. If it’d had a few more slices of meat, it might’ve pushed Classic Park’s pulled pork nachos out of the 10 spot.

As the game progressed, I continued moving around and taking photos. I got a bunch of Lehigh Valley manager Ryne Sandberg, who’s pictured here on the right:

An oh-so-close-to-being-great-if-it-was-sharper shot of speedy outfielder Kyle Hudson stealing second base:

And a bunch more action shots, including another of Bush:

A swinging strike from Louisville’s Kristopher Negron:

Kevin Frandsen attempting a bunt:

Louisville catcher Corky Miller:

The action itself was exciting. Bush threw a complete-game, five-hitter as the IronPigs won 2-0:

Next up will be a blog about my excitement-filled visit to Trenton. Coming soon!