Tagged: Malcolm MacMillan

My Longest Travel Day Ever – September 19

What’s the earliest you’ve ever set your alarm clock?

For me, it was 12:30 a.m. on September 19. After I’d slept for about four hours, the beeping of my alarm signaled the start of a long day of travel that would take me from Ontario to Detroit and, ultimately, Dallas/Fort Worth.

When I booked my flight to Texas several weeks earlier, I decided that it made sense to fly out of Toronto, despite the fact that I live between four and 4.5 hours away. Using Toronto for my departure meant that I could get a shorter flight to Dallas, although I’d be stopping for a quick layover in Detroit. Since I wanted to get to Dallas early enough to check into my hotel in the suburb of Arlington and get ready for the night’s Texas Rangers game at Globe Life Park, it meant leaving Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in the morning.

My flight was scheduled for 10:16 a.m., so I figured it would make sense to drive to Toronto the night before, grab a hotel near the airport and then catch an early-morning shuttle over to my terminal. Of course, being a cheapskate frugal, I bristled at the idea of paying for a hotel room that I’d sleep in for just a few hours — hence my decision to sleep in my own bed, get up at 12:30 a.m. and drive through the night to Toronto. I pulled out of my driveway less than half an hour after waking up and, thanks to a shortage of traffic along the route, parked my car at Pearson about 5:30 a.m. — much earlier than necessary, granted, but I couldn’t risk cutting it too close because of a flat tire or another unforeseen event along the way.

Despite being a relatively unseasoned air traveler, I found my terminal — thanks to some obsessive map checking ahead of time — and was soon standing in the security checkpoint line with several dozen other bleary-eyed travelers. When I reached the customs counter, I was blown away at how quickly the process went compared to driving through customs. The conversation literally was:

CBP agent: Destination?

Me: Dallas, then Houston.

CBP agent: Business or pleasure?

Me: Pleasure. I’m going to some baseball games.

CBP agent: Have a good trip.

On the many times I’ve passed through border checkpoints on my baseball road trips, I’ve been asked questions about which teams I’m seeing, which hotels I’m visiting, why I go to so many baseball games, whether I’m meeting anyone, whether I’m playing in any of the games (!), what food I’m carrying and a bunch more. Does anyone else find that airport customs is easier than road customs?

I normally blog about my baseball trip plans in advance, but for this trip I wanted the details to be a surprise. I’d shared that I’d be traveling but hadn’t told anyone the specific details, so I was obviously pretty pumped to finally get through security, find a seat and send out this tweet:



With a couple hours to kill before boarding my Delta flight, I wandered around Terminal 3, occasionally stopping to watch the planes and take photos of the early-morning scene on the tarmac:


Eventually, it was time to board the small jet that would take me to the Motor City and, soon enough, we were in the air and I was peering out my window at Toronto as it passed below:


The flight to Detroit was scheduled for just over an hour and it was awful. Despite the clear skies in this photo …


… the trip was rife with enough turbulence that I had to really concentrate to avoid getting sick. What made me feel more nauseous, though, was seeing the Detroit arrival time of 11:25 a.m. come and go with us still in the air and yet to begin our descent. I knew that my 48-minute layover in Detroit wasn’t a lot of time to get to my next departure gate even if we were right on time, but arriving late was a major concern.

The flight attendant soon announced that because of poor weather, we’d taken something of a detour in the air and it had lengthened our flight. By the time we touched down in Detroit, it was 11 minutes before my flight to Dallas was scheduled to depart. I checked my departure gate and compared it with the arrival gate I was standing in, and had to actually chuckle. The two gates were comically almost as far away as they could be, as you’ll see below. The bottom red star is where we arrived and the top red star is where I had to get to:


Determined to give it my best effort, I set out with my backpack on my shoulders and my rolling carry-on bag dragging behind me to run through the airport like a cliched scene out of the movies. The distance between the two gates was more than a mile, and with several sets of stairs and crowds to navigate, I didn’t reach my departure gate until the plane to Dallas was set to leave.

But wait — the departure had been bumped back 10 minutes! I stood and peered through the terminal window to see my plane sitting there, just taunting me. Unfortunately, I also caught sight of a huge sign pointing out that the plane doors would be shut, by law, 20 minutes before the scheduled time of departure. I pleaded my case — somewhat loudly, one might argue — to the airline rep but rules are rules, and soon I was standing alone at the gate, feeling slightly embarrassed at how sweaty I was from my run as I watched my plane to Texas begin to taxi away.

I knew that because my missed flight wasn’t my doing, Delta would just put me on the next available flight, so I made my way to the customer service desk, told my sob story and waited for the agent to print my next boarding pass. He quickly got me booked on the next flight to Dallas, but my eyes bugged out of my head when I saw that it was scheduled to depart 7.5 hours later.

I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

Yep, 7.5 hours.

That’s 450 minutes, for those keeping score.

This meant that when the Texas Rangers would be taking the field that evening, I’d still be sitting in Detroit. No game for me on this night, so I was sure glad I’d scheduled my trip to allow for two days in Dallas/Arlington.

The Delta agent apologized and handed me a voucher for free lunch at the airport, which was a nice consolation prize. I figured there wasn’t anything I could do but make the most of my long layover, so I wiped some more sweat off myself and began the prospect of hunting for lunch.

Fortunately, I was hugely impressed with Detroit Metropolitan Airport. It was loaded with enticing lunch options, and I found a LongHorn Steakhouse; if I wasn’t going to be eating dinner in Texas tonight, at least I’d have some red meat and look at a pair of bull horns mounted on the wall. I went with a half-pound burger loaded with bacon and blue cheese and a side of Caesar salad. No photo, unfortunately; I think I was still in a state of shock over my predicament.

I won’t give you a minute-by-minute account of the next seven hours spent at the airport. I will say, however, that I did walk just about every foot of the terminal and could probably draw you a map of everything with no effort. If the airport was closer to downtown, I’d have been tempted to hail a taxi and take a trip to Comerica Park, just to take some photos.

The coolest thing I saw at the airport was the famous Light Tunnel, which connects separate sections of the terminal. It feels like you’re entering a different dimension — the tunnel walls and roof light up in a variety of colors in time with music that’s pumped through the area. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and is difficult to explain. Sensing that I’d have trouble putting the sight into words, I used my GoPro to film a trip through the tunnel. Check it out — and crank up the volume to get the full effect:

While the Light Tunnel was great, and this fountain was also cool …


… I was mostly looking at scenes like this:


In between walks, I’d find a semi-quiet place to sit and listen to my iPod next to a charging station. I’d sit for a while, and then grab my suitcase and roll through the terminal from end to end for what usually felt like the 79th time. This was the pattern I repeated until, during one pass through the terminal, I noticed a set of escalators that I’d somehow missed before. Figuring I was embarking on some uncharted territory, I excitedly began the ride down but had a moment of panic when I saw the escalators ended straight in front of a pair of sliding glass doors — doors that opened into the non-secured part of the airport. When I reached the end, I quickly turned around to gauge the pedestrian traffic behind me, thinking I’d make a sprint back up my escalator. Clearly, a security guard who was watching me was reading my mind, and said, “It’s against the law to try to go back up. Try it and you’ll be arrested and fined.”

Dejected, I exited through the glass doors, explained my predicament at a customer service desk and was pointed in the direction of the security checkpoint. That’s right, I’d have to go through the entire security check process again!

Fortunately, the process went smoothly — and I even had the good fortune of having my hands swabbed for explosives — and 30 or 40 minutes later I was back in the secured part of the terminal pacing around as I had before.

About the same time as first pitch in the Rangers game, I was finally seated on my flight to Dallas and took my last photo of the day — a shot of the Detroit tarmac as the sun was setting:


The flight from Detroit to Dallas was much smoother and the view coming into Dallas at night was spectacular. I didn’t shoot any photos, as they’d hardly do the view justice, but I could see several landmarks I recognized, including the Bank of America Plaza, which is famous for its green outline at night.

It was between 10 and 11 p.m. when we touched down in Dallas — the times were starting to be a blur at this point — and the airport was absolutely dead except for the people off my flight and a janitor buffing the floor. It seemed like an “empty airport” movie cliche. In any case, I found a taxi quickly and arrived in my Arlington hotel sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight. By the time I went to bed, I’d been up for more than 24 hours and, staggeringly, also up for about 44 of the last 48 hours. That’s a stretch that’s tough to beat, right?

No time to fuss over being tired, though. In less than 12 hours, I’d be touring around Globe Life Park with a media pass provided by the Rangers.

Snowy Comerica Park

I’ve got just 10 sleeps until my first baseball road trip of 2014, which I’ll be blogging about next week. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share one quick ballpark adventure I had over the winter.

Back in January, my wife and I made a quick to Detroit to see an Adam Carolla stand-up show at the Motor City Casino. I’ve been to Detroit a couple times in the past, including in May of 2011 for a pair of Tigers games at Comerica Park. You can read my fan guide to Comerica Park by clicking on the park’s name in this sentence, and blog posts about those two trips here and here.

Anyway, I’m a huge Adam Carolla fan and since he doesn’t travel to the east side of the continent very often, I couldn’t resist buying tickets. Where does baseball come in, you ask?

Well, first of all, we stayed at the casino hotel and ate dinner at one of its restaurants. From our seats, we could see both Comerica Park, the current home of the Tigers, and the site of old Tiger Stadium. The spot that Tiger Stadium once occupied is now a vacant lot. You probably wouldn’t even notice it, except the flag in center field still stands. I didn’t take my camera to the restaurant, and the dark, gray evening wasn’t very conducive to photos. There’s a great photo on Wikipedia, however, that show exactly what I’m talking about:


See the tall building on the left of the image? That’s the Motor City Casino, and the restaurant is behind the tall windows on the upper floor.

The morning after the show, we set out for the long drive home, but not before taking a drive around Comerica Park. It was neat to see the winter version of the park. Here’s me in front of the statues of Ty Cobb and Willie Horton, which are beyond the outfield fence:


And here I am in front of the famous tiger statue at the Witherell Street gate:


The tigers on the side of the building were wearing snow caps:


And we could see the snowy field as we peeked through from the sidewalk:


As we stood on Witherell Street, I snapped a series of photos to build this panorama to show the snowy scene looking away from Comerica Park’s gate:


The building in the center is the historic Fox Theatre.

I really enjoyed my visits at Comerica Park, even though my second game was rain shortened. If you didn’t see the notice on my website last week, I’m excited to say that I’ll be heading back to Detroit in June as part of a road trip. The rest of the dates and cities aren’t confirmed right now, but I can definitely say I’ll be at Comerica to see the Tigers host the Blue Jays on June 4 and 5.

Shop Online, Help The Ballpark Guide

Do you shop on Amazon? If so, your shopping can help send me on more baseball road trips to provide you with comprehensive fan guides to the parks you plan to visit, entertaining blog posts and other adventures along the way. And best of all, your support won’t cost you an extra cent.

I’ve recently partnered up with Amazon as a method of generating revenue for my site, and I’m excited to tell you about it.

The premise is simple: Visit The Ballpark Guide’s “Support Us” page, click on the Amazon link for your country and do your shopping. When you pay for your order, Amazon takes a small percentage of that total and sends it my way, which I’ll use for more baseball road trips this summer, including some that require me to fly. The prices you pay by clicking through my link are the same you’d pay if you just typed Amazon’s URL into your browser, so there’s no added expense for you.

Here’s what the Amazon portion of the page looks like; as you can see, it’s pretty straightforward:


Here’s another way you can help:

If you buy your favorite team’s gear on MLB Shop, perhaps in anticipation of your own baseball road trip, your shopping can also help me out. As with Amazon, I’ve joined forces with the MLB Shop and every time you make a purchase, I get a small percentage. And like Amazon, it doesn’t cost you an extra penny. Here’s a screenshot:


I’ve noted it on the page in question, but I want to reiterate how much your support means to me. To show my appreciation, I’ll give you some public recognition on my Twitter account or blog. All you have to do is get in touch with me after you complete your purchase, let me know that you used my site and I’ll do the rest.

Finally, I’d love if you could bookmark my “Support Us” page and start your online shopping there. I’m asking you to bookmark my page, rather than the Amazon/MLB Shop page to which you’re directed after clicking the link, because the site’s cookies eventually expire and Amazon/MLB Shop won’t be able to connect your purchase to me.

Any questions? Give me a shout. As a bonus, I’ll give a Twitter follow to the first person who makes an Amazon or MLB Shop purchase through my site!

As always, thank you for your support. This summer’s going to have some awesome trips and I can’t wait to share them with you.

Harrisburg Senators – July 8

One of the things I love about baseball road trips for The Ballpark Guide is that every day seems to have something special.

On day one, I threw out the first pitch in Auburn.

On day two, I watched Derek Jeter rehab in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Day three began early with a trip to Harrisburg to watch the Eastern League’s Senators host the Bowie Baysox at Metro Bank Park. When I planned this road trip, my priority was getting to State College on the evening of July 8, which meant most of the day would be wide open. But when I saw the Senators were playing a rare noon game, I knew I could pull off another two-city doubleheader.

I got to Metro Bank Park about 10 a.m. and when I pulled into the parking lot, I explained to the attendant that I was picking up a media pass and asked if I was on the media parking list. “Don’t worry,” he responded, “we don’t start charging for parking until 10:30 a.m.” Awesome! What a great perk for Senators fans — come early, check out the area around the park and save a couple bucks. More teams should do this.

Although I explain a lot about Metro Bank Park in the fan guide on my website, I’ll remind you that one of the coolest things about this park is its location. It’s on Harrisburg’s City Island, which means you get to cross a bridge (or swim, if you’re really dedicated, I suppose) on your way there. Once I parked, I took a walk along the pedestrian bridge that runs between downtown Harrisburg and the island:


I picked up my media pass that Terry Byrom had left for me (thanks, Terry!) and decided to take a walk around the entire park before entering. Here’s the first shot I took after getting my pass:


From the island, you have a pretty good view of Harrisburg, including the Pennsylvania State Capitol building, which is the big dome on the right:


When I was walking back toward Metro Bank Park from the point of the island, I noticed this banner of former Senator Bryce Harper:


Last time I was in Harrisburg in 2011, Harper was still playing Class-A ball in Hagerstown and hadn’t even made it to the Senators. And now he’s taking part in the MLB home run derby.

After my lap of the park, I decided to go inside and check out the action. The noon game meant no batting practice, but the players on both teams were on the field. Before I focused on the players, though, I wandered through the nearly empty park. Metro Bank Park has some awesome seating options that are definitely worth considering if you plan to visit. There are bar seats in a couple spots in the outfield and a boardwalk behind them. Here are the seats in left-center:


In the washroom, I noticed the Senators are one of a handful of MiLB teams that put the logos of their league rivals in the urinals. I took a photo of one, thinking it would be cool to share. But upon looking at it just now, I figured no one wants to see a close-up view of a urinal. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

As I continued throughout the stadium, a shirtless man roaming through a patch of lilies outside the park caught my eye. You know when someone is acting suspicious and it just rings an alarm for you? That’s what was happening here and I stopped and watched as I tried to figure out what he was up to. Soon enough, I realized he was trying to find foul balls. Fair enough. But to avoid suspicion, it seemed, he was also halfheartedly weeding the flowerbed. Bizarre:


One of the neat things about getting into a park early is the proliferation of players wandering around. By now, they’d finished their on-field stretching and many were sitting or walking through the concourse talking on cellphones. As I approached the Senators clubhouse, I saw a handful of players but a sign recognizing the 2011 flood caught my eye. I actually blogged about that flood at the time, which you can check out here. Much of the park was underwater and this sign noted how high the water was in the park’s lower level:


It reads: “September 2011 Flood: High Water Mark” and the line has to be nearly six feet up the wall. I remember reading that both clubhouses were completely full of water, and quickly noticed the park’s elaborate water-tight doors now covering the home clubhouse door:


The ballpark has an upper concourse boardwalk and a lower concourse. The boardwalk is more fun to walk along, but the lower level has its perks, too. One of those perks is standing next to the road bullpen and watching the action from just a couple feet away. You’re so close you can hear the ball zip past you. By the time I reached the bullpen, Bowie starter Tyler Wilson was just about to start throwing. I waited for a few minutes and then was able to get shots like this one:


If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll know one of the things I enjoy doing on my road trips is capturing moments you don’t notice on TV. Sometimes they’re funny and sometimes they’re a subtle reminder of life in the minor leagues. As I stood behind the Bowie bullpen after the anthem, I shot this photo:


It’s reliever Chris Petrini’s glove sitting on the bullpen phone box, but the thing that caught my eye was the bottle of water sitting in the box. In the majors, players often have climate-controlled bullpens, but that’s not the case in the minors. Whoever had this bottle of water stashed it here to keep it out of the glaring sun.

After the first pitch, I sought out something to eat. During my last visit, I sat in the all-you-can-eat seats, so I didn’t try anything at the other concession stands. This time, I settled on some wings at Arooga’s Wing Shack. I’m not usually a fan of boneless wings, but chose them instead of traditional wings to avoid too much of a mess:


The sauce was really tasty but the chicken was far too breaded for my liking. One neat thing about Arooga’s is if you like a particular type of sauce, you can buy a bottle of it in the Senators team shop. I love when teams make smart decisions like that.

I spent the first inning in the shade in a picnic area in center field, and then made my way down to the box seats on the third base side to take some action shots. Here’s Bowie’s Seth Loman fouling off a pitch:


Unfortunately, that was as far as I got. A minute later, a light rain started falling. About 30 seconds after the light rain, the skies completely opened up and I ran — along with dozens of other fans — to the team shop where I looked out and had this rainy view:


The view lasted just a few more seconds. The umpires postponed the game right away and the players scurried out of sight. Given the darkness of the sky and intensity of the rainfall, I weighed my options. If the game had a substantial delay, which looked likely, I’d have to leave early to get to State College. On the other hand, as the last game before the Eastern League all-star break, the officials might just decide to postpone the game and resume it in the second half of the season. As much as I hate leaving games early, I decided to hit the road and start the rainy drive to State College. The rain delay in Harrisburg lasted about 90 minutes, so I’m not too heartbroken with my decision to leave.

Check back soon to read about my State College experience, which included more rain, a foul ball and a tour around Penn State’s Beaver Stadium!

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders – July 7

With day one of my July road trip for The Ballpark Guide in the books, it was time to shift my attention to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, PNC Field and Derek Jeter. I planned this trip months ago, and when I heard last week that Jeter would begin rehabbing with the RailRiders on July 6, I had my fingers firmly crossed he’d still be around a day later during my visit.

Fortunately, the team confirmed the news on Twitter and I was thrilled to get a chance to see the captain up close. What perfect luck!

I was also excited to see the new PNC Field. I visited the park back in 2011 and found it outdated and in need of a facelift. In case you don’t follow the International League, the S/W-B team played its entire 2012 campaign on the road while a multi-million dollar renovation put a new face on PNC Field, and I can definitely say the new look is outstanding.

I arrived just before 10 a.m. for the 1 p.m. game and a pile of fans were already waiting for Jeter in the parking lot. As much as I was tempted to hang out and see if I could spot him, I was more excited to document the stadium renovations. Here’s a panoramic shot of the front gate area:


(If you click on the link about my 2011 visit, you can see how the park looked back then and draw your own conclusions.)

John Sadak with the RailRiders had left a media pass for me at Will Call, which was awesome. Thanks, John! Not only would it give me a chance to get in early on what would be a Jeter-induced sellout, but I’d get the opportunity to really explore. I entered the park through the Mohegan Sun Club entrance and climbed the stairs to find an MLB-quality bar/lounge area:


I believe this area is only open to suiteholders, but if you’re lucky enough to score a suite at PNC Field, you’ll sure enjoy this spot:


The club was virtually deserted except for a few servers scurrying around and a guy mopping the floor. I went outside to the suite-level seating to take this panorama of the park and its hilly backdrop, which I think gives the park a really cool feel:


Next, I went down to field level to take in the sights. In its previous incarnation, PNC Field’s concourse was a dark tunnel that ran beneath the seats. I’m not a fan of this type of design because you miss the game as you’re standing in line for food. The new look, however, was bright, wide open and welcoming:


An added perk was you could now walk around the entire field — there wasn’t anything in the outfield during my last visit. I love parks like this, and the walk with the field on one side and the cliff on the other was awesome:


Many parks have grass seating areas, but the grass area at the new PNC Field has trees and rocks to make it fit in with the surrounding terrain, and it definitely works. Some of the other post-reno features? An enormous, four-level party deck in the left field corner:


An upscale bar area in right field:


And standing-room areas in the outfield, bullpens you can stand over and a huge kids’ play area:


The RailRiders dugout is on the third base side, and while the players can access their clubhouse through the tunnels, many were walking around the concourse. I saw third baseman Josh Bell talking on a cellphone and pitcher Dellin Betances walked so close to me that I had to step out of the way. I don’t think I realized how big he is, but at 6’8″, he towered over me. Before he disappeared into a doorway, I quickly snapped this photo (he’s on the left):


Surprisingly for an afternoon game, the cage was on the field and I was hoping Jeter would be among the players hitting. I kept an eye on the RailRiders side of the field and sure enough, he emerged at 11:09 a.m. Although dozens of media members were descending on PNC Field for the game, I can safely say I got the first photo of Jeter after he came out of the dugout:


The area between the cage and the stands was roped off for the media, and since I had a pass, I went out onto the field and stood about 20 feet from the cage for the next 45 minutes or so. I took dozens of photos of Jeter and while there’s no need to share them all, here are a few that I like. Before he hit the cage, he jogged up and down the line:


And when teammate Addison Maruszak stepped in, Jeter stood and watched:


The whole batting practice experience was amazing. I was so close I could hear Jeter groan when he hit a ball awkwardly and yell “Wooo!” when a teammate hit a home run. The group that joined Jeter was small — just Thomas Neal, Bell and Maruszak. Here are the latter three waiting while Jeter hits:


And here are Maruszak and Jeter chatting:


It was cool to see Maruszak again. I saw him in Columbus on my first big road trip and follow his wife, Breanna, on Twitter. She writes a really cool blog, Married to Baseball, about her life as the wife of a professional baseball player, and I’d get a chance to meet her later in the day and talk baseball for about 10 minutes.

When the gates opened, it didn’t take long for the autograph-seeking crowd to pour down the steps to field level and begin screaming Jeter’s name:


After the captain finished hitting, he took some infield drills, and it was absolutely surreal to stand there on the field and watch it all unfold:


It was also funny watching how everything revolved around Jeter. For example, when he saw Lehigh Valley pitching coach Ray Burris walk past, Jeter just stopped fielding ground balls and everyone waited for him to finish chatting with Burris:


After Jeter finished the drill, he headed down the line and signed for a few minutes with a pair of cops and three RailRiders employees surrounding him:


Before long, he disappeared back into the dugout and then the clubhouse, and I continued wandering around the park. The game’s starting lineups are displayed on a board outside the press box and, as you might imagine, people were anxious to photograph Jeter’s name:


I was getting pretty hungry, but as game time approached, I wanted to be sure to see Jeter’s first plate appearance before I went off in search of lunch. As you might expect, he got a lengthy ovation as he led off the bottom of the first …


… and then drew a walk:


After seeing him, my next mission was lunch, and I was drawn to the smoky smells of a concession stand in right field that had pulled pork, brisket and the like. I went with a beef brisket sandwich and chips:


The beef itself was smoky and delicious and the sauce was good, too. My first bite, however, was not. Somehow, there was a chunk of fat nearly the size of a golf ball buried in the sandwich, which was beyond gross. It wasn’t a bit of gristle or a tiny sliver of fat. It was enormous and although it partly hurt the overall quality of the sandwich, I’d still recommend this meal — just inspect your meat first.

Before Jeter’s next trip to the plate, I made sure to get in better position, opting for a seat on the first base side. Jeter swung and missed at this pitch …


… but then hit a single for the first hit of his rehab stint with the RailRiders. He scored three batters later on a home run from Randy Ruiz. I mention Ruiz because back in 2011, I got one of his game-used bats in New Hampshire.

I spent several innings in this location and at one point, noted a mother and her kid who had sat down behind me. The kid was eating one of those fluorescent red frozen ice drinks, and I remember thinking how awful it’d be if he spilled it on me; I was wearing one of my new, white The Ballpark Guide polo shirts. They left soon enough, thankfully — but flash forward to me arriving at my hotel after the game and noticing the back of my shirt was completely covered in red dye. It’s probably ruined. I can understand that kids are occasionally clumsy, but think of the parenting here — watch your kid make a horrible mess on a stranger and then quietly leave before he notices? Parent of the year.

Betances, who I saw before the game in the concourse, pitched in relief and check out how long his stride is; in particular, how far he ends up away from the rubber when he releases the ball:


Jeter had two more plate appearances — a strikeout and a walk, and I took a picture of him during virtually every pitch he faced and a bunch more after he walked:


The RailRiders ended up winning 6-2 and regardless of the score, this game will go down as a real highlight for me since I started traveling for The Ballpark Guide in 2010. Although I’m not a Yankees fan, I’ve always admired how Jeter plays the game and carries himself and seeing him in this context was incredible.

The whole experience was awesome, but having been in the full sun for about six hours, I was majorly burned and was looking forward to getting to my hotel. Good news: The place I was staying is within walking distance of PNC Field! I’d booked a room at the Courtyard Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, which sits on the hill above the ballpark. In fact, I could see the roof of the hotel during the game:


If you’re taking in the RailRiders on your baseball road trip, this is the hotel to visit. Its convenience is just one reason to do so; I also found the hotel staff exceptionally friendly and personable. The lobby is huge and leads to a business center, sitting area and a large restaurant with a wide-ranging menu. For me, though, I was pumped that my room was great. Here’s a shot that shows the sitting area, king-sized bed and the corner of the desk:


And here’s the room from the other direction:


And, finally, the outside of the hotel:


Beyond being close to PNC Field, you can’t beat the Courtyard Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s location. Less than a minute away is an enormous complex with a ton of eateries, shopping and even a movie theater. The eateries include a LongHorn Steakhouse and an Italian restaurant, plus a Quiznos, Panera bread, pizza place and Pancheros, which is where I grabbed dinner after the game.

The next morning, I got up early, packed up the car and drove to the same observation spot I’ve used on two other occasions. From here, it was cool to see the new-look PNC Field. If you’ve read my blog frequently, you might remember me taking similar photos during my 2011 visit and again in 2012 while passing through town:


Next up: Two games in two cities in one day — Harrisburg and State College.

Cleveland Indians – May 29

When I first heard about the Cleveland Indians Social Suite at Progressive Field, I knew I wanted to get the opportunity to experience it at some point on one of my baseball road trips.

I kept an eye on the Indians website over the off-season and bookmarked the Social Suite application page when it appeared with a message saying the team would soon be taking applications. Meanwhile, I planned out about the application essay I’d write, making a point to include mentions of The Ballpark Guide, my blog, my Twitter account, my Facebook page and my baseball road trips in general.

Eventually, the application process opened and the essay I’d mentally mapped out was not a factor. Instead, in keeping with social media trends, applications had to be no more than 140 characters. Hmmm. Back to the drawing board.

I thought long and hard about how to sum up my passion for baseball in just a handful of words, and eventually came up with:

Top 15 blog on MLBlogs / The Ballpark Guide founder / Visited 40+ parks since 2010 / Passionate about baseball & chatting with fans

In early May, I heard from the Indians that I was selected to watch a game from the Social Suite on May 18. Cool, right? Yes, but May 18 was the day I’d planned to attend the Field of Dreams game in Rochester. Fortunately, the Indians were able to juggle the date for me and invite me to the Social Suite on May 29, which would be the last day of my first big road trip of 2013.

I drove to Cleveland from Charleston, WV, on the day in question and parked in my usual $10 parking garage a block from Progressive Field. The game was scheduled for 7 p.m., and the Social Suite members were to gather at 6 p.m. to have dinner in the media dining room. Since I was so early, I had some time to kill.

As I waited, I peered through the fence outside the park and took this photo of the suite …


… and then passed the time in the team shop. Specifically, I spent the time in the authentics section, where I checked out the great selection of game-used stuff:


Here’s Ubaldo Jimenez’ game-used cap, for instance:


Thankfully, the time passed quickly and before long, I got my ticket and entered the park. Here are the tickets, which I photographed a moment later at Heritage Park:


Everyone who gets invited into the Social Suite gets two tickets, but since I was traveling solo on this road trip, I didn’t take anyone with me to the game. I did, however, get the day’s giveaway item, a throwback Indians dry-fit T-shirt:


I actually wondered if I might get two T-shirts, given my two tickets. That question, however, was answered clearly (and loudly) when the ticket taker turned to the usher giving away the T-shirts and yelled, “This guy has two tickets but make sure he only gets one T-shirt!”

All right, then. One T-shirt for me.

Although I could get to the stadium’s suite level by taking the stairs, I chose the elevator and after showing my ticket to get into exclusive “suite territory,” I took this photo:


I didn’t realize it at the time, but the elevator had an attendant — actually, he’s ever so slightly visible at the left of the door. As I took the photo and turned around to take in all the new surroundings, I was surprised when I heard a voice call out, “Is anyone going up?” Oops.

It was still well before 6 p.m., so I had a bit of time to wander around the suite level. From up here, I had a different vantage point of the players’ parking lot:


And I could look down into a very nice restaurant:


After walking around for 10 minutes or so, I was dying to get to the suite and check it out, so after taking this quick photo …


… I walked inside and got my first view of where I’d be hanging out for the next four hours or so:


Wow! I’ve never watched a game from a suite in an MLB park, so this was a huge thrill. The suite had a kitchen, a nice sitting area with a couch and a couple comfy armchairs and bar-style seating on each side of the door leading outside. I can see how renting it with a handful of friends or family members would be an absolute blast. Before I stepped out to get a good view of the field, I checked out the chalkboard’s welcome greeting:


And in case you missed it in the photo above, here’s a close-up that shows my Twitter name:


When I stepped out into the outdoor seating area, I took a bunch of photos to make up this mammoth panorama, which you can click on to enlarge:


A couple of the Social Suite guests were already sitting outside, and after saying hello and taking this shot of Cincinnati’s batting practice …


… I went back inside the suite to take this photo:


Full disclosure: I’ve never been a “suite guy.” For me, going to a ballgame is about being close to the field, smelling the popcorn, hearing the sounds of the game and, in general, just wandering around and taking everything in. The suite experience, however, was quickly changing my mind. I mean, I still love going to a game and getting that authentic baseball experience, but seeing it all from a bird’s eye with the suite amenities? Pretty darned perfect, too. In fact, the jury’s still out for me, so if anyone wants to invite me to watch a game from a suite, I’ll be more than happy to conduct further field research.

Up next, I checked out this 2013 Social Suite banner …


… and added my Twitter name to it, as you can see here:


For the next while, I just hung out and took various photos of the suite, field and stadium as a whole. This next photo shows the nice chairs in the outside part of the suite and, in fact, the chair on the right is where I spent most of the game:


At 6 p.m., most of the suite guests had gathered, and after we introduced ourselves, we went for dinner in a dining room most Indians fans won’t ever get to see, so I’m happy to show it here:


There was an enormous buffet with all sorts of items, from ballpark staples such as Italian sausages and burgers to salads, cold meats and a variety of vegetables — the latter of which was noticeably sparse on this trip, so I was happy to add something green to my plate:


For the record, my meal included a garden salad with grated carrots and fresh Parmesan cheese, a hot Italian sausage with peppers, onions and mustard, a pile of pulled pork with BBQ sauce, broccoli, dill pickles and kettle chips. It was all delicious.

After hanging out and talking baseball with others in the suite, primarily Shane Rogers and Jacob Rosen, both of whom you can follow on Twitter by clicking their names, the game began and I grabbed a spot in the aforementioned seat where I had this mega-glorious view:


From here, I watched as Joey Votto stepped to the plate …


… and crushed a home run:


Sorry, Indians fans, but as a huge fan of Votto, I was secretly smirking.

He wasn’t, however, the only player to go yard. Mark Reynolds hit a bomb for the Tribe, as did elder statesman Jason Giambi, who celebrated his three-run home run with a forearm bash a la McGwire-Canseco:


One of the many things I love about baseball at Progressive Field is the city’s skyline, especially as the sun begins to set. I think you’ll agree that this view is absolutely perfect:


Around the midpoint of the game, we got a visit from Courtney Shilling, who works in PR and communication with the Indians. She’s also the person who picked me to join the Social Suite, and the one who juggled my Social Suite date to ensure I could attend, so I owe her a huge thank you.

Here’s the sun continuing to set over the Quicken Loans Arena:


And here’s Progressive Field’s awesome video board as the sky darkened:


Cleveland won 5-2 despite Cincinnati scoring one run in the ninth to give me a slight hope the game would be pushed to extra innings just so I could spend a little longer in the Social Suite. After the game, I got this photo taken of me …


… and made the short drive to my hotel, the Hyatt Place Independence. If this hotel sounds familiar, you’ve definitely been paying attention. It’s the place I visited back on May 19 when I visited Cleveland, and everything was so great I decided to stay here again. If you read my previous post, you’ll know the hotel is just seven miles south of Progressive Field, making it ideal for fans visiting C-Town on baseball road trips. One thing I didn’t note in that blog entry, however, is the Hyatt Place Independence is ranked second on TripAdvisor among Independence hotels. Part of the reason for this high ranking is the professional staff at this hotel. One front-desk member recognized me upon checking it and said she was glad I was back. It’s nice to get that personalized touch.

As this was the last day of my 13-day road trip, I was exhausted and looking forward to crashing when I got to the hotel — especially since I had an eight-hour drive ahead of me a day later. Blogging tonight wasn’t in the cards, but relaxing on the bed and watching ESPN certainly were:


The next morning, I took this shot that shows the bathroom setup:


I’m not a huge fan of having to cram into a small bathroom to brush my teeth or wash my hands, so this room design was perfect. As you can see, the sink and counter aren’t in a closed-in room; rather, they’re in a big, open area several feet from the foot of the bed. And, if you’re wondering, the bathroom is to the left of the photo and there’s a closet to the right.

As perfect as the hotel stay was, I wish I’d been able to hang out a little longer. I planned to be on the road by 7 a.m. so it was a quick stay. I quickly packed up my suitcases — with ESPN on, of course …


… and then checked out and took the following photo of the front of the hotel before hopping in the car and pressing the “Home” button on my GPS:


The outstanding hotel stay wrapped up a hugely memorable baseball road trip, but there’s more to come. In the coming weeks, I’ll have blog posts about some of the cool souvenirs I picked up along the way, a look at my visit to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and more. I’ll also be revealing the schedule of my next baseball road trip, which will begin before you know it.

As always, if you’re planning your own baseball trips this summer, check out The Ballpark Guide to read tips on how to make the most out of your ballpark visits.

Lexington Legends – May 27

The morning after my long, memorable day in Bowling Green to see the Hot Rods host the Fort Wayne TinCaps, I was on the move again. This time, I was driving east toward Lexington, KY, to catch the Lexington Legends host the Kannapolis Intimidators in South Atlantic League action. Whitaker Bank Ballpark, home of the Legends, was the fourth SAL ballpark I’ve visited since 2011, although I’d add another the next day.

The day was pretty open, but because I was driving back into the Eastern Time Zone after being in the Central Time Zone in Bowling Green, I was losing an hour. Still, I got to Lexington in decent time, hung out in my hotel for a bit and then packed up for the short drive to the ballpark.

Once I parked, I grabbed this shot of Whitaker Bank Ballpark from the parking lot …


… and then took a lap around the back of the park, taking shots like this one:


While I was in the parking lot behind the park, a man in a full Kansas City Royals uniform and carrying a pail yelled to me: “Are you picking up balls back here?”

“No,” I replied, because I wasn’t. “Why?”

He responded by, well, not responding and I continued on my merry way. As for the Royals guy? Hmm. The Legends are an affiliate of the Royals, hence the Royals uniform on the guy. MLB teams often send roving instructors through the minors, and I’ve seen guys in MLB uniforms several times in minor league dugouts. But was this Royals employee tasked with picking up errant BP balls? No idea.

I got around to the front of the ballpark without running into any more wayward MLB coaches and took a bunch of shots to make up this panorama:


Next, I photographed this enormous baseball and wondered if the scrawled names are supposed to be there:


If so, there was no sign inviting fans to sign the ball, but it’s sort of a neat idea. If not, someone needs to get scrubbing.

I briefly met the team’s director of broadcasting and media relations, Keith Elkins, who gave me my media pass. Thanks again, Keith! And then, it was into the park for a quick walk through the deserted and somewhat dark concourse:


Things got brighter, literally and figuratively, when I went out to the seating bowl and got my first good look at the field, which I captured in panorama form:


Other than the game of baseball itself, is there anything more perfect looking that a pristine field just waiting for action? I think not.

As you might guess from the above photo, there wasn’t much going on just yet. And because it was still well before game time and there wasn’t any sign of players on the field, I wandered over to the left field corner to check out a large and very impressive kids’ play area, complete with a Legends-themed bouncy castle:


The mustache, by the way, plays a key role in the team’s merchandise and marketing — the team shop, which I’d soon visit, even sold mustache bumper stickers. Since I was beyond the outfield fence, I took the opportunity to head to the outfield bleachers and take the photos to make up this panorama:


Next up was a visit to the aforementioned team shop, which had the best assortment of game-used jerseys I’ve ever seen. The Legends have obviously had a number of special jersey promotions, and this one caught my eye:


From their inception in 2001 up until the end of last season, the Legends were affiliated with the Houston Astros, and I thought these Astros-style Legends throwback jerseys were absolutely awesome looking.

One of the really neat things about this ballpark is the team’s hall of fame outside the team shop. The information about past Legends players was interesting, but I especially liked the home plates signed by all sorts of celebrities, including Hank Williams, Jr.:


When I finished browsing the signed home plates, I went out to the field to catch the warmups, which had just begun. For some reason, the ballpark had a fun, holiday-style vibe. It wasn’t an actual holiday, but maybe that’s just the way things are in Lexington. Outfielder Ethan Chapman and pitcher Daniel Stumpf were having fun with a fan:


Kannapolis pitching coach Jose Bautista was chatting and signing for a couple young fans:


And Intimidators pitcher Zach Isler was meeting fans, too:


After watching the action on the Kannapolis side of the field for a bit, I went over toward the right field corner where I noticed one of the coolest things I’ve seen at a ballpark. Remember the onion dispenser at Nationals Park that I’d love to have at home? Well, I’d love to have this instant refreshment station, too:


Just press the button and you’re hit with several jets of cold mist — a perfect way to cool down on a hot day!

I wanted to get some pictures of the Legends warming up, but made a quick stop in the Pepsi Party Deck, which has awesome Legends-themed seats:


Lexington’s clubhouse is back in this corner of the park, and from the walkway leading to the party deck, I spotted something you don’t often see — a player sitting by himself outside the clubhouse, cleaning his cleats with Scrubbing Bubbles bathroom cleaner:


As more players hit the field and started throwing, I went over to the fence by the Legends bullpen and looked for Bubba Starling. If you follow baseball’s prospects, you’ll likely know his name. A fifth overall draft pick back in 2011 (several spots ahead of Taylor Guerrieri and Joe Ross, who I saw the day before in Bowling Green), he’s the top-ranked prospect in KC’s system and the 24th-ranked prospect in the game, according to MLB. It didn’t take long to spot him:


While I was here, I got another picture of Chapman …


… and then looked for the next guy I wanted to spot: Raul Mondesi, Jr. Being a Jays fan, I watched Mondesi, Sr. play for Toronto for three years, and it made me feel annoyingly old to watch his son getting warmed up:


Well, “warming up” might be a bit of an exaggeration. In the several minutes I stood a few yards away from Mondesi, Jr., “hanging out” more aptly describes his pre-game prep. I have several photos similar to the above, but I won’t post them all. Actually, I shouldn’t say they’re all that similar — in some, he wasn’t standing with his legs crossed. His pre-game prep seemed to work for him, though, as you’ll soon read. And, besides, he was DHing, hence the lack of throwing.

When the game got underway, I grabbed a spot in the front row above the Kannapolis dugout to photograph the action. That action included this bat boy, who may be hoping for a growth spurt so he can fill his uniform:


From my seat, I had a great view of Intimidators starter Brandon Brennan:


And Mondesi, Jr., who showed bunt in the first inning and then drove the ball to right field for a triple:


In his next at-bat he hit a home run. In the following one, a single. And in his fourth at-bat, a double. Yep. The freaking cycle! It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a player do it in person, and it was hugely exciting to witness.

Starling wasn’t so fortunate at the plate. He went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. Regardless, it was cool to see him up close:


It was hard to leave this perfect spot to watch the game, but I decided to hit the upper deck for panoramic purposes. Here’s the result:


After a bit of time up here, I went down to the concourse to find something to eat. I was looking for something tasty but not over the top, and the idea of boneless BBQ wings sounded good to me. When I got to my designated eating area, a picnic table down the first base line, I opened the box and was less than impressed:


The chicken was dry, had absolutely no flavor and at least half the pieces were badly burnt. You win some and lose some with ballpark food, I guess.

My underwhelming meal didn’t hamper the evening — getting to see Mondesi Jr.’s cycle will definitely go down as a highlight of my summer.

West Virginia tomorrow!

Bowling Green Hot Rods – May 26

After a couple outstanding days in Cincinnati, I was on the move again. And early, too, given the following travel considerations:

– The Midwest League’s Bowling Green Hot Rods were hosting the Fort Wayne TinCaps at 2 p.m.
– I wanted to get to Bowling Green Ballpark before noon.
– The drive from Cincy to Bowling Green is nearly 3.5 hours and I had a couple of stops to make.

All this meant that despite more than a week of traveling and a lack of sleep, I was up bright and early on a Sunday morning to hit the road in good time.

The Hot Rods and, more specifically, broadcasting and media relations manager Hank Fuerst, were kind enough to supply me with a media pass for my visit. There was a lot of construction around Bowling Green Ballpark during my visit, and when I pulled up, I had no idea where to park. After a couple trips around the park, I decided to park in the player/staff lot. Players, staff and media members often share lots in the minors, so I didn’t think there’d be a problem stashing my car here for a few hours. Here’s the rather nondescript area I parked:


My car is out of the frame to the left, and to get out of the lot, I walked through a gate just at the right of the picture. As I passed through the gate and reached the sidewalk, I got a pleasant surprise:


Batting practice was taking place, and despite being a good chunk more than 500 feet from home plate, a nicely worn Midwest League baseball was sitting in plain view. I was initially puzzled by its location, but didn’t take long to realize what’d happened. You can see a tiny green sliver of the field above the tractor with the two yellow seats, which means the outfield fence gate was open. The ball must have rolled through the gate, hit the edge of the chain-link gate to the left of the photo and followed along the bottom of the gate until ending up on the sidewalk. I had no idea how long the ball had sat there, but was happy to add it to my collection.

I decided to take a walk around the perimeter of the park, as per usual, and started to walk down this sidewalk:


Soon enough, I was behind the outfield fence and decided to take a few minutes to see if I could find any home run balls. The foliage, though, was what you might call thick:


I looked and looked and looked, and came up completely blank. No worries, though. A construction area up ahead cut my walk short, so I retraced my steps to the parking lot and then followed this sidewalk …


… until I saw this:


At first, I thought this was a pretty sedate-looking front gate, but then I realized I wasn’t yet at the front of the ballpark. A handful of additional paces later, this was the view:


Once I picked up my media pass, I cut through the team shop and was out to the concourse. The Hot Rods were stretching and playing catch, and I quickly spotted the game’s starting pitcher, Taylor Guerrieri, playing long toss. He’s ranked as the #2 prospect in Tampa Bay’s system, and this was the second time I was lucky enough to see him pitch. Last summer, I watched him at the Futures at Fenway game. I resisted the urge to explore the quiet ballpark and walked down the third base line to get as close to Guerrieri as I could. I like this next photo I got. You can almost see the two TinCaps in the background thinking, “Hmm, we’re facing the #40 prospect in baseball, huh?”


As Guerrieri kept throwing, I took the shots to make up this panorama:


A few minutes later, he was off to the bullpen to continue warming up, and I wasn’t far behind. Here, I got one more picture of Guerrieri …


… and then continued on my way. With activity over on the Fort Wayne side of the field, that’s where I headed next, getting this photo of outfielders Corey Adamson and Brian Adams stretching:


As excited as I was to see Guerrieri pitch, I was also pumped to see Fort Wayne’s starter. Joe Ross, a first-round pick in 2011, was touted earlier this year by MLB.com as the 12th-best prospect in the San Diego Padres organization. I was in for a match-up of two promising starters today. Mirroring my earlier pursuit of Guerrieri, I followed Ross to the bullpen and got this photo of him:


Next, I went up to the Bowling Green Ballpark press box to meet Hank, and up there, I also ran into Micheal Compton, who covers the Hot Rods for the local paper and is someone I follow on Twitter. It was fun to talk baseball with both guys, but before long I left them to their pre-game duties and went down to field level as first pitch approached. I grabbed a seat behind home plate. During the anthem, as I looked around the ballpark, I thought I saw myself in the background of the video board image, as I was just a few yards behind the girl singing the anthem. My camera was still hanging around my neck, so I fired off a quick shot to check out later:


Sure enough, that’s me in the red/orange shirt. There was a short delay on the video board, hence the image not showing me taking a photo.

I’d grabbed this seat for a couple reasons. One, it’s tough to argue with sitting in the first row behind home plate. And two, I wanted to get some head-on action shots of Guerrieri and Ross throwing.

I’ve said before that one of the things I love about live baseball is seeing things that TV broadcasts just don’t pick up. Case in point? Check out the patches and overall wear on Maxx Tissenbaum’s, uhh, rear:


The next inning, I got this photo of Ross …


… before my rumbling stomach led me to a concession stand. The concession menu in Bowling Green has a bunch of tasty-looking items, but I decided to keep it simple during this visit. I hadn’t yet eaten a hot dog on this trip (I’m not counting Akron’s Three Dog Night fiasco) and it’s tough to beat a ballgame on a perfect day with a couple dogs and an ice-cold water:


I should say an extra thanks to Hank and the Hot Rods, who provided me with a media voucher that paid for my lunch.

Bowling Green Ballpark has a feature that I’ve seen at several parks and absolutely love — bar-style tables for fans who want to stand and eat. It’s a nice change and after I ate my lunch here, I watched an inning or so:


Since I was close to the Hot Rods bullpen, I took another walk past and captured this photo of a handful of relievers who appeared to be enjoying the day as much as I was:


I spent the next inning behind the outfield fence with this glorious view, half hoping a home run ball might come my way:


On my way back toward the seating bowl, I saw another thing you wouldn’t notice on TV. Check out the dents in Jackie Robinson’s retired #42 sign:


It’s located in the Hot Rods bullpen, and obviously isn’t immune to home run balls during BP and in games. Seeking a bit of shade, I climbed up to the second deck and found a completely empty group picnic area down the first base line, where I enjoyed this view:


Up here, I experienced a first for me. I’ve never seen the protective netting behind home plate reach all the way up to the second deck, but if you look carefully at the above photo, that’s exactly the case here.

I was up here enjoying the shade in the eighth inning when the aforementioned Tissenbaum stepped to the plate and blasted a two-run home run to right field. It disappeared over the fence right in the area I’d been searching before the game, and I made a split-second decision to go after the ball with the hopes to finding it to return to him. Although I was sitting relatively close to right field, the construction fence blocked me off, so I made the lengthy trip around the other side of the park until I arrived here:


Hmmm. Where to look? Well, I got busy and started parting the clumps of greenery as quickly as I could, hoping to spot the clean, white sphere. It was stifling hot, especially after my long-distance run, but braving the heat and occasional pricks from branches, I soldiered on until I spotted a ball. Success? Nope. This ball had clearly been half-buried in the mud for days, if not weeks, and to loosely paraphrase Star Wars, it was not the ball I was looking for. I looked for a few more minutes and abandoned the dream of finding the ball to return to Tissenbaum before making the long trek back inside the ballpark.

As the game was winding down, I grabbed a seat behind home plate where, in the home half of the ninth, I had a great view as Bowling Green’s Joey Rickard was caught stealing. He wasn’t happy with the call and seemed in a bit of disbelief. Even as manager Jared Sandberg came out to argue, Rickard was still bent over and touching the base:


(The argument was to no avail.)

As the game wound down, I took a shot I’m really happy with …


… and watched Fort Wayne celebrate a win:


The Caps scored three runs in the first off Guerrieri and after Bowling Green came back to take a lead in the seventh, went ahead for good on the home run ball that I couldn’t find. Final score: Fort Wayne 6, Bowling Green 5.

I stopped at the team shop on the way out to buy a super-cool souvenir that I’ll share in a future blog post and then made the nine-minute drive to my hotel. On this night, I was staying at the Hilton Garden Inn Bowling Green, which is an awesome hotel. Not only was it close to the ballpark, but it was easy to find and looked really sharp from the outside, as you can see here:


I was happy to check into my room and find it nice and cool from the air conditioning. I was also pleased with the usual Hilton Garden Inn amenities — king-sized bed, desk, comfy chair, flat-screen TV, mini fridge and so on, as you can see here:


Although I was looking forward to relaxing in my room for the evening, I planned to make the very short drive to Outback for dinner. I always try to have one Outback dinner on each of my trips, and there was an Outback just a few minutes away from the hotel. And speaking of other things in the area, well, there are almost too many to list. The hotel is virtually walking distance to such eateries as Buffalo Wild Wings, Steak ‘n Shake and Double Dogs, a fun-looking hot dog-themed restaurant and bar. It’s also virtually next to the airport if you happen to be flying into town and a golf course if you enjoy sneaking a round of golf into your baseball road trips. All told, it was a great hotel and it’s definitely the spot I recommend picking when you visit Bowling Green for some Hot Rods baseball.

After touring the hotel a little, I went outside to check out the patio and fountain area …


… and then zipped over to Outback for a huge, tasty dinner before returning to the Hilton Garden Inn and watching Sunday Night Baseball. A perfect end to a perfect day.

Lexington next!

Dayton Dragons – May 22

It’s been a couple years since my last foray into Midwest League territory, but with my May 22 visit to Dayton to see the Dragons, I was back. I visited five Midwest League ballparks in 2011 — Fort Wayne, Great Lakes, Lake County, Lansing and West Michigan, for those keeping score — but was pumped to see Dayton, which Sports Illustrated has called “one of the 10 hottest tickets in sports.” More on that later.

The drive from Columbus to Dayton isn’t far, and if you’re in either city, it’s worth seeing if the team in the other city is playing. I noted that Columbus’ Huntington Park is a great place to watch a game, and from the moment I pulled up to Dayton’s Fifth Third Field, I could tell the same was true here. Unfortunately, Mother Nature wasn’t too happy on this day. I’d experienced great weather each day of my trip, but when I got to Fifth Third Field, the rain started to fall. I parked across the street and ran to the suite entrance. By the time I got inside, the quick downpour had all but stopped.

Although I’m always excited to check out a new ballpark, this visit was extra special. I was lucky to get a tour from Brandy Guinaugh, the team’s director of sponsor services. She met me in the lobby at 5:15 p.m. and for the next hour, took time out of her busy day to show me the ins and outs of Fifth Third Field, including many stops behind the scenes.

One of the neat things the Dragons do is honor each past star with a framed photo. Recognizing alumni is nothing new in the minor leagues, but this wall — which is forever growing — has a photo and interesting stats on each guy. I could’ve spent an hour here, but had time for a quick photo before we kept moving:


Across the hall from the alumni wall is another display honoring celebrities who’ve appeared at Fifth Third Field, often to throw out the first pitch. One notable guy I saw was Johnny Bench (the Dragons are an affiliate of the Reds), and it was neat to see him, given I’d seen him just a few days earlier at the Field of Dreams game. Two other ex-athletes were notable — Magic Johnson and Archie Griffin, each of whom owns a stake in the team. The team’s principle owner is Mandalay Sports Entertainment, whose name you might recognize. The sports division of the enormous entertainment company also owns the Erie SeaWolves, Frisco RoughRiders, Oklahoma City RedHawks and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.

Up next, we descended into the lower level of the ballpark, where the walls were painted with not only Dragons logos and color schemes, but also the logos of each of the Midwest League franchises. Here’s that hall:


Brandy explained that ex-players often maintain their connection to Dayton, given the team’s avid fan base. As you might know if you’re a baseball die hard, the Dragons currently have the longest consecutive sell-out streak in all of sports — not baseball or the minor leagues, but all professional sports. They set the mark with their 815th-straight sellout in 2011 and are still going strong. Incredible! How much do former players like the city? Todd Coffey, who’s played with four MLB teams, named his child Dayton. And a Joey Votto quote is displayed on the ballpark’s wall:


Even though I’ve got a chance to do it several times, it’s always a thrill to be behind the scenes at a ballpark. As I learned about the team, a number of the opposing West Michigan Whitecaps walked by us down the hall. Before long, we too were headed down another hallway toward the dugout, but not before I snapped a shot of this sign to show where we were:


Then, with a quick turn, we were through a tunnel and out into the Dragons dugout. Awesome! The first sight I saw was the team’s notable video board:


I mention it because when the team scores a run or wins the game, the dragons’ eyes light up and steam shoots out their noses. But more on that later. A handful of Dragons were sitting in the dugout, and that was the only sign of player activity; the tarp was on the field and there was no batting practice:


After a few minutes in the dugout, we went up to the suite level where the tributes to past players continued. The Dragons, despite having never won a Midwest League title, could field a pretty darned good all-time team, and many of these players’ jerseys are displayed along the hallways. Here’s a guy who should hit the 500-home run plateau in another few years:


We stopped to see the team’s suite …


… and then went out to the seats in front of the suite where I took this panorama that shows the dark sky:


See this building beyond left field?


And this one beyond right?


Brandy pointed them both out because Adam Dunn and Votto have each hit the buildings with home runs. Look how far they are beyond the wall!

Our next stop was a big highlight — we went into the official scorer’s booth and spoke to the man who has the best job in the ballpark. He’s the guy who presses the button to activate the scoreboard dragons, and he asked me if I wanted to press the “most important button in the park.” My answer?


I pressed away and watched the two sets of eyes glow red and steam cut through the air. Super cool — I’ve never done anything that’s affected a video board in my travels.

By now, the grounds crew was taking the tarp off the field, and after watching them work for a few minutes, we went back to the suite hallway and I learned about all the notable non-baseball events that Fifth Third Field has hosted. Notable speakers have included Barack Obama and John Kerry, while musical acts including Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and the Counting Crows have performed. Here’s Obama speaking during a 2008 campaign stop:


Our last visit was the enormous team shop on the concourse level, and after all the time Brandy had spent with me, she had to get back to her pre-game duties. Thanks for the tour and your time, Brandy!

The team shop, by the way, is enormous. Take a look at this photo and tell me if you’d guess this belongs to a Class-A franchise:


Now on my own, I made my customary lap of the ballpark and took in the sights. Here’s what Fifth Third Field looks like from center field:


The next half-hour breezed past and before long, the game began. I watched the first couple innings from various spots, including the second deck, where I had this view:


The between-inning entertainment, I should note, was fun. The hosts were really energetic and my favorite part was the one-eyed mascot, Wink, messing with a Whitecaps player:


I was soon ready for some dinner, but faced a dilemma. As is often the case by the end of the first week of my baseball road trips, I was ready for something healthy. Brandy had recommended the park’s healthy concession choices, but I wasn’t so sure after this exchange with the concession staff member:

Me: I’ll have the salad, please. (Holding out my money.)

Him: I’ll wait to take your money until you see the salad.

Hmmm. The Dragons have a different salad choice each month, and this one was outstanding! It was a little small, but had fresh greens, toasted pine nuts, crumbled blue cheese and a homemade-tasting dressing:


I was pleasantly surprised and while this exact salad might not be on the menu when you visit Dayton, give the healthy choices some consideration.

After eating, I took this photo of Dayton starter Pedro Diaz:


And then captured this rainbow over the ballpark, before putting my camera away and sitting back to enjoy the rest of the game:


Despite the threat of rain, the game went off without a hitch and I was glad to get another Midwest League city under my belt. Fifth Third Field is an awesome place to catch a game and definitely worth visit — as long as you can get a ticket.

Columbus Clippers – May 21

What a day!

You know those days that are long but full of general awesomeness? Well, May 21 was one of those days. From a beautiful ballpark to delicious food to a phenomenal hotel, this day had a little of everything.

It did, however, start early. After watching an Akron Aeros game the night before and staying close to Akron, I was up by 6 a.m. and on the road by 7 a.m. The Columbus Clippers were playing a 10:35 a.m. game, which teams occasionally do in May and June to cater to school trips. I made the couple-hour drive to Columbus and found parking a couple blocks from Huntington Park. This isn’t a park I knew a lot about before my visit. Sometimes, I’ll have read so much about a given park that it seems completely familiar during my visit, but other times, it’s a whole new experience.

The outside of Huntington Park is eye catching. Although it opened in 2009, it has a real retro feel. See this view from the sidewalk? It’s cool to be able to see through to the field:


I took my usual giant lap of the park and took in the sights. One particularly neat thing I noticed was a statue and a series of plaques honoring past Columbus teams. Minor league baseball in the city dates back to 1902, and as someone who’s interested in the history of the game, it was cool to see the Clippers giving a nod to those who came before them:


Once again, I was fortunate to get a media pass for this game, which meant I could get into the park early. (Thanks to Joe Santry for hooking me up.) Except for staff, who were bustling around in anticipation of the busloads of school kids in the parking lot, Huntington Park was quiet and I took the opportunity to explore. I immediately went up to the suite and pressbox level and followed the walkway out toward the right field corner. Look at the view from here:


This area to the right side of this photo is comprised of two levels of bar-style seating and I knew I’d want to spend some time here during the game. Next up was the open area behind the loge seats on the suite level. There were two concession stands and an enormous bar:


And speaking of the loge seats, I love the way the Clippers have this part of their park designed. If you check out the following photo, you’ll see several levels of bar seats — with rolling office-style chairs, no less! It’s a nice reprieve from standard stadium seating:


The park was still largely empty, so I went down to the main concourse and wandered out toward the outfield. You can’t walk the entire way around Huntington Park’s field, but you can go around most of it; there’s an enormous open area in left-center and the team shop is also located here. One of the coolest spots I saw was the lawn seating, which is always a neat addition to any ballpark:


And the picnic tables give the park a real laid-back feel:


Columbus was hosting the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, and when a couple RailRiders pitchers came out to throw bullpen sessions, I went down to field level to watch. Here’s sidearmer Cody Eppley tossing. It was neat to watch a guy with such a crazy delivery from just a few feet away:


Once Eppley wrapped up his session and the rest of the players came out to start tossing, I went back to the multi-level deck over right field to watch the action. The top level of the deck was completely empty. From here, I had a great view of the entire park, including this pavilion behind left-center:


As you can see, there are two levels of seating in the tower and concession stands and the team shop at the ground level. But don’t worry — I’d soon explore this area. From where I stood, Columbus right fielder Jeremy Hermida was right below me, and it was interesting to watch him. You know how you’re always taught to shift a few feet for righties versus lefties? Hermida didn’t change his position for anyone. I could tell, as he was standing on an L-shaped sod patch. Interesting. Anyway, here’s Hermida:


From here, I could smell the delicious smoke wafting from the nearby City Barbeque stand, and knew I had to pay it a visit. The day’s promotion was “Buck-a-Bone” — $1 per rib bone, and while I’m not the hugest fan of ribs, I wanted to give these a shot. I grabbed three and they were absolutely delicious:


A few minutes after eating, an usher apologetically told me that I had to leave. Apparently, the top deck of the structure belongs to the group that rents out the party area on the same level. The lower deck, however, is open to all fans. I didn’t realize this at the time — I thought it was just sparsely inhabited up here.

See this photo, which I took a few innings later?


I was standing on the far left, directly below the 328 sign. The group that complained about me had gathered out of the picture on the right. I can’t imagine I was causing them much heartache, but I suppose rules are rules. I know the group was from Nationwide — apparently, Nationwide is not on my side.

Undeterred, I went to the loge area and grabbed a comfy seat with this view:


This view here was outstanding, but also responsible for my first major sun burn of the year. Boy, was it hot! I paid special attention to RailRiders shortstop Addison Maruszak. His wife, Breanna, writes an interesting blog called Married to Baseball and we follow each on Twitter. I’m not sure if she happened to be at this game, but it was neat to finally see a player I’ve read a lot about. Here’s an action shot of Addison:


Once I’d watched a few innings from the loge area, I found an empty front-row seat behind the third base dugout so I could take photos without being obstructed by the netting. I’m pretty pleased with this one of Ezequiel Carrera. Whenever I can get the player in sharp focus and the ball in the frame, I’m happy:


The view from here was great. Here’s Zoilo Almonte swiping second base:


Recognize this guy?


Yep, it’s Chien-Ming Wang, who had back-to-back 19-win seasons for the Yankees in 2006 and 2007. More recently, I saw him play in Hagerstown back in 2011 — that was the same day I met Bryce Harper.

I spent the rest of the game with this awesome vantage point and took a ton of action shots. The game was exciting. Despite being deadlocked at no score through five innings, the Clippers had a big second half and won 5-1. The teams combined for 23 hits and the Clippers pitchers, led by starter Carlos Carrasco, struck out 11 SWB batters.

Although it’s always a little disappointing leaving the park after a game, I was pumped to check out my hotel. In Columbus, I was staying at the Hilton Columbus Downtown, which looked awesome online. I could quickly tell upon arriving that this was one of the best hotels I’ve ever visited. The staff I encountered in the parking area and lobby were exceedingly friendly, and when I reached my 11th floor room, I was blown away. The first thing I noticed was a gift bag with my name on it and a Hilton flash drive for me:


And while I was tempted check it out right away, I couldn’t resist exploring the room. I had a suite and it was enormous. (I always compare suite sizes to my first apartment, and this one was way bigger!) There was an enormous living room with a huge TV:


A kitchen area and a giant bedroom:


The photos hardly do the room justice; if you want to see even better shots, check out the hotel’s website. Anyway, the bathroom was giant as well, and had an amazing shower:


By the way, this is the first hotel I’ve visited that had TWO bathrooms — I didn’t even notice the second for a few minutes. After I’d taken everything in, and peeked out the windows to look directly out at the sprawling Greater Columbus Convention Center …


… I inspected the gift bag. There was a nice card welcoming me to town:


And some baseball-themed snacks! How awesome is this?


The snacks were awesome, but I was blown away by what was at the bottom of the bag. The Hilton knew that I was in town for baseball, and gave me a Homage T-shirt featuring the old-school Clippers logo. Wow! I tweeted the photo out a few days ago, and you can check out what it looks like here. I didn’t realize it, but Homage is from Columbus. Their T-shirts are awesome.

But back to the hotel — what a great experience! The next time I’m in Columbus, this is definitely where I’ll stay. This was one of those stays in which every element exceeded my expectations. When you’re planning your own baseball road trip — or planning to visit Columbus for any other reason — this is the hotel to pick. It’s three minutes from Huntington Park and is in the heart of the city. Shortly before dinner, I took an hour-long walk around the hotel to take in the sights. The hotel is practically next to Nationwide Arena, home of the NHL’s Blue Jackets, which was neat to check out. The whole area around the hotel and arena is trendy and fun — lots of restaurants, patios and even a brewery. If you like getting to your hotel quickly after the game, parking your car and discovering the surrounding area on foot, the Hilton Columbus Downtown is for you.

I didn’t end up eating at any of the nearby restaurants. Instead, I returned to my hotel after my walk, had a swim in the indoor pool and then ordered some room service, which was delicious. One more neat thing about the hotel — the hallways on each floor are open, so you can see down to the upscale restaurant on the second floor. It was a neat view, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo:


What a perfect day!