Tagged: Pacific Coast League

Triple-A Championship Game – September 18, 2018

What’s on your baseball bucket list?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s outfielder Randy Arozarena playing catch:

Finally, here’s outfielder Lane Thomas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring on the 2019 season!

El Paso Chihuahuas – May 17

After the outstanding first day I had in El Paso, I was eager to get my second day in town started — and I wouldn’t have to wait too long. The Chihuahuas were hosting the New Orleans Zephyrs in an 11 a.m. game, so I planned to get to Southwest University Park between 9 and 9:30 a.m.

First, though, it was time to check out one of El Paso’s top restaurants. The plan was to again meet up with Leesy McColgary from Visit El Paso to have breakfast at L&J Cafe, a restaurant that you’d hardly notice from the outside but that is ranked third on TripAdvisor’s list of top El Paso eateries.

When I exited the DoubleTree Downtown El Paso to meet Leesy, I was amazed at how cool and fresh the morning air was. El Paso has virtually no humidity, and while I’d found it hot a day earlier, it was downright chilly in the morning, which I certainly welcomed.

As I waited, I was excited to look at Southwest University Park just across the street from my hotel:

southwest-university-park-from-hotel

Soon enough, Leesy arrived and we were off to L&J Cafe. It’s a favorite spot for locals — so much so that when we arrived about 15 minutes before the restaurant opened, there was a lineup outside. On a Tuesday. Here’s the outside of the restaurant:

el-paso-l&j-cafe-outside

Since we were a little early, we took a quick tour of the historic Concordia Cemetery, which is something that I’ll blog about in an upcoming post.

While the breakfast choices on the menu looked good, I’m not a huge breakfast guy — and, besides, the other examples of traditional Mexican food were making my taste buds tingle. I decided to forgo the idea of a traditional breakfast and, instead, order an enchilada platter with a combination of red and green sauce. This, ladies and gents, was my breakfast, and it was absolutely delicious:

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And, in case I needed more, Leesy suggested that we order some sopaipillas, which are fried pastries served with honey:

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They were much lighter than I expected and definitely something I’ve craved a few times since.

This was one of the best overall meals I’ve had in a long time, and I can assure you that L&J Cafe will be on my agenda whenever I make it back to El Paso. Once I finished eating, Leesy dropped me back at my hotel and I waddled over to Southwest University Park, eager to get my second visit underway.

My first visit a day earlier had included a private tour and a lot of ballpark exploring, and frankly it was nice to know that during my second visit, I could do a little more focusing on the game and just enjoying the view. Doing so isn’t always possible when I only have one day in a city, so I was once again thankful for having two days in each city on this trip. Before I grabbed a seat and relaxed, though, I had an exciting experience — I was meeting up with Felix Chavez from the El Paso Times for an interview. I’ve done a handful of newspaper interviews over the years, and as a longtime journalist myself, it’s always fun to be on the “other” side of the interview. I met Felix outside the press box as soon as I arrived, and we chatted for several minutes about my baseball travels, blog/website and, of course, my impressions of Southwest University Park. It was super enjoyable; I’ve occasionally been interviewed by disinterested reporters, but it was clear that Felix was curious about my adventures, which made the process really pleasant. (By the way, you’ll see his story at the end of this post.)

Felix also had a surprise for me — one of the Times‘ photographers was there, and he’d be following me around for a while to take some photos of me to run with the story. I met the photographer, Victor Calzada, after my interview, and we headed down toward the concourse. I was impressed with Victor’s ethical approach to taking my photo. I asked him how he wanted to set me up, and he told me that he didn’t want anything that was staged. Instead, he asked me to do my thing and he’d be a “fly on the wall” behind me for 20 or 30 minutes. It was definitely a new experience to walk around a ballpark and have someone following me to snap photos, but Victor was such a natural that it made everything easy.

This is the first shot I took at the ballpark on this day …

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… and as I looked at the video board through my camera’s viewfinder, I could hear Victor snapping off shots in the background.

Since I’d taken so many ballpark shots a day earlier, I primarily wanted to focus on action shots during this visit. I love grabbing a spot close to the field and shooting the players, so that was my main goal today … and Victor was always just a few steps behind me. I began by going down to field level on the first base side, where I took some shots of New Orleans warming up. Here are outfielder Kenny Wilson, a former Toronto Blue Jays prospect, and infielder Elliot Soto:

new-orleans-zephyrs-warm-ups

Even though my focus was on player shots, I still couldn’t resist documenting the beauty of Southwest University Park. It’s one of those places that looks great from every angle. I walked along the outfield concourse and snapped the photos to make up this panorama:

southwest-university-park-outfield-pano

While I was there, I noticed that the grass berm was much more full than it had been a day earlier:

southwest-university-park-grass-berm

Because it was a morning game, there were a bunch of school groups in attendance, and many of the kids had clearly flocked to the berm.

As I did a day earlier, I went down to the El Paso bullpen to take action shots of the Chihuahuas’ starting pitcher warming up. On this day, it was Daniel McCutchen, and I got a bunch of photos that turned out well, including this one:

el-paso-chihuahuas-daniel-mccutchen

Once he finished tossing, I made my way behind home plate snapped this panorama just before the anthem that shows just how beautiful this ballpark is:

southwest-university-park-anthem-pano

I forget exactly when Victor and I parted, but I think it was during the first inning. In any case, he took some great shots of me doing my thing, as you’ll see at the bottom of this post. As the first inning got underway, I found a spot in the front row above the dugout on the first base side, which gave me a great place to shoot the action.

One of the fun things about watching baseball at the Triple-A level is seeing all the guys you recognize from MLB stints, so you’ll likely see some players throughout the rest of this post that you’ve seen on TV in the big leagues.

Here is New Orleans’ Robert Andino …

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… and here is El Paso’s Josh Satin, each of whom has played parts of multiple seasons in the bigs:

el-paso-chihuahuas-josh-satin

It was wonderful to sit in the front row on a hot, sunny day and shoot the action. There were a few empty seats on each side of me, so I wasn’t cramped at all as I shifted left and right to snap my shots, like this one of Manuel Margot jumping out of the way of a pitch:

el-paso-chihuahuas-manuel-margot-batting

Chris Reed making a pick-off move:

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And Margot swiping second base a pitch after the pick-off attempt:

el-paso-chihuahuas-manuel-margot-second-base

Here’s something interesting that I noticed: Reed, the New Orleans starter, is 6’3″, but has a squat delivery to the point that he looks much shorter just before he releases the ball. Don’t you agree?

new-orleans-zephyrs-chris-reed-delivery

As for Margot, he proved himself to be impressive on the base paths, promptly stealing third base, too:

el-paso-chihuahuas-manuel-margot-third-base

There was plenty of action at home plate, too. Here’s El Paso’s Hunter Renfro about to connect on what ended up being a home run …

el-paso-chihuahuas-hunter-renfroe-swing

… and celebrating with teammate Alex Dickerson just after crossing home plate:

el-paso-chihuahuas-hunter-renfroe-home-run

Here’s a funny shot I snapped of Rocky Gale experiencing the definition of chin music:

el-paso-chihuahuas-rocky-gale-chin-music

And this is a better shot of the El Paso catcher connecting on a pitch a moment later:

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(I always love when I get a shot just as the bat meets the ball!)

Here’s another of Wilson, who is on his way to the New Orleans dugout after hitting a home run:

new-orleans-zephyrs-kenny-wilson-scoring

After a couple innings of shooting, I decided to get back to walking around the ballpark. Remember this shot of the nighttime view of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez that I took from the upper level of the park a day earlier? This is how the scene looked in the daytime:

southwest-university-park-looking-over-to-juarez

Next, I went down to the front row behind home plate for an inning of action. Shooting through the netting rarely yields outstanding photos, but the overall view from this seating area was certainly enjoyable:

southwest-university-park-behind-net

By now, it was past noon and although the thought of a ballpark lunch was appealing, I was way too full from my breakfast. I was a bit disappointed to miss the opportunity to sample something else of the Southwest University Park menu, but that’ll just have to wait for another visit.

Speaking of food, I was continuously noticing fans with frozen drinks — which made sense, given the hot temperature. I’m a sucker for frozen lemonade and other such products, so I made my way to the “Slush’ae” concession stand down the first base line. Now, I’d been particularly intrigued by the yellow and red combination of slushie that I’d seen countless fans drinking, and I wanted to give it a try. I scanned the available flavors and, for some inexplicable reason, decided that the mystery color combination had to be pink lemonade. (This, despite the fact that red and yellow do not equal pink. Maybe the heat was getting to me.)

Anyway, I was handed this …

southwest-university-park-pink-lemonade-slushie

… and while it was delicious and chilly, it didn’t satisfy my curiosity for the red and yellow product that continued to be enjoyed around me.

As I took this photo …

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… I said to myself, “Time for another slushie,” and returned to the same concession stand where I’d been less than 10 minutes earlier. “Back again?” the server asked me, with a smile on her face. I explained my predicament and she handed me what is arguably the most unique ballpark drink I’ve ever had:

southwest-university-park-mango-slushie-chamoy

You’re looking at a mango slushie. Pretty standard, right? Yes, but here’s where the twist comes. The red stuff on the top and bottom of the cup is chamoy sauce, which I certainly hadn’t heard of. It’s a Mexican sauce made of pickled fruit (typically apricot or plum), and the taste is difficult to explain. You’d expect gooey red sauce to be super sweet, but that isn’t the case. It’s sort of a combination of salty and sour, if that makes sense. You can choose how much chamoy sauce you want added; since I was a newbie, the server gave me a small amount, but I saw people who’d obviously asked for a heap of it.

The intrigue didn’t end with the chamoy sauce. It’s hard to clearly see the straw in the above photo, so take a look at this one:

southwest-university-park-mango-slushie-straw

The red stuff wrapped around the straw is flechazos, which is a dried fruit that’s not unlike what is often called “fruit leather.” It’s sweet, chewy and delicious. The twist, though, is that the flechazos-covered straw is rolled in chili powder, which gives you a unique spiciness that you certainly don’t expect when you’re having a frozen fruit drink.

The slushie was outstanding, and something that you should definitely seek out whenever you visit Southwest University Park. I’d definitely order it again, maybe even twice.

Once I slurped down the slushie and gnawed the chili and flechazos off my straw, I headed back down to the front row behind the dugout to take some more action shots — and just in time. Nick Wittgren, who I’d talked to a day earlier during BP, had just taken the mound, and I was anxious to photograph him in action:

new-orleans-zephyrs-nick-wittgren

I also took another shot of him on the way to the dugout after one efficient inning of work:

new-orleans-zephyrs-nick-wittgren-walking

It took him just six pitches to get three outs. He was called up to the majors a week after this outing and picked up his first career MLB win a little over a week later.

Wittgren’s efforts aside, his Zephyrs fell to El Paso. And, unlike a day earlier, when I’d slipped out early to enjoy the last bit of the game from my hotel’s roof deck, I had a front-row seat for the final out and the post-game high fives:

el-paso-chihuahuas-win

As the fans began to filter out of Southwest University Park, and I followed suit, I was definitely sad to be leaving. Although I’d had two full and awesome days in El Paso, they’d gone by very quickly. Still, as much as I was sad to be leaving this beautiful ballpark, I was looking forward to taking a walk around the city and then hanging out in my hotel room, so that’s what I did for the afternoon and evening. There was a short rainfall late in the afternoon, and a nice rainbow right outside my window:

el-paso-rainbow

The next morning, I woke up early in advance of my drive to Midland. First, though, I needed to track down some copies of the El Paso Times to read the story about me. I walked over to the Times building, but it didn’t open until 8 a.m. and I wanted to be on the road well before then. So, I took the opportunity to snap this photo of me in front of the newspaper’s building …

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… and then found a gas station and bought five copies of the newspaper. “You know they all say the same thing, right?” said the clerk when I flopped the stack of papers down on the counter.

I eagerly flipped through to the sports section and was shocked to see my story as the top item. Here’s a scan of the front page banner:

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And the front of the sports page:

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And, finally, the turn on the third page of the sports section:

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If you’re interested in reading the story, you can click the above images to enlarge them.

Special thanks to everyone who helped make my visit to El Paso so memorable. I can’t wait to return!

Next up, a doubleheader at Security Bank Ballpark, home of the Texas League’s Midland RockHounds.

Round Rock Express – May 13

If you read about my first day in Round Rock and, in particular, what I ate, you might not be surprised to know that my second day in town didn’t begin with a hearty breakfast. In fact, given the size of my dinner the night before, I simply started my day with a handful of almonds and a bottle of water.

The light breakfast wasn’t solely due to the fact that I’d, umm, overindulged during my first visit to Dell Diamond. I also knew that I had a pretty awesome lunch lined up.

At 11 a.m., I met with Nancy Yawn, the director of the Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, to have lunch and learn more about the city I was visiting. I was excited, in particular, to learn about Round Rock’s connection to sports. The city is known as the Sports Capital of Texas, and Nancy had promised to give me a tour around to look at some of the various sports complexes — a great way to begin a day the would culminate with another Round Rock Express game.

Before we started our tour, we had an outstanding lunch at Cover Three, a restaurant within walking distance of my hotel. I had a plate of absolutely delicious nachos to start (I neglected to get a photo, unfortunately) before my mouthwatering main dish of a gulf shrimp po’ boy with Parmesan fries. This, I’m happy to report, didn’t escape my camera:

po-boy-sandwich

After lunch, Nancy took me through some of the city’s sports facilities, starting with the Round Rock Sports Center. It’s a new complex that cost close to $15 million to build and has nearly 50,000 square feet of playing space for sports such as basketball, volleyball and a whole lot more. This mind-blowing facility was undoubtedly the most impressive non-professional sports center I’ve ever visited. It has too many cool factors for me to attempt to sum up, so I suggest checking out this site if you’re interested in learning more. (Or, if you’re in Round Rock to see the Express, make a point of going and seeing the center.)

Here’s one shot that gives you an idea of the size of the center, although this image hardly does the magnitude of this facility justice:

round-rock-sports-indoors

Next, we headed toward Old Settlers Park, which is a sports fan’s dream — it’s 645 acres and includes 20 baseball fields, five softball fields, seven soccer fields, two football fields and an enormous multisport facility. Before we got there, though, Nancy asked if I’d had a chance to visit Round Rock Donuts yet. This iconic landmark has been featured on numerous food shows on TV. Since my answer was in the negative, we made a quick detour and I got a chance to sample devour the “world famous Round Rock glazed donut,” which was one of the best donuts I’ve ever eaten:

round-rock-donut

Soon enough, we pulled into the park and I was blown away once again. Given the park’s size, we just did a driving tour, so the photos below were taken out my window. Still, you can see the impressive nature of this facility with this shot of one of the gates:

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And here are just a couple of the baseball fields:

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I was wildly impressed by everything, and I can certainly see why Round Rock is the sports capital of the state. In Canada, where sports outside of hockey aren’t much of a priority at the youth level, it’s jaw dropping to see such outstanding facilities designed for youth sports.

Soon enough, I had to start preparing to head over to Dell Diamond, so Nancy dropped me back at my hotel so I could get my stuff together. I’m thrilled that I had the chance to learn more about the city and see some of its sports-centric sites; too often, I zoom into a city, watch a baseball game and then leave again the next morning. My two days in Round Rock gave me a chance to get a better appreciation for the area — thank you, Nancy, for everything you did to make my visit so memorable.

Since I’d been a little later than usual getting to the ballpark a day earlier, my plan was to get to Dell Diamond several hours before first pitch. This would give me a chance to shoot a bunch of video that will be up on my YouTube channel soon, but also allow time for simply walking around the park before it opened and enjoying all the sights.

So, I quickly filled my backpack with all my camera gear, paused for this quick shot in front of my rental car …

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… and was standing here with my media pass about 10 minutes later:

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If you read about my first game at Dell Diamond, you might recall that I didn’t have a chance to take my customary trip around the exterior of the park before entering, but I more than made up for that with a couple laps around the park on this day — all while filming the scenes with my GoPro. Because that video is forthcoming, I’ll hold off on sharing photos of various features along the way. Instead, here’s one quick panorama of the exterior of the front gate that should give you a good idea of how the area looks:

dell-diamond-front-pano

One of my first priorities once I entered Dell Diamond was to snag a batting practice ball. I enjoy collecting baseballs during my various ballpark trips, and I especially wanted to get a Pacific Coast League ball while in Round Rock. I have at least one ball from each of the other leagues I’ve seen in action, so a PCL ball (or two, or three) was a must. It didn’t take long to find a PCL ball; it was sitting in the grass behind the right field foul pole during Oklahoma City’s batting practice session. Unfortunately, my self-imposed rule is to not take baseballs until the gates open, so I grabbed the ball and tossed it back onto the field.

Still confident that I’d end up with a ball once the gates open, I stood and watched the Dodgers go through some warmup drills in right field from a cool vantage spot right above:

dell-diamond-okc-warming-up

Next, I went over to check out the rocking chairs in left field. I’d seen them a day earlier but hadn’t done any serious rocking, so that had to change. I sat with this view for a few minutes and rocked to my heart’s content. I particularly like this shot of the view from my chair:

dell-diamond-rocking-chair-view

Once I’d watched a bit of BP from this spot, I went down to field level on the third base side. I hadn’t been to field level a day earlier, so it was great to stand just above the dugout and watch the events unfold on the field. As I’ve said before, few things are better than being privy to BP while the stadium is still closed. Here was the view from where I stood:

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As is always the case during my pregame tours, I didn’t spend too long in one single place. After watching the players from field level for a little while, I went back to the berm in left field, where I took this panorama:

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The player facing me is Jack Murphy, who is someone I follow on Twitter because I met him and got his autograph back in 2010, during my very first trip after starting The Ballpark Guide. (Here’s a post I wrote a few years ago about that autograph and a bunch of others, if you’re interested. Murphy’s autograph appears in the sixth photo.)

Anyway, my reason for moving back to this location is that I wanted to be on the berm as soon as the gates opened, as I knew it would be an ideal location for catching a ball or two. I waited patiently and, before long, the gates opened up and four or five kids made a beeline for the berm — picking up any balls that had been hit for home runs earlier on. I wasn’t going to run around and compete with them for baseballs; plus, I couldn’t fit my glove into my non-checked luggage on this trip. I figured that if a ball was hit right near me, I’d grab it. Luckily, this happened soon enough. Maybe 10 minutes after the gates opened, I snagged this beauty:

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My first PCL ball! I was part thrilled, part relieved.

With my mission accomplished, I climbed back up to the concourse and began to walk down the third base side. I paused for a moment to send out a tweet saying that I’d gotten a ball, when I heard a line drive ricochet off the seats about 12 rows below where I stood. I reacted quickly and began to head toward the ball, when I heard an usher’s voice behind me: “It’s in that row.” What? In many parks, I’ve encountered ushers who are super quick to retrieve balls before fans can get them, but this friendly usher was actually giving me directions so that I could locate the ball quicker. Yet another reason I was thrilled with the overall experience in Round Rock. I found the ball an instant later, snapped this photo …

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… and then went down to the Round Rock dugout, which was empty at this point:

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I watched the last few minutes of Oklahoma City’s BP session and, when it wrapped up, I ran down the line to see the players leave through the staircase/walkway that I wrote about in my previous blog post. What a great way for fans to get so close to so many past/present/future MLB stars:

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While in the area, I also snapped this photo of the Home Run Porch. As you can see, it’s located right above the rocking chairs:

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With the field momentarily empty, I wandered around a bit and checked out some of the sights I’d seen a day earlier. Eventually, I saw the Express make their way onto the field, so I went back down behind the team’s dugout to take some player photos — something I hadn’t really done during my first game at Dell Diamond but that always enjoy doing when I have a chance. My spot behind the dugout meant that I had a great view of many of the players.

Here’s Ike Davis, who has played more than 600 games in the big leagues:

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Veteran shortstop Doug Bernier:

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Outfielder James Jones, who I noticed was wearing his MLB pants with his MiLB uniform — see the MLB logo?

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A few minutes later, when Jones was stretching, I shot this photo that makes it look like he’s posing for me:

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I can assure you that he wasn’t.

When the game began, I was excited to have my choice of the outstanding food items at Dell Diamond once again. I’d eaten five amazing things a day earlier, which meant that it was only logical to broaden my horizons and try something new, right? Well, that’s what I was initially thinking, but as I wandered though the various concession areas, the Texas carnitas nachos I’d loved a day earlier beckoned me. I know it might sound silly to eat the same thing on consecutive days when I love sampling as many items as possible, but you try making that argument to the tantalizing combination of homemade chips, shredded pork, queso, pico de gallo, jalapenos and sour cream:

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I’m happy to report that the nachos were just as good as a day earlier, and I’m now wondering if there’s a way I can convince the team to FedEx me a few orders! Seriously, this meal is that good. When you visit Dell Diamond, make sure that you eat the nachos. Please.

The size of the nachos convinced me to spend a couple innings seated, rather than walking, after I finished eating. So, I stayed in the Home Run Porch in left field and, as the sun set, enjoyed this view:

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When I was ready to walk again, I found a spot on the concourse directly behind home plate, where the view looked like this:

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This ended up being the last photo that I took at Dell Diamond. When I’m fortunate enough to have two days in one city, I enjoy spending the second half of the second game sitting in a good spot and simply enjoying the game. While my priority is always to walk around the park, take hundreds of photos and document everything I can, I’m also a fan of the game itself. As such, it’s a treat to finally sit down and take the game in.

I can’t say enough about my two-day visit to Round Rock. It’s always a thrill to start a trip off on the right note, and that was definitely the case here. Thanks to everyone I met along the way and especially to those who contributed to my experience.

Although I was sad to leave Dell Diamond, I was excited for the next chapter in my Texas road trip. In the morning, I’d be driving 3.5 hours to Corpus Christi for two days. Those blog posts will be coming soon.

Round Rock Express – May 12

A culinary journey through Dell Diamond’s top food items, two personal tours, an awesome gift and some guy named Yu Darvish on the mound.

Where to start?

Well, how about at the beginning of the day?

I don’t need to spend a bunch of time talking about the flight to Texas, but it definitely went smoother than last time I visited. I flew from Ontario to Chicago, had a short layover and then flew from Chicago to Austin. Upon arriving in Austin, I quickly picked up a rental car and navigated my way through the rush hour traffic around Austin on the way to Dell Diamond, home of the Round Rock Express. Normally, I like to get to the ballpark at least three hours before first pitch, which gives me time to walk around outside and tour the park’s interior before the gates open. My flight’s arrival time and the traffic meant that I only got to Dell Diamond a little more than 90 minutes before first pitch. I had time to snap this quick photo …

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… and then I headed straight inside, where the outstanding Express staff had so much great stuff planned for me that I quickly forgot about being frazzled over my later-than-usual arrival.

My first stop was to meet Laura Fragoso, the team’s senior VP of marketing. She hooked me up with my media pass and then introduced me to Cassidy MacQuarrie, the team’s community relations coordinator, who spent at least half an hour giving me an amazing tour of Dell Diamond. Since she’d met me on the suite level, that’s where our tour began. This suite might look like any other at a minor league park, but it’s especially noteworthy because it used to be Nolan Ryan’s suite:

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In case you weren’t aware, the team is owned by Ryan and his business partners in a company called Ryan-Sanders Baseball. The Express name pays tribute to Ryan’s nickname, of course, and Cassidy told me that Ryan attends several games throughout the season. Anyway, as you might expect, there were a ton of Ryan-related sights throughout the park. (The staff T-shirts, for example, have #34 on the back.) The coolest Ryan display I saw was this piece of custom art made by a local artist. The image is made entirely out of cigar labels:

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As I learned about the team’s history, connection to the community and a whole lot more, we made our way out to the left field corner, where I saw something really impressive. When the players enter and leave the field, they do so in this area instead of through tunnels connected to the dugouts. This feature was designed to give fans a chance to interact with players, and it’s something I’ve seen in lower levels of the minors but not at the Triple-A level. Whether you’re an autograph collector or you just want to say hello to your favorite ballplayer, you can do so by lining up along the railing here:

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(The guy in the blue BP shirt is a member of the visiting Oklahoma City Dodgers who’s signing autographs.)

Another neat feature in left field is Dell Diamond’s “best seats in the house” — a long row of rocking chairs positioned just behind the outfield berm:

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And here’s something that I really like:

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Garbage cans, you ask? Look closely — the actual garbage can pales in comparison to the much-larger recycling and composting bins, which I think is awesome. Cassidy told me that the plates on which the food is served are made from compostable materials, which means that you can put your plates and any food scraps into the bin on the right, rather than into the trash. I believe this is the first such setup I’ve seen at a ballpark, and other teams should be hastily following suit. In fact, I’ve come across many parks that have little to no recycling, much less composting. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked around with one or more plastic bottles in my backpack to recycle back at the hotel because the only disposal option at some parks is the garbage. Well done, Round Rock!

The tour with Cassidy breezed past, and soon enough I was informed that Dell Diamond’s executive chef had prepared a selection of some of the ballpark’s notable food items for me to sample! After a long day of travel, this was music to my ears. We made our way to a table on the concourse behind third base and my eyes bugged out a bit when I saw my dinner laid out in front of me:

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A moment later, chef Ed Ebert arrived and gave me a detailed explanation of each of the food items. Here’s the rundown, starting from the top left and moving clockwise:

Hot dog wrapped in a grilled-cheese sandwich: Instead of a conventional bun, this hot dog is tucked inside a folded grilled cheese sandwich. It should also be noted that the hot dogs at Dell Diamond (and burgers) come from Nolan Ryan’s beef company.

Kahuna kolache: This is a Hawaiian-inspired dish that features a jumbo hot dog stuffed inside a special bun. Between the hot dog and the bun there’s a sweet mango sauce.

Texas carnitas nachos: Homemade red, white and blue tortilla chips with shredded pork, homemade queso, homemade pico de gallo, jalapenos and sour cream.

Black and bleu burger: A blackened burger patty sitting on a dollop of chipotle mayo, topped with a blend of applewood smoked bacon and roasted jalapenos, along with a medley of jack and bleu cheese.

Hot dog flight: From left, there’s The Fender, a hot dog with Texas chili, cheese, onions and sour cream; The James Dean, a hot dog with bleu cheese coleslaw and Frank’s Red Hot sauce; and The Marilyn, a hot dog with neon nuclear relish, red jalapenos and shredded cheese.

The verdict? Everything was delicious … and filling! My favorite were the nachos, which were the best nachos I’ve ever eaten at any ballpark. I loved how the ingredients were homemade — none of that abysmal pump “cheese” that I’ve ranted about numerous times. (I ranted about it with chef Ed for a bit and I think he appreciated my enthusiasm.) From top to bottom, the nachos were just outstanding. The burger and the hot dog/grilled cheese combo were my runners-up.

Before I started eating, we got a quick group picture. Laura took the shot, so she unfortunately wasn’t in it. From left, you’re looking at Nicole Hunt, who works for RS3 (Ryan Sanders Sports Services) and also did an exemplary job of fanning away any flies while I ate; Cassidy MacQuarrie, who gave me the tour; me, shortly before eating the majority of the food in front of me; chef Ed Ebner, who is the corporate chef for RS3; and Joe Nieto, who is the assistant general manager for RS3:

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Everyone had to get back to their pre-game duties, but Ed soon made a quick return to show me something interesting. The picture below is a lava rock from Mount Etna in Sicily and a key element of the Fire and Ice meal production that won Round Rock first place in the MiLB Food Fight competition that recently wrapped up. This lava rock is heated and used to cook beef tenderloin and shrimp; it’s a suite-only item, so I didn’t see it in action, but the wow factor is obviously off the charts:

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After I’d taken a few minutes of recovery time following my meal, I was joined by Randi Null, the team’s director of creative marketing. Time for another tour!

Perhaps fittingly, one of the first stops on our tour related to food. This is a huge garden planted and maintained by the team, and it provides food that is served at Dell Diamond! There were plenty of tomato plants, jalapeno plants, herbs and a whole lot more:

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Randi also took this photo of me in front of the huge Welcome to Round Rock mural, which is based after the iconic Welcome to Austin mural that you might have seen before:

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We also checked out the team’s hall of fame area, which is beyond the grass berm in left field. There are currently two members in the team’s HOF; former pitcher Roy Oswalt will join them at a ceremony this summer. The area also has a bunch of photos from throughout the team’s history, as well as this Express-themed cow that is signed by Nolan Ryan:

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When Randi had to get back to her pregame tasks, I quickly made my way toward the Express bullpen. Why? Yu Darvish had just walked there himself and was beginning to warm up. As you might expect, there are a huge crowd around him. Being above and behind him, I wasn’t able to get any head-on shots. However, I had a great view as I watched him go through his warmup:

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After the warmup, I watched Darvish sip from a cup of water and I took this picture as he tossed the rest:

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Then, it was time for some fist bumps …

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… and time for me to run around to each side of home plate so I could watch him pitch for the first few innings. Darvish was slated to throw no more than 60 pitches, so I wanted to be sure that I had a good vantage point for shots like this from the first base side:

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And this one from the third base side:

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I was hoping for a good head-on shot as he walked toward the Round Rock dugout at the end of an inning of work, but he kept his head down virtually the entire time. For a brief instant, he looked up and I shot a couple pictures like this one:

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As much as I would’ve enjoyed grabbing a seat behind home plate and watching the three-time MLB all-star deal, I also wanted to continue exploring Dell Diamond. Since I’d watched a couple innings of Darvish, I decided to take a walk up to the press box, where I hadn’t yet been. It provided not only some air conditioning and an opportunity to mix myself a lemonade/iced tea mix, but also this great view of the action:

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There were a fair number of media members from Japan in the press box, but I heard from an attendant that most of them had already left and were down waiting to interview Darvish in the press area once he’d finished his start. The attendant told me that the press box was so crowded at the start of the game that people were sitting on the floor! That’s remarkable, considering the press box at Dell Diamond is huge and can accommodate a sizable crowd.

After chatting with a few people in the press box for a half-inning or so, I decided to go back to the main concourse and catch a bit of the action from behind home plate. Here’s how the scene looked in panoramic form:

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And here’s another panorama — this one has Darvish on the mound:

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Up for another panorama? Good. Here’s the view from the home run porch:

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This deck was added to increase the park’s seating capacity when the Round Rock franchise joined the Triple-A Pacific Coast League prior to the 2005 season. It’s shaded from the sun, which makes it an ideal spot if you’re looking to stay somewhat cool while you watch the game.

Remember the cool walkway that the players use while traveling to and from the field? That’s hardly the only Dell Diamond feature that provides fans with the opportunity to be close to the players. Both bullpens are also extremely accessible; they’re each located in the outfield and directly between the field and a pair of grass seating berms. This means that you can stand just a few feet behind the players to cheer — or heckle, depending on which side you’re on. I spent a bit of time right behind the Round Rock ‘pen, and it was obviously a thrill to be so close to the players. Here’s Anthony Carter:

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And Jefri Hernandez, who maybe looks like he’s been busted allegedly chewing something he’s not supposed to in the minor leagues:

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Here’s something interesting that I noticed — the players using a Texas-themed citronella candle:

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I’m guessing it’s to keep away the bugs, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in any of the other parks I’ve visited.

And, before continuing on, I snapped this shot of me with my brand-new Express cap! As a way of welcoming me to the city, the team was kind enough to give me free rein in the team shop to pick any cap I wanted — wow! This is the one I chose and I love it:

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My next stop was the enormous play area behind right-center; both Cassidy and Randi had taken me through the area earlier, but I wanted to wait until it was being used to get some pictures. It’s one of the most impressive play areas I’ve ever seen — and that includes the MLB parks I’ve visited. There was an enormous trampoline/bungee cord attraction in which you’re strapped into a harness connected to bungee cords and can bounce and do flips:

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A rock climbing wall:

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A basketball court:

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And, my favorite, a swimming pool and hot tub!

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This is the first pool I’ve come across in my ballpark travels. I know there are some of them out there, but as someone who loves swimming, I was super impressed with this feature. It should be noted that this area is part of a group picnic deck; whereas the other play area attractions are open to all fans, only those among a group that has bought tickets in this zone can use the pool and hot tub.

As the sun began to set, I grabbed a spot on the berm in right field and watched a bit of the game:

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But before long, I was on the move again. (Ever wonder how much I walk during a typical ballpark visit? I’ll actually have a blog post about that very topic after I finish all my Texas posts.) Anyway, I went back along the concourse to the left field corner, where I stood for a moment at the top of the steps that lead from the field toward the clubhouses to show you how things look in this spot:

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As I once again walked along the outfield concourse, I sensed a bit of a commotion behind the fence that divides Dell Diamond from the players’ parking lot, so I climbed partway up the stairs toward the Home Run Porch to survey the scene. It didn’t take too long to realize what was going on. By now, Darvish had finished his stint on the mound, and the happenings just outside the fence were all related to him. Take a look at this photo:

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There were several Express staff members standing outside the clubhouse door just out of sight to the left of my photo and just out of sight to the right is the team’s indoor batting cages that double as a press conference space. There were several media members milling around, and I realized it wouldn’t be long before Darvish emerged from the door on the left, walked down the sidewalk in front of me and entered the door on the right. Of course, I could’ve attended the media session thanks to my pass, but I preferred to just be a fly on the wall and take it all in. One more cool detail — see that white Mercedes-Benz SUV? That was backed into the spot for Darvish just before I snapped the above photo.

Just as expected, Darvish came through the door a few minutes later. Unfortunately, he was very tough to photograph. Shooting through the fence wasn’t possible and the dusky conditions were less than ideal. I snapped a handful of shots as Darvish passed right below me, but all of them were blurry. Here’s the best one:

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It was one of those moments that I couldn’t adequately capture with photos but that was absolutely awesome to witness. Seeing MLBers rehabbing up close is such a cool experience (remember when I watched Derek Jeter take BP while standing on the field?) so even if I didn’t get great photos, seeing Darvish is something that’ll be etched in my mind for a long time. I figured Darvish’s media availability would be brief and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before he exited the door to my right and headed toward the vehicle for a moment. His face was blocked by the tree, but you can clearly see his uniform pants and cleats in this shot:

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By now, it was the top of the sixth inning, so I headed back toward the berm in right field to watch some of the game. In this spot, I stood just a couple feet from Oklahoma City pitcher Jacob Rhame as he warmed up. The access that fans get to the bullpens at Dell Diamond is outstanding. In fact, another fan was standing behind Rhame and the two of them were carrying on a conversation while the righthander threw. I was so amused that I took this video of the scene:

The background noise makes it hard to follow the conversation, but I could clearly hear Rhame answering questions about his tenure in the Dodgers organization and more, between pitches.

Next, I spent a couple more innings behind home plate, enjoying this view …

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… and when the game was just about to wrap up, I headed over to the steps toward the clubhouse. As it turns out, a player had already beaten me there! Here’s a shot of a Dodgers player standing on the concourse with a friend/family member during the late innings — pretty awesome to see:

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Soon after the last pitch of the game, I hopped back into my rental car and drove less than 10 minutes to my hotel and crashed. It’d been an awesome day, but an extremely full one and I wanted to be well rested for my second day in Round Rock. It would feature an outstanding lunch with the director of the Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, a chance to tour some of the other impressive sports facilities in Round Rock and, of course, another Express game. A blog post all about that day is coming next.