The last time I visited PNC Field, this happened.
Hard to top, right?
Yes, but as I made the six-hour drive to Scranton on the morning of June 20, I was partly relieved that there was no high-profile MLB rehab scheduled for my visit.
Don’t get me wrong — seeing Derek Jeter from just a few feet away will undoubtedly go down as one of the coolest memories of all my ballpark adventures, but that day was a little crazy. From the focus on Jeter to the enormous crowds, I didn’t have as much of a chance as I’d have liked to explore the then-recently renovated PNC Field.
My latest visit to the International League ballpark, located just outside of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in Moosic, PA, would be my third visit since 2011. The first time I was there, I saw a 1980s-era park in a major need of a facelift. That came in the form of a $40+ million renovation that was extensive enough to cause the team to play on the road for the entirety of the 2012 campaign. The park opened again in 2013, just a few months before I visited, and the transformation was outstanding. Now, I was anxious to return again to see how the changes had held up and what new elements there were.
I normally like to do some sightseeing when I travel, but I was late getting on the road on this day. That meant that when I checked into my hotel at 2:30 p.m., I took just a few minutes to set my suitcase on the floor, throw some food in the fridge and step out onto my balcony to check out the scene. I was thrilled to see the PNC Field lights just peeking through the trees to my left, and even more thrilled to hear some sporadic cracking of baseball bats, indicating that batting practice had begun:
As I did in 2013, I was staying at the Courtyard Scranton Wilkes-Barre, which you’ll read more about later in this post. I’d selected it again not only because I had a great stay last time, but because it’s within walking distance of the ballpark. It’s also within walking distance to a ton of restaurants and stores, and that meant that after parking my car prior to check-in on June 20, I didn’t get behind the wheel again until checking out on the morning of June 22.
The walk from the hotel to PNC Field took seven minutes, which meant that I was standing in front of the park’s main gates well in advance of first pitch — but perhaps not as early as you might think. Instead of preparing for a 7:05 p.m. start, the game was actually slated for 5:05 p.m. The RailRiders were hosting the Syracuse Chiefs in a doubleheader, which always promises to be a good and long day at the ballpark. Despite the beautiful location in which PNC Field is found, there’s not a heck of a lot to see outside the park. While I usually take a pre-entry lap around the ballparks I visit, I simply snapped this shot …
… and then this one of me …
… and then went inside. Having entered through the home plate gates, the concourse was directly in front of me. That meant that after taking just a handful of steps, I was standing at the top edge of the lower seating bowl and surveying the scene as the Chiefs took BP:
Although the 2012 renovation included a long list of changes, my favorite was how the concourse was built to wrap around the entire field, meaning that you can watch the game from beyond the outfield fence. This is one of my favorite features at any park. Above, you can see the elevated walkway above the bullpens in left-center, the grass berm throughout much of the outfield, and the party deck around the right field foul pole. Absolutely perfect.
As you might expect, the allure of taking a long walk around the perimeter of the park was appealing, so I set out by heading down the third base line. I noticed along the way that the RailRiders have signs on the concourse that encourage walking. Apparently — and I would’ve never guessed this — you travel a full mile when you walk around the concourse three times. As I walked, I stopped every few moments to enjoy BP and snap some photos. Here’s one that’s down toward the left field foul pole. You can see the multilevel party deck in the corner, as well as the bullpens beyond the outfield fence, major league style:
When I got close to center field, I stopped again and took this shot, which shows the SWB bullpen in the foreground, as well as a better view of the walkway behind/above it:
It’s always cool to be able to get close to the pitchers warming up in the bullpen, and the unique design of PNC Field means that you can virtually stand atop whoever is throwing — and that gives you a true appreciation for the nastiness of the pitchers at the Triple-A level.
Past the batter’s eye and heading toward left field, you’ll find the HomerZone. This is where the grass berm is the largest, and there are also picnic tables and benches in the area:
My favorite part of this spot is the clump of trees. Not only do they provide some nice shade for fans on the upper part of the grass, but they also tie in well with the natural backdrop behind the field — which you can partly see in this photo that looks more like a community park than a ballpark:
I completed my mile-long lap by making it back to the concourse directly behind home plate, where I spent the next several minutes just enjoying the quiet scene before me and watching the players hit. What did I do next? I took another lap around the field. It might seem a little repetitive, but I prefer walking during ballpark visits over standing around, and another lap meant that I’d have the chance to continue to watch BP, but from myriad angles. Given the heat of the day, I took a break in the aforementioned shade area beneath the trees, which was just perfect. Here’s the view from where I stood:
I also ventured out to the grass berm for a bit just before BP wrapped up, and here’s another view of that great bullpen/walkway area:
The scoreboard clock in the above photo reads 3:58 p.m., which meant that the gates would soon be opening. I hung out on the berm until fans began to appear on the concourse around home plate, and then headed in that direction myself. In the bleachers in the right field corner, I stopped to briefly talk to an usher who was picking up the last few BP baseballs hit into the stands. After we spoke, he headed in the opposite direction. A moment later, I found a ball in the seats. I called over to him and waved the ball as if to indicate that I was going to toss it his way. Instead of preparing to catch it, he walked over and said, “Want to keep it?” I couldn’t resist saying yes, so I had another nicely used International League baseball for my collection:
Because I’d been in such a hurry to get to the Scranton area, I hadn’t even stopped for lunch on my drive. That meant that by 30 or so minutes before the first pitch of game one, I was absolutely ravenous. In my pregame walking, I’d noticed a bunch of enticing-looking food options at PNC Field, and while it was nice to know that I’d have two days to sample several things, the pressure was on to start my culinary experience off right. My first meal of the visit was the Champ Dog, which looked like the most unique hot dog on the menu. The hot dog itself was stuffed with spicy cheese (this was the first stuffed dog I think I’ve ever had) and topped with coleslaw, pulled pork, BBQ sauce and a pickle wedge. This is how it looked:
It was definitely a winner, although admittedly a little challenging to eat because of its size. (Of course, I somehow managed to devour all of it in just a couple minutes, so it wasn’t too difficult to eat.)
First concession item done, I settled into a seat on the first base side to enjoy the first inning. The early start time meant there were weird shadows at play, as you can see in the following shot:
They weren’t interfering with fans’ views or players’ views; they just seemed, well, super noticeable. Another thing that was super noticeable and that irked me more than the slowly moving shadows were the nets over the dugouts. This feature wasn’t present when I last visited PNC Field, but it’s unfortunately starting to crop up around baseball. Look, I’m all for the idea of fan safety, and I hate the thought of someone getting seriously hurt at a ballpark of all places. That said, the seemingly tiny amount of netting has a weird effect of making the action seem dramatically farther away when you’re behind the dugout. One of the great things about baseball is the close connection that you get with the players, which is something you don’t get in many other sports. There’s no real barrier between you and what’s taking place on the field, so whether it’s a pitcher tipping his cap to your applause or an infielder tossing the third out ball into the seats, it almost feels as though you’re part of the game. With the netting up, that’s no longer the case, and I find it sad.
And that’s not a knock on PNC Field — it’s just a comment on dugout netting in general.
After an inning behind the third base dugout and not wanting to stare through the netting any longer, I set out in search of a better view. I found it on the right field side of the berm, which is one of PNC Field’s coolest post-renovation features. The berm wasn’t yet heavily populated — I find that the crowd tends to pick up during the nightcap of doubleheaders — so I figured that if a home run were hit, I’d have a better-than-average chance of snagging it. Here’s the view from the spot I picked:
I wanted to be far enough behind the wall that I could run forward on a short home run, rather than have to backpedal up the hill. I gave this spot two innings — during which time, nothing came remotely close. The decision I faced was to stay in the area longer or continue wandering around the stadium, and the latter prevailed as it always does.
My next stop was a concession stand on the third base concourse for a $2 tallboy of LandShark:
The low price for the beer was part of the team’s Two Dollar Tuesday promotion, and while I rarely drink, it made for a refreshing beverage while I watched the game from the standing-room area above the bullpens in left-center. When I finished the beer half an inning later, I moved just a few paces to my left to watch RailRiders left hander Tyler Webb, who had begun to warm up in the ‘pen. As I said earlier, the walkway above the bullpens gives you an outstanding view of whatever’s going on below you, so I had fun watching him and taking shots like this one:
The lefty’s tossing wasn’t the only thing of interest taking place below me. From my spot, I could see a RailRider in catcher’s gear — I’m guessing he was the bullpen catcher or coach — reviewing scouting reports and heat maps for the Syracuse hitters:
I was able to zoom in with my camera and was impressed with how advanced this stuff was — MLB-caliber scouting reports with all sorts of situational stats and a comprehensive two-page package on each player who stepped to the plate. I’m talking percentage of pitches swung at in the zone, first-pitch swings against right-handers versus left-handers, swings and misses based on different velocities of each pitch type and a whole lot more. Really interesting stuff.
It wasn’t only the RailRiders bullpen that I was enjoying watching. I was also keeping an eye on the Syracuse ‘pen over to my right side — and it was humorously apparent that these two relievers were keeping an eye on me, too:
I moved over to the third base side in time for the bottom half of the seventh inning (MiLB doubleheaders are just two seven-inning games each) and watched Syracuse closer Wander Suero — and his unique prepitch stance — close out the game:
Normally, the last out of any game I attend is a bit of a melancholy affair, but not today. Instead of heading out of the stadium, I got to stick around for the second game of the twin bill.
With a 30-minute break between games, I decided to take another walk around the length of the concourse and then find something else to eat. That exercise was a good idea, too, given that I was headed toward the Ice Cream Sliders concession stand for, you guessed it, an ice cream slider. What is an ice cream slider? Take two cookies of your choice, some ice cream of your choice, make a sandwich out of them and you’ve got the aforementioned dessert. The selection of cookie and ice cream flavors was impressive, and I went with something that you might call unconventional: M&Ms cookies with root beer-flavored ice cream:
Of course, the flavors I selected probably weren’t the best pairing, but the dessert was a winner. I’d never eaten root beer ice cream in the past, but it had an awesome flavor that was virtually identical to its namesake soft drink.
The ice cream and cookies took a while to eat, which meant that it wasn’t long before the players emerged from the dugouts and began to warm up for the doubleheader nightcap. As I was already on the third base side, I went down to field level to see some of the players close up, including outfielder Clint Frazier, who has since been called up to the Yankees for the first time:
Since I’d done so much exploring before and during the first game, I spent more of the second game just watching the action on the field. After an inning or so on the third base side, I returned to the spot above the bullpens for a bit, and and then hung out on the grass berm for a couple more innings. Look how perfect the scene was from this spot:
A little later, I made the short move over to the bar-style seating right behind the right field foul pole, where I had this view:
After another lap around the park, I returned to the above section in the sixth inning. By now, the fans who’d been in this area in the above photo had gone, which meant that I was the only person sitting in the multilevel deck. Ideal for a home run ball, right? Yes, but nothing came my way. That did nothing to dampen a long and awesome day at PNC Field, which had totaled about seven hours.
As the fans filed out of the ballpark’s gates to the parking lot, I quickly cut through the parking lot and took the short walk back to the Courtyard Scranton Wilkes-Barre, grateful for the tiny distance between the hotel and ballpark:
Although I was exhausted, sunburned and full of food (typically, three earmarks of a good day of baseball) I made time for a 20-minute swim in the hotel pool before it closed, and then returned to my room to watch the MLB highlights on TV. As much as the location of this hotel might be the most enticing feature for baseball road trippers, there are a lot of things to like about the Courtyard Scranton Wilkes-Barre. I particularly appreciated the size of my guest room …
… and the balcony, a photo from which you saw earlier in this post. Directly below my balcony, there was a nice outdoor seating area that centered around a fire pit:
(The above two photos were taken in the daylight when I arrived, rather than after the game, as you might’ve guessed.)
After my swim, I sat at my laptop for a while to catch up on some Twitter messages, and then hung out on the balcony for a little while to enjoy the night view — and then it was time for bed in anticipation of another big day in Scranton.
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.
When my alarm beeped at 4:20 a.m. today, it signaled the start of my first road trip of 2012. And despite the ridiculous hour, I was full of energy as I loaded the car and hit the road. As you may know by now, I’m just starting a road trip that includes seven games in seven ballparks in just four days. The whole itinerary is here, if you want to check it out.
While the evening’s game in Lakewood, N.J. was the priority, I figured I might as well add quick stops at a few other ballparks to liven up my eight-hour drive. My route took me through some familiar territory, so I couldn’t resist making a few detours.
My first stop was at Syracuse’s Alliance Bank Stadium, which I’ve visited twice in the past. If you’re interested, you can read about those visits here and here. It was still early when I pulled up to the ballpark, and it was a welcome sight — my first ballpark of 2012!
This Welcome to Chiefsville sign has been erected since I last visited:
And while I was there, I couldn’t resist taking a quick self-portrait with the auto timer on my camera:
The Chiefs are on the road, but there were a number of presumably injured players’ vehicles in the parking lot:
I’m assuming the players are rehabbing, which makes me impressed with their dedication, as it was only about 8 a.m.
Another hour down the road, and I arrived in Binghamton, site of NYSEG Stadium. I visited there last year, and given the rumors about the Mets’ potential relocation, this might be the last time I see the ballpark:
Like the Chiefs, the B-Mets are on the road, but there were still a number of players’ vehicles in the lot:
(Looking for big rims is the best way to identify a player’s car, I’ve learned.)
NYSEG Stadium was still quiet at this hour …
… and so were the streets around the park:
It’s pretty sweet that Alliance Bank Stadium and NYSEG Stadium are so close to each other, right? Well, drive another hour south, and you’ll come across PNC Field, home of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. I visited here last year, but I was really excited to see it again. As you might know, the stadium is undergoing a major renovation that has forced the Yanks to play all of 2012 as a road team. The plan was to park and walk around to check out the changes, but upon arriving, it was clear that visitors weren’t encouraged:
Not to be thwarted, but also not really wanting to break the rules, I headed for the lookout point on a road high above the park to see what I could see. Last year, I took this photo:
And from roughly the same spot today, here’s what the park looks like:
Wow! As you can see, work crews are in the midst of tearing an awful lot of the stadium apart:
The upper deck looks a bit like it’s from a ghost stadium:
The team’s championship and player banners have certainly seen better days:
In general, most of the stadium was rough looking …
… but it was encouraging to see a number of people busily working away:
Oddly enough, the grass is still in immaculate shape and the PNC Field logo behind home plate is pristine:
Today’s lunch was to be the only lunch or dinner on my road trip that I wasn’t scheduled to be at a ballpark. And because it was approaching noon, I ducked over to a nearby Quiznos and grabbed a sub …
… and now I can say I ate this meal with baseball as a backdrop, too!
After lunch, I resumed the drive to New Jersey, and the weather, which had been iffy all morning, quickly got worse:
Eventually, the rain let up a little — enough for my Grade 2 self to take a photo of a sign marking the small town called Buttzville:
I checked into my hotel around 3 p.m., hung out for a bit and then jumped in the car again for the short drive to Lakewood. As you might guess from the time of this post, the BlueClaws game was rained out. But that didn’t stop me from checking out the ballpark and coming across a number of cool things. I’ll sum up my visit in my next post, which will come either later tonight or tomorrow.
If you’re new to this blog, thanks for stopping by. Please follow me on Twitter to catch the latest from my road trip adventure!