The majority of my nine-day road trip took place in North Carolina, but there was one notable exception — a June 29 sojourn into Virginia so that I could see the Richmond Flying Squirrels play.
About nine hours after getting back to my hotel after seeing the Carolina Mudcats in action, I was back in my rental car and headed north about 170 miles. This would be the first time I’d be in Virginia since seeing the Norfolk Tides just over a year ago. The drive to Richmond should’ve been easy, but it took way longer than I’d have liked, thanks to a few major traffic jams on I-95. Between the traffic and a couple of sightseeing detours, I arrived in Virginia’s capital city much later than expected, and after checking into a hotel out the outskirts of town, I had to race downtown to get to The Diamond.
The June 29 game against the Hartford Yard Goats was a 6 p.m. start, which is common on Saturdays. I had it in my head that the game was a 7 p.m. start, so when I arrived about 4:30 p.m. — early, but not nearly as early as usual — there was a huge crowd and the gates were just 30 minutes from opening. This was the first time that I’d ever botched a game time, and while it wasn’t a huge deal, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little rattled as I climbed out of my car upon realizing what had happened.
I always love getting into the ballpark before the gates open, but I also love a walk around the outside before I go in. There simply wasn’t enough time to devote to a comprehensive perimeter walk, so after I took this shot from the parking lot …
… I headed through the main gates into the park:
You might’ve noticed in my first photo that The Diamond has a unique look from the exterior. Some might call it dated, but let’s stick with unique. This ballpark opened in 1985, making it the second oldest in the Eastern League. Only Reading’s historic FirstEnergy Stadium, which opened in 1951, is older. This means that by today’s high standards of minor league ballparks, The Diamond has a few less-than-desirable architectural features, but the team has done an exemplary job of making this a high energy and fun place to watch a baseball game.
The Diamond is the 74th different stadium at which I’ve seen a game, but it’s more noteworthy to me because visiting it now means that I’ve seen at least one game in every Eastern League ballpark. I first visited an EL facility back in 2010, but it took me until this summer to hit the 12th and final Eastern League park. Interestingly, this marks the first league that I’ve “completed,” for lack of a better term. (I’m also just a few parks away from completing a handful of other minor leagues.)
Resisting the urge to take a lap around the concourse right away, I cut through the park and went down toward the seating bowl to get a look at the view from home plate, which looked like this:
If you’re wondering what looks a little different about this shot, it’s the black frame around the netting behind the plate. While every MiLB park obviously has netting in this area, I can’t recall another that has the distinctive framing around it. It definitely looks obstructive in this photo, and I wondered how it might seem during game action. I’m happy to report that when you’re in any seat behind home plate and are focused on the game, the frame tends to disappear just like the netting that it supports.
My semi-late arrival meant that I’d missed batting practice — or, more likely, BP had been cancelled because it was 95 degrees — so after standing behind home plate for just a moment, I decided to start exploring the seating bowl. Eighties-era ballparks are known for their vast seating bowls, and because there aren’t that many examples like this left in the minor leagues, I was excited to make my way up toward the top. I started by heading down the third base side, climbing up the steps and turning to take this panorama:
The shade blocks things out a little, but there are some interesting things to point out. If you look at the upper deck seats on the first base side, you’ll notice that the top handful of rows — I’d say about six of them — have been tarped off. I like how the team has closed only the top few rows of each section rather than closed sections entirely. I’ve been to a handful of games in which the team closes specific upper deck sections, and I hate the idea of not being able to explore whatever sections I want. Over the course of the evening, I spent time in many of the upper deck sections at The Diamond, and didn’t feel that I was missing out by not having a chance to sit in the top few rows.
After snapping the panorama above, I took this shot to share on social media:
You’ll see by the handful of fans in the stands that the gates had now opened, so after taking this photo of the Richmond skyline beyond the outfield fence …
… and this shot that shows the press box and the space around it …
… I decided to go back down to the concourse to explore it before things got crowded.
I mentioned earlier that The Diamond has some unusual architectural features, but that the team does a good job of overcoming them. Here’s an example:
This is a walkway that wraps around the exterior of the stadium above the main concourse. It feels pretty isolated in this spot, and and it doesn’t seem like an area that you’d be in a hurry to check out, right? That may be true, but look how many displays there are on both sides of the walkway. The displays pay tribute to past Flying Squirrels teams and alumni who’ve reached the major leagues, which instantly boosts the appeal of being in this part of the stadium.
As I made a lap of the concourse, I noticed several things of note. It’d been a while since I’d visited a ballpark of this era. (I visited PNC Field in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2011, and although it opened a few years after The Diamond, there were lots of similarities. PNC Field was closed for 2012 as it went through a $43 million renovation that turned it into one of the gems of Triple-A baseball, for the record.) That meant that even though some of the features are outdated by today’s ballpark standards, they were still interesting to see.
Here’s one thing that you don’t see very often anymore — narrow walkways leading from the concourse to the seating bowl:
Remember when arcade games were a thing at ballparks? There was a large collection of arcades at one end of the concourse at The Diamond:
I didn’t see anyone playing them in all the time I spent walking around, which makes me wonder — with the easy access to mobile games today, does anyone play arcade games anymore? This spot arguably seemed like the most dated section of the ballpark, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it changed the next time that Richmond’s ownership plans a renovation.
The position of the suites made for another interesting design feature at this stadium. Because they’re located on the concourse level, and are positioned between the concourse and the seating bowl, they stick out into the concourse. The team has done a really good job of having local artists paint the back sides of the suites in different ways. Here’s an eye-catching “Greetings from the River City” motif:
As I made my way around the concourse, I noted how the crowd was quickly growing. It seemed very apparent that Richmond strongly supports its Flying Squirrels. That made for a fun atmosphere as I continued to walk around and note some of The Diamond’s unique design features, like this one — the upper deck seats that loom large over the concourse, and are supported on the outer edge with enormous concrete posts:
Eventually, I returned to the seating bowl to explore it a little more. First, I made my way to the upper seats behind home plate, where I shot this panorama:
Then, I made a long walk from the left field end of the seating bowl all the way to the right field end, pausing to take this shot of the upper rows of seats and the tarp mounted behind them:
When I got to the right field side, I was able to look down and see the area known as the Bullpen Deck, which was added in 2016:
It caught my eye for a number of reasons. First, it’s open to any fan who wants to visit it. So many decks and picnic areas are reserved for groups, which definitely makes sense from a business perspective, but I’m always excited when I see a deck that any fan can check out. Additionally, the Bullpen Deck isn’t just one deck. Rather, it consists of two deck areas, both with plenty of standing room and seating areas, that are joined with a walkway.
I definitely wanted to check out the Bullpen Deck, especially before it got crowded once the game began. On my way down from the upper deck, I snapped this panorama …
… and then made my way down to the deck to check out the view. There were a number of neat places to stand, but most of them were occupied by the time I arrived. This was the lone spot that I could find without people:
This is definitely a place to check out when you visit The Diamond, but you’ll want to get there promptly to claim your spot.
The teams had taken the field by now, and although my current position gave me a really good view of the Flying Squirrels warming up, the players were in some fairly serious shadows that I knew wouldn’t translate well to photos. I decided to follow the cross-aisle all the way around to the left field side to watch the Hartford squad getting read. Plus, the Yard Goats were wearing their alternate green jerseys, which I’d yet to see in person and was excited to check out.
Here’s a look at Hartford infielder Alan Trejo:
And his teammate, outfielder Manny Melendez:
After they finished playing catch, this trio of Yard Goats celebrated by tapping their gloves together:
Once warm-ups concluded, I went back to the concourse to take another look around. My next stop was the team shop, which is easily one of the largest that I’ve seen at any level of the minor leagues. It was really impressive, especially given the era of this stadium.
When the game began, I found a spot in the shade, and didn’t do as much walking around as I normally do. I’d been able to check out virtually all of the sights and spots before first pitch, and now it was time to relax a bit. It’s not often that I just sit and watch a ballgame, but after several extremely hot days and an average of more than 16,000 steps taken per day, the truth is that I needed a bit of a break. It was a pleasant change to simply chill out during the game — and a good way to recharge my batteries for the rest of the trip.
After my great experience on August 15 at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium, I spent the morning of August 16 writing this blog post before checking out of the hotel. The drive to New Britain, CT, is between two and three hours, but I added a few stops to check out some sights for a future blog post. It turns out that my timing was perfect, because I got to my new hotel right around the 3 p.m. check-in time.
To see the New Britain Rock Cats, I’m staying at the Hampton Inn and Suites Hartford/Farmington, which is just outside New Britain and only about 12 minutes or so from the ballpark. And it’s an amazing hotel! It’s very close to the highway, which is especially ideal if you’re checking in after you’ve watched the ballgame. Who wants to be driving around looking for a hotel when there’s a great one just off your route?
Here’s what it looks like from the outside:
And I was excited to see that when I got inside, the inside looks even better. My room is absolutely amazing. It’s a huge suite and my favorite part is the desk/TV area. Instead of a traditional desk with a TV nearby, check out this setup:
Here’s the room from another angle:
Needless to say, this is definitely the place to stay when you’re in town to see the Rock Cats. I’m thrilled that I am here and next time I return, I’ll absolutely stay at this hotel again.
Once I checked in, I blogged a bit and then packed up and headed over to New Britain Stadium. The game was at 7 p.m. and I arrived shortly before 5 p.m. to buy my ticket:
A ticket, you ask? While it’s temping to completely go off here, I’ll just say that, yep, the Rock Cats didn’t give me a media pass. They’re the first and only MiLB team this year that has not done so. It’s not for a lack of trying — I emailed them three separate times and each time, the team didn’t bother getting back to me. Every other team I’ve visited or will visit this summer has been hugely accommodating, so it’s annoying that the Rock Cats can’t be bothered helping me out when my blog/website are going to help them out.
The exterior of New Britain Stadium, which opened in 1996, isn’t particularly eye catching. But it’s got a unique feature that I really like. This is the front of the park:
And this is what I’m talking about — check out all the MLB and Eastern League team logos (the parent club sits above the Eastern League club). I really like how this looks and think it does a great job of tying the two leagues together:
Because I was early and unable to get in the park to look around, I decided to check out the area beyond the outfield fence, as I could hear that batting practice was on. It took me a minute or two to walk back there, and another minute or two to see these:
Yes, a pair of Eastern League balls!
(I’m amused that when I hold two balls in this manner, my hands look oddly wide.)
Boy, was it hot back in this area, and really swampy, too. There were a ton of frogs croaking and jumping about and while watching our for soakers, I shot a couple videos of my ball-hunting adventures that I’ll upload to YouTube at some point.
Anyway, I stuck around for nearly a half hour and managed four balls. The home run fence is extremely tall, and I figured its height would be offset by a smaller field. Nope. It’s 330 feet down the lines, meaning it takes a heck of a shot to get a ball out of the park.
Soon, I wandered back to the front of the stadium and close to 5:30 p.m., the lineups at the main gate were long. This could mean one of two things — the gates would open an hour and a half before the game, or there was a giveaway. Turns out the answer was both! From my understanding, gates normally open an hour before the game on weekdays, but there was some sort of Wiffle ball game with radio personalities taking place before the game, so people got in early for that. And the day’s giveaway was a fleece blanket, which is neat. I’ll post a photo of it later on.
There were lots of things going on in the main concourse area, which is located under the seating bowl. I quickly saw the Legends Diner concession stand, which is adorned with photos of Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, Joe Mauer and David Ortiz in their Rock Cats uniforms. Not a bad list of alumni, right?
In fact, a ton of notable MLBers have passed through New Britain at one time or another. If you click on this photo, you’ll be able to see many of the names:
Here’s a panorama from behind home plate while the Wiffle ball game was taking place:
It was one of those things that would no doubt be a total blast to play, but was awful to watch — non-athletes swinging and missing and occasionally hitting the ball all the way to the mound. So, I only hung around for a moment before continuing my tour.
New Britain Stadium has the weirdest box seats I’ve ever seen. They’re not standard fold-down seats; instead, they look like those plastic high chair seats you get when you visit a restaurant with a toddler. If you’re wondering, their comfort level was on par with a standard stadium seat:
Although my lack of a media pass meant nothing was stopping me from getting some autographs, I didn’t bother. Lots of kids, however, were getting players to sign around both dugouts:
One of the things I love about MiLB parks is how close you get to the action and the players. You’ll always hear funny comments and notice things you’d never see on TV or in an MLB stadium. One guy on the home team (I’m not sure who because his name isn’t on their roster) had paper clips clipped to the cuffs of his pants as a makeshift way of hemming them.
I hadn’t eaten much throughout the day, so once the first inning began, my stomach’s growls meant it was time to get dinner. Nothing jumped off the menu as incredibly unique (although New Britain Stadium has a very impressive beer list), so I went with a kielbasa and sauerkraut on a bun:
It was tasty, but because it has been sitting wrapped up for some length of time, the bun was soaking wet with sauerkraut juice. For a beverage, I took advantage of a cool feature that is mostly common at MLB parks. If you sign up to be a designated driver, you get a plastic cup and two vouchers for free drinks. So that’s exactly what I did:
I spent much of the game on the third base side with this view:
And for much of that time, I was utterly obsessed with the pitch speed indicator on the outfield fence. My camera’s batteries (and spare batteries, argh) were dying, so I didn’t take any photos, but the indicator was hilarious. In the bottom of the first, I was amused to see that Richmond starter Chris Gloor’s fastball was normally only registering between 82 and 84 mph. At first, I thought he just didn’t have much of an arm, but then, the speeds started to get really weird. The bulk of his pitches showed up as being in the 70s, he had a handful more in the high 60s and went as low as 59 mph. He topped out with a pair at 88 mph. Basically, the pitches were all over the map and the difference between a 59 mph off-speed pitch and an 88 mph fastball should be apparent to the eye. But it wasn’t. Something seemed to be up.
In the next inning, things got even more hilarious/weird. New Britain’s Andrew Albers hit 96 and 97 in the inning, and threw one that registered 03. Was this meant to be 103 mph? It couldn’t be, because it was a breaking ball. A moment later, he was hovering in the high 50s, and the hilarity just basically went on from there. A couple innings later, the indicator stopped showing anything at all. Obviously, it had been on the fritz the entire game, or else some villain had taken over and was trying to confuse everyone.
I wonder if perhaps the Rock Cats had been spending their time trying to fix the indicator over the last two weeks instead of responding to my emails.
During the majority of my ballpark visits, I spend most of the game on the go. I’d been able to get all the photos I needed early on, so it was fun to just hang out in one spot for a big block of innings and enjoy the ballgame. Toward the end of the game, though, I moved behind home plate for a short while …
… and then way up to the top of the bleachers on the first base side:
After the game, I’ve got to say I was excited to return to the hotel. When I got back, I went to the pool and swam for about a half hour, and then watched ESPN HD while blogging. Pretty darned perfect! (You have to remember that as a Canadian, ESPN is a commodity.) This morning, I worked on my blog for an hour or so before working out in the hotel gym. And forgetting my room access card in the process. Oops.) I’m going to miss this place when I check out!
The drive to Norwich, CT, is less than an hour away, so I’m planning to make a few stops here and there before checking into my next hotel, which is where I’ll likely be when I publish this blog.