Tagged: Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

Buffalo Bisons – April 19 and 20, 2019

What has 700 miles of driving, three scheduled games and only two actual innings of baseball?

My first road trip of 2019, that’s what!

If you follow my adventures on my various social media channels, you’ll know that the 2019 season didn’t exactly get off to a baseball-filled start for me. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a good time in Buffalo in my quest to see some baseball at the newly named Sahlen Field.

April road trips — in the northeast, anyway — can be really hit or miss. This is the fourth time I’ve taken a trip in April, and each one has involved frigid cold, rain, snow or a combination thereof. My visit to Buffalo didn’t involve snow, but it was extremely heavy on the cold and the rain.

I left my house early on the rainy morning of April 19 with the plan to get into Buffalo around lunchtime, do some sightseeing, check into my hotel and then head over to Sahlen Field before batting practice began. Those plans changed dramatically when I got to Niagara Falls, Ontario, and was stuck in one of the worst traffic jams I’ve ever encountered. How bad? Well, it took me about two hours to cover a distance of one mile as I approached the Rainbow Bridge from Ontario to New York. It sounds implausible, I realize, but I can assure you that it’s true — after all, I had little to occupy me during this time other than watch the suggested arrival time on my GPS.

Frustrations about traffic aside, I was glad to finally cross the border, make the short drive to me hotel and check in. There wasn’t any time to unpack or get settled, though. After I took this photo of a nice pond outside of my window …

… I headed back to the parking lot and hopped back into my car to make the short drive to Sahlen Field.

It’d been raining virtually the entire day, and I was pretty sure that the Bisons game that evening against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders would be rained out. Nevertheless, the Bisons Twitter account made a few tweets that suggested the team was still hopeful to play.

I pulled into the ballpark’s parking lot a couple of minutes after 4 p.m. under drizzly conditions, and made my way through the lot toward the security gate to pick up my pass. From the parking lot, I had my first glimpse of the field …

… and it was no surprise that the tarp was on and not a player was in sight.

Still, I was excited to get my first ballpark visit of what is going to be a very exciting 2019 season underway — and to also check out this ballpark for the first time since 2012.

After picking up my pass, I walked through the tunnel beneath the stadium, rode the elevator up to the concourse and immediately went to the upper deck to snap this bird’s-eye view of Sahlen Field:

By now, as you might have noticed in the image above, the RailRiders pitchers were playing catch in left field. That didn’t mean that the conditions were dry, though. I was surprised to see the group of them out there, given that the rain was falling steadily. I watched the action for a few minutes under the overhang of the roof above the top rows of the upper deck, and then descended to the main concourse to have a look around. The gates were still about 45 minutes from opening, which meant that things were pretty quiet. This is how the concourse on the first base side looked:

And how did things look on the third base side, you might wonder? Good news! I’ve got a picture for you:

I wandered around the lower and upper concourses for a bit, which was fine, but I really wanted to be out near the field. Unfortunately, the rain was still coming down, and while I’m not made of sugar, I’m also not a huge proponent of standing in the rain. Taking photos is difficult because of how quickly raindrops get on the camera lens — which was definitely an issue because of how hard the wind was blowing — and I hate having raindrops on my glasses.

After another lap of the concourse, I went back out to the covered area in the upper deck to check how hard it was raining. The verdict? It was still raining hard, as evidenced by this photo:

I’ve been around baseball long enough to know that this game was not going to be played, despite my hopes to the contrary. That said, I figured that if I was at the ballpark, I might as well have something to eat. If the name Sahlen Field isn’t familiar to you, you might know this ballpark by its former name, Coca-Cola Field. Or the name before that, Dunn Tire Park. Or North AmeriCare Park. Or Pilot Field. Yep, it’s had a few names over the years. In any case, the park was renamed this past off-season, with the naming rights bought for 10 years by the Sahlen Packing Company — a meat processing company based in Buffalo that has been around for 140 years. As you might expect, the Sahlen name means that the ballpark’s concession stands sell Sahlen hot dogs — which seemed like a fitting first meal of the season for me. I grabbed a hot dog, topped it with mustard and went out to the covered seats on the third base side to snap this photo:

It was a tasty meal, and its warmth was highly welcome on this chilly day.

After eating, I went back up to the upper deck and stood behind home plate to snap this panorama of the scene:

I took the photo above at 5:41 p.m., which meant that the game’s scheduled start time of 6:05 p.m. was obviously not going to happen. The Bisons had made a Twitter announcement saying that the start time would be pushed back, but that they still hoped to play.

It’d already been a long day for me, and I would’ve wagered a heck of a lot that not a single pitch would been thrown that night. So, I made the executive decision to call it an evening. After one more lap through the park, I returned to the parking lot and headed back to my hotel. Not a characteristic move for me, I realize, but the idea of standing in the cold, wet and rainy conditions for much longer without any baseball to watch had lost its appeal. Shortly after I got back to the hotel, I checked Twitter and, as expected, the game had been postponed.

I spent my evening watching some baseball on TV and got to bed early in anticipation of a long day of baseball the following day, as the Bisons and RailRiders had a doubleheader scheduled.

***

Saturday, April 20:

The first thing that I did when I woke up on Saturday morning was lift the blind of my hotel room window to check the conditions outside. To my dismay, it was still raining, albeit lightly. This wasn’t much of a surprise, given that the forecast was calling for rain all day Friday and Saturday, but I was hopeful things would look a little drier. It was all well and good to lose the first game of my road trip to rain, but I definitely didn’t want the doubleheader to be a wash.

Feeling a little discouraged by the crummy weather, but still eager to get back to Sahlen Field, I once again made the short drive downtown and parked my car in the lot behind the outfield fence a little after 10 a.m. The doubleheader was scheduled to start at 1:05 p.m., and while I knew there wouldn’t likely be any batting practice, I wanted to be at the ballpark just in case anything exciting happened.

Since I hadn’t done so a day earlier, I decided to take a full walk around Sahlen Field. There was some sporadic drizzle at times, but the conditions at this point were mostly dry — although the 42-degree temperature and heavy winds made for less-than-ideal conditions. Determined to make the most of my visit, I walked across the parking lot and followed this path behind the outfield fence:

Before I ascended the stairs that you see in the image above, I peeked through a chain-link fence that was a few yards behind the outfield fence:

Once I got to street level, I started up the third base side where I stopped to take this panorama …

… and then continued a little farther before stopping to snap the ballpark from this angle:

After a full lap, I looked through to the field and saw that the tarp was still in place and that no one was around, so I decided to take advantage of the quiet morning by walking a few blocks to KeyBank Center, home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. My mission was twofold. I’d never previously checked out the arena, so I was interested in seeing it. And, if the team shop just happened to be open, I knew I could browse through it for a few minutes to warm up. I’m happy to report that I had success on both fronts. After snapping this photo of Alumni Plaza …

… I entered and spent about 10 minutes getting warm inside of the team shop.

Soon enough, it was time to brave the elements once again, so I made the short walk back to Sahlen Field, pausing to snap this cold-looking photo before I went in:

As I’d done a day earlier, I entered via the security gate adjacent to the parking lot, made my way through the tunnel and went up to the concourse. Then, I went straight out to the cross-aisle behind home plate and took this photo:

Beyond my chilly face, you’ll see a positive sight — the tarp was off! The rain had fully let up by this point, and the grounds crew was starting to prepare the infield.

A minute or so after I snapped the image above, I took this panorama and couldn’t help but smile. I had a pretty good feeling that there’d be some baseball coming up:

You might’ve noticed in the panorama above that the Bisons had come out and were playing catch in right field. The players were thoroughly bundled up due to the cold, but I decided to go get a closer look to see who I could recognize. I made my way along the wet cross-aisle to the party deck in right field, where I snapped this panorama …

… and then went down to the front row to watch the action for a few minutes.

Since it wasn’t currently raining, I decided to take some time to exploring the open parts of the ballpark that I’d neglected to see a day earlier because of the wet conditions. There are some International League facilities at which fans’ ability to spend time beyond the outfield fence is limited, but that certainly isn’t the case at Sahlen Field. In addition to the party deck that I’d visited a moment earlier, there’s a huge picnic area, a grass berm, concessions, bathrooms and a lot of walking space. Granted, there wasn’t much going on in these areas during my visit, but I know that when the weather is good during the summertime, this area is packed with fans and has a lively vibe. Here’s how the view looked from the area a handful of yards behind the fence:

After spending a bit of time walking around behind the fence, I made my way back to the seating bowl. One of the cool Sahlen Field features (which actually reminds me of Frontier Field in nearby Rochester) is that there’s a pedestrian bridge between the seating bowl and the party deck beyond the right field foul pole. It provides a nifty vantage point of the stadium, and that’s where I stood to take this next shot:

I took another lap around the concourse, mainly in an effort to get out of the wind for a few minutes, and then went down to field level in advance of the dog parade that was scheduled for 12:20 p.m. as part of the team’s Bark in the Park promotion. Normally, I have zero interest in such things, but I’d learned that my friend and fellow blogger Rox-Anne and her husband Adam were planning to be in attendance at the game, and I wanted to snap some pictures of them on the field. I wasn’t sure how easy it’d be to spot them, but the miserable weather meant that the turnout of dogs and owners was fairly low, and I quickly identified them and shot some photos like this one:

Shortly after the dog parade ended, the players began filtering back onto the field, so I went down to the front row on the Bisons’ side.

I wasn’t the only one.

While the weather kept the Sahlen Field crowd small, a considerable percentage of those in attendance were gathered down the first base line in anticipation of seeing #1 prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. take the field. I’d be lying if I wasn’t pumped to see him, too. In fact, Guerrero and the other young Bisons’ prospects — namely Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio — were a big part of the reason for my first trip of the season. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to see a number of future MLB stars in the minors — Bryce Harper, Christian Yelich, Billy Hamilton and a whole bunch more — but I’d never actually seen a #1-ranked prospect at the minor league level. (When I saw Harper in 2011, he was actually ranked #2; some guy named Mike Trout was #1.) I was fortunate to see Guerrero Jr. in a Spring Training game in Montreal last season, but there’s nothing like seeing top prospects in the minor leagues — and I was eager to see him emerge from the dugout.

Before that happened, however, there were plenty of other Bisons to see up close. When I was last at a Bisons game, they were affiliated with the New York Mets. The Toronto Blue Jays became the parent club in 2013, and while I’d seen the Bisons on the road since that change, the lifelong Blue Jays fan in me was especially excited to see them at home. David Paulino was scheduled to pitch for Buffalo, so he and catching prospect Reese McGuire were the first players to make their way down the line. Here’s McGuire after he finished stretching …

… and here he is standing directly below me:

A moment later, some familiar-looking players caught my eye as they posed for some photos behind home plate. I was obviously a couple hundred feet away, but managed to snap this photo:

Before long, pitcher Danny Barnes made his way to the bullpen bench. I was excited to see him not only because he’s played more than 100 games in the big leagues, but also because I got his autograph all the way back in 2011 when he was with the Lansing Lugnuts. Anyway, Barnes was tightly gripping a cup of coffee, which I’m imagining provided a little warmth against the chilly winds, as he sat down right below me:

The other relievers soon made their way to the bullpen area, and I watched the goings-on below me while keeping an eye trained toward the Bisons’ dugout.

During this time, I casually watched an interaction between a player and a couple of young fans that I think bears sharing. The player, who I’m not mentioning by name, was chewing tobacco while he warmed up. Smokeless tobacco is banned in the minor leagues, but that doesn’t mean that a lot of players don’t do it. Anyway, when the two young fans called out to the player, he raised his glove to his face, removed the dip, discreetly dropped it on the warning track and ground it into the clay with his cleat — and then made his way over to engage with the two youngsters. In an age in which we’re very quick to take to social media to speak poorly about professional athletes, I was impressed with how this particular player obviously wanted to portray a positive image before he approached the kids.

Soon enough, Bichette was the first of the future superstars to emerge, running onto the grass behind the infield to begin the process of warming up:

It wasn’t long before the man who’s made countless headlines in recent weeks — he made his major league debut last Friday in Toronto — ran onto the field to considerable applause:

For the next 10 or so minutes, I had a blast watching the Guerrero, Bichette and their teammates getting loose not far from where I stood:

I continued to snap some photos during the anthems, including this one of Bichette, Guerrero and Roemon Fields:

I took some post-anthem photos, too, capturing this one of Bichette playing catch …

… and this one of Guerrero Jr. telling what appeared to be a humorous story to teammate Richard Ureña, who was just out of frame to the right:

As first pitch approached, a lot of the fans who’d flocked to the front row to watch the warm-ups went back to their ticketed seats, and I moved in to get a better view of the action. It wasn’t long before Bisons hitting coach Devon White took his spot in the first base coach’s box, and I was excited to snap some photos like this one:

White, of course, was someone I closely followed as a kid. He patrolled center field at SkyDome for the Blue Jays from 1991 to 1995, winning six Gold Gloves and two World Series titles in that span.

When I visit a ballpark, I’m normally more interested in the ballpark than the game, and am happy for the game to be somewhat of an afterthought as I explore the facility. On this visit, though, I was eager to watch the Bisons’ top prospects get their first at-bats, especially since the game a day earlier had been postponed and I was a little concerned about how the weather might jeopardize game two of the doubleheader. I settled into a spot behind the end of the dugout and watched Bichette lead off the bottom of the first:

A couple of batters later, it was Guerrero Jr.’s chance to step to the plate …

… and he drew a walk:

While Biggio batted, I kept an eye of Guerrero Jr. as he took his lead off first base:

Did you notice anything in the background? More rain!

It had started to drizzle again, and the sky was dark in places. Not a good sign of things to come.

At the end of the first, I set off in search of something to eat. The Bisons have dramatically improved the concession options since I was last in town, and I was eager to try something new. I opted for an order of Pizza Logs, which consist of cheese, pepperoni and pizza sauce inside of a wonton-like wrapper:

The Pizza Log company is based just outside of Buffalo, and I always like to try local fare when I’m able. They were better than I’d expected, and way better than a pizza pocket if you’re making that comparison.

The rain wasn’t appearing to lighten up, so I moved to a covered area behind home plate after I ate:

You might be thinking, “Hey, I don’t see any rain in the image above.” If so, I can assure you that it was indeed drizzling, although the sky had lightened up a little.

I decided to run up to the upper deck for the third inning, and here’s how things looked once that inning began:

To quote Carl Lewis when he botched the national anthem back in the day: Uh-oh.

The sky completely opened up, sending the teams scrambling for their dugouts — and prompting the video board to change to a message that could aptly sum up my weekend in Buffalo:

Again, the team indicated on Twitter that it had hopes of resuming play, but the forecast told a different story. I decided that I’d make the most of the rain delay by exploring Sahlen Field a little. I started by going back down to the tunnel under the concourse, where I saw the Bisons’ clubhouse …

… and the batting cages, which were understandably quiet at this point:

I hung out around the cages for a bit, chatting with one of the security guards and secretly feeling hopeful that some players would show up to hit. That didn’t happen, so I went all the way up to Consumer’s Pub at the Park, which is a full-service restaurant on the ballpark’s mezzanine level. As you might expect, given the shelter and warmth that it provided, it was absolutely packed. I checked out the view of the field from this area, which was impressive, and kicked myself for not visiting earlier in the day.

As was the case a day earlier, I faced a decision. The team was suggesting that more baseball might be played later on, but my Spidey-sense was telling me otherwise. And when I noticed about half a dozen Bisons staff members heading to the parking lot, I knew that the probability of one more pitch being thrown was extremely low. By this time, I’d been out in the cold for more than four hours, and had pretty much had my fill of being frozen and wet. As I’d done a day earlier, I took a gamble that there’d be nothing more to see during this visit, and headed out of Sahlen Field. As I left via the right field corner, I turned back once more to take a last look at the rainy park:

Indeed, I was right. As had happened a day earlier, the Bisons officially called the game shortly after I left. I hadn’t expected this day to wrap up so early; with a doubleheader scheduled, I was originally counting on being at the ballpark from about 10 a.m. until probably 6 p.m., and that left me with a big block of time to fill. I gave some thought to doing some sightseeing around town, but most of the attractions I’d earmarked before my trip were outdoors, and the idea of spending more time outside was unappealing. I decided to grab some food and head back to my hotel to hang out for the rest of the evening. That proved to be a good decision, because my hotel was a fun place to be. I’d booked this stay at the Hyatt Place Buffalo/Amherst, and chose it because of my familiarity with the Hyatt Place brand — a brand I’ve visited in several different major league and minor league cities. Here’s the hotel from the outside:

Each of the guestrooms at this hotel is divided into a sleeping area and a living space, and I knew that with a lot of time to kill, I wouldn’t feel cramped in my room. Check out the large sitting area, complete with this L-shaped couch that was perfect for reclining on while I watched an afternoon baseball game on TV:

This hotel is located about 15 minutes from Sahlen Field, in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst. It gives you the best of both worlds — you can make the short, easy drive downtown, but not have to deal with the inconveniences of staying downtown. In addition to its huge rooms and convenient location, it offers a stylish lounge with an impressive 24/7 menu, an extensive breakfast area, an outdoor fire pit, a clean and modern athletic center and a lot more. The Hyatt Place Buffalo/Amherst was a good choice for a baseball road tripper like me, and definitely the place I’ll choose when I next set my sights on Buffalo. If you’re planning to see the Bisons in action this season, I’d highly recommend this hotel as the place to stay.

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Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders – June 21

I woke up early on the morning of June 21 thankful that I wasn’t rushing to hop into my car to head to another city for another ballgame. Even though hitting the road is always an awesome adventure, there’s a good feeling that comes with being in the same city for games on back-to-back days, and that was the plan for this short road trip. On my second day, I’d be hanging out in and around my hotel and anxiously awaiting that evening’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders game at PNC Field.

As you might have read about in my previous post, I’d attended a doubleheader at the International League ballpark a day earlier. I’d driven about six hours that day and went to the ballpark right after arriving in town, so I the schedule for June 21 was a little less busy.

The close proximity of my hotel, the Courtyard Scranton-Wilkes Barre, and PNC Field (about seven minutes between the two on foot) meant that I was planning to walk to the game again. In the meantime, I planned to take a short walk over to a big shopping complex just a few minutes away. Here’s a map screenshot of the area to show you where I was and what I was up to:

Other than get some exercise to burn off my ballpark food from the previous night, my late-morning walk had three objectives. The first was to walk to the observation point high above PNC Field, which I’ve marked with the red star. You can see the ballpark below it, as well as my hotel above and to the left. PNC Field has an enormous rock face beyond the outfield fence, which makes for one of my favorite backdrops in the minor leagues. You can drive — or, in my case, walk — to the top of the hill to find a great vantage point for looking down at the stadium. I’ve done this in the past, including one time that I was simply driving past Scranton and wanted to see PNC Field, but it was a neat feeling to walk there this time. Here’s a shot of me at the observation point with a pretty sweet background sight:

I didn’t photograph the next two priorities on my walk — visit Guitar Center, which is located in the Shoppes at Montage complex that you can see on the right side of the map image, and then stop at Panera Bread to buy a chicken Caesar salad to eat back at my hotel:

I was so appreciative of my hotel’s great location. As much as I enjoy driving, it’s always nice to be able to park the car for a few days and do everything on foot. I relaxed for the early afternoon, spending most of it on my laptop at this desk, with ESPN playing on the TV above me:

Occasionally, I’d step out onto my balcony at the Courtyard to enjoy the quiet scene surrounding me and to peek over the trees to see the PNC Field’s light posts. At about 3:30 p.m., I made the short walk down the hill and over to PNC Field, stopping when the ballpark came into sight to snap this shot:

These rails run right up to the edge of the parking lot, and they’re not merely a decoration to support the RailRiders theme. On select game days, fans can ride a trolley from downtown Scranton right up to PNC Field, which has to be one of the coolest ways to get to a baseball game.

Of course, I was perfectly content walking to the ballpark — and perfectly content standing in front of the gates, knowing that I’d soon be inside for another awesome experience:

What I wasn’t content about, however, was that sinister-looking cloud over the right side of the ballpark. It wasn’t something that I’d really noticed during my walk, but when I snapped the above panorama and looked at it on my camera, I was a little unnerved that it might linger and threaten batting practice. Fortunately, the dark cloud soon carried any threat of bad weather away with it, and the afternoon and evening were once again perfect for baseball.

When I walked into PNC Field a day earlier, the visiting Syracuse Chiefs were hitting. This time, I was early enough that BP had yet to begin. This meant that I had an opportunity to watch both teams warming up for a few minutes before the hitting began:

After watching some RailRiders play catch along the third base line, I went over to the walkway above the bullpen, just as I’d done a day before. There, I watched right-hander Brady Lail throwing a bullpen session:

He’d started and won the game against Syracuse two days earlier, so he was simply getting some throwing in, rather than getting prepared to pitch that evening. As I watched the bullpen session, I noticed two unique things about the catcher working with Lail. Can you spot them in the photo below?

First, I thought it was interesting that he was kneeling down, rather than using a standard catcher’s crouch. Doing so obviously makes a lot of sense in the bullpen, and it’s far less detrimental to the knees, but I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed someone doing this in the past. Second, he’s not wearing the usual turf shoes that players commonly wear for warming up. Instead, he’s got on a pair of LeBron James basketball shoes. (For the record, I know absolutely nothing about basketball shoes — I simply zoomed in and saw the LJ logo on the soles.)

By now, the Chiefs BP session was in full swing, so I took a quick lap through the outfield and arrived above the visitor’s dugout on the first base side to watch the action. I stood in the front row at field level to enjoy not only the action in the cage, but also the infield drills that were going on right in front of me. One player I was keeping my eye on was Syracuse first baseman Clint Robinson, who has seen a bit of MLB action but has otherwise been a successful power hitter in the minors for a long time:

From where I stood, I also had a good view of the rock face beyond the outfield wall, and the observation point I’d stood upon earlier in the day. That area, which is partially obscured by the trees in the photo below, is essentially at the base of the building you see peeking above the trees:

This was pretty much how I spent batting practice from the time I arrived until the time it wrapped up — a few minutes at the bullpens, a few minutes at field level, a lap of the ballpark, and repeat. It was absolutely glorious.

Once the gates opened, I made another lap of the concourse to consider some food options that I’d scouted out earlier. As I mentioned in my previous post, the PNC Field concession menu is impressive — and I found that mentally shortlisting a few items and then thinking about them as I walked made it easier to choose a worthwhile candidate. As I cut through the grass berm, my eyes caught sight of a BP ball that had obviously been overlooked by the ushers and even by the fans who were in the park at this point.

It was an easy choice to grab it, but instead of my usual “hand-holding-ball” photo, I wanted to try something different. As you’ll see here, I set the ball up on the rail above the bullpens, and I’m really pleased with how the photo turned out:

Although the ball sighting slowed my pre-dinner lap around the ballpark, it didn’t disrupt my plans on what to eat. I elected for the General Tao Perogies, as I’m a big fan of perogies and seldom see this dish at ballgames. I had grand visions of perogies topped with several of the standard General Tao ingredients, so I was a little underwhelmed when I was handed a container of perogies tossed in spicy sauce:

Fortunately, the meal was good — the perogies were cooked perfectly, meaning that they weren’t too soggy and they weren’t too crispy. The sauce was nice, too, providing a decent amount of sweetness and heat without blowing my head off. What really would’ve knocked this dish out of the park, though, would’ve been some fried chicken pieces, green onions and sesame seeds, like they independent Ottawa Champions do with their Tao Poutine.

After eating, I went over to the RailRiders bullpen to watch the action. By now, starter Domingo Acevedo was warming up in the team’s pinstriped uniform, which looks awesome and must remind players that they’re just a phone call away from suiting up for the Yankees. I snapped a bunch of shots of Acevedo’s delivery, and then checked how they turned out on my camera — and noticed an odd thing. Just as he released the ball, he opened his eyes extremely widely. Case in point:

I figured this might be an anomaly, but as I continued to take photos of the right-hander’s tosses, I noticed it each time. Just as he released the ball, he really opened his eyes. Slightly amused, I continued snapping shots — and noticed this facial expression each time. I took enough shots that I could make a coffee table book called “Eyes of Acevedo,” but I’ll hold off on that million dollar idea for now.

I spent the early innings of the game in a seat down the third base line. I was far enough from the dugout that the netting wasn’t in my way, and I still had a perfect view of the action:

I’d have liked to sit for a while on the other side of PNC Field, but the sun sets directly over the third base side, making it extremely bright for those toward the right field foul pole. Don’t get me wrong — this is a great spot later in the game or during afternoon games, but the sun is just a little too bright for my liking for 7:05 p.m. games.

My next stop was the grass berm for another inning of action. A day earlier, I’d spent some time on the berm in right field, but I elected for center field this time, where I had this great view:

Midway through the game, I went out to the plaza that’s between the two sets of gates on the home plate side of PNC Field. It’s a popular gathering spot with the team shop off to one side, and the abundance of glass used in its design gives it a cool, modern feel:

In about the sixth inning, I set off in search of something to eat again. The perogies were more of an appetizer, as there were just four of them in the order. I found additional sustenance in the form of a cheesesteak sandwich. This wasn’t any old cheesesteak, however. At PNC Field’s “Steak Me Out to the Ballgame” concession stand behind home plate, there was a long list of different cheesesteak variations. My order might seem sacrilegious to a true cheesesteak connoisseur in Philadelphia, but I got a buffalo-style cheesesteak — the usual cheesesteak ingredients, but topped with blue cheese dressing and hot sauce:

Verdict? It was tasty enough, but I’m afraid it didn’t hold up to the cheesesteaks I’ve eaten at Citizens Bank Park in Philly, although the unique toppings were a fun twist.

As dusk fell, I slipped out of PNC Field to take this shot …

… and then settled into a seat on the first base side to watch the remainder of the game at this great ballpark:

Less than 10 minutes after the game’s final out, I was back in my hotel room, where I repeated the agenda from the night before — a late-night swim, watching baseball highlights on TV, enjoying the balcony for a little bit and, finally, hitting the sack to close out a great two days with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders – June 20

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.

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders – July 7

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

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

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

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

pnc-field-front-panorama

(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:

pnc-field-mohegan-sun-club

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:

pnc-field-mohegan-sun-club-1

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:

pnc-field-panorama-suite-level

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:

pnc-field-empty-concourse

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:

pnc-field-outfield-walkway

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:

pnc-field-group-party-deck

An upscale bar area in right field:

pnc-field-outfield-bar

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

pnc-field-outfield-view

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):

pnc-field-dellin-betances-concourse

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:

derek-jeter-railriders-first-appearance

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:

derek-jeter-railriders-jogging

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

derek-jeter-railriders-addison-maruszak-cage

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:

railriders-neal-bell-maruszak-jeter

And here are Maruszak and Jeter chatting:

derek-jeter-railriders-addison-maruszak

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:

pnc-field-autograph-seekers

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:

derek-jeter-railriders-grounder

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:

derek-jeter-railriders-ray-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:

derek-jeter-railriders-signing-autographs

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:

pnc-field-jeter-lineup

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 …

derek-jeter-railriders-at-bat

… and then drew a walk:

derek-jeter-railriders-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:

pnc-field-food-brisket-sandwich

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 …

derek-jeter-railriders-swinging-strike

… 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:

dellin-betances-railriders

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:

derek-jeter-railriders-on-base

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:

pnc-field-courtard-from-park

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:

courtyard-scranton-wilkes-barre-room

And here’s the room from the other direction:

courtyard-scranton-wilkes-barre-looking-toward-window

And, finally, the outside of the hotel:

courtyard-scranton-wilkes-barre-outside

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:

pnc-field-2013-from-above

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