Tagged: The Ballpark Guide

Charlotte Knights – August 29, 2018

My third day in Charlotte included another evening Knights game at BB&T BallPark, but before I headed to the ballpark, I had another sports facility to visit. A day after using some spare time to visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame, I made the short walk over to Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers. It’s only a block away from the ballpark, and offers daily tours. The tour that I took was only $6, and was very extensive — including a visit to field level, the visiting locker room, several luxury suites and more locations around the stadium.

After the tour, I grabbed a sub on the short walk back to my hotel and took it up to my room to eat. In my previous posts, I noted how conveniently located the Hilton Charlotte Center City was to not only the ballpark, but also to the other sports venues that I wanted to see. This is definitely the hotel that I recommend when you visit Charlotte on a baseball trip, and not only for its location. For more on the hotel, check out the bottom of this post.

As I did a day earlier, I walked over to BB&T BallPark between two and two-and-a-half hours before first pitch, which would once again give me plenty of time to explore. Even though I was eager to get inside, I spent a few minutes walking around the park’s exterior and looking at it from different angles. I took a handful of shots, but I’ll share just this one — this image of the main gates from across South Mint Street, which separates the ballpark from the picturesque Romare Bearden Park:

A moment after taking this photo, I entered the park and decided to go right up to the home run porch in right field — a place that I’d visited a day earlier, but in which I wanted to spend a little more time. In this spot, I snapped this shot:

You can see a bit of Romare Bearden Park behind me and, of course, some of the city skyline that never gets old. You might’ve also noticed that I’m wearing one of my stars and stripes road trip T-shirts shirts — the first time I’d worn it, actually — which you can buy here if you’re interested.

Batting practice hadn’t taken place during either of my first two visits to BB&T BallPark, so when the players emerged onto the field and started to gather around the cage, I left the home run porch and walked over to a spot just above the first base dugout, where I had this view:

I didn’t do much walking around during BP. Instead, I mostly hung out in various spots behind home plate and just enjoyed the scene in front of me. Shortly before the gates were due to open, I made my way over to the area immediately inside of the main gates. The Knights were welcoming longtime MLB pitcher Steve Avery for an autograph signing, and I wanted to see him up close for a few minutes. You probably know Avery’s name — he was a key member of the talented Atlanta Braves pitching staff of the early 1990s — and while he didn’t get the same acclaim as teammates Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, Avery ended up winning 96 ballgames in his career and was a part of Atlanta’s 1995 World Series-winning team.

Avery spent the last few minutes before the gates opened chatting with Knights staffers and even signing a few autographs for them …

… and as soon as fans entered the stadium, they quickly lined up next to him. I’m not sure how long he spent signing, but it had to be at least half an hour, and I’m sure that a few hundred fans left BB&T BallPark that night as happy owners of Avery’s autograph.

While Avery signed, and the grounds crew prepared the field after the completion of BP, I set off in search of something to eat. I always find that it can sometimes be difficult to choose my meal during my last visit to a ballpark. Even after visiting the previous two days, there were still a lot of menu items that sounded appealing — and that meant that the pressure was on to find something good. After excellent cheesesteak nachos during my first visit and an interesting but awkward hot dog on Day #2, I went in a different direction and bought a hamburger. This wasn’t any ol’ burger, though. It was called the Dragon’s Breath Burger (I’m assuming to pay homage to the enormous dragon near the batter’s eye) and it promised to be spicy.

The spice came in the form of habanero pepper relish and jalapeno pimento cheese. I decided to go grab a quiet seat in the outfield to tackle this burger, and I’m glad I did — it would’ve been awkward for any fans in busier sections of the ballpark to witness my tears.

This was easily the hottest freaking thing I’ve ever eaten at a ballpark, and probably one of the hottest things I’ve ever had in my life. The jalapeno pimento cheese wasn’t noticeable because of the heat of the habanero relish, which seemed to essentially just be a generous spoonful of finely diced habanero peppers. You can see plenty of the relish (in orange) in this image:

So, how hot is a habanero? I actually grow them in our garden, and know that a fraction of one pepper will nicely spice an entire pot of chili, for instance. It felt as though there was at least one full pepper on this burger, which put it well past the point of being “nicely spiced.” In terms of metrics, a jalapeno pepper can register as high as 10,000 units on the Scoville scale, but a habanero can get as high as 350,000 units. It’s about as hot a hot pepper you can find before you get into the “ridiculous” range with ghost peppers, Carolina reapers, etc. All of this meant that even a valiant effort from me wasn’t enough to finish this burger. After just a couple of bites, I was sweating, hiccuping, my eyes were watering and my nose was running.

I regretted not being able to finish the burger, but each bite was agony. I generally like spicy foods, but this meal was just too much for me.

After unfortunately tossing the rest of the burger, I blew my nose several times as though I was in the midst of a mid-January head cold — which might’ve seemed bizarre to any onlookers, given the pleasant August weather. Then, I walked over to the Charlotte bullpen area to watch the Knights get ready. As you can see here, they were wearing their throwback uniforms, which are clearly inspired by the old unis of their parent club, the Chicago White Sox:

I watched the warm-ups from field level, and then headed over to the team shop — known as “The Knights Armor Shoppe” — to browse for a bit before first pitch:

I was actually inside of the shop when the game began, but soon went back out to the concourse and once again made my way around to the third base side for the first couple innings of action. Here was my view in the bottom of the second:

For the rest of the game, I spent time in a bunch of places — an inning in the outfield, an inning on the home run porch, an inning on the grass berm, and so on — and, of course, I closed out the game by hanging out on the third base side of home plate where I could take in the view as the evening turned to night, wrapping up three outstanding days in Charlotte.

As I noted, the three days in Charlotte were really augmented by the caliber of my hotel. I always love choosing the hotels that I’ll visit on my baseball trips, and I’m glad I chose this one. From the moment I checked in to the time that I left, I enjoyed everything about this hotel — even though I was on the go so much that it didn’t feel as though I spent a lot of time there. Take a look at the image of the check-in area …

… and here’s a shot of a guest room identical to mine; I used a photo from the hotel’s website because it looked better than the ones I took:

The room was absolutely perfect. A really comfortable bed, free Wi-Fi that was really fast, free bottled water, a mini fridge and more, with everything spotlessly clean, were all things that I appreciated about my room at the Hilton. Every day of my trip was long and full, so it was always nice to have a comfortable hotel room with all the amenities I’d ever need to return to each night. It will definitely be the hotel I choose whenever I get back to Charlotte.

The end of my visit to Charlotte wasn’t the end of this trip, fortunately. About 12 hours after leaving BB&T BallPark, I’d be waiting in line at Charlotte Douglas International Airport to catch a flight to my next destination.

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Charlotte Knights – August 28, 2018

My first day in Charlotte gave me a chance to thoroughly explore the beautiful BB&T BallPark, and from the moment I walked out the gates that evening, I felt eager to get back to the park a day later. Fortunately, I didn’t have to sit around twiddling my thumbs. I spent much of the morning of Day #2 in Charlotte at the outstanding NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is just over half a mile from the ballpark. Afterward, I grabbed a late lunch at Five Guys, returned to my hotel for a few hours until it was time to head over to the ballpark.

My hotel, the Hilton Charlotte Center City, was one that I’d been eyeing up well in advance of booking the trip to Charlotte. The pictures on the hotel’s website impressed me, as did its central location to everything that I planned to see and do during my visit. Part of the way I spent my time between the hall of fame visit and leaving for the ballpark was wandering around the hotel, which offers a lot to see and do. There’s a huge atrium with a gift shop that I browsed for a bit, and the hotel is also connected to a state-of-the-art YMCA, which I visited, too. One of my favorite features was the plaza outside of the main entrance, which you can see in the photo that I shot through one of the hotel’s windows:

This was a popular spot for guests to sit outside and eat, and the numerous fountains and water features looked cool both during the day and at night.

I really enjoyed staying so close to the ballpark that I was able to walk to it from my hotel. I find that when you’re driving to a game, you’re busy watching traffic, following your GPS and looking for places to park — and that isn’t exactly conducive to enjoying the environment or the overall experience. Making the short walk from the Hilton Charlotte Center City to BB&T BallPark each day gave me the ability to really take in the sights of the city, and something that might sound so simple really boosted my overall enjoyment of my visit to Charlotte.

On my way to the ballpark, I cut through Romare Bearden Park — a five-acre park directly across the street from BB&T. It’s a beautiful space with lots of places to sit, as well as an awesome view of the city’s skyline, and the expansive lawn would make a perfect spot to play catch before heading to the ballgame. Here’s part of the park’s lawn with the ballpark situated just a handful of steps away:

I entered the ballpark about two hours before first pitch, which would once again give me ample time to explore and take in the park’s many features before the gates opened. During my visit a day earlier, I’d been so enthralled with the view that I think I was a little distracted when it came to noting some of the park’s other features. I was determined to change that during my second visit. I began by talking a slow walk around the concourse, which was gloriously empty and looked like this at the time:

As you can see, BB&T BallPark uses an open concourse that is pretty much the norm for newer minor league parks. It’s a design feature that is absolutely integral to the fan experience, in my mind. Wherever you’re walking, you can keep an eye on the field. Even if you have to wait in line at a concession stand for several minutes, you can always see the action on the field. This is such a positive upgrade over the 1980s- and 1990s-era ballparks and their enclosed concourses that cause fans to be oblivious to the action when they’re anywhere but in their seats.

You might have also noticed the standing room spots with the attached bar-style structure along the edge of the concourse — another key design feature at BB&T. A lot of parks only have railings in this area, and while these places are fine to stand, it’s nice to have the bar to hold your food, purse, souvenirs or whatever you’re carrying. I also like that the bar and railing is several feet back from the seats in this area, because no one likes sitting with a fan standing immediately above him or her.

The next place I checked out was the bleacher area in left field. I’d spent a bit of time there a day earlier, but wanted to visit again. There’s no debating that the best seats in the house at BB&T BallPark are behind home plate and on the third base side, but another nice place to watch the game is this bleacher section. You’re nice and close to the field, of course, and when you turn to your left, you’ve got a perfect view of the Charlotte skyline. If you’re visiting with kids, this spot is also a good one because it’s only a short walk over to the kids’ play area, which is located just to the left of the batter’s eye:

From where I stood in the left field seats, I had a good view of the seating situation in right field. It’s another good attribute at BB&T BallPark. I love the small seating sections on the concourse level and the home run porch section, both of which you can see in this photo:

Home run porches are pretty common at MLB parks, but any time that an MiLB team makes a point of including one, I’m always excited to see it. The porch at BB&T is an intimate space, with just a single row of seats and some standing room immediately to the rear of the seats.

After staring at the home run porch from afar for a moment, I decided to make it my next stop. Here’s an image that shows the view of the field from the front row …

… and here’s a shot that I took after turning to my right:

Here, you can see the five rows of outfield seating, which I love. More and more new MiLB parks are making a point of having small outfield seating sections, and I think that it works well. The size of these sections means that they’re more crowded (compared to a larger section having the same number of fans dispersed throughout it) and that creates a fun energy, especially when the team is playing well.

I spent a few minutes on the home run porch, mainly just enjoying the view. I’d stand at the railing and look at the empty field in front of me, and then turn and marvel at the city skyline behind me. When I decided to continue on my journey, I descended to the main concourse and wandered over to the dugout suites. They’re located on the first base side of home plate — if you look carefully, you can see them in the second-last photo — and are comprised of stadium seating, bistro tables, lots of standing room and a pair of indoor suites:

I snapped this shot of myself …

… while I stood next to the dugout suites and watched the grounds crew get the field ready. Then, I moved around the dugout suites until I was immediately behind home plate, about 10 rows from the field. From that spot, I took this panorama of the scene in front of me:

There was no batting practice on this day, but that didn’t mean that things would stay quiet for long. After a few minutes, the visiting Durham Bulls came onto the field and some began to stretch and play catch, while a pair of pitchers took the bullpen mound and threw side sessions. I made my way through the seats in the lower bowl over to where they were throwing, and watched for several minutes:

After a while, I felt a little conspicuous watching the bullpen sessions. The gates hadn’t yet opened, so the seats were completely empty — except for me standing just a few rows from the field. No one was paying me any mind, but I soon decided to continue on my way. I took one more slow walk around the concourse and, once the gates opened, went to the berm in left field. As you can see in the photo below, the picnic area was now occupied:

The grass berm is a neat spot to hang out, and is easily one of the largest seating sections of this type that I’ve ever encountered in all my travels. The odd thing about it is that the view of the field from this area is really obstructed. While you can position yourself to peek through the picnic section and see most of the game, doing so is more than a little awkward. My assumption is that the berm is more of a place to go to hang out than it is to follow the game.

As I did a day earlier, I decided to grab dinner before first pitch. I normally wait until the game gets going, but I was hungry enough and tantalized by the BB&T BallPark menu. This time, I went to one of the hot dog stands, where I grabbed Homer’s Citrus Dog:

It consisted of an all-beef hot dog topped with beef brisket, orange soda coleslaw, grilled green onions and horseradish. Each of the individual components tasted good on its own, but that was the problem — this hot dog was so huge that it was impossible to bite everything at once. I’d nibble some of the coleslaw off the top, pick up the loose brisket pieces and eat them and then eventually take a bite of the hot dog and bun. Don’t get me wrong — everything was tasty, but the need to eat the individual components on their own made this a hot dog that wasn’t memorable for the right reasons. I’ve had a few ballpark meals like this over the years. In an effort to be as creative as possible, a team’s culinary staff comes up with an impressive concept — but one that is very difficult to eat, and that makes it fall a little short, unfortunately.

I spent the first inning and a half of the game standing on the concourse on the third base side. As I’d discovered a day earlier, this spot provides arguably a better view of the city skyline than a spot behind home plate, so I wanted to make sure to enjoy some time there before it got dark:

If you read my post about my first game at BB&T BallPark, you might remember that I’d unsuccessfully tried to flag down Knights outfield Ryan Cordell to say hello. He was the college roommate of my buddy Danny Grauer, so I wanted to surprise him by telling him this news. I once again missed him before the game so, like a day earlier, I positioned myself in the center field seats after leaving the third base side in the hopes of somehow getting his attention between innings. Again, I came up short, but I was able to snap some photos of him, at least:

Speaking of photos, here’s one that you might enjoy. It’s a shot of the picnic area and, most importantly, part of the city skyline as the sun was setting:

I don’t mean to go on and on about the skyline view at BB&T, but it’s such an impressive sight that I needs to be enthusiastically mentioned.

Since I’d been walking or standing almost exclusively since I entered the ballpark more than two hours prior, I decided to grab a seat for a bit. I scanned the park to find somewhere new, and opted for a seat down the first base line:

It didn’t offer a city skyline view, but it gave a good view of the action and put me in a position where I thought there might be a chance of snagging a foul ball. Maybe an inning after I took this spot, I noticed a fan nearby make eye contact with me and approach. It turns out that he recognized me by my shirt, and he took a seat next to me. His name was Greg, and he’s a big baseball fan. We talked about BB&T as well as some other ballparks over the course of about an inning, and then snapped this photo before he departed:

It’s always nice to meet fellow baseball fans during my trips, and an unexpected and deeply humbling thrill when someone recognizes me from social media or elsewhere online. If you notice me at any game, please make a point of coming up and saying hello.

After Greg and I parted ways, I took another lap of the concourse and spent some time in the team shop. Its air conditioning provided a reprieve from the heat, which I appreciated. In addition to a handful of reasonably priced game-used bats — which I didn’t buy only because it’d be a hassle to take on the airplane with me — I also noticed a bin of game-used balls:

This type of souvenir is a fixture at MLB parks, but I don’t often see it in the minors and am always glad when I do.

Later on, I returned to a seat near where I’d been sitting when Greg had approached me …

… and once again had hopes of snagging a foul ball. Just a few batters after I sat down, a player hit a curving foul that ricocheted off a seat about 10 seats to my left, but bounced completely away from me before I could grab it. Lack of a foul ball aside, I really enjoyed this spot and remained there until the end of the game. Then, less than 10 minutes later, I was back in my hotel room and already anticipating my next day in Charlotte.

Charlotte Knights – August 27, 2018

The alarm on my iPod rang at precisely 3:30 a.m. on August 27, signifying the start of a day that would take me from Ottawa, Canada, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to kick off a six-day baseball trip. I’d traveled to Ottawa the afternoon before and booked a hotel next to Ottawa International Airport to make the start of my first day of travel a little easier. Normally, I have to get up mega early to travel to the airport for early morning flights, so waking up at 3:30 a.m. actually represented a chance to sleep in a little. I caught the shuttle to the airport outside of my hotel about 30 minutes after my alarm went off, and cleared customs to begin waiting for my first flight of the day just a short while later.

The first leg of my trip was a 6:05 a.m. flight to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, which is an airport that I first visited back in 2015 when I spent more than seven hours there after missing a flight to Texas. Killing seven-plus hours in any airport is a drag, but I actually enjoyed the time that I spent at the Detroit airport enough that I always transfer through there when there’s a chance. Since I’d had an early start to the day, I was ravenous when I got off the plane in the Motor City at 7:44 a.m., and made a beeline to a Chick-Fil-A where I grabbed a chicken biscuit with two hot sauces and a lemonade for breakfast. My layover was a little more than two hours (much better than seven, right?) so after eating, I went to find a quiet gate and grabbed a seat to wait for my flight to Charlotte:

Boarding that flight proved to be a bit of an adventure. I was in the final boarding group and had a terrible seat in the back row of the airplane. When I finally boarded and got all the way to my spot, it was clear that all of the overhead bins were full, meaning that there wasn’t any room for my carry-on bag. This meant that I had to fight my way back up to the front of the plane through an aisle that was filled with people, and embarrassingly ask for my bag to be gate checked.

“Didn’t fit, huh?” asked the Delta gate attendant who’d earlier commented on my Tabasco T-shirt and told me I was “hot stuff.”

“Nope,” I replied, “and I got all the way to the back of the plane before I realized there wasn’t any room. Not my lucky day, I guess.”

She responded with a sympathetic smile and told me that she’d give me some good news. I watched as she tapped her keyboard a few times, printed a new boarding pass and handed it to me with a wink. When I got back onto the plane and headed for my new seat assignment, I quickly realized that she’d moved me into a seat that had an empty seat beside it — the only one on the plane, other than the one next to my recently vacated back row seat. Things were looking up.

My flight touched down in Charlotte just before noon, and I made my way to the bus station outside of the airport. I often rent cars when I travel, but a little research led me to learn that public transit would be smarter for this visit. There’s a bus route between the airport and the Charlotte Transportation Center, which is only a couple of blocks from the hotel I’d booked, so forgetting about a rental car seemed to make the most sense.

The hotel that I’d booked for this stay, the Hilton Charlotte Center City, proved to be a perfect hotel for the baseball traveler. In addition to being so close to the city’s major transportation hub, it was also within walking distance of BB&T BallPark — as well as a number of other cool tourist attractions that I’d visit over the course of my stay. I was thankfully able to check into my room well in advance of the regular check-in time, and when I got to my room and looked out the window, I could actually see the transportation center. It’s the turquoise-roofed structure:

After checking into my room, I walked just a few minutes to a Panera Bread to buy a salad for lunch. Veggies aren’t in huge supply on my baseball trips, so I figured I’d get a few greens into me while I had the chance. I took the salad back to my room, ate it and relaxed for a couple of hours, and was soon back outside and headed toward the ballpark. Less than half a mile separates the hotel and the ballpark, so it was a short walk but one that gave me an opportunity to see a few sights around the downtown area.

BB&T BallPark opened in 2014 and has frequently made headlines for not only the exceptional city view that it offers fans, but also its overall beauty — and I couldn’t wait to check it out. I arrived a couple of hours before the gates opened, and before I went in, I took a few shots from the exterior. This is the main gate, and I think you’ll agree that it looks pretty awesome:

I took a partial walk around the ballpark, noting the banners that recognize past Knights stars …

… before entering and going up to the press box, where I met with Tommy Viola, the team’s V.P. of communications. He gave me a quick overview of the park before getting back to his pregame duties, and that left me free to begin wandering around. As I mentioned earlier, the crown jewel of BB&T BallPark is its view. I have to admit that when I launched the Best View in the Minors competition last season, I was pretty sure that this ballpark would win. It didn’t, but there’s no knocking the fabulous view that Knights fans get to enjoy all summer. All that said, I wanted to get out to the seating bowl right away to take in the view, so that’s what I did:

It’s funny, because as impressive as the view looks in this photo, it’s far better in person. Standing behind home plate and looking out at the city skyline — much of it new and resplendent — almost seemed to take my breath away. That might sound like a dramatic reaction, but I can tell you that it was a truly dramatic scene.

There was a big part of me that was eager to begin checking out the ballpark from top to bottom, but another part of me wanted to just stand there and take in that view. And with three days in Charlotte, I knew that I’d have plenty of time to explore BB&T BallPark, so I hung out behind home plate for about 10 quiet minutes, just enjoying what I was seeing.

Soon enough, the allure of taking a lap around the concourse was too strong to ignore, so I set out toward the left field foul pole to begin a full lap. I was pleased to see how the concourse wrapped around the entire park. It’s something that is more and more common with newer parks these days and, in my mind, it’s integral to a 10/10 ballpark experience. While I was on the outfield concourse, I snapped this photo of Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, poking over the upper edge of the ballpark:

I love when different sporting venues are close together, and these two venues are just a block apart. (I’m not much of a football fan, but I took an outstanding stadium tour later during my stay, so look for a blog post about that sometime in the future.)

Before I left the center field area, I went down to the front row of the outfield seats to take this photo:

A lot of MiLB parks have traditional aluminum bleachers in the outfield, but I like what the Knights have done here. These aren’t typical stadium box seats, of course, but they’re a nice upgrade over bleachers, don’t you think?

I stopped walking for a moment again when I got all the way over to the right field foul pole, turning back toward center field to take the following photo:

And here’s a shot of the still-quiet home plate area shortly before batting practice began:

When BP got underway, I went down to the front row behind home plate to snap this photo:

Then, I went up to the concourse on the third base side, which gave me this view of the city’s skyline:

If you’re visiting BB&T BallPark next season and are trying to decide where to buy tickets, I definitely recommend sitting on the third base side. The view from behind home plate is outstanding, but even more buildings are visible when you’re on the third base side. Tickets anywhere in this area give you one of the best views in all of baseball — and that includes the big leagues — as far as I’m concerned.

Speaking of being concerned, see that gray cloud in the image above? It soon moved over the ballpark and started to sprinkle, so the grounds crew hustled to tarp the field. I moved up to the edge of the concourse to get some shelter, and stood there until the rain passed. You’ve got to admit that even with a tarp covering the infield, the view was pretty darned good:

I’m happy to report that the rain cleared just as quickly as it had arrived, so it wasn’t long before the tarp was gone, the sky was blue and the gates were open. I took another walk through the park about 15 minutes after the gates opened and noticed a pair of baseballs in the seats down the third base line. One was an MLB ball in decent shape, and the other was an International League ball that had definitely seen better days:

Soon afterward, I decided that it was time to grab some dinner. The airport breakfast and the Panera Bread salad were the only things that I’d eaten all day, and I’d scouted out the BB&T BallPark concession lists online before my visit and knew there were lots of tantalizing choices. I started with order of Philly cheesesteak nachos, which were a new menu item at the start of the season:

For $8.50, I was hugely impressed with the amount of steak piled up on the chips. The volume of steak isn’t necessarily apparent in the photo above, but I can assure you that there was a lot of meat. And the cheese was a cut above what I’d expected, too. It was more like proper cheesesteak cheese than nacho cheese, which helped make this meal a winner and one of the better things I ate all season.

After eating — and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t able to finish the nachos — I wandered over to the grass berm behind the Piedmont Natural Gas Picnic Area in left field. From there, I snapped this panorama:

This is an interesting feature at BB&T BallPark. It’s fairly far back from the field, and the view from this area is partially obstructed, but it’s a cool place to hang out. It was pretty quiet when I took the above photo, but the crowds picked up throughout the evening. It was a Bark in the Park night, so there were tons of dogs with their owners, as well as people on blankets and kids rolling down the hill.

By the time I’d finished wandering around the berm for a bit, the game was about to begin. I took another lap of the concourse so that I could stand behind home plate for the national anthem, and then snapped this shot during the first at-bat of the game:

I’d snapped the following photo of the left field bleachers just before the anthem, and noticed that they were still this sparsely populated midway through the first inning:

I thought I might stand a reasonable chance of snagging a home run baseball if one came my way, so I hurried out and grabbed a front row seat for an inning. No home run balls were hit, so I moved toward center field a bit to give myself a good view of Knights outfielder Ryan Cordell. Before the game, my buddy Danny Grauer (you might remember me meeting him at an Ottawa Champions game a couple of seasons ago and taking in a Norfolk Tides game with him earlier in 2018) had sent me a message to let me know that he and Cordell were college roommates at Liberty University. I’d hoped to catch Cordell during BP to say hello, but wasn’t able to do so. So, the best I could do was watch from afar and hope that he’d maybe come over to the warning track while playing catch between innings, thus giving me the chance to yell down to him.

That didn’t happen, unfortunately, so after an inning or so in that spot, I was on the move again. I caught a little bit of the action from the third base concourse where I had this gorgeous view …

… and then watched a fun between-innings promotion on the video board from across the field. As part of the Bark in the Park festivities that were going on, staffers speared blobs of peanut butter on opposite sides of a large piece of glass, and then a pair of dogs raced to lick it off:

Midway through the game, I grabbed a large unsweet tea from the McAlister’s Deli concession stand, which really hit the spot on a hot evening:

Then, in the bottom of the sixth inning, I grabbed a seat on the third base side of home plate where I could watch the rest of the action with this outstanding view:

As always, the first day of my trip was a long one, but one that offered plenty of excitement. And a lot of that excitement was knowing that I’d be back at BB&T BallPark twice more before leaving town.

Rochester Red Wings – July 18, 2018

If someone were to ask me where he or she could enjoy the best scenery in Rochester, I’d likely respond by saying to visit Frontier Field.

Then again, I’m a bit of a baseball nerd.

Another answer might be to take a stroll across the bridge that spans the Genessee River and High Falls — which, conveniently, is within walking distance of the ballpark. It was also within walking distance of where I was staying, the Holiday Inn Rochester Downtown, so I set out for a short walk early in the afternoon to check out the falls. This is a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Rochester, and it’s a spot that I’ve visited the last couple of times I’ve been in town.

High Falls itself is 96 feet tall, and the Pont De Rennes bridge, which stretches nearly 900 feet from one side of the Genessee River to the other, serves as a perfect viewing point for locals and visitors alike who are eager to enjoy this natural spectacle. Check out how beautiful this spot is:

I walked all the way across the bridge and stood for a couple of minutes here and there at different points along the railing, thoroughly enjoying the view around me.

After a bit, I began the short walk back to my hotel. As I walked, I got an idea — I could see Frontier Field in the distance, and there was a multilevel parking garage directly on my route. I figured that if I went up to the top of the garage, I’d be able to see and photograph the ballpark from a unique vantage point. I ran up the several flights of stairs and made it to the roof, approaching the railing to check the view. Capturing the following photo involved leaning out over the edge a little, and while I’d have liked to have reached out even farther, doing so was a little scary. Anyway, here’s how Frontier Field looked from an angle at which I’d never seen it before:

After happily backing away from the edge, I descended back to the sidewalk and returned to my hotel, where I hung out for a couple of hours and then headed out to Frontier Field for the third and final time on this road trip.

There hadn’t been any batting practice during either of my first two visits to Frontier Field. Rain on the Monday had canceled it, and the players weren’t going to hit before Tuesday’s 11 a.m. start. I was hopeful that I’d see the cage on the field once I cut through the concourse and went out to the cross-aisle, so this scene was music to my ears:

I couldn’t resist grabbing a seat and watching a few minutes of BP. Exploring the stadium could wait for a bit, as there’s nothing quite like sitting and watching the players take batting practice. I watched maybe 15 minutes or so from a seat with this view …

… and then took a walk down to the tented picnic area to watch a little more:

My decision to watch from the picnic area was strategic — the sun was very bright, and unless I was paying full attention at all times, it’d be difficult to pick up every ball. Being under a covered area gave me protection, as well as the opportunity to enjoy BP from a new angle.

I watched the action for several minutes from that spot, and then followed the cross-aisle back around home plate, walked down the first base side, and cut through the outfield until I was in this area:

This is an exclusive “best seats in the house” area that not only features the upscale chairs that you see, but also has a couch that was behind me when I took this photo. I think that it’s one of the cooler places to a snag a home run ball that I’ve come across in all my travels.

My next stop was a seat on the third base side of home, where I snapped this photo:

See the Minnesota Twins cap I’m wearing? I’d bought it a day earlier in the Frontier Field team shop for just $15. Other than the favorable price, I bought it not only because it tied in with my awesome Rochester visit (the Red Wings are the Triple-A affiliate of the Twins) but also because I had three outstanding days visiting the Twins last fall.

I stayed in that seat until BP wrapped up and the gates opened, and then immediately went to grab something to eat. It was $1 Dog Day, and while hot dogs aren’t normally my first choice as ballpark fare — especially when I’m visiting somewhere with such wonderfully varied food options as Frontier Field — I couldn’t resist the good deal:

Other fans were obviously feeling the same way, because there was a steady stream of people hitting the concession stands immediately upon arriving. After I ate, I decided to wander around a little more, and set out along the first base side to go check out the home bullpen. When I got to the grassy area near the bullpen, I baseball caught my eye. It’d obviously been hit during BP, but obviously missed by the ushers when they’d walked around picking up balls before the gates opened. Since the gates were indeed open and other fans were in the area, the ball was fair game — and I was glad to find my first ball of this visit to Rochester:

As first pitch approached, I decided to grab some more food. This might seem like an insane decision, given that I’d just eaten two large hot dogs but, hey, do it for the story, as I always say. Knowing that this would be my last Frontier Field meal of this visit, I knew I had to make a good choice — and was feeling the pressure of knowing there were tons of good things that I’d yet to eat. I couldn’t resist a visit to the Say Cheese concession stand, which is also home to one of my favorite ballpark meals ever — the buffalo chicken mac and cheese. I’ve had it twice, so I wanted to change things up a little. There are several different mac and cheese configurations, and I went with one that sounded straightforward but delicious:

You’re looking at an order of Three Cheese mac, which had cheddar, ricotta and mozzarella. As expected, it was mighty cheesy, and while I didn’t like it was much as the buffalo chicken variation, it was still a good dish.

I’d taken my mac and cheese down to the grass berm in the right field corner, and this is where I was when the game began. I watched the first inning from this spot, and then went to a spot behind home plate for the second inning:

After that, it was time to meet up against with my buddy Mark Firkins. If you read my post about visiting Batavia’s Dwyer Stadium, you might remember his name. If not, he’s a Rochester-area baseball fan I met randomly back in 2015 when we were both selected to watch a Cleveland Indians game from the #TribeLive suite at Progressive Field. We’ve kept in touch on Twitter ever since, and Mark made plans, along with his son Travis, to visit Dwyer Stadium at the same time as me. We had such a good time together that the idea of hanging out for another game was appealing, so we decided to meet up at Frontier Field on this night, too. Here’s a picture of Mark and me:

I spent the rest of the game following the pattern of enjoying an inning or so with Mark and Travis, and then heading off to wander around to explore Frontier Field a little more. As the game went on, I enjoyed half an inning in the picnic area that I’d previously visited during BP:

And, in the seventh and eighth innings, went back up to sit with Mark and Travis, where we had this view:

I parted ways with them after the eighth, and spent the ninth doing what I enjoy best — walking around, taking in the atmosphere and enjoying several different vantage points.

It’s always sad to leave a ballpark at the end of a road trip, but my three days spent in Rochester during this visit were so jam packed with good times that this was a visit that I won’t soon forget.

I’m already looking forward to my next visit, whenever that might be.

A big thank you to the good people at Visit Rochester for their assistance with my visit to Rochester. If you’re planning to see Frontier Field for a baseball road trip, be sure to check out Visit Rochester’s website for all the planning information you need.

Rochester Red Wings – July 16, 2018

Every baseball road tripper has a list of ballparks that he or she visits once and can’t wait to visit again. Even though the overall goal might be to get to as many different parks as possible, there’s always an appeal to get back to a park on your shortlist.

For me, Rochester’s Frontier Field is definitely on that list.

There are several things that make this International League facility in Western New York enticing to me. It’s the first ballpark I visited in 2010 when I decided to start The Ballpark Guide, so the park holds a strong nostalgic connection for me. There’s also the fact that the food selection and quality, the ballpark’s design and atmosphere, the view from home plate and the consistent friendliness of the Red Wings staff are top of the line.

All of these traits mean that you don’t have to twist my arm to get me to travel to Rochester, so when I had a chance to visit for three days last month, I jumped at it. It’s hard to believe that, prior to this visit, I hadn’t been at Frontier Field since 2014. Given that lengthy stretch, a 2018 visit was a must.

Rochester is only about 4.5 hours from home, but I left early on July 16 with the plan to get to the city by around noon. Even though my focus on this trip was baseball, as always, I wanted to do a bit of sightseeing when I was able. Getting to town early gave me a couple of hours to visit Towers Field, home of the University of Rochester baseball team, the site of the old Silver Stadium, where the Red Wings played before Frontier Field was built and, finally, Mount Hope Cemetery, an enormous cemetery that is the final resting spot for a number of historic figures, including Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. If you’re looking for other things to do during your next visit to Rochester, whether it’s museums, historic attractions or more, make sure that you browse Visit Rochester’s website for a comprehensive list of suggestions that will fill your itinerary.

After I saw the sights that I wanted to see, I checked into my hotel, the Holiday Inn Rochester Downtown. It’s not a place at which I’d previously stayed during any of my visits to Rochester, but its amenities and location — less than half a mile from Frontier Field — made it a perfect choice and one that I’d happily choose again.

After a bit of time exploring my hotel, I headed over to Frontier Field about three hours before first pitch. My plan was to enjoy the park for an hour on my own, and then meet up with three members of the Red Wings food & beverage staff for a very exciting food-focused tour. The weather was perfect when I left my hotel, started to drizzle while I was in the administrative office to pick up my media credential and was a complete downpour by the time I got to the concourse.

Argh.

Frontier Field’s concourse is enclosed beneath the seating bowl, which was the standard for minor league parks in 1996 when it opened. I’m not normally keen on this type of design, but was appreciating it during this visit. It rained so hard for the next 45 minutes that I didn’t dare venture out to the cross-aisle, so the concourse kept me mostly dry. When I’d get brave enough, I’d go to the end of the concourse along the third base side, where I’d peek out and see that the weather was still miserable:

The sky wasn’t completely dark, though. You might’ve noticed a small patch of brightness beyond the buildings in straightaway center, so I had hope that the weather picture would change as the afternoon turned to evening. The weather quickly became an afterthought for me as I met up with director of catering and events Courtney Trawitz, GM of food & beverage Jeff Dodge and concessions manager Jeff DeSantis for a culinary adventure that I won’t soon forget.

I’ve often raved about the food at Frontier Field, and these three people are instrumental in making it happen. They’re behind not only my go-to concession fare during each visit, but also the noteworthy new items that often turn heads on social media — and we were going to dive into the latter right away.

Courtney and the two Jeffs led me to a concession stand on the third base side, and Jeff DeSantis asked a food services employee to build me a trash can and a garbage plate. If you’re from Western New York, you’ll certainly know the term “garbage plate,” but if you’re reading this from elsewhere in the country, you might be raising an eyebrow. The garbage plate is Rochester’s specialty dish, and many restaurants around the city serve it. The dish originates from a Rochester restaurant called Nick Tahou Hots, and the traditional garbage plate consists of home fries, baked beans and macaroni salad, along with your choice of hamburger patties or hot dogs, and topped with onions and hot sauce. The noteworthy feature that gives this dish its name is that all of this food is piled in a heap on a plate. Anyway, the Red Wings have been selling garbage plates for years, and recently introduced the “trash can” — essentially, a garbage plate in an easy-to-carry format.

A few minutes after Jeff DeSantis placed the order, I was handed a trash can and a garbage plate with two cheeseburgers, and we moved over to a bar area in the concourse so that I could begin eating. First, though, I had to document this culinary decadence with some photos. Here’s the trash can in its ultra-cool collectible can which, as you might notice, even has dents:

The food itself cleverly sits in a beer cup that slides inside the can, so when you’re done eating, you can chuck the beer cup and your can will be clean to take home. Here’s what the food looks like with the outer can removed:

As you might be able to tell, the trash can’s ingredients are layered. From the bottom up, you’re looking at home fries, macaroni salad, more home fries, hot sauce, chili and onions. Courtney snapped my photo, in which I’m clearly sporting the sunburn that I picked up a day earlier in Batavia

… and then I dug in, wondering how I’d fare against what was easily a couple pounds of food in front of me. (By the way — like my shirt? You can buy one here.)

I have to say that the trash can was really tasty. I had no idea what to expect, but these ingredients worked well together. The crispy outer layer of the home fries was a nice contrast to the soft texture of the macaroni salad, and the chili had a combination of spices that made it a winner. The hot sauce thankfully didn’t blow smoke out my ears and the raw onions weren’t too harsh, so they both complemented the dish (can?) well. I was happy to tell my new friends that I was loving the trash can, and actually found it a little difficult to put down — despite knowing that I had a lot more eating to do.

About two-thirds of the way through it, I tapped out — only for Jeff DeSantis to slide the garbage plate in front of me with a smile. It consisted of all of the ingredients that went into the trash can, plus a pair of one-third pound hamburgers (with cheese, of course):

I think I might’ve liked the plate even more than the can, thanks to the addition of the two cheeseburgers. I find that ballpark burgers can be hit or miss, but those at Frontier Field, not surprisingly, were excellent. While I ate, Courtney, the two Jeffs and I chatted about not only the food at Frontier Field, but ballpark food in general, and I even got a chance to tell them a bit about some of the noteworthy things I’ve eaten on my adventures.

About halfway into the garbage plate, I once again called it quits, and my group led me along the concourse not for the marathon session on an elliptical machine that I needed, but to — you guessed it — eat some more. We stopped at the Nacho Everyday Nacho concession stand so that I could try an order of loaded nachos. For the record, I’m not normally a fan of ballpark nachos. I love homemade and restaurant nachos, but I find that topping some chips with that horrendous orange goo cheese and calling the dish ballpark nachos is a colossal letdown. As soon as the food services team began to build my nachos, however, I could tell that these would be no ordinary ballpark nachos. The chips were topped with beef and chicken, rice, black beans, shredded lettuce, salsa, shredded cheddar cheese, jalapenos, salsa verde and sour cream, and looked like this:

As you might suspect from the image above, it was delicious. A complete departure from conventional ballpark nachos, and even a source of some veggies at the ballpark — something that, um, doesn’t always happen for me.

My ability to move was limited after eating about half of the nachos, but I somehow followed Jeff Dodge and Courtney for a behind-the-scenes look at the Frontier Field kitchen. Jeff DeSantis understandably had to get back to his pregame duties after spending more than an hour with me — thanks, Jeff! I didn’t take much in the way of photos in the kitchen, partly because it was extremely crowded and I didn’t want to interfere with the staff members doing their job. I was hugely impressed with the organization and execution that went on wherever I turned, as well as the sheer volume of some things. As I watched a cook stir an enormous vat of chili, Jeff told me that the vat holds about 35 gallons!

I can’t say how much I appreciate the food experience that the Red Wings provided me, and really want to send my thanks to Courtney, Jeff and Jeff for not only being so generous with their time and expertise, but also so much fun to hang out with. Remember how I said earlier that one of the reasons I love returning to Rochester is the friendliness of the staff? I can definitely add this experience to that list.

The gates had opened by the time my food experience and tour wrapped up, and the rain had also quit. I was eager to get out to the seating bowl for the first time to view the field and begin to explore, so that’s what I did immediately upon saying goodbye to Courtney, Jeff and Jeff. Instead of going straight down to field level, I climbed up to the top row of the section behind home plate and snapped this panorama:

Then, I stood in that spot for a few minutes and enjoyed the view. Frontier Field provides one of my favorite views from home plate in all of baseball, and while it didn’t make my recent top-five list, I had to think long and hard to keep it off. I love the city’s skyline beyond right-center, and the Kodak building that towers beyond the left field corner is majestic. I also love the memories that quickly come back to me as I look at the image above:

  • I can recall standing around the bullpen in right field to watch a number of MLB hall of famers get warmed up during the Pepsi Max Field of Dreams game in 2013
  • I can remember exactly where I was sitting — in one of the covered sections down the right field line — when I took my first ballpark food photo way back in 2010
  • I can picture exactly where I was standing when I talked to MLBer Radhames Liz, took photos of him and even handed him my camera so that he could view the shots in 2014

And so, so many more memories.

Like I said, Frontier Field is a special place for me.

After my trip down memory lane, I took a lap around the concourse and ended up down the first base line, which is the spot in the park that provides the best view of the city’s iconic Kodak building:

I then continued over the small bridge that connects the concourse to the area behind the outfield fence, and settled into a standing-room spot beside the Rochester bullpen. I watched the starting pitcher go through his warmup and ended up spending the first inning in this spot.

This would normally be a time that I’d head off in search of a meal to eat, but in spite of all of the good food options surrounding me, I was absolutely stuffed. I was, however, craving something sweet and, while I don’t normally buy desserts at the ballpark, I decided that I needed something. I didn’t want anything that was insanely heavy, so I grabbed a root beer float. It was made with soft serve ice cream and it really hit the spot:

Once I’d slurped my dessert down, I snapped this panorama from where I sat …

… and then went back to the cross-aisle and walked all the way around to the left field foul pole. Yeah, I’d eaten a lot before the game started, but I was certainly getting my exercise now. There’s a large grass berm in this area, but it was a little wet from the rain earlier on, so it wasn’t as populated as it would’ve normally been. That meant that this area was pretty quiet as I grabbed a spot against the rail and watched an inning with this vantage point:

My next stop was the bridge that I mentioned earlier. It’s always one of my favorite places at Frontier Field to hang out. Not only does it provide a good view of the field, but you can also look into the home bullpen nearby. Here was my view from that spot:

Between innings, I took a walk through the outfield and behind a couple of group seating areas. The concourse doesn’t wrap all the way around the field, so I couldn’t continue — but here’s how the area immediately behind center field appears:

I then returned to the bridge to watch more of the action, and noticed this funny sign painted on the wall below me — helpful for those who might otherwise be confused, I’m guessing?

See the flag on the inside of the gate? It reads “Thursdays are for the Plates,” which pays tribute to the garbage plate. On Thursday home games throughout the seasons, the Red Wings have been donning special Rochester Plates uniforms. See? The garbage plate really is that big in Rochester!

Later in the game, I went outside to the plaza in front of the main gates to snap this panorama:

I love the look of the ticket office at night, don’t you? To me, it looks like a ticket office at a historic movie theater.

Then, I went back inside, took another lap of the concourse — stopping here and there to enjoy the action — and then settled into a seat behind home plate to watch the remainder of the game:

This spot also gave me an opportunity to exit quickly so that I could get out of the parking lot with ease and be back in my hotel room just a handful of minutes after the final out.

As always, it was an awesome day at Frontier Field — and a perfect way to start my three day-visit to Rochester. A day later, the Red Wings were playing a matinee game, so I’d be back at the ballpark in time for breakfast.

Batavia Muckdogs – July 15, 2018

Despite being only 4.5 hours from my front door, Dwyer Stadium, home of the Batavia Muckdogs, isn’t a place that I’d previously managed to visit since I launched The Ballpark Guide in 2010. And while I’d visited Rochester’s Frontier Field — just 45 minutes from Batavia — five separate times and zipped along I-90 past Batavia more times than I can count, this New York-Penn League team had never made it onto my road trip schedule.

Half of the issue has been scheduling. Often, when I’d plan to be near Batavia or would be driving past it, the Muckdogs weren’t at home. The other half of the issue was the fact that the team has essentially been on life support for the last several years. If you follow the NYPL, you’ll be no stranger to the talk about the Muckdogs leaving town. Many recent seasons have seemed like they’d be the team’s last, but the ‘Dogs continue to survive their standing eight-count and hang on.

Given the team’s relatively close proximity to where I live, as well as knowing that I’d regret not seeing the Muckdogs if they ended up departing, I knew that 2018 had to be the season that I finally visited Dwyer Stadium — and I’m happy that I made it happen.

I don’t normally schedule afternoon games on the first day of road trips, but this was the plan to start the trip that I’m currently on:

  • Wake up at 4 a.m.
  • Leave the house at 5 a.m.
  • Arrive in Batavia at 10 a.m.
  • See the Muckdogs host the Lowell Spinners at 1 p.m.

I completed the first two items on that list with no problem, and after several hours of driving, found myself pulling into the quiet parking lot at Dwyer Stadium just a few minutes after 10 a.m. — hopefully earning a Guinness record for “Earliest Arrival to a New York-Penn League Game.”

Dwyer Stadium opened in 1996, replacing the team’s former ballpark that was built on the same site in 1939. It’s nestled into a residential community, greatly reminiscent of Falcon Park in Auburn. Nearby residents can easily hear the ballpark PA announcer’s words and foul balls can make their way out of the park and onto neighborhood lawns. There’s a Little League facility beyond the left field fence and when there’s a lull in the action at Dwyer Stadium, fans can easily hear the kids’ game taking place just out of sight.

These are things that give Dwyer Stadium an appealing quality, and one that is increasingly rare as ballparks get bigger and fancier. It’s also the type of thing that makes me hope that the Muckdogs are able to stay in Batavia for many more years.

Since the parking lot was almost empty when I arrived, I had my pick of the spots — and chose one far enough away that my vehicle would be safe from foul balls. Before I got out of the car, I watched a coach bus pull up and knew that it carried the Spinners, which made me a combination of amused/proud/embarrassed to know that I’d beaten the visiting team to the ballpark yet again. I watched the Spinners climb out of the bus and walk into the visitors clubhouse, which is situated in the right field corner, and then I, too, left my vehicle to begin walking around the park.

The following image shows how Dwyer Stadium appears from the parking lot:

The pointed structure on the left houses the team’s offices and concession stand, while you can also see the sloped grandstands above the green walls and the covered grandstand behind home plate.

I walked around to the front of the ballpark and snapped this panorama:

To take it, I had to stand in the middle of the road — not something that you can do around most parks, but the quiet neighborhood around Dwyer Stadium made it easy.

The residential location of Dwyer Stadium isn’t the only thing that makes it reminiscent of Auburn’s Falcon Park. Although the latter opened a season earlier, the two ballparks are virtually identical, and it was fun to see so many familiar sights as I walked around.

I made my way down the sidewalk outside of the stadium and turned to walk behind the outfield fence. From there, I could see the batting cages and although I couldn’t hear anyone hitting, a Muckdogs cap and baseball bat were a sure sign that a member of the home team was about to start:

The space beyond the outfield fence has a unique combination of things to see. The impressiveness of the neatly manicured Little League park provides a contrast to rundown and vandalized structures such as this one:

This is how the backside of the outfield fence looks from where I stood behind the mound of a small children’s baseball diamond:

After making a complete lap around the facility, I figured that I’d pick up my media pass and go inside, but then I heard the Muckdogs taking batting practice. Doing so before a 1 p.m. game is rare, so I quickly ran back behind the outfield fence in the hopes of snagging a home run ball. Luck wasn’t in my favor — the fence is taller than most, and given that players at this level are still developing (and often using wooden bats for the first time) it’s definitely not a home run league. After a few minutes of not seeing a single ball leave the yard, I decided to head inside.

Here’s a look at the space immediately inside the main gates, which includes a beer concession stand, a bunch of picnic tables and some open space:

And this is the view that fans get upon entering and turning to the left:

The main concession stand is just out of the frame to the left, and the structure that you see is the backside of the team’s offices. The grandstand, of course, is on the right, and the gray wall in the middle of it is the back of the press box.

When I visit ballparks like Dwyer Stadium, I often think about what the experience might be for players. The Muckdogs are affiliated with the Marlins, and I can’t help but suspect that the gap between Batavia and Miami feels bigger than the 1,450 miles it actually is. The big leagues have to feel like a long shot when you’re in Batavia, but your motivation is never too far away. Behind the grandstand, there’s a huge wall display that recognizes the big leaguers who began their pro careers in Batavia. It’s an impressive list, too, with names such as Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Marlon Byrd, JA Happ, Carlos Carrasco, Lance Lynn, Matt Carpenter and many more.

After reading the alumni display and browsing some historical plaques mounted in the same area, I walked from the main plaza area down the third base concourse, which looks like this:

Down the third base line, there’s a large tent for groups, and I enjoyed a couple minutes of reprieve from the sun while watching BP:

One interesting thing that I noticed in this spot is that the Muckdogs were using a pitching machine for batting practice. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that in all of the ballparks I’ve visited.

My next stop was the cross-aisle behind home plate, which looks like this:

This area is essentially the heart of Dwyer Stadium, perhaps thanks in part to the shelter from the sun that fans can enjoy here. After enjoying a few minutes of shade, I then stood directly behind home plate and watched some BP with this view:

Next, I continued my self-guided tour of Dwyer Stadium by walking along the cross-aisle down the first base line to a party deck at the end of the seating bowl:

The party deck has a small number of seats and a bar, and I later noticed that it was packed from first pitch through the ninth inning.

The next place I visited was the front row on the third base side, where I checked out the seating situation in detail. I love the cozy vibe that small ballparks like Dwyer Stadium provide fans. If you take a look at the following photo …

… you’ll notice that there are only five rows of seats below the cross-aisle. I especially love how the front row allows you to look right into the dugout, which is one of the ways that fans can get outstanding access to players at this level. You may have also noticed that Dwyer Stadium doesn’t yet have its dugout netting up, which I was happy to see.

As the gates opened and fans began to trickle into the park, I took a walk down the first base side toward the visitors clubhouse. Just before you reach the clubhouse, there’s an open area that I figured would be a good spot to stand in the hopes of snagging a foul ball:

And speaking of balls, you can’t really see it in the above photo, but there was a BP ball stuck between the rolled-up tarp and the fence. I noticed it as I got closer and grabbed it:

As I walked back toward the seating bowl, I saw a man leaning over the fence in front of the visitors dugout. I figured he was a reporter waiting for a player, but then saw that he appeared to be conversing with whoever was in the dugout. Curious, I walked over to the far side of the park so that I could see who he was talking to, and saw that it was a large contingent of Spinners. I quickly realized that he was a minister who was holding a church service for the players, given that it was a Sunday:

A while later, both teams came out to get warmed up, and in a true “you know you’re at a minor league game” moment, I watched two members of the home side playing catch with a pair of fans who were standing on the grass next to the picnic area down the third base line. It wasn’t just a couple of tosses, either — they were consistently playing catch for several minutes.

As I watched, I saw my buddy Mark Firkins waving at me from halfway across the ballpark. He’s someone I met when I was in the Cleveland Indians #TribeLive suite three season ago, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. He lives close to Batavia, so he and his son Travis made plans to be at this game. It was great to get caught up with him. He’s an Indians fan who attends a lot of games in Cleveland each season, which is a heck of a feat, given that it’s about a four-hour drive each way.

Mark and Travis joined me up in the shade to the left side of home plate, where we had this view as the game began:

Although the shade in this area was a welcome relief, we soon decided that we wanted to get closer to the action. Mark suggested going down to the front row behind the visitors dugout, and that was a perfect idea for me — the rare absence of netting meant that I was excited to snap some action photos over the next few innings. Before we settled into our new seats, Travis snapped this shot of Mark and me:

We also decided to grab some food. I’d spent some time perusing the Dwyer Stadium concessions before the gates opened, and there wasn’t anything overly noteworthy on the menu. Don’t get me wrong — this ballpark has all of the standard fare that you might want, but nothing out of the ordinary. I figured that when all else fails, you can’t go wrong with a hot dog, and I was surprised at the size of the one I was given:

Mark quickly explained that this is a Zweigle’s hot dog, which is thicker and shorter than a standard hot dog. Zweigle’s is based in Rochester and dates back to 1880. (The company is known for its white hots, which I ate in Rochester several years ago.)

As soon as I finished eating, I began to shoot some action shots. Here’s Spinners outfielder Dylan Hardy fouling a ball off:

And here’s Spinners first baseman Devlin Granberg striding to touch the bag after fielding a ground ball:

After a couple of innings, I took a wander around the park to see more of the sights. Check out how empty the field-level seats were at this point:

As I noted earlier, it was very hot and sunny, so the bulk of the fans were seated in the shade behind home plate or up on the bleachers with umbrellas.

Next, I went back to the grassy area adjacent to the visitors clubhouse. Shortly after I was there last, the grounds crew had wheeled the batting cage into this spot:

At most of the parks I’ve been to, even those in the lower levels of the minors, the batting cage is kept in a spot away from the fans. I couldn’t resist thoroughly checking it out and, of course, standing in it for a few minutes.

My next stop was the top row of the bleachers on the first base side, which gave me this awesome view of the field:

In a sense, it’s too bad that I’d decided to attend an afternoon game instead of an evening one. Mark told me that the sunset views from this spot in the stadium are outstanding, and that would’ve been nice to see.

I spent about an inning wandering, and then rejoined Mark and Travis and continued to snap some action shots. Here’s Granberg after his next at-bat — I wish I could say that I’d captured a post-home run bat flip, but alas this was only a post-walk bat flip:

One of the many things that I enjoy the most about watching games in the lower levels of the minors is the things that you pick up that you might not notice at larger ballparks. From where we sat, we could easily hear home plate umpire Dylan Bradley and one of the Spinners coaches going back and forth about, of all things, some batting gloves that a player had in his back pocket. Bradley ended the exchange by yelling, “Enough, enough!” at the Lowell dugout, but we had the feeling that things weren’t over yet. True enough, an inning or two later, first base umpire Thomas Fornarola ejected Spinners hitting coach Nate Spears, and we could hear the entire exchange. Spears, who apparently thought that the ejection was iffy, challenged Fornarola: “I’d like to see how you write this one up.” The umpire had a quick response — “Easy!” I didn’t get a photo of the ejection itself, but here’s a shot of a displeased Spears gesturing at the umpire on his way off the field:

In the seventh inning, Batavia reliever C.J. Carter came on to pitch, and we noticed something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before — the right-handed pitcher threw sidearm to lefties and had a traditional windup and delivery when he faced righties. Here’s his funky sidearm delivery:

Mark, Travis and I said our goodbyes as soon as the game wrapped up. My initial thought was to go check out some Little League action for a while, but the sunburn on my arms, knees and face told me that getting into some air conditioning would be a better idea. I hopped in my car, drove less than five minutes to my hotel, and soon was enjoying the shade and the cool — and thinking about taking a short drive to Rochester in the morning.

Ottawa Champions – June 8, 2018

The Can-Am League’s Ottawa Champions have been a fixture in my blog dating back to 2015. While I don’t make independent baseball my primary focus, I can’t resist checking out this team and have done so one or more times every season since then.

This blog post is about my visit on June 8, but I’d actually been to Ottawa’s Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park once earlier in the season. That visit took place back on May 22, and between a delayed start due to a rain and my early departure because I had a busy schedule the next day, there wasn’t a ton of blog-worthy content.

There was, however, one exciting thing that transpired and that would factor into my June visit to Ottawa. During that May game, Ottawa first baseman Vincent Guglietti blasted his first home run of the season over the right field fence, and I managed to track the ball down later on. Guglietti is in his first year with the Champions, so I knew that the home run was a bit of a milestone for him. The next day, I caught up with him on Twitter and asked if he wanted the ball back. He told me that he’d appreciate giving it to his parents, who collect his baseball memorabilia, and I made plans to hand it over the next time I was in Ottawa.

Fast forward to June 8, and I was once again on my way to Canada’s capital city with his home run ball safely tucked in my backpack. The ball, which I’d photographed earlier …

… would be the second home run that I’d be returning to the player who hit it. (If you’ve followed my blog for a long time, you’ll know that my first foray into the ball-returning game turned out well.)

I pulled into RCGT Park’s parking lot as the Champions were taking batting practice, as I’d planned to meet up with Guglietti at the end of BP. When I walked into the stadium, I was pleased to see bright skies overhead and the home team hitting — two things that weren’t a part of my visit a few weeks earlier. Here’s my first view of the field:

I hung out in the stands and watched Ottawa hit and then, just as we’d planned, met up with Guglietti as soon as BP wrapped up. He was super friendly and seemed happy to get the ball back, and I was certainly happy to give it to him. We chatted a bit about how he was liking Ottawa and how the season was going so far, but I completely missed an opportunity to get a photo with him. I intended to, but was enjoying our brief conversation and sort of felt weird about blurting out a photo request. Boo to me.

Soon enough, he said goodbye and headed into the Ottawa clubhouse, and decided to wander around for a bit. I’ve been to RCGT Park enough times that there isn’t much exploring to do, but I always enjoy moving around the stadium and taking in the sights. By now, the sights included the visiting Salina Stockade, who were just starting to take BP. The Kansas-based Stockade is a traveling team in 2018 that played in the American Association last season and the Pecos League in 2016. (The franchise has also been called the “worst pro baseball team of 2017” in an entertaining article in The Ringer.)

Bad team or not, I was interested to see the Stockade for the first time as I watched the first few minutes of its BP session from the grass berm/picnic area down the third base line:

After the Stockade finished hitting, I decided to grab a few minutes of shade by climbing to the upper row of the seats behind home plate, which are shaded by the press box and suites. As I looked above me, I saw the familiar face of Mike Nellis, the Champions’ lead broadcaster and director of communications, in the press box. He’s a guy I’ve gotten to know over the past few seasons, and I always enjoy talking baseball with him. We caught up for a few minutes, and then he got back to preparing for the game and I got back to, well, enjoying the shade.

Pretty soon, the Champions made their way out onto the field, and I headed down to the third base side to watch them warm up. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t aware of the presence of their all-star catcher, Danny Grauer, who is at home rehabbing off-season surgery. He’s a player I met early last season and became friendly with, often talking with him for a few minutes before each game. We kept in touch through the off-season, and I even caught a Norfolk Tides game with him back in May. So, yeah, it was weird not seeing Danny there and talking to him, and I was definitely missing seeing him.

I was snapped back into reality when I noticed a player waving at me from the field — it was Guglietti, and it was cool to see him again. I snapped this shot of him after he began stretching:

As more and more players filtered out onto the field, I began to see a bunch of familiar faces and lots of new ones. There’s a significant amount of turnover in independent baseball, as you might guess, so I needed to figure out who was who. Here’s infield Steve Nyisztor, a former Arizona Diamondbacks farmhand who is in his second season with Ottawa:

And here’s a new addition to Ottawa’s roster in 2018 — outfielder Coco Johnson, who played in the Miami Marlins system in 2013 and 2014:

He comes to Ottawa from the Windy City ThunderBolts of the independent Frontier League, where he swiped 57 bases in 96 games last year and 48 in 93 a season earlier.

I watched Ottawa for a few minutes, and then went over to the first base side to watch Salina. Here’s one player warming up …

… unfortunately, I have no idea who he is. He wore #5 and there’s currently no #5 on the team’s roster, according to its website. There are four #24s, though! And, for what it’s worth, Salina’s manager was also wearing #5.

Uniform numbers aside, there were a couple of interesting things that I noticed about the team’s jerseys. As you can see here, some players were wearing mesh-style jerseys, while others were made of solid fabric:

And here’s something that I found amusing — one player safety pinning sleeves on his teammate’s jersey, which appeared to be one of those sleeveless types:

I took a spot behind the visitors dugout on the first base side for the start of the game and watched the action from there. The view was definitely different — alongside other parks around baseball, RCGT Park installed protective netting over the dugouts prior to the season starting. I get what the netting is there for, but I’m not the biggest fan of looking through it. So, after the inning wrapped up, I was on the move again. Before I found another place to sit, I decided to grab some dinner. Ottawa’s selection of food over the last few seasons has really impressed me. If you’ve seen some of my posts about visiting RCGT Park, which you can check out here, here and here, you’ll see some images of tasty fare that you might not expect in independent baseball. Although I was tempted to go for one of my tried-and-tested meals (General Tao poutine, I’m looking at you) I wanted to try something different. This quest sent me over to a concession stand in the left field picnic area, which I’d walked past a million times over the years but had never bought anything from. I grabbed an order of chicken wings and took them up to a seat on the third base side to eat. Here’s how they looked:

Not a sight that has your mouth watering, is it? This surprised me, because lots of people were buying wings in line ahead of me. It sure looked as those these had been sitting around for some time. Fortunately, they tasted much better than they looked. They weren’t very meaty, but the chicken didn’t taste as dry as I’d feared and the hot sauce they came with was a good addition. In fact, it was blazing hot, so as soon as I finished eating dinner, I set off to find something for dessert to cool down my mouth. Dessert came in the form of a bowl of root beer ice cream, which I bought at a concession stand just a few paces away from where I’d bought the wings:

This is the second time I’ve had root beer ice cream in my life, and both times have been at a ballpark. (My first root beer ice cream experience was last season at a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders game.)

Happily full, it was time to snap some action photos. I didn’t want to contend with the netting, so I went to a perfect spot that I first encountered last season — the umpires’ door right behind home plate. Here’s one of the first shots that I took, which shows Ottawa’s Johnson a split-second after laying down a bunt:

And here’s Ottawa outfielder Steve Brown waiting for a pitch:

I ended up spending several innings in this spot. It’s such a thrilling place to watch the game, and Ottawa’s official photographer Marc Lemieux soon arrived, so I had fun talking baseball and photography with him.

I spent the last three innings rotating between seats on the first and third base sides, and enjoyed the rest of the game. Salina, for all of its uniform issues, looked solid, beating Ottawa 8-6. The Champions got revenge a day later, though, trouncing the road team 13-0. It was an entertaining visit to RCGT Park, as always. I don’t know when my next visit will be, but I’ll definitely be back there again this season.