As you might suspect, the last day of my North Carolina baseball road trip concluded with a baseball game.
From the time that I left my hotel in Fayetteville until I pulled into the parking lot of Intimidators Stadium in Kannapolis, however, this day was all about stock car racing.
The drive between these two North Carolina cities is only about two and a half hours, so I drafted up an itinerary that would take me to half a dozen NASCAR-related attractions — namely, a museum and a handful of race shops — and still get to Kannapolis before the ballpark gates opened. I was a huge NASCAR fan in my late teens and early 20s, and after a handful of years away from the sport, I’ve been getting back into it over the last couple of years. (You might remember my exciting visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame when I was in Charlotte in the summer of 2018.) I’m not planning to blog about my visit to each of these attractions on this day, but I can tell you that even if you’re a moderate stock car racing fan, visiting any race shop around Charlotte is something to add to your to-do list if you’re in the area.
My NASCAR-themed day made sense based on where I’d end up. The Kannapolis Intimidators, who played in the South Atlantic League, owe their name to NASCAR hall of famer Dale Earnhardt. He was born in Kannapolis and nicknamed “The Intimidator” — and, for a short amount of time, was a minority owner of the baseball team.
My daylong sightseeing was so extensive that I only got to Intimidators Stadium about 30 minutes before the gates were due to open. That didn’t leave me much time for my usual pre-entry touring, but that was just fine on this occasion. Why? The 2019 season was the team’s last in this ballpark — and the last with the Intimidators nickname, for that matter. Earlier this off season, the team rebranded to the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers and will move into a downtown ballpark for the 2020 campaign. All of that meant that I wasn’t feeling any pressure to meticulously document Intimidators stadium for my website. Instead, this evening was all about visiting a new-to-me ballpark (#76!) and enjoying the experience.
So, instead of spending some time outside of the park, I entered just a couple of minutes after parking my rental car. Normally, I spend a fair bit of time on the main level concourse upon arriving at a park, but I decided to change things up a little during this visit. Immediately after I walked inside, went up to the suite level, where I had this view of batting practice:
Nice looking ballpark, right?
I was immediately impressed at the scene before me. At the time of my visit, the Intimidators would only be using this park for another two months, but virtually everything that I saw was in tip-top condition. I can’t say that I was expecting to see things looking unkempt to some degree … but I suppose that I wouldn’t have been surprised if some part.
As I looked over to my left, I started to take in some of the park’s unique design features. Take a look at the following photo:
You’ll notice a number of noteworthy things — small seating sections, a wide cross-aisle, an enormous concourse and the press box in its own building at concourse level. You’ll also see some picnic areas down the third base side and, on the far left, a tree growing in the concourse. Pretty neat, if you ask me.
Encouraged by what I saw from my high vantage point, I headed down to the concourse to begin taking in the sights.
As it had been during my two previous days in Fayetteville, the temperature was hovering around the 100-degree mark — and I was feeling it for the entirety of my walk around the concourse. Undeterred, the first place that I stopped was the third base side of the press box, where I stood for a few minutes to watch the visiting Rome Braves take BP. I’ve said it before, but there’s something so peaceful and enjoyable about taking in batting practice, especially at the minor league level. It’s something I’ll never tire of watching.
As the gates opened and Intimidators Stadium slowly began to fill, I moved to the other side of the press box to snap this picture of myself:
(You can buy my shirt here.)
Then, it was time to head down the third base concourse to check out the stock car that I’d spotted earlier from the suite level:
It’s an Intimidators/Earnhardt-branded Chevrolet stock car, which was neat to look at — even if it had regretfully seen better days. The body of the car has several rust spots on it, likely a result of dents from foul balls causing the paint to chip off. Nevertheless, I was glad to see the unique sight of a stock car in a ballpark — especially on a day that was centered around racing and baseball.
Before batting practice wrapped up, I took this panorama of the field not far from the stock car …
… and then took a short walk around the concourse area behind the press box. Check out how expansive this area is:
It’s definitely the type of place that you could stand for a few innings and almost certainly snag a foul ball.
After a brief stop in the modest team shop, I made my way down the first base side …
… to check out the carousel — another feature at the park that impressed me:
In the right field corner, I turned back toward home plate and admired this view of the park:
It’s always sad to see ballparks go the way of the dodo, and while I’m certainly excited to check out Kannapolis’ new ballpark, I can’t deny feeling a bit of melancholy at the idea that this would be my first and last visit to Intimidators Stadium.
I took this next shot to give you another view of the ballpark’s unique layout:
You’ll see the press box and picnic areas on the right side of the shot, but take a look at the structure on the left. It’s the ballpark’s lone building, and houses the suites, offices, team shop, ticket office and more.
One of the things that I love best about visiting ballparks at all levels is thoroughly exploring them and finding unusual nooks and crannies. Just past the carousel, I followed this pathway …
… around to the left and found myself in this unique area:
You can catch a glimpse of the field and video board in the distance, but this spot is otherwise completely isolated. It was a neat and random place to visit, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take a couple of minutes to search for errant BP baseballs in the shrubs around the path — to no avail, unfortunately.
After spending a bit of time in the right field corner, I made my way back around the concourse to the left field corner. While there, I peeked through a fence at the end of the grass berm to look at the home bullpen …
… and managed to step in a quicksand-like puddle of mud next to the bullpen fence that almost made me stumble right out of my shoe. No photos of that, unfortunately.
Once I’d aggressively rubbed my muddy shoe through the grass until it was respectable again, I made my way over to the cross-aisle and headed toward home plate:
Batting practice had since ended, and the Intimidators ground crew was getting the field prepared. From where I stood, I snapped this panorama:
When I got back up to the concourse and was contemplating where to go next, a man approached me and introduced himself as Alan Hand — one of my Twitter followers, and a 100+ ballpark visitor. I didn’t realize that he lives in the Kannapolis area, but he made a point of attending this game to say hello. Of course, we snapped a picture:
You might notice that Alan is wearing a Vancouver Canadians shirt, which I’m guessing aren’t too common in North Carolina. You might also notice the unsightly sweat marks on my shirt — an unfortunate byproduct of the mix of a hot day and a lot of walking.
I’m always thrilled to meet fellow baseball fans on my travels, and enjoyed chatting with Alan for several minutes about our various travels, baseball in Kannapolis and, of course, NASCAR. We decided that we’d sit together for some of the game, so after a quick farewell, I continued down the first base line again. There wasn’t any action in the visitors bullpen when I arrived — but I couldn’t help but smile at the following scene:
You’d think that a bunch of guys who get paid to throw strikes would fare a little better at tossing their paper cups in the trash, right?
I decided that I’d grab some food before the game began, so I took a brief lap around the concourse in search of Kannapolis’ famed “Mater Sandwich” — a simple tomato and mayo sandwich served on white bread that was Earnhardt’s favorite. I’d heard about this sandwich a few years ago, and I liked the story behind it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t track it down anywhere, and no one I asked seemed to have a clue what I was talking about. Undaunted, I opted for the next best thing — a sausage on a bun:
As you probably know, I try to focus on unique ballpark fare whenever possible, and a sausage on a bun isn’t exactly unique. But it caught my eye, and nothing else on the Intimidators Stadium menu really jumped out at me. One bite into the sausage made me very happy that I’d chosen it. While very simple, it was perfectly executed — a high-quality sausage cooked perfectly on a fresh bun. There’s something really satisfying about simple food done right, and this was a perfect example.
I wrapped up my meal just before first pitch before going partway down the first base side to watch the top half of the first inning …
… and then moved all the way to the corner before the half-inning was over:
In the second inning, I met up with Alan in the bleachers on the third base line, where we sat with this view as the summer sun slowly began to set, making long shadows over the field:
I sat with Alan for the rest of my visit — which, sadly, wasn’t until the end of the game. I had nearly a 2.5-hour drive to get to where I was staying for the night, and as much as I’d have loved to stay until the final out, I was tired enough that the idea of leaving for a long, solo drive at 10 p.m. wasn’t appealing. I pulled the plug on this game about 8:30 p.m., pausing to take one last look at the stadium’s exterior before I hopped back in my rental car and hit the road again.
My first day in Fayetteville had a little of everything — which would make it hard to top on Day #2.
Truth be told, I wasn’t really worrying about trying to make my second day better than the first. If it could be just a fraction as enjoyable, I’d be more than happy.
I began my second day in this North Carolina town by getting up early, peeking out my window at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Fayetteville North to ensure that the Salem Red Sox bus was still sitting in the parking lot (spoiler alert — it was) and then working out in the hotel’s gym. After breakfast, I settled down in front of my computer for a few hours to do some blogging, and headed out after lunch for a bite to eat and to check out my first stop of the day.
The Woodpeckers are reason enough to visit Fayetteville, but they’re certainly not the only thing to check out while you’re in town. A big attraction that I wanted to make time to see was the Airborne & Special Forces Museum, which sits in the city’s downtown area. Fayetteville is home to Fort Bragg which, among other things, is home to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. The museum is free to enter and is a must-see stop for any military history buff. It provides a detailed history of the Airborne and Special Forces from the Second World War right up to the present day. I viewed more artifacts than I can begin to list here, but I want to share one that was especially noteworthy — and one that you might know about.
If you’ve seen the movie Black Hawk Down, you might be aware of the 1993 downing of an American Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia. The museum has on display the rotor of the helicopter in question, Super 61, which wasn’t returned to the U.S. until 2013. It was equally impressive and eerie to see this piece of machinery, given its infamous history:
I spent about 90 minutes at the museum — which is actually within walking distance of Segra Stadium — before making a short drive to a spot in town that partially tells the story of Fayetteville’s deep history with baseball. It was here that a young George Herman Ruth picked up the moniker of “Babe,” long before he became a household name across the country. And, as you’ll see on this plaque, Fayetteville is the town in which Ruth hit his first home run as a professional, way back in March of 1914:
(This news came as a bit of a surprise me, as I’d often heard how Ruth hit his first professional round tripper in Toronto. In fact, there’s a plaque at Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Islands that claims Ruth had his first pro HR at that location in September of 1914, six months after the Fayetteville home run. Curious, right?)
In any case, this was a special plaque to see, and one that I was glad to visit. It’s situated just over a mile from Segra Stadium, so it’s definitely a spot to check out when you’re in Fayetteville to see the Woodpeckers play.
After I was done taking a few photos of the plaque, I made the short drive over to the ballpark to begin my second visit. I mentioned earlier that I’d had such a good time during my first visit that I wasn’t worried about my subsequent one being better. It quickly became clear, however, that Day #2 would top Day #1 in one regard, anyway — the temperature. Here’s a screenshot that I took just after arriving at Segra Stadium:
I parked my rental car in the same lot that I’d used a day earlier, and made the short — and hot! — walk to Segra Stadium. My blog entry about my first visit touched on the construction that is taking place around this new Carolina League ballpark, including the tall crane that towered over the area. One thing that I didn’t mention, however, was the large Woodpeckers flag that hung off the crane. A slight breeze on Day #2 meant that I was able to snap this shot of the flag:
After entering the ballpark, I set out down the third base concourse to begin my customary walk around the field. As you can see here, the concourse was very quiet at this hour …
… but as you might notice in this photo, there were some goings-on down on the field:
A handful of players from each team were playing catch, and the grounds crew was well underway in its efforts to get the field ready for action. The careful prep of the field just after 4 p.m. told me that there’d be no batting practice on the agenda for the second straight day.
With no BP to watch, I watched some Salem pitchers play catch for a few minutes, and then set my sights on checking out the kids’ play area beyond the left field grass berm. I mentioned in my previous blog post how this area is really impressive, especially by Class-A Advanced standards. Case in point? Take a look at this outstanding baseball diamond for kids to run around:
The triple-digit heat limited my desire to channel my inner Joe Carter and leap around the bases, so I instead went down to the outfield fence just to the left field side of the Rocking Porch, and enjoyed this view:
I love the funky shape of the outfield grass and warning track, which you can see in the immediate foreground. Symmetrical outfields are so bland, don’t you think?
Even though I was disappointed in the lack of batting practice, it was nice to stand behind the outfield fence before the game and not worry about a ball landing on my head for a change. As such, I watched the scene for several minutes from that vantage point, before continuing over to the right field corner, where I checked out this huge, multilevel picnic deck:
The next place that I visited was the front row on the third base side. By now, most of the players had left the field, so I just hung out for a minutes and enjoyed the quiet space in front of me. From here, I also snapped this photo that shows one of the other things that I like about Segra Stadium’s design — the open appearance of the netting-covered wall, rather than their concrete, foam-covered counterparts that are still the norm at most minor league parks:
This design gives fans the feeling of being closer to the action, in part because they can more easily see players as they approach the wall, as well as track the path of foul balls as they roll past. It’s little details like this that improve the overall ballpark experience, and I commend the Woodpeckers on making this decision.
I spent a little time sitting at field level, and then checked out the grass berm immediately behind the wall between the two bullpens …
… before the heat drove me into the shade of the concourse and, eventually, the air conditioned confines of the team shop. As with many other elements at Segra Stadium, the team shop was impressive. Large and roomy, and with a wide selection of apparel, it definitely didn’t feel like a Class-A Advanced retail space.
Once the gates opened, I went back out to the concourse to take another lap around. As I stood by one of the railings, I looked down and saw my shadow on the field — and couldn’t resist taking the latest version of this shot from Russell Diethrick Park or this shot from Southwest University Park:
Since I hadn’t taken much in the way of action shots a day earlier, and I’d thoroughly explored the ballpark by this point, I decided to head over to the home bullpen to watch starting pitcher Luis Garcia throw:
The grass berm immediately above Segra Stadium’s bullpens gives fans a really good view of the goings-on. I love when ballpark designs provide this up-close-and-personal access, rather than have the bullpens situated where you can’t get too close. From where I stood, I was just a handful of yards from Woodpeckers catcher Michael Papierski, and enjoyed the challenge of trying to snap photos just as the baseball was entering his glove. Here’s a shot that turned out pretty well:
I watched the entirety of their session, and then found a spot behind home plate to watch the first couple of innings …
… and then spent the remainder of the game watching from different vantage points — and grabbed some shade here and there when possible.
I was thoroughly impressed with Segra Stadium, and glad that I finally had a chance to check out an MiLB ballpark in its first year of operation. This is a ballpark that you’ll appreciate for a number of reasons, so I encourage you to give Fayetteville, N.C. some thought when you’re looking at potential destinations for your upcoming baseball road trips.
My two days in Fayetteville were a blast, but my trip wasn’t done yet. I had one more North Carolina city to visit the next day.
I always admire my fellow baseball road trippers who make plans to visit new MLB or MiLB parks in their inaugural seasons. This is an idea that has often caught my eye, but for various reasons, I’d never been able to make it work prior to this season. I’ve been traveling since 2010 for The Ballpark Guide, but never fared better than visiting a second-year park. (In fact, as far as I can recall, the last time that I visited a ballpark during its first season was Toronto’s SkyDome, waaaay back in 1989. Yikes!)
Fortunately, that would all change this summer.
When I was setting my June and July travel plans for North Carolina, I knew that a visit to Segra Stadium, home of the first-year Fayetteville Woodpeckers, had to be on the agenda. And so, after a day with the Richmond Flying Squirrels and a much-needed off day, I was back on the road and headed to another city.
I got to Fayetteville early in the afternoon, and after a quick bite of lunch in the car, drove straight to the campus of Methodist University. If you’ve been reading my posts about my trip through North Carolina, you might recall that I’d made a point of visiting a number of NCAA baseball facilities whenever possible, and I’d added Methodist’s Armstrong-Shelley Field to my must-see list. The Methodist Monarchs are notable for making the Div. III College World Series on six occasions, and finishing as the tournament’s runner-up in 1995. Upon pulling onto the campus, I was immediately struck by its beauty and tranquil nature; in a visit that maybe lasted 15 minutes, I saw only two people. After a couple of minutes of driving, I’d made my way to an empty parking lot outside of the baseball facility. I wasn’t able to get inside of the facility, unfortunately, but after snapping this shot of the main gate …
… I climbed up on top of the third base seats and shot this panorama:
Armstrong-Shelley Field is the 15th different NCAA baseball facility that I’ve visited — none to actually see a game, unfortunately — and the sixth different NCAA stop on my June/July road trip. Yes, I even track the ballparks that I visit when it’s only to take a few photos, not to see a game.
After a short walk around the field, it was time to head to my hotel to enjoy some air conditioning for a bit. Why? Well, North Carolina was in the middle of a heatwave that saw the temperatures on this day hit 99 degrees.
During my visit to Fayetteville, I was staying at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Fayetteville North. It was just a couple of minutes from the campus of MU and, most importantly, only 12 minutes from Segra Stadium. It’s the number one hotel in Fayetteville on TripAdvisor, and with good reason — although it opened in 2014, you’d have had a hard time convincing me that the hotel wasn’t a month or two old. Large rooms with comfortable beds, an impressive fitness center, an indoor saltwater pool and a really good free breakfast were all big pluses in my book — and would likely be for any other baseball road tripper, too.
If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you know that my favorite hotels are those that are within sight of the ballpark. My second favorite type of hotels are those that host the visiting team, and I quickly realized that was the case when I got to my room, looked out the window and saw the coach bus of the visiting Salem Red Sox in the parking lot:
Its presence made me irrationally giddy, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t peek out my window every 10 or so minutes to look at the bus until it departed.
Once it left, I soon followed suit, and got to enjoy the sights of Fayetteville on the short drive to the ballpark.
I parked a short distance from the ballpark and, upon leaving my car, this was the first view that I had:
Segra Stadium is situated just behind the trees on the right. If you look carefully, you’ll see the stadium lighting rising above the treeline.
A couple of minutes later, I had my first view of this Carolina League ballpark:
As you’ll notice, the area surrounding the park was still under construction at the time of my visit. In fact, it wasn’t possible to do my usual full lap of the park because of all the construction. Construction or no construction, I was thrilled to finally be at ballpark #75 — and very eager to start exploring this first-year facility. Before I entered, though, I wanted to do as much checking out of the exterior sights as I could. That included walking over toward the main gates and team shop:
If you noticed the “Victory Means a Little More Here” design on the wall, it’s making reference to the city’s deep connection with the armed forces. Fayetteville is home to Fort Bragg, which is the largest military base in the world. This slogan was one of many military references throughout the park, making it evident that the park’s designers put a lot of thought into tying the design of the ballpark to the community in which it’s located.
Unless you noticed the under-construction building at the left of the image above, you might be asking, “Where’s all this construction that you speak of?” Here’s one image that shows Segra Stadium from another angle:
And here’s a look at the front gates of the park from a distance:
For the record, I’m not remotely pointing out the construction in a pejorative way. On the contrary, seeing this work being done only served to excite me about what the future holds for this new ballpark and for the fans who will be visiting it. It’s clear that there’s a lot of development being done around the park, and I love parks that give fans a selection of things to see, do and eat before the game. It’s clear that’ll be the case for Segra Stadium, even if all of the work wasn’t quite done during my visit.
I figured that I’d done enough pre-entry wandering for now — besides, the temperature was still hovering just below triple digits, so I felt a strong pull to find some shade. I entered through the gate to the left of the team shop and immediately took a few minutes to stand in the shade and just enjoy some reprieve from the sun. It wasn’t long before I was on the move — fortunately, to another shaded area — as I headed right down to field level behind home plate to snap this panorama:
There are a handful of noteworthy things to point out in this photo. I love how the front-row seats are truly at field level. This is something that seems to be occurring at more and more new ballparks, and it really gives fans in these sections the feeling of being right in the middle of the action. There’s also a wrap-around concourse, which is a must in my books, and a combination of seating options throughout the outfield. I also like the small seating sections down the lines. Lots of newer MiLB parks are taking this approach to give fans a cozy feel, rather than having vast sections that may be half empty on any given night. I share these points because I was immediately impressed with the look of Segra Stadium, and excited to continue exploring.
I watched batting practice from the above spot for a few minutes, and then decided to go back up to the main concourse and walk down the first base line. Here’s the first shot that I took once I headed in this direction:
You’ll notice a number of cool design features in this image, too — standing-room railings behind the upper rows of seats, a wide concourse, a big picnic deck in the corner and a large open space at the end of the concourse. I love these large open areas for a few reasons. As someone who spends a lot of time walking at ballparks, I always appreciate these spaces because they’re easy to get through. When things get tight at the end of a concourse, there tends to be a logjam of people that can make these areas congested. Wide-open spaces such as those at Segra Stadium are always easy to navigate. Of course, the other benefit of these spaces is that they can be optimal for snagging long foul balls. Spend a few innings standing with your glove in any such location, and the odds are good that you’ll be rewarded for your efforts.
So, just how expansive is the space down the first base line at Segra Stadium? Here’s a shot that should answer that question:
This wide-open space wasn’t the only exciting feature in this part of the ballpark. This area is also home to the team’s batting cages, which was visible from the concourse:
Traditionally, teams have often had their cages below the ballpark, which might provide convenient access from the clubhouse, but isn’t the most fan-friendly location. Having the cages in a spot where fans can stand and watch is another big plus in my books.
Next, I made a quick climb up to the Landing Area party deck in the right field corner that was quiet now, but would be lively from the time the gates opened through the end of the game. It offered a variety of seating options, including couches, as well as plenty of ways to keep entertained between innings — table tennis, jumbo Jenga and cornhole were all available in this area:
Fortunately for fans, this deck wasn’t the only unique seating option in the area. Here are some other places to hang out for the game:
This impressive selection of seats is located just a few steps away from the large Healy’s Bar structure:
I watched BP for a few minutes from the shade of the bar’s overhang, and then continued my lap around Segra Stadium by walking behind the batter’s eye …
… and around to left-center field, where I took a spot along the railing above the grass berm:
From this spot, I kept an eye on BP while focusing the majority of my attention on the Red Sox bullpen session taking place in front of me. I could watch countless hours of bullpen sessions without ever getting bored. Not only is it impressive to watch a professional pitcher throw from just a few feet away, but it’s fascinating to hear snippets of conversation between the players and pitching coach.
As you might’ve noticed from the panorama above, I was standing in the full sun, and even though it wasn’t the midday sun, it was still enough to have sweat dripping off my face. I was thoroughly enjoying the scene, but soon decided to keep walking. Next, I took a moment to check out the kids’ play area beyond the left field concourse. With a rubber floor, a pair of bounce castles and number of other attractions, including these play structures …
… this was definitely one of the better play areas that I’ve seen in the minor leagues.
Resisting the urge to take a trip down the play structure slide, I continued along the concourse and stopped to note this group of seats along the edge of the concourse:
This type of seating layout is increasing popular in the minor leagues, but it was the seats themselves that caught my eye. You’ll notice that instead of being plastic, they have fabric/mesh backs and seats. This feature not only makes them more comfortable to sit for long stretches, but also helps fans to avoid the heat that plastic seats can hold on a sunny day. Another smart idea from the folks who designed this ballpark.
As I made my way back toward home plate, I stopped to snap this shot of myself:
The shirt that I’m wearing is one of my raglans, which you might think of being an odd choice on a 100-degree day. I can’t argue much with that sentiment, but I will tell you that the three-quarter sleeves can help to avoid sunburn, which is why I was wearing it on this sweltering day. Plus, its colors were a perfect match to the Woodpeckers uniforms. Want your own road trip shirt? You can shop for one here.
I grabbed a seat in the shade behind home plate and watched batting practice from that spot, keeping an eye on a TV nearby that was showing the MLB Network feed. The death of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs had been reported just a short while earlier, so that heartbreaking story was understandably dominating the day’s baseball news. As I watched the Salem squad hit in front of me, I wondered which players might have crossed paths with Skaggs at some point in their careers, or perhaps even been teammates of the deceased young lefty.
After a few minutes of sitting and watching the scene in front of me, I decided to head up to Segra Stadium’s second level and see how things looked from up there. The ballpark’s second level consists of suites, a club area and a party deck — and no matter where you sit, you’ve got a really good view of the field and the ballpark as a whole:
I hung out in the party deck until shortly before the gates opened, and then went down to the main level to take another walk around the field. My next stop was center field, where I looked back toward home plate at this view:
Perhaps it’s the construction crane or the partially finished building that looms above the suite level, but the ballpark has a bit of an incomplete appearance from this vantage point. It’s not a criticism, but I think this area could benefit from a splash of color — maybe a Segra Stadium sign or some team branding. Or maybe even some advertising. Perhaps these things will come in the future and, if so, I think they’ll boost the look of this part of the ballpark.
Near where I stood when I took the photo above is the ballpark’s Rocking Porch, which is definitely one of the best seating sections I’ve come across in the minor leagues. It consists of three levels of rocking chairs, giving fans a fun and unique way to enjoy the game:
Of course, I couldn’t help rocking on one of the chairs for a few minutes, just as I’d done several years earlier in the rocking chair section at Round Rock’s Dell Diamond.
Then, I was on the move again, stopping briefly to snap this photo of the berm and the bullpens in left field …
… and then heading down to field level to watch the players get warmed up. I focused my attention on right field, where the Woodpeckers starting battery of pitcher Chad Donato and catcher Scott Manea were playing catch. Here’s a shot of Donato …
… and one of Manea:
Next, it was time to begin my search for dinner. There were a number of good options that caught my eye — grilled chicken wings from Healy’s, a cheesesteak from Sherwood’s Steaks or any number of enticing hot dogs from Sgt. Stubby’s. In the end, though, I opted for the Rise & Shine Burger from the Bagwell’s Burgers concession stand. It wasn’t just any old burger — it was topped with bacon, ham, smoked gouda, a fried egg, garlic-herb mayo, lettuce and tomato, and definitely goes down as one of the most creative burgers I’ve had at a ballpark:
It wasn’t just creative, though — it was outstanding, and definitely takes a spot among the best ballpark burgers I’ve eaten in all my travels. (By the way, if you aren’t eating your burgers with fried eggs on them, it’s time to get on that.)
Although I shot the above photo in the left field corner just before first pitch, I took the burger over to the bar-style seating in right-center to eat. One thing I’ve learned from eating big burgers (and especially those with over-easy eggs on them) is that you generally want a semi-private location in which to eat, simply because of the risk of a catastrophic yolk mishap.
Fortunately, I managed to avoid such difficulties, and thoroughly enjoyed scarfing down the burger while I kept an eye on the game:
I watched the action from this sunny spot for about an inning after eating, and then went behind home plate for another inning. The next spot that I wanted to check out was the third base side, which was in the shade by this point. First, though, I wanted to grab one of my favorite ballpark treats — frozen lemonade:
Then, it was time to sit back, relax and enjoy the next several innings with this view:
I watched the last inning from a standing-room spot in center field, and then made the short drive back to my hotel after the game — where I kept a watchful eye for the eventual arrival of the Red Sox, bus.
Of course I did.
The majority of my nine-day road trip took place in North Carolina, but there was one notable exception — a June 29 sojourn into Virginia so that I could see the Richmond Flying Squirrels play.
About nine hours after getting back to my hotel after seeing the Carolina Mudcats in action, I was back in my rental car and headed north about 170 miles. This would be the first time I’d be in Virginia since seeing the Norfolk Tides just over a year ago. The drive to Richmond should’ve been easy, but it took way longer than I’d have liked, thanks to a few major traffic jams on I-95. Between the traffic and a couple of sightseeing detours, I arrived in Virginia’s capital city much later than expected, and after checking into a hotel out the outskirts of town, I had to race downtown to get to The Diamond.
The June 29 game against the Hartford Yard Goats was a 6 p.m. start, which is common on Saturdays. I had it in my head that the game was a 7 p.m. start, so when I arrived about 4:30 p.m. — early, but not nearly as early as usual — there was a huge crowd and the gates were just 30 minutes from opening. This was the first time that I’d ever botched a game time, and while it wasn’t a huge deal, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little rattled as I climbed out of my car upon realizing what had happened.
I always love getting into the ballpark before the gates open, but I also love a walk around the outside before I go in. There simply wasn’t enough time to devote to a comprehensive perimeter walk, so after I took this shot from the parking lot …
… I headed through the main gates into the park:
You might’ve noticed in my first photo that The Diamond has a unique look from the exterior. Some might call it dated, but let’s stick with unique. This ballpark opened in 1985, making it the second oldest in the Eastern League. Only Reading’s historic FirstEnergy Stadium, which opened in 1951, is older. This means that by today’s high standards of minor league ballparks, The Diamond has a few less-than-desirable architectural features, but the team has done an exemplary job of making this a high energy and fun place to watch a baseball game.
The Diamond is the 74th different stadium at which I’ve seen a game, but it’s more noteworthy to me because visiting it now means that I’ve seen at least one game in every Eastern League ballpark. I first visited an EL facility back in 2010, but it took me until this summer to hit the 12th and final Eastern League park. Interestingly, this marks the first league that I’ve “completed,” for lack of a better term. (I’m also just a few parks away from completing a handful of other minor leagues.)
Resisting the urge to take a lap around the concourse right away, I cut through the park and went down toward the seating bowl to get a look at the view from home plate, which looked like this:
If you’re wondering what looks a little different about this shot, it’s the black frame around the netting behind the plate. While every MiLB park obviously has netting in this area, I can’t recall another that has the distinctive framing around it. It definitely looks obstructive in this photo, and I wondered how it might seem during game action. I’m happy to report that when you’re in any seat behind home plate and are focused on the game, the frame tends to disappear just like the netting that it supports.
My semi-late arrival meant that I’d missed batting practice — or, more likely, BP had been cancelled because it was 95 degrees — so after standing behind home plate for just a moment, I decided to start exploring the seating bowl. Eighties-era ballparks are known for their vast seating bowls, and because there aren’t that many examples like this left in the minor leagues, I was excited to make my way up toward the top. I started by heading down the third base side, climbing up the steps and turning to take this panorama:
The shade blocks things out a little, but there are some interesting things to point out. If you look at the upper deck seats on the first base side, you’ll notice that the top handful of rows — I’d say about six of them — have been tarped off. I like how the team has closed only the top few rows of each section rather than closed sections entirely. I’ve been to a handful of games in which the team closes specific upper deck sections, and I hate the idea of not being able to explore whatever sections I want. Over the course of the evening, I spent time in many of the upper deck sections at The Diamond, and didn’t feel that I was missing out by not having a chance to sit in the top few rows.
After snapping the panorama above, I took this shot to share on social media:
You’ll see by the handful of fans in the stands that the gates had now opened, so after taking this photo of the Richmond skyline beyond the outfield fence …
… and this shot that shows the press box and the space around it …
… I decided to go back down to the concourse to explore it before things got crowded.
I mentioned earlier that The Diamond has some unusual architectural features, but that the team does a good job of overcoming them. Here’s an example:
This is a walkway that wraps around the exterior of the stadium above the main concourse. It feels pretty isolated in this spot, and and it doesn’t seem like an area that you’d be in a hurry to check out, right? That may be true, but look how many displays there are on both sides of the walkway. The displays pay tribute to past Flying Squirrels teams and alumni who’ve reached the major leagues, which instantly boosts the appeal of being in this part of the stadium.
As I made a lap of the concourse, I noticed several things of note. It’d been a while since I’d visited a ballpark of this era. (I visited PNC Field in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2011, and although it opened a few years after The Diamond, there were lots of similarities. PNC Field was closed for 2012 as it went through a $43 million renovation that turned it into one of the gems of Triple-A baseball, for the record.) That meant that even though some of the features are outdated by today’s ballpark standards, they were still interesting to see.
Here’s one thing that you don’t see very often anymore — narrow walkways leading from the concourse to the seating bowl:
Remember when arcade games were a thing at ballparks? There was a large collection of arcades at one end of the concourse at The Diamond:
I didn’t see anyone playing them in all the time I spent walking around, which makes me wonder — with the easy access to mobile games today, does anyone play arcade games anymore? This spot arguably seemed like the most dated section of the ballpark, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it changed the next time that Richmond’s ownership plans a renovation.
The position of the suites made for another interesting design feature at this stadium. Because they’re located on the concourse level, and are positioned between the concourse and the seating bowl, they stick out into the concourse. The team has done a really good job of having local artists paint the back sides of the suites in different ways. Here’s an eye-catching “Greetings from the River City” motif:
As I made my way around the concourse, I noted how the crowd was quickly growing. It seemed very apparent that Richmond strongly supports its Flying Squirrels. That made for a fun atmosphere as I continued to walk around and note some of The Diamond’s unique design features, like this one — the upper deck seats that loom large over the concourse, and are supported on the outer edge with enormous concrete posts:
Eventually, I returned to the seating bowl to explore it a little more. First, I made my way to the upper seats behind home plate, where I shot this panorama:
Then, I made a long walk from the left field end of the seating bowl all the way to the right field end, pausing to take this shot of the upper rows of seats and the tarp mounted behind them:
When I got to the right field side, I was able to look down and see the area known as the Bullpen Deck, which was added in 2016:
It caught my eye for a number of reasons. First, it’s open to any fan who wants to visit it. So many decks and picnic areas are reserved for groups, which definitely makes sense from a business perspective, but I’m always excited when I see a deck that any fan can check out. Additionally, the Bullpen Deck isn’t just one deck. Rather, it consists of two deck areas, both with plenty of standing room and seating areas, that are joined with a walkway.
I definitely wanted to check out the Bullpen Deck, especially before it got crowded once the game began. On my way down from the upper deck, I snapped this panorama …
… and then made my way down to the deck to check out the view. There were a number of neat places to stand, but most of them were occupied by the time I arrived. This was the lone spot that I could find without people:
This is definitely a place to check out when you visit The Diamond, but you’ll want to get there promptly to claim your spot.
The teams had taken the field by now, and although my current position gave me a really good view of the Flying Squirrels warming up, the players were in some fairly serious shadows that I knew wouldn’t translate well to photos. I decided to follow the cross-aisle all the way around to the left field side to watch the Hartford squad getting read. Plus, the Yard Goats were wearing their alternate green jerseys, which I’d yet to see in person and was excited to check out.
Here’s a look at Hartford infielder Alan Trejo:
And his teammate, outfielder Manny Melendez:
After they finished playing catch, this trio of Yard Goats celebrated by tapping their gloves together:
Once warm-ups concluded, I went back to the concourse to take another look around. My next stop was the team shop, which is easily one of the largest that I’ve seen at any level of the minor leagues. It was really impressive, especially given the era of this stadium.
When the game began, I found a spot in the shade, and didn’t do as much walking around as I normally do. I’d been able to check out virtually all of the sights and spots before first pitch, and now it was time to relax a bit. It’s not often that I just sit and watch a ballgame, but after several extremely hot days and an average of more than 16,000 steps taken per day, the truth is that I needed a bit of a break. It was a pleasant change to simply chill out during the game — and a good way to recharge my batteries for the rest of the trip.
After two outstanding days watching the Durham Bulls at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, I set my sights on the small North Carolina town of Zebulon, home of the Carolina Mudcats, on June 28. This wouldn’t be a day that required a lot of travel — Durham and Zebulon are only 50 miles apart.
Instead of going straight to Zebulon, I first did a bit of baseball-themed sightseeing in Durham and Raleigh, making stops at three notable universities. My first stop was Duke University, which is located in Durham. My primary reason for visiting was to see the baseball field, but as soon as I got onto the campus, its picturesque nature quickly made me realize that I should stick around for a bit. I enjoyed driving around the tree-lined streets until I found a parking spot, and then took a long walk around the campus — concentrating on the area around the athletic facilities, of course.
My first stop was the baseball facility, Jack Coombs Field:
I arrived between games of a youth tournament, and took a few minutes to walk around the field before climbing up to the top of the grandstand to snap this panorama:
My next stop was just a short walk from the baseball facility, and it’s one that you’ll know if you’re a collegiate sports fan. Cameron Indoor Stadium, home of Duke basketball, is arguably the most famous NCAA basketball facility in the country. It’s beautiful from the exterior, but doesn’t exactly scream “sporting venue” — and if not for a couple of signs, I think I’d have likely missed it:
Cameron Indoor was absolutely outstanding. I’m not remotely a basketball fan, but this is a facility with a ton of history. It opened in 1940, and had a seriously historic vibe — wooden doors, narrow staircases, etc. As seemed to be the theme for my sports sightseeing, there was a youth event taking place, so I watched for a couple of minutes and then continued on my way:
Before I left the campus, I stopped to check out Duke University Chapel. At 210 feet tall, it’s a tough building to miss, and it’s also very close to Cameron Indoor Stadium. I didn’t bother going inside, but I was deeply impressed with the beauty of the exterior of this building:
My next stop was just 10 miles down the road, and served as the other half of one of college sports’ best rivalries — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I quickly made my way to Boshamer Stadium …
… and went inside to look around. Once again, I’d arrived between games of a youth tournament, so the concourse was pretty crowded with players, parents and, I’m guessing, college recruiters. I walked along the concourse until I reached the upper edge of the seating bowl, and then snapped this photo of the pristine field:
Believe it or not, my NCAA baseball sightseeing wasn’t done just yet. While I was excited to get to Zebulon to see the Mudcats, I first made the short drive from Chapel Hill to Raleigh to check out North Carolina State University. It was another absolutely beautiful campus, and it wasn’t long before I found the athletic facilities. I hope you’re sitting down, but there was another youth sports tournament taking place, so Doak Field at Dail Park was full of action. Yet again, I arrived between games — don’t ask how I managed to keep doing this — and after snapping this shot of the exterior of the ballpark …
… I walked inside and took this panorama:
After a short walk around the NC State campus, I headed to my hotel in downtown Raleigh. There are places to stay in Zebulon, but many more choices in Raleigh, the capital city of North Carolina. I opted to stay in Raleigh because I wanted to do some sightseeing the following day, and Zebulon and Raleigh are only about 25 miles apart. Given all of the campus visits that I’d made, I only had time to check into my hotel — the outstanding Residence Inn Raleigh Downtown, which was easy to get to and put me in a beautiful and highly walkable part of Raleigh — and then head to Zebulon.
Five County Stadium opened in 1991 as the home of the Carolina Mudcats of the Southern League. That team existed from 1991 through 2011, before moving to Florida and becoming the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. The team that I was seeing shares the Mudcats name, but is a completely different franchise. It plays in the 10-team Carolina League (Class-A Advanced) and has been in existence in Zebulon since 2012. Got all that?
The first thing that I noticed as I approached Five County Stadium was the Mudcats water tower, which jutted well above the treeline:
What an impressive sight, right? This begs a question — do you know of any other MiLB teams that have their logos on water towers? I can’t think of one, so leave a comment below if you’ve seen one.
After parking my car, I walked around the ballpark to snap this photo of one of the home plate gate. Definitely some neat architecture, but I think this area could benefit from some Mudcats signage, don’t you?
Instead of entering right away, I proceeded along the driveway that wraps around the ballpark to check out other sights. As is often the case with 1990s-era parks, there wasn’t a lot of things to see and do around the park’s perimeter. I made my way toward the right field corner to see if I could take a lap around the park, but was greeted by a “No Trespassing” sign and this is as far as I got:
That was fine, though. After just a few minutes outside on this 90-degree day, I was more than ready to get inside and find some shade. I went back to the home plate gate, walked inside the park and went right down to field level behind home plate to snap this panorama:
Some parks of this era make the mistake of having enormous seating sections. The issue with this idea is that when then crowd is light, the park really looks dead because the empty seats are so visible. That wasn’t the case here, fortunately. I loved the small seating sections around home plate, consisting of just four rows, which is a concept that a lot of the newer small parks are adopting. In this sense, Five County Stadium was ahead of its time:
I watched batting practice for a few minutes in the shade, and then decided to start properly exploring the ballpark. My first stop was the left field corner, where I had this view of the field:
As you might suspect, this area was completely devoid of shade, and the heatwave that North Carolina was experiencing during my visit made any unsheltered area less than hospitable after a few minutes. While I was enjoying watching BP from this vantage point, I soon opted to return to the covered area behind home plate for a few minutes. I decided to head up to the upper deck next, where I took this shot:
You’ll notice not only the action on the field, but also the different seating options that Five County Stadium provides. In addition to the small field-level seating section, there’s a larger upper deck (red seats) and a separate seating deck down the line (green seats). Looking at the latter two seating sections in the same shot should give you an idea of just how steep the red upper deck seats are — something that is often another sign of a 1990s-era ballpark. Everyone has an opinion about steep seating decks, but I tend to like them because you always feel close to the action.
I stood in the shade provided by the suite level for a few minutes, and then descended back to the main concourse and took a walk down the first base line. Here’s a shot from the base of the general admission seats close to the foul pole, looking down the line toward home plate:
My next stop was once again the concourse behind home plate. The big knock on ballparks of this era is that they almost always have enclosed concourses. Virtually all new MiLB parks, of course, have open concourses so that you can always see the game as you walk around. Like the small seating sections, the concourse at Five County Stadium seems to have been a bit ahead of its time. While it’s indeed placed under the upper deck, there are pillars around its outer edge instead of a solid wall. This means that as you walk through the concourse, you can still mostly see the field of play:
Here’s another look at the concourse:
It’s a setup that really works, and that definitely differentiates Five County Stadium from other parks of its age. The natural light coming from the direction of the field (on the left of the image above), as well as the openings on the upper right really make the concourse bright and inviting.
After a walk through the entire concourse, I once again braved the sun by heading down the third base line to an elevated party deck in the corner:
I was really impressed with the bird’s-eye view of the field that this party deck provides. I’ve often found that party decks at smaller MiLB parks tend to be at field level, and while that can certainly be appealing, being elevated in this manner is pretty sweet, too. By the way, I’m seeing more and more of the team-logo metal seats across the minor leagues. It wasn’t too long ago that these seats were an anomaly, but I’m now seeing them almost everywhere I go. (Also, I majorly need to get my hands on a couple of these at some point!)
Since I’d now spent some time in each of the seating sections, my next stop was back behind home plate to watch batting practice for a bit. This is something that I always like to do, and while watching it from the field or from the outfield are my favorite spots, it was simply too hot on this day to be out in the open. I opted for this shaded spot from which I could clearly see the action in the cage:
When BP wrapped up, I once again returned to the upper deck — this time, to check out Cattails Restaurant, which is found above the first base line. It’s a climate-controlled environment (definitely a plus during my visit) with a sizable food and drink menu, as well as comfortable seating options. Here’s the view of the field from Cattails:
Suite-level restaurants are nothing new at MiLB parks, but it’s rare to see one of this size at a Class-A Advanced facility. Eateries of this nature are far more common at Triple-A parks; Syracuse’s NBT Bank Stadium comes to mind.
Remember how I mentioned that the upper deck at Five County Stadium is steep? Here’s photographic evidence, which I documented after leaving Cattails:
Instead of going back down to the concourse next, I made my way around to third base side, where I took this photo to show the position and size of Cattails:
Next, I headed toward the upper deck seats behind home plate. I not only wanted to photograph the view from this spot, but also grab a seat in the shade for a few minutes. The gates had opened by this point, but there wasn’t a single fan in the upper deck other than me. I found a seat from which I took this photo …
… and then relaxed in the shade for about 30 seconds before a family climbed up the steps to my left and made its way toward me. I asked if I was in the family’s seats; sure enough, I was. What are the odds?
I sheepishly got up and left the area, returning to the concourse and waiting for the players to come out. Soon enough, that’s exactly what happened, and I went down the first base line to the visitors bullpen area. There, I watched Potomac Nationals catcher Alex Dunlap perform some drills with Potomac’s pitching coach:
On my walks around the concourse earlier, I’d been checking out the concession stands to decide what I might want to eat. Much of the fare at Five County Stadium is standard — hot dogs, nachos, burgers, popcorn, and so on. As you know, I like to find something unique as often as I can, and that’s exactly what I encountered at a concession stand on the first base side. This is a catfish po’ boy sandwich, and it was absolutely delicious:
The breading was light and crispy, and didn’t have that old oil taste that is too common at ballparks. The fish was flaky and not too fishy. There was a semi-spicy sauce on the sandwich, but it didn’t overwhelm the taste of the fish. I had been allured not only by something unique to eat, but also the connection to the team name — the Mudcats moniker refers to catfish, so it was exciting to find a catfish dish on the menu. And it was good enough that if I hadn’t been so hot, I’d have been tempted to eat a second one.
Once I’d eaten, I went down to field level on the home side to watch the Mudcats warm up. This was a Copa de la Diversión night, so the home team was playing as the Pescados de Carolina. (This was my second Copa game of the season; you might remember that I saw the El Paso Margaritas in action back in May.) As is always the case with the Copa games, the team wore funky uniforms. Here’s starting pitcher Noah Zavolas in his Pescados jersey:
With the pregame ceremonies beginning, I went to the upper deck and found a spot to watch the exchange of the lineups, the anthem and the top of the first inning:
What a view! And did you notice the water tower beyond left field? So good.
In the first frame, a player on Potomac — I think it was second baseman Cole Freeman — hit a foul ball that soared over the suite level and out of the ballpark. I didn’t think about rushing out to look for it, given that there were still lots of fans trickling into the stadium and I figured there was a very good chance that it would be picked up. After the end of the first, however, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to go take a look for it. I left via the home plate entrance, took just a couple of dozen steps, and there was the ball sitting in an open area of the grass. I was very surprised to see it, especially given that there were fans passing by just a few yards away, but I was happy to grab it to add to my collection:
With the foul ball — the 15th foul ball that I’ve collected over the years, for the record — safely tucked in my backpack, I returned to the ballpark and took a spot down the first base line that offered this view:
I watched about an inning from this spot, and then took a walk through the concourse, visited the team shop and found a spot on the third base side to watch the remainder of the game. The evening was still warm, but the heat of the sun has subsided to some degree, making for a perfect night of baseball in a ballpark that is better than I expected it to be. There are certainly some ballparks that are flashier in North Carolina, but if you’re planning a visit to this state, don’t shy away from leaving yourself a day to go see the Mudcats.
On my first day in Durham, I’d hurried from the airport to my hotel and then straight to the ballpark. My experience a day later would be completely different. I began my second day in Durham by spending a few hours working on a blog post about the previous day, and then met up with Veda Gilbert from Discover Durham for lunch.
She chose a spot within walking distance of my hotel called Bull City Burger & Brewery, which prides itself on using local beef and making its burger toppings (and buns) from scratch. That sounded perfect to me, and I opted for a burger topped with house-made pickles and pimento cheese:
It was absolutely outstanding — and served as good fuel for the two-hour walking tour of the city that followed. We hit a number of interesting and historical places as we made our way around Durham’s downtown, but there’s one spot in particular that I think you’ll like. If you read yesterday’s post, you’ll know that the Durham Bulls moved from Durham Athletic Park to Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995, and have called it home ever since. Fortunately, DAP still stands, and it was the biggest highlight on our walk. This is the park where the Bulls played from 1926 to 1994 and, of course, where the movie Bull Durham was filmed:
There was a showcase tournament taking place at the time …
… but we were able to enter a check out the historic ballpark for a bit:
It’s easy to make an argument that this is the most famous minor league park in the country, so I’m very happy that I had a chance to visit it:
I could’ve sat there and watched the action for a long time, but there were plenty of other interesting sights to see around town. One of the other downtown attractions that we visited was the famous statue of Major the bull, which is a popular spot for photos. Here’s me making an attempt at the “bull horns” hand signal:
After a really interesting tour of the American Tobacco Historic Area …
… I went back to my hotel, enjoyed some air conditioning for an hour or so, and then made the short walk over to DBAP. A day earlier, I’d been intrigued by the gate that opened into the outfield concourse, and had followed it rather than taken my usual lap around the outside of the park. On this day, I made it my top priority to check out the exterior of the ballpark from all angles. After walking behind the office buildings that are situated beyond right field, I turned right and made my way down Jackie Robinson Drive, which runs behind the first base side. Here’s the side of the ballpark from that spot:
One thing that really caught my eye in this area was the Victory Garden, which is situated between the ballpark and the sidewalk. I’ve seen lots of ballpark gardens that supply veggies and herbs to the ballpark’s food services team over the years, but this one’s a little different. The Victory Garden is a partnership between the Bulls, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, and the produce goes to local families in need. This garden produces more than 2,000 pounds of food a year, and together with some other similar gardens around the area, helps to feed 60,000 people each month. I enjoyed walking through it and noting the unique plants — in addition to all of the veggies that you’d expect to see, there were other crops such as a fig tree and some okra plants. Here’s a look at one section of the garden:
After checking out the garden, I arrived at the picturesque plaza in front of the main gates, where I snapped this photo …
… and then went inside. By now, batting practice was taking place, so after a quick lap of the concourse, I grabbed a spot in a semi-shady area and watched for a bit:
I hung out in this spot for about 10 minutes, before moving down the line to continue watching with this view:
As I stood in that area, I noticed something that I’d missed a day earlier. If you look at the following photo …
… do you see the low, gray building in the distance with the horizontal slot-style windows? That’s the Durham County Detention Facility. The stadium’s PA and crowd noises can get pretty loud, and I wonder if those who are jailed in the facility can ever hear the game. I’m assuming that the jail doesn’t have a lot of windows that open, but I’d still be curious if the sound from outside gets in at all. I can’t imagine much being worse than jail, except for perhaps being behind bars while hearing the exciting sounds of a ballpark!
I was glad to be spending a second day in Durham not only for the chance to enjoy DBAP again, but also to see the special jerseys that the Bulls were wearing on this night. The team was honoring the Durham Tobacconists, which was the name of the franchise when it was founded in 1902. The Tobacconists played in the North Carolina League and only made it as far as July before the league abruptly folded. Here’s a picture of pitcher Ricardo Pinto in his Tobacconists uniform:
When BP concluded, I continued walking around the concourse and taking in the various sights. Here’s another thing that I’d failed to notice a day earlier — temporary netting that was draped over the railing and attached to spikes in the warning track to protect the video board during batting practice:
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a setup in all my travels. Sure enough, a couple of Bulls employees began to remove the netting shortly after I took the above photo.
If you read my previous post, you might remember that I mentioned a pop-up mini golf course that was located adjacent to the ballpark. Here’s a view of it in the daylight, and I think you’ll agree that it’s pretty appealing:
The Bulls and the city have done a really good job of making the area around DBAP really appealing. Throughout my visit, it was clear that there were people who had come down to the area just to hang out, and not necessarily with plans to attend the game. It wouldn’t be long before the mini golf course — and a bunch of restaurants in the area with patios — were full of people enjoying this late-June night, and it made for a really fun vibe around the ballpark.
While I was in the left field corner, I went over to the Blue Monster to watch the grounds crew pack up the protective netting. As they worked, the Monster’s door (I always call this the “Manny Ramirez door”) was open, as you can see here:
Seeing the door open gave me an idea, so I followed the concourse past a concession stand to the end of the Blue Monster, and was able to lean in and see behind it. If you look at this photo, you’ll see the light coming from the open door:
The manual scoreboard operators work in this space, albeit well on the other side of the door. One day, I tell you, I’ll get to help out with a manual scoreboard during a game!
After the grounds crew tucked the protective netting safely behind the fence, I continued walking around the park and went over to the right field side. There, I snapped this photo of this impressive seating section:
Wherever I walked, it seemed as though there was a unique and appealing place to hang out and watch the game, and this was just another example. Kudos to the Bulls for going beyond the standard stadium seats to give fans a variety of fun seating choices.
Sensing another big crowd — especially with the special Tobacconists uniforms in use — I decided to grab dinner soon after the gates opened. Pizza might not be the most original pick at a ballpark, but I’d seen a LOT of fans carrying slices around a day earlier. This had to be a good sign, so I headed for the Pie Pushers Pizza concession stand and checked out the menu. Beyond the standard slices, there was a good selection of unique options. But, I always feel that the best way to evaluate a pizza is with a slice of pepperoni and cheese, so that’s what I ordered:
While it wasn’t the best ballpark pizza that I’ve had, it was pretty good and definitely worth checking out when you visit DBAP.
As I’d done a day earlier, I grabbed a Rita’s Italian Ice as a post-dinner way to beat the heat:
This time, I opted for the blue raspberry flavor, which was a poor choice. I’ve obviously yet to see a blue raspberry in the wild, which should’ve been a warning. This flavor basically just tasted sweet, so I think I’ll stick with better choices such as strawberry, cherry or lemonade in the future.
Once I’d eaten — and furiously rubbed my lips with the back of my hand so it wouldn’t appear as though I was wearing blue lip gloss — I went down to field level on the third base side to watch the visiting Norfolk Tides warm up. Here’s starting pitcher Luis Ysla:
One of the things that never gets old about visiting minor league ballparks is just how close you can get to the players. It’s one of the most appealing things about MiLB games, as far as I’m concerned. I stood fewer than 10 feet from Ysla throughout his entire warm-up, which is far closer than fans can get at most of the MLB parks.
When the game began, I grabbed a spot behind home plate that provided this view for the first inning:
I spent the second inning in this standing-room spot …
… and later went to this spot in straightway center, using the edge of the batter’s eye to block out of the sun as it set beyond the third base line:
For the last half of the game, I continued watching an inning here, an inning there, and loving the overall design and feel of DBAP. It’s a park that I didn’t know much about before arriving, but that has quickly climbed toward the top of my favorite MiLB ballparks list. I can’t wait to return, whenever that may be.
Exactly 12 hours after my alarm rang to start Day #1 of my nine-day baseball trip, I walked into Durham Bulls Athletic Park for the first time. I’d made the 815-mile trip using four different methods of transportation — an airport shuttle, two flights, a rental car and a whole lot of steps — and was thrilled to visit my 72nd different ballpark since 2010.
About half an hour earlier, I’d checked into my hotel — the Aloft Durham Downtown — and quickly realized that this is a perfect hotel for the baseball traveler. In addition to being close to DBAP, it has a ticker on the walls of the lobby that displays MLB scores! How perfect is that?
If that’s not perfect enough, being able to see the ballpark and its iconic “Hit Bull Win Steak” bull from the window of my room was definitely a sign that I was in the right place:
After checking in, I dropped my suitcase off in my room, quickly changed into a road trip tee and headed over to the ballpark. The hotel and the ballpark are both key features in Durham’s American Tobacco Historic District, an urban renewal neighborhood that is one of the must-visit spots in this city. It’s the type of area in which you can easily spend a large chunk of day shopping, eating and sightseeing. These were things that I’d do on my second day in town; first, though, I was intent on getting over to the ballpark as quickly as possible.
I’ll admit that DBAP wasn’t a park that I knew a lot about before I arrived in town. Sometimes, I do a lot of advance reading about parks before I visit, but that’s not what I did in this case. It can be fun to be a little in the dark, so to speak, because that can help to make the experience more exciting.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll likely know that I tend to take a walk around each ballpark’s perimeter before entering, but that wasn’t the path that I took during this visit. Instead, I was allured by a sidewalk that headed up toward the base of the large bull, so followed it and was surprised to see that the gates were open:
The ballpark’s actual gates don’t technically open until an hour before first pitch — 6 p.m. in this case — but I’d stumbled into an area of the park that is accessible well in advance of that. The sidewalk that I was on quickly turned into an outfield concourse situated above the ballpark’s 32-foot Blue Monster and, when I walked to the railing, this was my view:
I LOVE when teams make community-friendly decisions like this. This gate closes once the game begins, but until then, people are free to walk through this area — from the left field foul pole to about straightaway center — and enjoy the view. More teams need to make parts of their parks accessible like this. I mean, I can think of a lot of ballparks that use privacy slats in their exterior chain link fences and other similar methods to ensure that people from the community can’t even look into the ballpark. Being able to walk through a part of the concourse before the gates open, or perhaps even if you aren’t going to the game, is absolutely outstanding.
On the other side of the concourse is a huge sports bar called Tobacco Road. It was still quiet at 4 p.m., but it got gradually busier and by the time the game began three hours later, it was packed with people enjoying food and drinks while they watched the game. Here’s a shot that shows the restaurant, the field and the concourse that people can use before the park’s gates open:
There were a couple of other fans in the area, but it was still mostly empty. I headed over to center field, where I took this panorama …
… noted the attractive batter’s eye …
… and then snapped this shot of myself:
I continued along the concourse, noting how the look of the office buildings in the area matched nicely with the ballpark:
(By the way, how amazing would it be to work in one of these buildings?)
Downtown ballparks can have a lot of challenges “fitting” in with their environment, but it’s very clear that DBAP does that well. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The ballpark was designed by Populous, which is most widely known for designing the outstanding Oriole Park at Camden Yards and essentially rewriting the book on not only how ballparks should look, but also how they should fit within their neighborhoods. DBAP opened in 1995, three years after Camden, and it’s visually evident that the same visionaries were behind both projects.
I continued along the concourse until I came to this gate that prevented me from walking any farther:
The concourse that you see beyond the gate is set behind the seats in right field, and very much reminds me of Eutaw Street in Baltimore. After standing near the gates and enjoying the scene for a moment, I retraced my steps past Tobacco Road and toward the iconic bull. Another gate in this area prevented access to the main concourse of the park below me, so I exited and made my way down Blackwell Street toward the main gates. After picking up my credential, I snapped this shot of the team’s retired numbers:
You’ll notice that Crash Davis’ #8 is one of the six numbers retired by the team. He, of course, was the inspiration for Kevin Costner’s character of the same name in the 1988 movie Bull Durham. What you might not know, however, is that the real Davis hit .317 while playing for the Bulls in 1948.
I obviously had to snap a photo with it:
Blue Jays fans may also enjoy noting the retired #25 of current Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo. He served as the skipper of the Bulls from 2007 through 2014, winning a pair of International League championships and one Triple-A title during that span.
Next, I walked around to the plaza in front of the main gates, where I took this photo:
What a beautiful looking park! The fountains, dual staircases and brick design combine to make this one of the most stylish MiLB park entrances that I’ve ever come across.
After a short browse through the team shop, I road an elevator up to the concourse. Check out the signage inside of the elevator:
The concourse at DBAP is under and behind the seating bowl, which is perhaps the only less-than-perfect design feature of this ballpark. I love concourses that are open to the field, and I think that most MiLB fans feel the same way, but I also feel that there are both right and wrong ways to approach enclosed concourses. This one was definitely built the right way — tall ceilings, wide walkways and with lots of natural light, you won’t mind spending time in this area. Plus, if you’re concerned about missing the game, there are a bunch of TVs to ensure that you can always keep your eye on the game. After a short walk through the concourse, I made my way through one of the tunnels to the seating bowl …
… and was immediately impressed with what I saw. Take a look at how wide this cross-aisle is:
The small seating sections and wide cross-aisle mean that it’s easy to get around this part of the park. So, unless you need to head to the concourse to buy food, you can get where you want to go without being out of sight out of the game.
I decided to start checking out the inside of DBAP by walking toward the left field foul pole, so I headed in this direction …
… and soon stopped at field level to snap this panorama:
Eventually, I got close enough to the bull that I was able to take this photo of it:
This bull isn’t the one that you might recognize from the Bull Durham movie. That bull, which moved from the old Durham Athletic Park in 1995 when the team relocated to DBAP, was damaged in a 2007 storm. This one is a recreation — Bull #2, for lack of a better term. Its eyes light up and it snorts during home runs and wins, but it was still quiet at this point.
From this spot, I watched batting practice for a few minutes before heading the opposite way along the cross-aisle toward the right field corner. Here’s the view from the opposite end of the concourse that I’d spotted through the closed gate earlier:
And here’s a look at the Blue Monster and the bull, where I’d stood only a few minutes ago:
Next, I walked around to the grass berm in center field to take this panorama …
… and then continued back to the right field corner to do some preliminary food research. DBAP has an extensive menu and it was no surprise to see some Carolina barbecue available for sale. What was a surprise, however, was just how impressive the Smokehouse Barbeque concession stand looked. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into the design of this concession stand, including the use of barn board, tin and the vintage lights. Check it out:
Just after I took this photo, an usher approached me. I’d seen him picking up BP balls in the outfield seats earlier, and he now was carrying a handful of them. He asked me if I was looking for a ball. I replied that I wasn’t, and he asked if I wanted one anyway. He said that he keeps a few to give out to kids once the gates open. “Big kids, too?” I asked, and he laughed and handed me one that I photographed after he continued on his way:
While I was in the area, I continued to check out some of the interesting and appealing spots for fans to hang out. The White Street Picnic Area in the right field corner seems to answer the age-old question, “Why have a standard party deck when you can have a three-level one?”
Another neat spot that I noticed was a private party area called the Lowes Food Landing. With couches and bar-style seating, it shared a lot of common traits with other party areas that I’ve seen around the minor leagues, but with one exception — the concession stand was a stylishly finished shipping container:
Next, I went back down to the enclosed concourse to take another walk through the part of it that I’d missed earlier. One attraction that I noticed was an on-site brewery from the Bull Durham Beer Company:
I’ve seen a handful of MLB parks with breweries (Coors Field and SunTrust Park immediately come to mind) but I can’t immediately think of another brewery inside of an MiLB facility.
After walking the length of the concourse, I went up to the suite level to check out the PNC Triangle Club, an upscale suite area that looked like this:
It also offers an outstanding view of the action, all from a climate-controlled space that was definitely appealing on this 86-degree day. Here’s the view, through glass, from behind home plate:
I spent a few minutes to enjoy this view, drink a bottle of water and to cool off for a little bit, given that I’d already been walking a lot in the full sun. Then, it was time to head back out into the heat and continue exploring the ballpark. I went along the concourse toward the right field foul pole, and then walked down to the front row of the outfield seats to continue watching BP. This was the view to my right — check out the sweet front-row seats in this area:
This type of seating arrangement is found in many minor league parks, but I don’t know if I’ve seen it make up the front row of the outfield as it does in Durham. Often, it’s found on party decks. Another really creative idea from those who designed DBAP.
I decided not to spend too long in this area. It was extremely bright, and while I could follow most of the hit balls through the air, there were definitely some that I couldn’t track — and standing in the front row of right field is never a good spot to be when you can’t see what’s coming toward you. After a ball that I’d lost in the sun clanged off the picnic deck several yards to my left, I knew it was time to find another spot to check out. I retreated to the concourse to watch the remainder of BP, and then made my way around to left field to check out the Blue Monster up close:
Once the gates opened, I had a sense that this game would be well attended, so I wanted to grab some food before the lineups got long. I originally headed to the Smokehouse Barbeque concession with the hope of grabbing some Carolina barbecue, but nothing on the menu caught my eye. There were lots of pulled pork dishes, and while I’ll eat pulled pork if I have to, it’s not something that I’m all that keen about. The wide selection of concession items throughout the park meant that I wouldn’t be thwarted, so I made my way to the Gonza Tacos Y Tequila stand in the left field corner — a place with eye-catching signage and a food truck-style vibe. After scouring the menu for a moment, I chose a pair of soft corn tacos that were filled with braised beef short rib meat, cilantro, roasted corn-poblano salsa and spicy creme fraiche:
There were only a coupe of people ahead of me in line, so my order came quickly, and I took it up to the top of the Blue Monster and grabbed a comfy seat while I ate. The tacos were very good, and I appreciated the variety of ingredients. They weren’t cheap, though. The two tacos cost $10, and it only took about three bites to eat each one.
I’d added a bit of some delicious hot sauce before eating, so that meant that I needed to look for something cool and refreshing after I finished. The answer was a strawberry Rita’s Italian Ice, which I’m always a sucker for. I took my cup all the way out to the outfield seats and enjoyed cooling down while I ate it:
After eating, I went down to the front row of the seats and took a look around. Something that caught my eye were the video boards in the outfield fence. In particular, I noticed how far back they were from the rest of the fence. I don’t know if I’ve seen this setup before; video panels are always protected by some sort of cage, but it seems to me that they’re not usually set back this far:
One of the things that I love about visiting different ballparks is noticing the small details that I might not pick up during a game broadcast, and this fence/video panel situation definitely falls into that category.
Speaking of the outfield fence, let’s take a moment to pause and appreciate how outstanding the Blue Monster is:
One thing that’s unique about DBAP is that the park’s video board is a part of the fence. There’s no large video board elsewhere in the park, which is highly unusual by MiLB standards. I think including it in this location just adds to the unique and innovative nature of this ballpark. You’ll also notice a manual scoreboard, which always boosts the visual appeal of a ballpark in my books. Throw in the home run bull, a sports bar and tons of seating/standing choices on top of the Monster, and you’ve easily got one of the coolest features throughout all of the minor leagues.
I figured that I needed to spend some time in this unique outfield area now that the game was underway, so that’s exactly what I did. I watched a little of the action from this spot …
… and then stood at the railing on the Monster for a bit, where I could look right down to see Durham left fielder Joe McCarthy:
Between innings, I snapped this shot of myself with the bull:
I spent a couple of innings in that spot and then decided to go find another vantage point from which to watch. The sky beyond the right field corner had turned a nice shade of blue-orange-purple, so I opted for a seat down the third base line where I could enjoy this amazing view:
About half an inning after taking the photo above, I stood up to stretch between innings and noticed an equally appealing sky over my left shoulder. Check out this shot:
That’s the Lucky Strike water tower rising above the American Tobacco district, and the area in the bottom right is a pop-up mini golf course that many fans were playing before, during and after the game.
I watched the remainder of the game from this vantage point, and then made the easy walk back to my hotel through the balmy Durham night after the game concluded. The appeal of the area around the ballpark made me want to stay out and explore more, but after a long travel day and about 16,000 steps, I was ready to get off my feet and call it a night. My plan to explore Durham wouldn’t have to wait long, however — I had an exciting walking tour planned for the following afternoon.
One of the best things about my visit to El Paso and the three Chihuahuas games that I attended was how different each day was. When you’re attending games over three straight days at a single ballpark, there’s always a chance that things will be a little repetitive — but I’m happy that wasn’t the case here.
Day one was all about presenting the team with a plaque for winning my Best View in the Minors competition.
Day two was a chance to tour the ballpark and enjoy the game (and the food) like I normally do.
What was on the agenda for day three?
I’m glad you asked.
My last Chihuahuas game of this trip was all about spreading the word about the Best View competition, my website, blog and baseball travels in general, and I had a number of people who graciously helped me in that regard. I ended up booking a trio of interviews, all of which took place on May 6 in a true back-to-back-to-back fashion.
Before the interviews began, however, I needed to spend a little time on the hotel pool deck enjoying the view. Doing so was a popular pastime on this trip, as it was impossible to tire of looking at beautiful Southwest University Park while hanging out in the equally beautiful El Paso weather. Here’s a shot that my wife snapped of me mid-morning:
You might notice that I’m wearing my Stars and Stripes road trip tee, which you can buy here.
After a bit of relaxing at the hotel and a bit of tourist stuff, the baseball portion of my day started with a 4 p.m. visit to the ESPN El Paso studio, located about 12 minutes from Southwest University Park. Steve Kaplowitz, host of the afternoon drive show, had agreed to have me on to talk about the Best View competition, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. I’ve been fortunate to do a ton of interviews on various teams’ game broadcasts overs the years, but this was the first time that I’d ever visited a radio stadium studio to sit in with the host. And that definitely had me dealing with a case of the nerves.
Anyway, I met Steve shortly before 4 p.m., and he decided that instead of leading the show off with my interview, he’d do a segment talking about the Kentucky Derby controversy from two days earlier. That suited me just fine, because I got to hang out in the studio and watch Steve go to work. I was absolutely in awe about what a professional he was. We were shooting the breeze about baseball just seconds before the show began, and he seamlessly switched into his radio voice and began the show by talking about horse racing. Absolutely amazing. It was a thrill to sit across the desk from him and listen to his Derby discussion while being simultaneously excited and nervous for my segment to begin.
After the first commercial break, he introduced me and we were off and running. I’m happy to say that my nerves only lasted a couple of minutes, and I soon felt a lot more at ease because of Steve’s easygoing demeanor. I’d initially figured that I’d be on the air with him for maybe five or 10 minutes, but Steve graciously had me on for two segments — maybe about 20 or so minutes altogether. And if it weren’t for me having to run off to my next interview, he’d actually hoped to keep me on until the top of the hour! We covered a host of topics, including Best View, my thoughts on El Paso and Southwest University Park, baseball road trips in general, ballpark food — and I even took some listener questions. At one point, I mentioned that my wife and I were enjoying the sightseeing around El Paso, and Steve asked, “You didn’t leave her sitting in the lobby, did you?” I gulped and admitted that she was actually sitting in the car in the parking lot. Steve quickly told his producer Adrian to go summon my wife to the studio, so off Adrian went while Steve and I continued talking baseball. A few minutes later, there was a commotion at the door and Adrian told Steve that he’d brought my wife in, but that she didn’t want to enter the studio for fear of making me nervous. By now, I was over my case of the nerves, but my wife had seen me fretting on the way to the studio and I guess she didn’t want to throw me off. Anyway, there was a hilarious back-and-forth exchange — all of it on the air — and she decided to hang out in the lobby while we finished our segment. The time with Steve flew past, and I’m really thankful to him for having me on.
During the commercial break, Steve snapped this shot of me …
… and then a staffer brought my wife in, and she took this shot of Steve and me:
Steve had to obviously get ready for returning after the commercial break, so after another brief moment of conversation, my wife and I headed out of the studio, where I got this photo taken:
Then, it was straight into the car and back on the road toward the ballpark for my next interview. Interview #2 was with longtime Chihuahuas broadcaster Tim Hagerty. Instead of having me on that evening’s game broadcast, Tim decided to interview me off the air with the plan of using our conversation as filler material when needed throughout the season. He noted that he’d always looking for fillers for rain delays, and that my interview might air multiple times over the course of the season. That sounded perfect to me, so I met Tim in the lobby of the ballpark and we headed up to the radio booth to get underway.
Tim and I talked for probably 10 minutes about a wide range of baseball and ballpark topics, and the time together just flew past. Understandably, he soon needed to get back to prepping for the game, so I got this quick photo with him …
… and then it was time to meet up with Nathan Nunez. He works in the team’s broadcast and media relations department and hosts the Fear the Ears podcast. Nathan and I found a quiet place to sit and talk on the suite level, and chatted about — you guessed it — Best View, ballparks and baseball trips for more than 10 minutes. If you’re interested in hearing that podcast episode, you can check it out here.
Nathan and I grabbed this photo before we said our goodbyes …
… and then for the first time in almost an hour and a half, I had time to relax for a minute.
Of course, that didn’t mean that I chose to grab one of the comfy chairs in the air conditioned suite level. Nope, I was ready to walk around the concourse in search of my next adventure. First, though, I met up with my wife, who’d been chilling at our hotel since we got back from the radio station and had since walked over to the ballpark. I should divulge that she’s not a baseball fan, and when we travel, she’ll normally go to one game with me and find other things to do on the other days that I’m at the ballpark. She’d admitted to me a day earlier, however, that after spending the night at Southwest University Park on May 4, so could, “Sort of see” what I like about visiting ballparks. To my surprise, she opted to hang out at the park with me on this night. As such, my goal for this ballpark visit was simply to enjoy the game and the atmosphere — and maybe point out a few things that might increase her enjoyment of baseball. Each of my two previous games had been busy in their own ways, so I thought that a low-key evening would be a fun way to wrap up this visit.
We headed to some seats in the shade in the upper deck for part of the pregame, and enjoyed this view as the grounds crew prepared the field and the players got warmed up:
Then, we went up to the suite level to enjoy the view from behind home plate — which, after all, was the reason for our six-day trip to El Paso:
After enjoying that view for a few minutes, we went back out to the second deck, where I noticed Tim on the video board talking about the upcoming game:
We grabbed some seats in the left field corner for the anthem, watching this impressively large flag on display in center field …
… and then enjoyed the first couple innings of action from that spot. It turned out to be a good place to be. The slugging Chihuahuas were putting on a hitting clinic. They launched six home runs en route to a 15-0 victory, but some of the round trippers were absolute bombs. See the word “Shamaley” on the bottom of the video board?
Austin Allen hit one ball off the bricks directly below it. Not long afterward, Josh Naylor smoked a ball through the structure above and onto North Santa Fe Street outside of Southwest University Park.
One player on Salt Lake who I was excited to see was Ty Kelly, whose name you might recognize from stints with the Mets and Phillies. I’ve been following his career since 2012, when he and my buddy Jeremy Nowak were teammates on the Frederick Keys. They were both Carolina League all-stars that season, and Kelly moved up through the minor leagues and made his MLB debut with the Mets in 2016. I don’t believe that I’d seen him play in person since 2012, so I was excited to see him again. We were sitting fairly far away for each of his at-bats, so here’s a picture of him on the video board:
After taking a lap around the concourse and checking out the team shop for a bit, I decided to grab something to eat in the second half of the game. I wanted to find something unique, and one particular item at one of the home plate concession stands jumped out at me — Churwaffles and Chicken. This dish consisted of four mini cinnamon sugar waffles alongside a couple of chicken tenders, with the whole thing topped with maple butter sauce:
The chicken was excellent, but the waffles weren’t my thing. I think of waffles as fluffy, and these were definitely not that. It’d probably not a meal that I’d be in a hurry to order again, but I’m glad I checked out something different. I washed it down with a horchata, which Nathan had enthusiastically recommended to me earlier. This was the first time that I’d ever had this drink — which is made with rice milk and has flavors of vanilla and cinnamon — and, to my surprise, it was served in a vessel the size of a yogurt tub:
It was really tasty, albeit very sweet, and there was no way I could get through all of it. This was definitely a beverage that I’d order again, though — although I wouldn’t mind if it were available in a smaller serving. (For the record, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever made that statement about ballpark fare.)
We’d hung out at field level in the right field corner while I ate, and I wanted to close out our Southwest University Park experience by watching the remainder of the game from a new vantage point. Earlier in the evening, I’d seen that the Big Dog House high above right field wasn’t very crowded, given that it was a Monday night, and wanted to check it out. This spot had been renovated since my visit three years earlier, and it looks really swanky. We were escorted up by a super-friendly staffer named Tony who handed me a batting practice baseball, which I somehow neglected to photograph. He gave us a nice tour of the space, which looked like this …
… and then we grabbed a spot on the couch where we enjoyed this view:
Given how the balls were flying on these evening, I had big aspirations to snag a home run in this spot, but that didn’t happen. (We did see a couple more long balls hit, though.)
And that’s how our last Chihuahuas game ended — enjoying this beautiful park from one of the poshest seating sections that I’ve ever encountered in the minor leagues.
The entire visit to El Paso was absolutely outstanding, and I’m so appreciative of everyone who played a part. Thanks so much to the Chihuahuas — especially Angela, Brad, Tim and Nathan — as well as Veronica and Maegan at Visit El Paso, who were super at helping to set up this trip, and Steve and Adrian at ESPN El Paso. Each of you augmented my trip in your own way, and I’m very grateful.
Given that I live 2,300 miles from El Paso, I don’t know when I’ll be back to the Sun City.
One thing’s for certain, though — I’m already looking forward to returning.
When I think about all of the experiences that I’ve had at more than 200 baseball games at 70+ ballparks, it’s hard not to consider the Best View in the Minors plaque presentation on the field on May 4 in El Paso to be the most memorable. A chance to walk on the field between innings in front of a Saturday night sellout crowd is an experience that I’ll never forget.
You might think that this meant my subsequent games at Southwest University Park would be a letdown, but I’m happy to report that wasn’t the case — not by a long shot. On May 5, I had plenty of reasons to be excited about returning to this beautiful ballpark. First and foremost, this would be my first Copa de la Diversión game experience. If you aren’t familiar with the Copa series, it’s a huge promotion in the minor leagues that has 72 teams involved this year. Translated as “Fun Cup,” the Copa promotion is an opportunity to celebrate Hispanic culture — and it’d be an understatement to say that I was pumped about being in El Paso on Cinco de Mayo for the first Copa day of the 2019 season.
The game was scheduled for a 1:05 p.m. start, the weather was absolutely perfect and, at about 10:30 a.m., I set out from my hotel to take a walk around Southwest University Park before entering — something that I hadn’t done a day earlier. I started by walking down North Santa Fe Street, which is only a handful of blocks in length but is home to a variety of attractions, including the ballpark. Here’s the view from the sidewalk with the ballpark on my right:
I continued down the street and turned around at the far end of the ballpark to snap this photo of its Wall of Champions:
Most teams display their successes inside of the park — and, for the record, there’s another similar display on the outfield fence — but I think it’s a neat idea to tout the team’s prowess in a spot that passing motorists and pedestrians can see. As you can see in the image above, the Chihuahuas have had a lot of success. They’re only in their sixth season, but already have a Pacific Coast League championship, a pair of conference titles and four division crowns.
One thing that I frequently enjoy during my ballpark visits is checking out ballparks from unusual angles outside. Sure, it’s always cool to snap a photo or a panorama from outside of the main gates, but I also think it’s interesting to find a bizarre angle from which to shoot. One noteworthy thing about this ballpark is that while it’s surrounded on three sides by streets, the fourth side is comprised of a railway line. (Several times throughout the game, trains will go past. And, sometimes, foul balls will leave the stadium and land on the train tracks.) Anyway, there’s a walkway along the rail line, so I followed it and snapped this shot of the ballpark — complete with a freight train rumbling past at the time:
After a full lap around the outside of the park, I entered via the Durango Street office entrance — pausing to snap this photo of the Best View plaque already on display beside the reception desk:
I was thrilled to see it there, and happy that it wouldn’t be gathering dust on some bookshelf or filing cabinet inside the administrative offices where fans wouldn’t be able to see it. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t return to this area a few additional times over the course of my visit just to see it there.
Once I’d checked out the plaque for a moment, I went up to the quiet concourse and headed toward the outfield. A day earlier, I hadn’t done my usual amount of pregame touring, so I definitely wanted to take advantage of that on this day. Players from both teams were playing catch down the lines as I made my way around to center field to capture Southwest University Park from this angle:
I enjoyed this view for a few minutes, and then continued on my lap around the concourse until I got to the right field corner. This part of the park is really enticing, and it also plays a key role in the view that fans get from home plate. This area is home to a pair of structures — one with four levels and another with three levels — that are connected by a pair of walkways. The second and third levels are known as the City Hall Grill and Sun Kings Saloon, respectively. Both are eateries with a variety of drink and food items and good views of the ballpark. The fourth level, the Big Dog House, is absolutely one of the most impressive seating areas in all of the minor leagues. I’d had a chance to tour these areas when I visited El Paso three years earlier, and was eager to check them out again — especially since the Big Dog House had since gone through a major renovation. I made my way up to the Sun Kings Saloon and sat in the shade for a few minutes with this view in front of me:
This area was completely quiet because the gates hadn’t yet opened, and while it was tempting to remain there for a while longer, I soon decided to continue my walk around the ballpark — opting to visit the Big Dog House a day later. The next spot that I headed — another place that I’d neglected to check out a day earlier — was directly behind home plate, down at field level:
From here, you can clearly see the right field structure that I’d visited a few minutes earlier, as well as my hotel in left-center. As impressive as the view was, I was equally impressed by the seating immediately to my left. Check out this area, known as the Dugout Club, that offers fans a suite-style experience just inches from the field of play and the home dugout:
In the image above, you might have noticed a number of staff members in red shirts — 11 of them, to be precise. The gates were about to open, and they were meticulously wiping down each of the seats. That’s the norm at a lot of ballparks, but I was impressed at just how carefully they were working. I even watched one staffer patiently wiping up and down each of the rungs in the railings between sections. I’ve been to my share of MiLB ballparks that don’t get this TLC, and it shows. It’s this largely behind-the-scenes work that easily makes Southwest University Park one of the cleanest parks, MLB or MiLB, that I’ve ever visited.
Soon enough, the gates opened and the players returned to the field — this time, wearing their El Paso Margarita uniforms. I made a beeline toward the home bullpen in foul territory to snap some pictures of what one might reasonably call the loudest uniforms in the history of baseball. Here are catcher Austin Allen, pitcher Dillon Overton and bullpen coach Akinori Otsuka:
You’ll notice that Otsuka was wearing a Margaritas umbrella hat, which was the day’s stadium giveaway. For the record, he wore it for much of the pregame warm-ups, and only swapped it for his regular cap when the anthem was played. (By the way, if his name sounds familiar, he’s the former MLBer who saved 32 games for the Texas Rangers in 2006.)
It’s always fun watching players get warmed up, and the scene in front of me seemed even more lively because it was easy to tell that the players were having a blast in their bright uniforms. There were a lot of smiles as they got together, stretched and began to play catch — and definitely some laughs as they spotted Otsuka in his umbrella hat. As Overton and Allen began to throw, I positioned myself behind the catcher and took shots like this one:
I watched the players for a few more minutes, and then decided to go grab some food. As you might remember, I hadn’t eaten a ballpark meal the night before, so I was determined to make up for it during this visit. I’d been impressed with Southwest University Park’s menu when I visited three years ago, and while it’s always tempting to try items that I’ve previously enjoyed, I generally like to mix things up. El Paso might not be known for its pizza, but as silly as it may sound, I’d spotted a Peter Piper Pizza billboard a day earlier and had been thinking of pizza on and off ever since. I decided that my first meal of the game would be a pepperoni slice, which you can see here:
I was absolutely blown away by how good this pizza was. It was piping hot with a nice, thin crust, and there was a generous helping of cheese. It was difficult not to go back for another slice immediately. Of course, I needed something to wash the pizza down, and opted for a cold drink that worked well with the Copa theme. The team was selling margaritas for $2. The city of El Paso lays claim to inventing this drink, so I felt that it was an appropriate beverage on this hot, sunny day:
If you find the image above to look tantalizing, here’s another shot that is a bit more … amateurish. As I held the cup and moved it to get a good angle for some photos, I failed to initially realize that I’d tipped the cup too far forward and was pouring the drink on the concourse in front of me. Oops:
I wrapped up my meal just before the national anthem was about to begin, and went back over to the bullpen area to watch the players. While there, I noticed that El Paso’s Sammy Solis was also wearing his own umbrella hat. I was curious to see what he’d do with it when the music started to play. Here’s your answer:
When the game began, I spent the first few innings doing what I love best — checking out the ballpark and the action on the field from different vantage points and just generally soaking up the atmosphere. Eventually, I made my way to the upper deck down the first base line, where I was able to keep my eye on Chihuahuas’ right fielder Josh Naylor:
Because I always have my eye out for Canadian-born players, I’ve enjoyed following his career since he was drafted by Miami in the first round of the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft. (And I even got a chance to hold one of his bats before it was sent to him back when I toured the Sam Bat factory.) Anyway, Naylor has been a wrecking ball for the Chihuahuas this season — and has since been called up to San Diego. Before the call-up, he hit .299 with 10 home runs and 35 RBI in 45 games. And he’s only 21 years old.
After watching the game from the upper deck for about an inning, I set off to find something else to eat. I didn’t really feel like a hot dog, so I browsed the multiple concession stands around the concourse to look for something that caught my eye. On unique item that sounded appealing was called Diablo Fries, named after the El Paso Diablos franchises that played at various times for nearly 100 years in El Paso. This dish consisted of a serving of fries topped with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, diced jalapenos and nacho cheese — although the latter was more like queso, which was definitely a good thing, given how I generally feel about nacho cheese. Here’s the meal:
I have to say that it was pretty darned tasty. I’m not the biggest fry lover, but these were crisp and seasoned well, and the Cheetos and jalapenos provided some nice spice without being so hot that they melted my face. It’s definitely a meal that I’d recommend for fans who are visiting Southwest University Park.
Of course, I needed something cool and refreshing to drink with a spicy meal, so I grabbed a green apple slushie from the Slush’ae concession stand on the first base side. I’d had a couple of slushies from that stand during my last trip, and they were perfect. The green apple flavor, I’m pleased to say, was just as good as the lemonade and mango varieties that I’d previously had:
Once I’d eaten, I knew that I needed to get out of the sun for a bit. El Paso averages more than 300 days of sun per year, which is absolutely incredible. Where I live, we had snow up until about three weeks before I left for this trip, so I wanted to avoid getting a sunburn. There are plenty of spots around the ballpark in which you’re in the full sun, but there are also fortunately a number of other places where you can catch some shade. I went back down to the concourse and browsed in the team shop for a bit, and then went and found a shady spot down the third base line where I watched a bit more of the game out of the sun.
As the game progressed, I decided to once again head back to the upper deck on the first base side, and not only because it provided a good view of the action. Since I’d finished my slushie, it had been on my mind to the point that I wanted to try another. Perhaps not the best dietary choice, but the sweet, fruity flavor and the chill of this beverage made it a perfect companion during this ballpark visit. This time, I opted for the cherry flavor, and it was also delicious:
I polished this drink off shortly before the game concluded, and spent the rest of the time until the final out on the outfield concourse where I could watch the game and keep an eye on the action in the visitors bullpen. This spot also allowed me to leave the park quickly so that I could get back to my hotel, pick up my wife and head off for some more sightseeing and dinner.
After dinner, we returned to the hotel and immediately went out to the pool deck and hung out with this view of the ballpark:
Over time, the scene changed to look like this …
… and, eventually, this is what we were looking at:
After two excellent yet dramatically different days at Southwest University Park, I was already looking forward to the excitement that the next day would bring.
At the conclusion of the fourth inning of the May 4 game between the host El Paso Chihuahuas and visiting Salt Lake Bees, I left where I’d been sitting, wove my way through the crowded concourse and took the elevator down to the clubhouse level.
Checking out the various areas of a ballpark while the game is going on is nothing new to me. Going down to the clubhouse level, however, is something that I rarely do — especially once the game has begun. But this wasn’t any old game. Two days earlier, I’d traveled 12 hours and nearly 2,300 miles to El Paso — a city with warm weather and warmer people — for a big reason. The reason for my visit to this West Texas city was to present its Triple-A team with a plaque for winning the Best View in the Minors competition that I ran last year. If you’re new to this blog or perhaps didn’t hear about the competition, here’s a quick rundown.
When I visit different ballparks, I like to watch the game from as many vantage points as possible — and that usually includes spending an inning in the seats behind home plate. When I sit in this spot in any park, I always make a point of appreciating the view. To me, the view isn’t just about watching the game itself. Rather, it’s about taking in what sights are within view in the distance. In downtown ballparks, the city’s skyline is often visible. At other parks, you can see forests, mountains, bodies of water and more. I’ve always found that the right view from home plate can augment my ballpark visit, and I know many of you feel the same way. And that was the impetus behind the Best View competition. It gave you, the fans, a chance to decide which MiLB park offers the best view from home plate — and you overwhelmingly chose El Paso’s Southwest University Park. As part of the competition, I’d promised to visit the winning city to present the team with a plaque this season.
Back to the night in question. After taking the elevator down to the clubhouse level, I walked through the tunnel toward the home dugout and stopped just short of entering it. The field of play was just a few yards in front of me, roughly at waist level, and the familiar sounds of a professional dugout was nearby — the semi-muffled sounds of the stadium PA in the distance. The shouts of encouragement and claps from the dugout. The click-clack of metal cleats on cement. The dull thud of baseball bats being placed in their holders.
Here’s a quick peek at how things looked in front of me:
I hadn’t made the journey through this tunnel merely to enjoy the sounds, though. Rather, I was alongside Angela Olivas, the Chihuahuas’ senior director of marketing and communications and Brad Taylor, the team’s general manager, both of whom played a major role in my visit to El Paso. Angela, who was outstanding in coordinating a number of elements related to my visit and the presentation, had arranged for me to present the Best View plaque to Brad on the field during at the start of the sixth inning. I was also joined by my wife, who was attending this game to capture the presentation on video.
Our meetup just behind the home dugout at the end of the fourth inning meant that we had a whole inning until our moment on the field — and that was a major thrill for me, as I got to enjoy this time in this behind-the-scenes location. As I chatted with Angela, Brad and, eventually, the team’s on-field host Andy Imfield, I also noticed that my pregame jitters about going onto the field were quickly dissipating.
It turns out that the fifth inning was a bit of a marathon. Sixteen batters, seven runs scored and three mound visits meant that the inning took a long time to complete; I’d guess it was close to half an hour. That suited me just fine, because it lengthened our time spent in this area. I was constantly enjoying the sights and sounds, but was especially excited to see that the tunnel in which we stood was steadily busy, too. Left-hander Sammy Solis, who has pitched in nearly 150 games in the big leagues, went back and forth a few times in anticipation of entering the game in the sixth inning. Catcher Austin Allen, who was DHing for the Chihuahuas, made a few trips past us — presumably to get some swings in at the batting cage just a handful of yards behind where we stood. Outfielder Boog Powell, midway through his three-hit game, chatted with Brad for a moment.
Eventually, when the fifth inning came to an end, someone said, “We’re up,” and our contingent went up the dugout steps, turned left and walked along the warning track in front of the Chihuahuas dugout. As Brad and I positioned ourselves on the grass, facing the crowd, I heard the PA announcer say my name and explain the reason for my visit. The in-stadium video camera operator positioned himself in front of us, and Andy gave me a cue to wave once I was on the video board in right-center field. The whole time, team photographer Jorge Salgado snapped photos; those that you see here are courtesy of him.
Here’s Brad and me while the competition was being announced …
… and here’s me waving once I was on the video board:
On cue, I presented the plaque to Brad …
… and we then posed for another picture before heading off the field in time for the inning to begin:
(By the way, you might have noticed that I was wearing one of my new The World Needs More Baseball T-shirts. If you want to buy one of my shirts, you can click here.)
Thanks to my wife, I’m excited to be able to show you the presentation as a video. Check it out here:
My visit to Southwest University Park on May 4 hadn’t begun with my walk through the clubhouse-level tunnel, of course. Nope, I’d arrived at the park several hours prior with the goal of enjoying the environment in anticipation of the plaque presentation that would happen later on. After arriving in El Paso late on the night of May 2, and spending all of May 3 doing touristy things, I was more than ready to attend a ballgame. That’s partly because this ballpark wasn’t just in my mind for much of my stay in El Paso — it was also within sight. We were fortunate to stay at the Courtyard El Paso Downtown, a new hotel that is across the street from the ballpark. Not only were we able to see Southwest University Park from our room’s window, but the hotel also has a pool deck on the fifth floor that offers this view of the park:
Absolutely perfect, right?
If you were to make a guess at how much of my trip I spent standing on the pool deck and admiring the scenery, the correct answer would be, “A lot.”
Fortunately, by the time 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 4 rolled around, I no longer had to just look at the park from afar. It was time to make the short walk over. First pitch wouldn’t be taking place for another 2.5 hours, but I wanted to get into the park good and early and enjoy its environment. Plus, I was feeling a little anxious about presenting the plaque, and figured that if I wandered around the ballpark for a while, it’d help to relax me a bit.
Of course, relaxing in the beautiful Southwest University Park was as easy as it gets. After a slow walk around the concourse, I went to the outfield grass berm and snapped this photo …
… and then hung out in this spot for a few minutes:
Neither team was hitting, which was a bit of a surprise to me. Part of the reason I’d gone to the park so early was to watch batting practice, but with little happening on the field beyond the usual pregame field prep, the park was still quiet. That was fine with me, as it gave me a chance to just enjoy the environment; my first two ballpark visits of the season, as you might recall, didn’t exactly offer favorable weather.
While I was in the outfield, I took some time to photograph the plaque before I presented it. Here’s one of those shots:
After taking the above shot, I carefully packed up the plaque in its bubble wrap-lined box and secured it in my backpack again. I’d been careful while traveling with it two days earlier, and the last thing I wanted was to chip it in the couple of hours that remained until I was due to turn it over. Upon doing so, I snapped this shot of myself with the video board — which was incidentally showing the live broadcast of the Kentucky Derby — in the background …
… and then continued to explore the park a bit more. On the upper level, I noticed an addition since my last visit — the Section 211 Patio Suite. It was added two seasons ago, and offers a private experience for groups. Check out the cool faux-foliage surroundings:
This suite has three different types of seating — stadium seats, tall chairs and, my personal favorite, this comfy sectional:
As much as I’m not a “suite guy,” because I prefer wandering around ballparks rather than remaining in one specific area, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm too hard to have me watch a ballgame in this cool spot.
Once I’d checked out the suite, I went down to the main concourse to meet up with Angela, who gave me a rundown on how the plaque presentation would go. I’d meet her at the end of the fourth inning, we’d go down below the ballpark and meet up with GM Brad behind the home dugout, and then go out onto the field between innings. Sounds just about perfect, right?
By now, the ballpark’s gates had opened, so I met up with my wife who was playing the role of photographer/videographer for this ballpark visit.
The evening’s promotion was First Responders Night, so we went over to the plaza in the right field corner to check out some of the sights. There were police motorcycles and a police car, but the big attraction for me was an FBI SWAT team’s armored vehicle. I had the opportunity to not only climb inside of the vehicle, but to also hold one of the SWAT team’s shields — which I can attest was much heavier than expected:
Soon after I decided that I probably wouldn’t cut it as a SWAT officer, we set out in search of something to eat. I made the uncharacteristic move of declining dinner on this evening. Sorry, folks. I was a little anxious about the upcoming plaque presentation, and didn’t want to put anything in my stomach. My wife, non-queasy about said presentation, was hungry and asked me for a food recommendation. During my visit three years ago, I’d been really impressed with the Juarez Dogs concession stand on the first base side, so that’s where we headed. She opted for an impressive hot dog called the Memphis Meets Mexico Dog. It consisted of an all-beef hot dog wrapped in bacon, topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce, coleslaw, pickles and pork rinds. Any time you can have pork three ways in a meal, it’s a good day, right? Here’s how this hot dog looked:
Even though I’d decided not to eat a proper meal — something that I’d make up for in my subsequent visit to Southwest University Park — I knew I needed to celebrate the plaque presentation after it was done. At several points throughout the game, my wife and I had spotted other fans walking around with a drink that caught our attention, and we knew we had to seek one out to buy. Shortly after we returned to the concourse following the presentation, we made our way to the Frutas Locas concession stand on the first base side and bought a drink known as a pinas locas. Behold:
It consisted of an entire pineapple filled with pineapple juice and fresh pineapple rings. The red sauce is called chamoy, which is a Mexican condiment that is both salty and spicy. And the straw that you see is wrapped in dried fruit and rolled in chili powder, making for even more spice with the drink. I wasn’t sure about all of the spice at first, but it quickly grew on me and I appreciated the contrast that it provided to the sweetness of the fruit. If you’re ever in El Paso, you might decide to order this drink for its Instagram appeal — but I bet that you’ll enjoy the taste, too.
It was fitting to wrap up this ballpark visit with an enormous, novelty pineapple drink, because this was a day that was sweet in a lot of ways.
I’ve got so many people with the Chihuahuas to thank:
- Angela for so skillfully organizing the event, as well as fielding what probably felt like a million questions from me leading up to it;
- Brad for receiving the award;
- Andy for giving me the cue to wave and for writing the script that was read over the PA;
- Jorge for snapping the awesome photos that you see here; and
- The Chihuahuas fans who voted, shared and otherwise supported the Best View competition last season — and who made me feel exceedingly welcome in their city.
About 12 hours after this game ended, I’d be back at Southwest University Park for the team’s first Copa de la Diversión day, in which the Chihuahuas would suit up as the Margaritas in what are probably that loudest uniforms I’ve ever seen. A big blog post all about that experience will be coming very soon.