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Corpus Christi Hooks – May 15

On my second day in Corpus Christi, the Hooks were scheduled to host the Frisco RoughRiders in a 2 p.m. game. Shortly after I woke up, the view out the window of my downtown hotel looked like this:

corpus-christi-hotel-view

 

While I was thrilled with the picturesque view of the Gulf of Mexico, I also couldn’t help but notice some semi-dark skies in the distance. Plus, the wind was howling like crazy, and I’d already heard that the weather in Corpus Christi can change quickly because of the city’s proximity to the Gulf. Things weren’t exactly looking promising for that afternoon’s game.

I worked on my blog for a bit and short while later, I heard the rain begin. It’s never a good sign when you can hear the rain loudly from inside a hotel room when the A/C is blasting, and when I walked over to my balcony to look outside, the term “monsoon” might have been appropriate. To give you an idea of how hard it was raining, I went downstairs, huddled in the entrance of the hotel and shot this short video:

Perfect baseball weather, right?

It was pretty clear that there was no way the Hooks would be playing, but the team declared on social media that the game was still set for a 2 p.m. (or slightly thereafter) start. I’d sort of wished things would’ve just been cancelled right away to avoid the procedure of going to the stadium, standing there for an hour or two and then turning around and going back to my hotel, but I figured I’d head over to Whataburger Field shortly before the gates opened to snap some photos of the rainy scene — so that’s exactly what I did.

Here’s what the field looked like upon my arrival:

whataburger-field-tarp

Still a great view with the bridge in the background, but I would’ve rather seen a clear field and players taking batting practice.

It was still raining quite hard, so I tried to stay in covered areas as I walked around the virtually empty stadium. I went back up to the group party deck down the first base line to check out the view of the Harbor Bridge in the rain …

whataburger-field-bridge-rain

… and wandered around the extremely quiet suite level for a bit:

whataburger-field-suite-level

Occasionally, I’d head back to the main concourse, grab a seat that was relatively dry and just hang out while enjoying the scenery. Despite the downpour, I was really digging the view at Whataburger Field:

whataburger-field-rain-view

There was still no official announcement about the game, but the gates soon opened and a pretty decent crowd (all things considered) filed in. I milled around the concourse for a while longer, and then went down beneath the ballpark to walk through the tunnel outside the clubhouses and look out at the field. It was even wet down there:

whataburger-field-tunnel

As “game time” approached, I figured it’d only be a matter of time before the game was called on account of the weather, so I decided to make the most of my visit and hit the Whataburger concession stand for some lunch. A Twitter friend of mine, Steven Ericson, had strongly advised me to eat a Whataburger, so I ordered a double meat burger with cheese, lettuce, onions, jalapeno peppers and mustard, along with a side of onion rings. I was unimpressed with the onion rings and found that they lacked flavor. The burger, however, was delicious — and probably the best “fast food”-style burger I’ve ever had:

whataburger-field-burger

The above photo doesn’t do justice to the size of the burger, but it was enormous — and definitely filling.

About the time I finished eating, the game was indeed cancelled, so I took a walk around the park for the last time, stopping to take this panorama of the stands and infield area …

whataburger-field-pano-tarp

… and then drove back to my hotel.

The rain continued throughout the afternoon, which was unfortunate because I’d really wanted to get outside and explore the area along the coast a bit. Fortunately, the sky cleared up a bit around 7 p.m. and I got to go for a walk.

There was a giant marina roughly across the street from my hotel, so I walked around it for a bit …

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… and particularly enjoyed looking at the numerous shrimp boats:

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I wish the weather had been better throughout the afternoon, because the entire area around my hotel seemed perfect for walking. Check out this awesome view:

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One interesting feature in the area was the memorial to the late Spanish-American singer Selena, who was murdered in Corpus Christi in 1995. Even though the rainy weather meant that the streets were mostly deserted, there was a steady flow of people stopping at the memorial during the entire time that I was walking around the area. I managed to snap a couple photos, including this one, between groups of fans:

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I grabbed a sub on the way back to my hotel and ate it while I watched the first half of the Sunday Night Baseball broadcast. By this time, the rain had begun again and it was pouring like crazy. I took this last shot out my hotel window …

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… and then set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. so that I could catch a flight to El Paso a few hours later.

Corpus Christi Hooks – May 14

My 10-day visit to Texas started off on an extremely high note with two outstanding days in Round Rock. While I was sad to bid farewell to that city, I was excited to get up on the morning of Saturday, May 14 and set my sights on Corpus Christi. The city sits right on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, so I was pumped to enjoy a different sort of climate for a pair of visits to Whataburger Field, home of the Corpus Christi Hooks, over the next two days.

It takes about 3.5 hours to drive from Round Rock to Corpus Christi, but I checked out of my hotel early in the morning so that I could get to Corpus in good time and play tourist for a bit before seeing the Hooks in action that evening.

The drive between the two cities was interesting because it featured more ranches than I could’ve counted; there was no doubt that I was in Texas, and I was sure enjoying the scenery. Soon enough, though, the scenery changed. The small towns and big ranches gave way to the sight of the Gulf, the distinct smell of sea air and the call of seabirds. I couldn’t help but roll down my windows as I breezed into Corpus Christi to take it all in.

It was still way too early to check into my hotel, so I headed straight for the beach and just a few minutes after passing through the city limits, this was my view:

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I spent a little time taking a romantic walk on the beach by myself and soaking up the beach air, but my main priority in visiting this part of the city was to tour this:

corpus-christi-uss-lexington-from-beach

That’s the U.S.S. Lexington, an aircraft carrier that now serves as a museum ship. I’m a big military history buff, so I knew I wanted to spend some time at the “Lady Lex,” as it’s called, from the time that I started planning this trip. I’ll have details and lots of pictures from my tour in an upcoming blog post. This post, from here on out, is all about baseball.

After spending a couple hours on the aircraft carrier, I checked into my hotel downtown and got ready for the game. While I could’ve walked just over a mile to Whataburger Field, I opted to drive because I read that inclement weather can occur quickly in Corpus Christi (more on that in my next post) and I didn’t want to be caught walking a mile in the rain like a fool.

I pulled into the parking lot at Whataburger Field about 75 minutes before the gates were set to open, and was amazed to see sizable lineups along the sidewalk and even stretching into the road:

whataburger-field-lineup-outside

The early crowds were a sure sign of a sought-after giveaway, and that was definitely the case here — the Hooks were giving away replica jerseys to the first 1,750 fans. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about the lines; just a few minutes after arriving, I met up with Matt Rogers, the team’s director of communications, and got my media pass. I figured I’d get my pass and start wandering around to check out the ballpark before the gates opened, but Matt asked if I wanted a tour, and of course I accepted.

We began our tour by stopping at a radio station studio inside the park. This is the studio from which the post-game show is broadcast and it’s in a different location than the broadcast booths. I’ve seen radio station studios in some MLB parks, but I believe this is the first one I’ve seen at the MiLB level:

whataburger-field-radio-studio

After visiting the studio, our first stop was the press box. I’d seen online before my visit that Whataburger Field has a picturesque view from home plate, so I hustled to the windows in the press area to take in the scene:

whataburger-field-bp-press-box-view

Outstanding, right? That’s the Harbor Bridge in the background, which I think provides an awesome backdrop. I always get a kick out of seeing big bridges on my trips and driving over them, so the thought of sitting behind home plate with a beautiful bridge in the background was enticing. There are a couple other notable features to mention. See the Citgo sign in right-center field? Well, right behind it, you’ll see a tall structure. That’s part of Hurricane Alley, which is a big waterpark directly behind the ballpark. The other feature that I want to point out is behind the video board in left field. It’s hard to see in this picture, but do you notice a body of water? That’s a canal/turning basin that enormous vessels travel through. A huge Citgo refinery is located out of sight to the left, so oceangoing vessels come in from the Gulf, travel under the bridge, pick up whatever they’re picking up at the Citgo docks and then turn around and head out to the ocean. If you stand on the grass berm in left field, I later noticed, you can watch the ships pass from just a short distance away.

The press area at Whataburger Field was like most other minor league press areas I’ve seen, but with one notable exception. The club’s games are broadcast in Spanish, and Matt told me the Hooks are the only team with this setup in the minor leagues:

whataburger-field-press-box-spanish-radio

Since we were already on the press/suite level, we checked out one of the suites and then saw the main dining area for those with suite tickets:

whataburger-field-club-dining-area

Our next stop was a party deck on the suite level along the first base side. It featured a combination of picnic tables and regular stadium seats, as well as a great view of the bridge:

whataburger-field-harbor-bridge

Before we went down to the main concourse, I snapped this panorama of the view from this area:

whataburger-field-group-deck-pano

Batting practice seemed to wrap up early, possibly because the sky was gray. This was a bit of a concern, given that I was eager to get a ball at some point during my visit. The Hooks play in the Double-A Texas League, so I obviously wanted to add a Texas League ball to my collection. Although I’d be attending a handful of Texas League games throughout this trip, I knew it’d feel good to get a ball early on. Funny enough, as I was contemplating the weather’s apparent interference with BP, I spotted a ball! Matt was leading me down the concourse toward the right field foul pole, and I saw a baseball sitting at the base of the railing:

whataburger-field-ball-on-concourse

I snapped the above photo of the ball but didn’t pick it up since the gates weren’t yet open. Argh.

The ball quickly left my mind as Matt pointed out some of the cool features at Whataburger Field and, boy, let me tell you that there are plenty of neat things about this ballpark. For example, the concourse down the lines is elevated and descends behind the foul pole. Before you get to the stairs, though, you have a great vantage point for watching the game — and, if you look over your right shoulder, you can look right down into the visitor’s bullpen:

whataburger-field-visitors-bullpen

I love minor league parks that really make the bullpens accessible to fans, so after being impressed with the bullpen locations in Round Rock over the previous two days, I was excited to see a high degree of accessibility here, too. Check out the picnic tables on the concourses behind the ‘pen. You can sit just a couple feet behind the relievers, which I think is really cool.

Our next stop was a VIP deck behind the bullpen. There are a bunch of picnic tables at ground level, but you can climb up to the upper deck and sit there, too. I love the design of this area …

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… as it seems to split the difference between looking like a ballpark and looking like a waterpark. I’m sure this was the designer’s goal, given that this area is basically what divides the ballpark from the waterpark. (If you look off the upper level of the deck farthest away from the playing field, you’re looking straight down into the waterpark.)

This deck isn’t the only group party area in the outfield; there were many of them, but none neater than this area that includes a swimming pool:

whataburger-field-swimming-pool

Funny enough, I was impressed with the swimming pool in Round Rock because it was the first one I’d come across in the minor leagues, and now I was standing next to another one. And, speaking of features that were present in both ballparks, here are some rocking chairs, too:

whataburger-field-rocking-chairs

I love the location of the rocking chairs because they’re directly behind the outfield fence. Imagine wearing your glove as you enjoy the comfy seating, and then standing up to catch a home run ball? Awesome.

As we continued on through the outfield, Matt showed me another impressive feature — there’s a youth baseball field located essentially behind the Whataburger Field batter’s eye:

whataburger-field-kids-ball-diamond

The premise is that youth teams can schedule a game in the early evening and then walk right into the MiLB ballpark after their game wraps up and watch the professionals play. It’s a great idea and something that more teams should do, I think.

Not to be constantly comparing Round Rock and Corpus Christi, but like the park I’d spent the two previous days in, this one also had a climbing wall …

whataburger-field-climbing-wall

… a basketball court …

whataburger-field-basketball-court

… and an impressive play structure setup:

whataburger-field-play-structure

Beyond these areas, though, there were some elements that I think it’s safe to say are unique across all of baseball. The area on which Whataburger Field was built was once a cotton plant, and the ballpark designer wanted to keep some features from the area’s previous incarnation intact. This meant leaving an enormous set of boilers, which are located right behind the basketball court …

whataburger-field-boilers

… and a pair of cotton presses, which were used to make bales of cotton. Here’s one of them:

whataburger-field-cotton-press-full

And, lest we get too far away from talking about baseball, here’s something cool. In this closeup of the cotton press from the previous image, you’ll see some broken windows. I asked if there was a chance that any of the windows were broken by balls during batting practice, and Matt confirmed that the middle one on the bottom row was once broken by Hunter Pence. The words “Bam Bam,” Pence’s nickname, were added after the feat:

whataburger-field-bam-bam-window

It’s difficult to accurately predict the distance of these windows from home plate, but it would take an absolutely mammoth shot to break a window — especially on the fly. Here’s a Google Images view of Whataburger Field, and the red arrow points to the location of the cotton press window that Pence hit. Wow:

whataburger-field-pence-home-run

We continued making our way around the concourse until we were back at home plate, at which time Matt had to get back to work. As I stood there contemplating my next move, I suddenly thought about the ball that I’d seen earlier. By now, I figured that any of the ushers in the area would’ve grabbed it — and, besides, the gates were now open, which meant a fan could’ve picked it up, too. For the heck of it, I hustled down the first base concourse and, to my amazement, the ball was still sitting in its place!

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I snatched it quickly and was thrilled to add a Texas League ball to my collection:

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With about 45 minutes left until first pitch, I basically retraced my steps from my tour with Matt and checked out some sights again and others I’d previously missed. Here’s one shot, for example, that shows the downtown Corpus Christi skyline, which is clearly visible from several spots throughout the ballpark:

whataburger-field-downtown-skyline

And here’s a shot of a bunch of the sights beyond the outfield fence, where I’d been walking earlier. You can clearly see the grass berm, the waterpark behind the ballpark, the swimming pool and a couple party areas:

whataburger-field-behind-fence

My next stop was the batting cages down behind the third base line, where I watched a couple members of the Hooks working on their swings. I don’t have any photos of this, though — even though I was standing just a few feet away, I was shooting through a chain-link fence and two separate sections of netting, so my camera didn’t feel like cooperating. Still, this is a cool area that is definitely worth checking out during your visit to Whataburger Field.

I watched the action in the cages for a while and then decided to take another walk through the hubbub of activity behind the outfield fence. As I headed in that direction, movement from the canal outside the ballpark caught my eye. I hurried toward the fence and saw an oil tanker named the Ridgebury Lessley B heading out toward the Gulf:

whataburger-field-oil-tanker

I made a point of Googling the name of the tanker and, as I write this, it’s about to enter the Strait of Gibraltar!

Once the ship had sailed out of sight, I went over to the cotton presses and checked them out. I love how they were left when Whataburger Field was built. It almost feels as though you’re looking back into the history of the area. As I looked down inside the presses, I could only imagine how many hours they ran and the sheer volume of cotton that came out of them. Here’s a close-up view of one of the presses:

whataburger-field-cotton-press

In my next stop, I stepped out through an open door in the right field corner onto the warning track and took some photos to make up this panorama:

whataburger-field-warning-track-pano

Remember my mention of the nearby Citgo refinery earlier in this post? Well, there’s a heck of a lot of industrial-lookin’ stuff within sight of Whataburger Field. (And, yes, “industrial-lookin’ stuff” is a technical term.) Here’s a look at the skyline from one angle of the ballpark:

whataburger-field-citgo

By the way, see all those white and blue cylindrical devices in the foreground? Those are wind turbine pieces.

After I took this photo, I realized that while first pitch had yet to arrive, my hunger sure had. Time to do something about that! On an earlier lap around the park, I spotted the Smoke 5714 concession stand, which advertised the use of Nolan Ryan Beef; the number in the concession stand’s name, of course, refers to Ryan’s career strikeout total. Anyway, there were a number of tasty-looking things on the menu, including smoked turkey legs, smoked sausages and loaded baked potatoes, but I opted for the Texas-style cheesesteak sandwich:

whataburger-field-texas-style-cheesesteak

I’m not sure what made it “Texas style,” but the steak and the peppers and onions were yummy. As you’ve maybe heard me rant before, I’m not a fan of the ballpark cheese goo, but I otherwise enjoyed this big sandwich and the potato chips it came with.

Once I’d eaten, I walked over to the right field corner to watch the visiting Frisco RoughRiders (where I’d be headed at the end of my Texas trip) warm up. As I said earlier, there are some cool viewing areas at Whataburger Field in the right field corner, so I was eager to check them out. As I peered over the edge of the railing, catcher Kellin Deglan (a first-round pick in 2010, taken one spot ahead of Christian Yelich) was directly below me:

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He was headed to the corner to catch starting pitcher Victor Payano’s long tosses, so I followed behind and took some pictures like this one of the big lefty:

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When Payano and Deglan moved into the bullpen, I took a spot on the stairs above the catcher, where I had a straight-on view of Payano warming up.

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I watched the entirety of the warmup and when the duo headed toward the dugout, I grabbed this seat and spent the first two innings with this great view of the park and of the setting sun:

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Although the evening weather was perfect, I was still having trouble getting used to the Corpus Christi humidity. In addition to drinking several bottles of water throughout the game, I also opted for a little icy refreshment in the form of one of my favorite ballpark treats:

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I was impressed with the view as the sun dropped behind the upper level of Whataburger Field. Here’s one last sunset shot in which the sun looks like a ball of fire:

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As much as I probably would’ve enjoyed staying in that seat for the remainder of the game, I wanted to watch Evan Gattis’ at-bats from the grass berm beyond left field. The Hooks/Astros slugger, of course, is known for his towering blasts, and I figured that if he hit one onto the berm, I’d have a really good chance of snagging it. I made sure to be on the berm for Gattis’ next two at-bats of the game, but he didn’t send anything my way. Ho-hum.

I decided it’d be fun to spend the innings between Gattis’ trips to the plate on the VIP party deck in right field. It didn’t hold a group on this evening, so I don’t know if it was technically open or closed, but I climbed up to the top level, sat on a picnic table and enjoyed this great view of the game:

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The sunset still looked great from my new vantage point:

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I spent the last three innings over on the third base side, partly because I hadn’t yet sat in this area and partly because I wanted to enjoy the light show on the bridge. As you can see here, the colors were constantly changing, making the bridge an eye-catching ballpark backdrop whether it was day or night:

whataburger-field-bridge-night

I split as soon as the final out was recorded, hopped in my car and was back in my hotel room just a few minutes later for some much-needed rest. I’d be back at Whataburger Field in a little over 12 hours.

Round Rock Express – May 13

If you read about my first day in Round Rock and, in particular, what I ate, you might not be surprised to know that my second day in town didn’t begin with a hearty breakfast. In fact, given the size of my dinner the night before, I simply started my day with a handful of almonds and a bottle of water.

The light breakfast wasn’t solely due to the fact that I’d, umm, overindulged during my first visit to Dell Diamond. I also knew that I had a pretty awesome lunch lined up.

At 11 a.m., I met with Nancy Yawn, the director of the Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, to have lunch and learn more about the city I was visiting. I was excited, in particular, to learn about Round Rock’s connection to sports. The city is known as the Sports Capital of Texas, and Nancy had promised to give me a tour around to look at some of the various sports complexes — a great way to begin a day the would culminate with another Round Rock Express game.

Before we started our tour, we had an outstanding lunch at Cover Three, a restaurant within walking distance of my hotel. I had a plate of absolutely delicious nachos to start (I neglected to get a photo, unfortunately) before my mouthwatering main dish of a gulf shrimp po’ boy with Parmesan fries. This, I’m happy to report, didn’t escape my camera:

po-boy-sandwich

After lunch, Nancy took me through some of the city’s sports facilities, starting with the Round Rock Sports Center. It’s a new complex that cost close to $15 million to build and has nearly 50,000 square feet of playing space for sports such as basketball, volleyball and a whole lot more. This mind-blowing facility was undoubtedly the most impressive non-professional sports center I’ve ever visited. It has too many cool factors for me to attempt to sum up, so I suggest checking out this site if you’re interested in learning more. (Or, if you’re in Round Rock to see the Express, make a point of going and seeing the center.)

Here’s one shot that gives you an idea of the size of the center, although this image hardly does the magnitude of this facility justice:

round-rock-sports-indoors

Next, we headed toward Old Settlers Park, which is a sports fan’s dream — it’s 645 acres and includes 20 baseball fields, five softball fields, seven soccer fields, two football fields and an enormous multisport facility. Before we got there, though, Nancy asked if I’d had a chance to visit Round Rock Donuts yet. This iconic landmark has been featured on numerous food shows on TV. Since my answer was in the negative, we made a quick detour and I got a chance to sample devour the “world famous Round Rock glazed donut,” which was one of the best donuts I’ve ever eaten:

round-rock-donut

Soon enough, we pulled into the park and I was blown away once again. Given the park’s size, we just did a driving tour, so the photos below were taken out my window. Still, you can see the impressive nature of this facility with this shot of one of the gates:

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And here are just a couple of the baseball fields:

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I was wildly impressed by everything, and I can certainly see why Round Rock is the sports capital of the state. In Canada, where sports outside of hockey aren’t much of a priority at the youth level, it’s jaw dropping to see such outstanding facilities designed for youth sports.

Soon enough, I had to start preparing to head over to Dell Diamond, so Nancy dropped me back at my hotel so I could get my stuff together. I’m thrilled that I had the chance to learn more about the city and see some of its sports-centric sites; too often, I zoom into a city, watch a baseball game and then leave again the next morning. My two days in Round Rock gave me a chance to get a better appreciation for the area — thank you, Nancy, for everything you did to make my visit so memorable.

Since I’d been a little later than usual getting to the ballpark a day earlier, my plan was to get to Dell Diamond several hours before first pitch. This would give me a chance to shoot a bunch of video that will be up on my YouTube channel soon, but also allow time for simply walking around the park before it opened and enjoying all the sights.

So, I quickly filled my backpack with all my camera gear, paused for this quick shot in front of my rental car …

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… and was standing here with my media pass about 10 minutes later:

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If you read about my first game at Dell Diamond, you might recall that I didn’t have a chance to take my customary trip around the exterior of the park before entering, but I more than made up for that with a couple laps around the park on this day — all while filming the scenes with my GoPro. Because that video is forthcoming, I’ll hold off on sharing photos of various features along the way. Instead, here’s one quick panorama of the exterior of the front gate that should give you a good idea of how the area looks:

dell-diamond-front-pano

One of my first priorities once I entered Dell Diamond was to snag a batting practice ball. I enjoy collecting baseballs during my various ballpark trips, and I especially wanted to get a Pacific Coast League ball while in Round Rock. I have at least one ball from each of the other leagues I’ve seen in action, so a PCL ball (or two, or three) was a must. It didn’t take long to find a PCL ball; it was sitting in the grass behind the right field foul pole during Oklahoma City’s batting practice session. Unfortunately, my self-imposed rule is to not take baseballs until the gates open, so I grabbed the ball and tossed it back onto the field.

Still confident that I’d end up with a ball once the gates open, I stood and watched the Dodgers go through some warmup drills in right field from a cool vantage spot right above:

dell-diamond-okc-warming-up

Next, I went over to check out the rocking chairs in left field. I’d seen them a day earlier but hadn’t done any serious rocking, so that had to change. I sat with this view for a few minutes and rocked to my heart’s content. I particularly like this shot of the view from my chair:

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Once I’d watched a bit of BP from this spot, I went down to field level on the third base side. I hadn’t been to field level a day earlier, so it was great to stand just above the dugout and watch the events unfold on the field. As I’ve said before, few things are better than being privy to BP while the stadium is still closed. Here was the view from where I stood:

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As is always the case during my pregame tours, I didn’t spend too long in one single place. After watching the players from field level for a little while, I went back to the berm in left field, where I took this panorama:

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The player facing me is Jack Murphy, who is someone I follow on Twitter because I met him and got his autograph back in 2010, during my very first trip after starting The Ballpark Guide. (Here’s a post I wrote a few years ago about that autograph and a bunch of others, if you’re interested. Murphy’s autograph appears in the sixth photo.)

Anyway, my reason for moving back to this location is that I wanted to be on the berm as soon as the gates opened, as I knew it would be an ideal location for catching a ball or two. I waited patiently and, before long, the gates opened up and four or five kids made a beeline for the berm — picking up any balls that had been hit for home runs earlier on. I wasn’t going to run around and compete with them for baseballs; plus, I couldn’t fit my glove into my non-checked luggage on this trip. I figured that if a ball was hit right near me, I’d grab it. Luckily, this happened soon enough. Maybe 10 minutes after the gates opened, I snagged this beauty:

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My first PCL ball! I was part thrilled, part relieved.

With my mission accomplished, I climbed back up to the concourse and began to walk down the third base side. I paused for a moment to send out a tweet saying that I’d gotten a ball, when I heard a line drive ricochet off the seats about 12 rows below where I stood. I reacted quickly and began to head toward the ball, when I heard an usher’s voice behind me: “It’s in that row.” What? In many parks, I’ve encountered ushers who are super quick to retrieve balls before fans can get them, but this friendly usher was actually giving me directions so that I could locate the ball quicker. Yet another reason I was thrilled with the overall experience in Round Rock. I found the ball an instant later, snapped this photo …

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… and then went down to the Round Rock dugout, which was empty at this point:

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I watched the last few minutes of Oklahoma City’s BP session and, when it wrapped up, I ran down the line to see the players leave through the staircase/walkway that I wrote about in my previous blog post. What a great way for fans to get so close to so many past/present/future MLB stars:

dell-diamond-player-stairs

While in the area, I also snapped this photo of the Home Run Porch. As you can see, it’s located right above the rocking chairs:

dell-diamond-home-run-porch

With the field momentarily empty, I wandered around a bit and checked out some of the sights I’d seen a day earlier. Eventually, I saw the Express make their way onto the field, so I went back down behind the team’s dugout to take some player photos — something I hadn’t really done during my first game at Dell Diamond but that always enjoy doing when I have a chance. My spot behind the dugout meant that I had a great view of many of the players.

Here’s Ike Davis, who has played more than 600 games in the big leagues:

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Veteran shortstop Doug Bernier:

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Outfielder James Jones, who I noticed was wearing his MLB pants with his MiLB uniform — see the MLB logo?

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A few minutes later, when Jones was stretching, I shot this photo that makes it look like he’s posing for me:

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I can assure you that he wasn’t.

When the game began, I was excited to have my choice of the outstanding food items at Dell Diamond once again. I’d eaten five amazing things a day earlier, which meant that it was only logical to broaden my horizons and try something new, right? Well, that’s what I was initially thinking, but as I wandered though the various concession areas, the Texas carnitas nachos I’d loved a day earlier beckoned me. I know it might sound silly to eat the same thing on consecutive days when I love sampling as many items as possible, but you try making that argument to the tantalizing combination of homemade chips, shredded pork, queso, pico de gallo, jalapenos and sour cream:

dell-diamond-carnitas-nachos

I’m happy to report that the nachos were just as good as a day earlier, and I’m now wondering if there’s a way I can convince the team to FedEx me a few orders! Seriously, this meal is that good. When you visit Dell Diamond, make sure that you eat the nachos. Please.

The size of the nachos convinced me to spend a couple innings seated, rather than walking, after I finished eating. So, I stayed in the Home Run Porch in left field and, as the sun set, enjoyed this view:

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When I was ready to walk again, I found a spot on the concourse directly behind home plate, where the view looked like this:

dell-diamond-home-plate-view-night

This ended up being the last photo that I took at Dell Diamond. When I’m fortunate enough to have two days in one city, I enjoy spending the second half of the second game sitting in a good spot and simply enjoying the game. While my priority is always to walk around the park, take hundreds of photos and document everything I can, I’m also a fan of the game itself. As such, it’s a treat to finally sit down and take the game in.

I can’t say enough about my two-day visit to Round Rock. It’s always a thrill to start a trip off on the right note, and that was definitely the case here. Thanks to everyone I met along the way and especially to those who contributed to my experience.

Although I was sad to leave Dell Diamond, I was excited for the next chapter in my Texas road trip. In the morning, I’d be driving 3.5 hours to Corpus Christi for two days. Those blog posts will be coming soon.

Round Rock Express – May 12

A culinary journey through Dell Diamond’s top food items, two personal tours, an awesome gift and some guy named Yu Darvish on the mound.

Where to start?

Well, how about at the beginning of the day?

I don’t need to spend a bunch of time talking about the flight to Texas, but it definitely went smoother than last time I visited. I flew from Ontario to Chicago, had a short layover and then flew from Chicago to Austin. Upon arriving in Austin, I quickly picked up a rental car and navigated my way through the rush hour traffic around Austin on the way to Dell Diamond, home of the Round Rock Express. Normally, I like to get to the ballpark at least three hours before first pitch, which gives me time to walk around outside and tour the park’s interior before the gates open. My flight’s arrival time and the traffic meant that I only got to Dell Diamond a little more than 90 minutes before first pitch. I had time to snap this quick photo …

round-rock-express-dell-diamond-front

… and then I headed straight inside, where the outstanding Express staff had so much great stuff planned for me that I quickly forgot about being frazzled over my later-than-usual arrival.

My first stop was to meet Laura Fragoso, the team’s senior VP of marketing. She hooked me up with my media pass and then introduced me to Cassidy MacQuarrie, the team’s community relations coordinator, who spent at least half an hour giving me an amazing tour of Dell Diamond. Since she’d met me on the suite level, that’s where our tour began. This suite might look like any other at a minor league park, but it’s especially noteworthy because it used to be Nolan Ryan’s suite:

round-rock-express-nolan-ryan-suite

In case you weren’t aware, the team is owned by Ryan and his business partners in a company called Ryan-Sanders Baseball. The Express name pays tribute to Ryan’s nickname, of course, and Cassidy told me that Ryan attends several games throughout the season. Anyway, as you might expect, there were a ton of Ryan-related sights throughout the park. (The staff T-shirts, for example, have #34 on the back.) The coolest Ryan display I saw was this piece of custom art made by a local artist. The image is made entirely out of cigar labels:

round-rock-express-nolan-ryan-cigars

As I learned about the team’s history, connection to the community and a whole lot more, we made our way out to the left field corner, where I saw something really impressive. When the players enter and leave the field, they do so in this area instead of through tunnels connected to the dugouts. This feature was designed to give fans a chance to interact with players, and it’s something I’ve seen in lower levels of the minors but not at the Triple-A level. Whether you’re an autograph collector or you just want to say hello to your favorite ballplayer, you can do so by lining up along the railing here:

round-rock-express-players-stairs

(The guy in the blue BP shirt is a member of the visiting Oklahoma City Dodgers who’s signing autographs.)

Another neat feature in left field is Dell Diamond’s “best seats in the house” — a long row of rocking chairs positioned just behind the outfield berm:

round-rock-express-rocking-chairs

And here’s something that I really like:

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Garbage cans, you ask? Look closely — the actual garbage can pales in comparison to the much-larger recycling and composting bins, which I think is awesome. Cassidy told me that the plates on which the food is served are made from compostable materials, which means that you can put your plates and any food scraps into the bin on the right, rather than into the trash. I believe this is the first such setup I’ve seen at a ballpark, and other teams should be hastily following suit. In fact, I’ve come across many parks that have little to no recycling, much less composting. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked around with one or more plastic bottles in my backpack to recycle back at the hotel because the only disposal option at some parks is the garbage. Well done, Round Rock!

The tour with Cassidy breezed past, and soon enough I was informed that Dell Diamond’s executive chef had prepared a selection of some of the ballpark’s notable food items for me to sample! After a long day of travel, this was music to my ears. We made our way to a table on the concourse behind third base and my eyes bugged out a bit when I saw my dinner laid out in front of me:

round-rock-express-food-for-malcolm

A moment later, chef Ed Ebert arrived and gave me a detailed explanation of each of the food items. Here’s the rundown, starting from the top left and moving clockwise:

Hot dog wrapped in a grilled-cheese sandwich: Instead of a conventional bun, this hot dog is tucked inside a folded grilled cheese sandwich. It should also be noted that the hot dogs at Dell Diamond (and burgers) come from Nolan Ryan’s beef company.

Kahuna kolache: This is a Hawaiian-inspired dish that features a jumbo hot dog stuffed inside a special bun. Between the hot dog and the bun there’s a sweet mango sauce.

Texas carnitas nachos: Homemade red, white and blue tortilla chips with shredded pork, homemade queso, homemade pico de gallo, jalapenos and sour cream.

Black and bleu burger: A blackened burger patty sitting on a dollop of chipotle mayo, topped with a blend of applewood smoked bacon and roasted jalapenos, along with a medley of jack and bleu cheese.

Hot dog flight: From left, there’s The Fender, a hot dog with Texas chili, cheese, onions and sour cream; The James Dean, a hot dog with bleu cheese coleslaw and Frank’s Red Hot sauce; and The Marilyn, a hot dog with neon nuclear relish, red jalapenos and shredded cheese.

The verdict? Everything was delicious … and filling! My favorite were the nachos, which were the best nachos I’ve ever eaten at any ballpark. I loved how the ingredients were homemade — none of that abysmal pump “cheese” that I’ve ranted about numerous times. (I ranted about it with chef Ed for a bit and I think he appreciated my enthusiasm.) From top to bottom, the nachos were just outstanding. The burger and the hot dog/grilled cheese combo were my runners-up.

Before I started eating, we got a quick group picture. Laura took the shot, so she unfortunately wasn’t in it. From left, you’re looking at Nicole Hunt, who works for RS3 (Ryan Sanders Sports Services) and also did an exemplary job of fanning away any flies while I ate; Cassidy MacQuarrie, who gave me the tour; me, shortly before eating the majority of the food in front of me; chef Ed Ebner, who is the corporate chef for RS3; and Joe Nieto, who is the assistant general manager for RS3:

dell-diamond-malcolm-and-group

Everyone had to get back to their pre-game duties, but Ed soon made a quick return to show me something interesting. The picture below is a lava rock from Mount Etna in Sicily and a key element of the Fire and Ice meal production that won Round Rock first place in the MiLB Food Fight competition that recently wrapped up. This lava rock is heated and used to cook beef tenderloin and shrimp; it’s a suite-only item, so I didn’t see it in action, but the wow factor is obviously off the charts:

round-rock-express-lava-rock

After I’d taken a few minutes of recovery time following my meal, I was joined by Randi Null, the team’s director of creative marketing. Time for another tour!

Perhaps fittingly, one of the first stops on our tour related to food. This is a huge garden planted and maintained by the team, and it provides food that is served at Dell Diamond! There were plenty of tomato plants, jalapeno plants, herbs and a whole lot more:

round-rock-express-veggie-garden

Randi also took this photo of me in front of the huge Welcome to Round Rock mural, which is based after the iconic Welcome to Austin mural that you might have seen before:

round-rock-express-malcolm-welcome-to-sign

We also checked out the team’s hall of fame area, which is beyond the grass berm in left field. There are currently two members in the team’s HOF; former pitcher Roy Oswalt will join them at a ceremony this summer. The area also has a bunch of photos from throughout the team’s history, as well as this Express-themed cow that is signed by Nolan Ryan:

round-rock-express-nolan-ryan-cow

When Randi had to get back to her pregame tasks, I quickly made my way toward the Express bullpen. Why? Yu Darvish had just walked there himself and was beginning to warm up. As you might expect, there are a huge crowd around him. Being above and behind him, I wasn’t able to get any head-on shots. However, I had a great view as I watched him go through his warmup:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-from-behind

After the warmup, I watched Darvish sip from a cup of water and I took this picture as he tossed the rest:

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Then, it was time for some fist bumps …

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-fist-bumps

… and time for me to run around to each side of home plate so I could watch him pitch for the first few innings. Darvish was slated to throw no more than 60 pitches, so I wanted to be sure that I had a good vantage point for shots like this from the first base side:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-pitching

And this one from the third base side:

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I was hoping for a good head-on shot as he walked toward the Round Rock dugout at the end of an inning of work, but he kept his head down virtually the entire time. For a brief instant, he looked up and I shot a couple pictures like this one:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish

As much as I would’ve enjoyed grabbing a seat behind home plate and watching the three-time MLB all-star deal, I also wanted to continue exploring Dell Diamond. Since I’d watched a couple innings of Darvish, I decided to take a walk up to the press box, where I hadn’t yet been. It provided not only some air conditioning and an opportunity to mix myself a lemonade/iced tea mix, but also this great view of the action:

round-rock-express-press-box-view

There were a fair number of media members from Japan in the press box, but I heard from an attendant that most of them had already left and were down waiting to interview Darvish in the press area once he’d finished his start. The attendant told me that the press box was so crowded at the start of the game that people were sitting on the floor! That’s remarkable, considering the press box at Dell Diamond is huge and can accommodate a sizable crowd.

After chatting with a few people in the press box for a half-inning or so, I decided to go back to the main concourse and catch a bit of the action from behind home plate. Here’s how the scene looked in panoramic form:

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And here’s another panorama — this one has Darvish on the mound:

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Up for another panorama? Good. Here’s the view from the home run porch:

dell-diamond-home-run-porch-pano

This deck was added to increase the park’s seating capacity when the Round Rock franchise joined the Triple-A Pacific Coast League prior to the 2005 season. It’s shaded from the sun, which makes it an ideal spot if you’re looking to stay somewhat cool while you watch the game.

Remember the cool walkway that the players use while traveling to and from the field? That’s hardly the only Dell Diamond feature that provides fans with the opportunity to be close to the players. Both bullpens are also extremely accessible; they’re each located in the outfield and directly between the field and a pair of grass seating berms. This means that you can stand just a few feet behind the players to cheer — or heckle, depending on which side you’re on. I spent a bit of time right behind the Round Rock ‘pen, and it was obviously a thrill to be so close to the players. Here’s Anthony Carter:

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And Jefri Hernandez, who maybe looks like he’s been busted allegedly chewing something he’s not supposed to in the minor leagues:

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Here’s something interesting that I noticed — the players using a Texas-themed citronella candle:

round-rock-express-bullpen-candle

I’m guessing it’s to keep away the bugs, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in any of the other parks I’ve visited.

And, before continuing on, I snapped this shot of me with my brand-new Express cap! As a way of welcoming me to the city, the team was kind enough to give me free rein in the team shop to pick any cap I wanted — wow! This is the one I chose and I love it:

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My next stop was the enormous play area behind right-center; both Cassidy and Randi had taken me through the area earlier, but I wanted to wait until it was being used to get some pictures. It’s one of the most impressive play areas I’ve ever seen — and that includes the MLB parks I’ve visited. There was an enormous trampoline/bungee cord attraction in which you’re strapped into a harness connected to bungee cords and can bounce and do flips:

round-rock-express-trampolines

A rock climbing wall:

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A basketball court:

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And, my favorite, a swimming pool and hot tub!

round-rock-express-swimming-pool

This is the first pool I’ve come across in my ballpark travels. I know there are some of them out there, but as someone who loves swimming, I was super impressed with this feature. It should be noted that this area is part of a group picnic deck; whereas the other play area attractions are open to all fans, only those among a group that has bought tickets in this zone can use the pool and hot tub.

As the sun began to set, I grabbed a spot on the berm in right field and watched a bit of the game:

dell-diamond-grass-berm-pano

But before long, I was on the move again. (Ever wonder how much I walk during a typical ballpark visit? I’ll actually have a blog post about that very topic after I finish all my Texas posts.) Anyway, I went back along the concourse to the left field corner, where I stood for a moment at the top of the steps that lead from the field toward the clubhouses to show you how things look in this spot:

round-rock-express-steps

As I once again walked along the outfield concourse, I sensed a bit of a commotion behind the fence that divides Dell Diamond from the players’ parking lot, so I climbed partway up the stairs toward the Home Run Porch to survey the scene. It didn’t take too long to realize what was going on. By now, Darvish had finished his stint on the mound, and the happenings just outside the fence were all related to him. Take a look at this photo:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-fence

There were several Express staff members standing outside the clubhouse door just out of sight to the left of my photo and just out of sight to the right is the team’s indoor batting cages that double as a press conference space. There were several media members milling around, and I realized it wouldn’t be long before Darvish emerged from the door on the left, walked down the sidewalk in front of me and entered the door on the right. Of course, I could’ve attended the media session thanks to my pass, but I preferred to just be a fly on the wall and take it all in. One more cool detail — see that white Mercedes-Benz SUV? That was backed into the spot for Darvish just before I snapped the above photo.

Just as expected, Darvish came through the door a few minutes later. Unfortunately, he was very tough to photograph. Shooting through the fence wasn’t possible and the dusky conditions were less than ideal. I snapped a handful of shots as Darvish passed right below me, but all of them were blurry. Here’s the best one:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-press

It was one of those moments that I couldn’t adequately capture with photos but that was absolutely awesome to witness. Seeing MLBers rehabbing up close is such a cool experience (remember when I watched Derek Jeter take BP while standing on the field?) so even if I didn’t get great photos, seeing Darvish is something that’ll be etched in my mind for a long time. I figured Darvish’s media availability would be brief and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before he exited the door to my right and headed toward the vehicle for a moment. His face was blocked by the tree, but you can clearly see his uniform pants and cleats in this shot:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-legs

By now, it was the top of the sixth inning, so I headed back toward the berm in right field to watch some of the game. In this spot, I stood just a couple feet from Oklahoma City pitcher Jacob Rhame as he warmed up. The access that fans get to the bullpens at Dell Diamond is outstanding. In fact, another fan was standing behind Rhame and the two of them were carrying on a conversation while the righthander threw. I was so amused that I took this video of the scene:

The background noise makes it hard to follow the conversation, but I could clearly hear Rhame answering questions about his tenure in the Dodgers organization and more, between pitches.

Next, I spent a couple more innings behind home plate, enjoying this view …

round-rock-express-home-plate-view

… and when the game was just about to wrap up, I headed over to the steps toward the clubhouse. As it turns out, a player had already beaten me there! Here’s a shot of a Dodgers player standing on the concourse with a friend/family member during the late innings — pretty awesome to see:

round-rock-express-player-concourse

Soon after the last pitch of the game, I hopped back into my rental car and drove less than 10 minutes to my hotel and crashed. It’d been an awesome day, but an extremely full one and I wanted to be well rested for my second day in Round Rock. It would feature an outstanding lunch with the director of the Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, a chance to tour some of the other impressive sports facilities in Round Rock and, of course, another Express game. A blog post all about that day is coming next.

Ten Days in Texas!

Question: What has 261,797 square miles, 27,469,114 residents and me?

Answer: The state of Texas between May 12 and 22!

That’s right — I’m heading to Texas again!

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I had an outstanding visit to the Lone Star State last September, taking in a Texas Rangers game and a pair of Houston Astros games, and from the minute I arrived back home, I was anxious to return. I didn’t know when I’d be able to get back to the state, but I’m pleased to announce that I’m heading there very soon. This time, I’ll be spending two days in five of the six cities that host a minor league team, and I’m absolutely stoked to get this trip underway.

I’ll be up bright and early (like, at the airport at 3 a.m. early) on May 12 to fly to Chicago, and then to Austin, where I’ll make the short drive to Round Rock and the adventure will officially be underway. Here’s what my schedule of games looks like:

Thursday, May 12: Oklahoma City Dodgers at Round Rock Express 7 p.m.

Friday, May 13: Oklahoma City Dodgers at Round Rock Express 7 p.m.

Saturday, May 14: Frisco RoughRiders at Corpus Christi Hooks 7 p.m.

Sunday, May 15: Frisco RoughRiders at Corpus Christi Hooks 2 p.m.

Monday, May 16: New Orleans Zephyrs at El Paso Chihuahuas 6:30 p.m.

Tuesday, May 17: New Orleans Zephyrs at El Paso Chihuahuas 11 a.m.

Wednesday, May 18: Frisco RoughRiders at Midland RockHounds 6:30 p.m.

Thursday, May 19: Frisco RoughRiders at Midland RockHounds 7 p.m.

Friday, May 20: San Antonio Missions at Frisco RoughRiders 7 p.m.

Saturday, May 21: San Antonio Missions at Frisco RoughRiders 7 p.m.

Visiting these five ballparks means that by the time the trip concludes, I’ll have seen MLB/MiLB action in 62 different ballparks since 2010. Also, I’m getting a chance to see two leagues for the first time — El Paso and Round Rock play in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, while the other three teams are members of the Double-A Texas League.

I’ve decided to schedule two days in each of these cities for several reasons. First, I’d hate for a rainout to ruin my chance at seeing a park if I were only in town for one day. Additionally, two days will mean that my travel schedule isn’t as crazy as I’ve sometimes had in the past, which will mean more time to blog while I’m away and, hopefully, more time to do some sightseeing, too. Please feel free to send me any tourist ideas by posting in the comments section below, tweeting me or sending me an email. Time permitting, I plan to check out things including the USS Lexington floating museum in Corpus Christi, Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso and a handful of other things elsewhere.

I’m also excited to say that with the exception of flying to and from Texas and catching a flight from Corpus Christi to El Paso, I’ll be renting a car and driving. This means that I’ll have the chance to tour the cities a bit and see the sights, which will be awesome.

In addition to blogging, I’ll be tweeting about my adventures along the way, as well as shooting video with my GoPro to share on my YouTube channel. I did a bit of GoPro stuff last season (mostly time-lapse videos) but wasn’t pleased with my videos and didn’t post them. I’ve made some adjustments by buying some additional gear and I know I’ll now be able to put together some cool videos that will provide you with a cool fan experience for each of the parks I visit, so please think about subscribing to my YouTube channel and watching for those upcoming videos.

I also want to take a moment to thank those who have supported my trips in various ways, whether it’s sending money by PayPal or shopping through my Amazon affiliate program. As you can imagine, there are considerable costs to traveling, and this trip is arguably my most ambitious yet. That said, I’d really appreciate your continued support. If you get a kick out of reading my blog and want to help keep my adventures coming, I’d kindly ask you to visit this page on my website. It details how you can support my travels by shopping on Amazon, which might be something you’re already doing. All it takes is a quick click each time you shop and doing so doesn’t cost you a penny more. Plus, if you buy something and get in touch to let me know, I’ll send you a public or a private thank you!

I’ll update this blog post if any of the travel plans change, but in the meantime you can follow me on Twitter to read the latest updates and follow along on my adventure.

 

A Major Website Is Using Two Of My Photos

Even though my priority when I travel for The Ballpark Guide is to document the parks themselves, I’m always eager to get a chance to snap some action photos when I’m able. The minor leagues are ideal for action photos, of course, because you can get extremely close to the field — and some of my favorite action shots came back on the last day of the 2014 MiLB season in Jamestown, NY. You can read all about that experience at this link; it was a memorable one because it was a doubleheader that would serve as the last two games in the history of the New York-Penn League’s Jamestown Jammers, who moved to West Virginia after the season.

Anyway, I ended up taking more than 500 photos over the course of the doubleheader, and most of them were individual shots of players. Afterward, I connected with a bunch of players on Twitter, sent many of them my photos by email and some of the guys even started using my shots as their Twitter profile or header images, which was super cool.

One guy I shot on this day was D’Vone McClure, a fourth-round pick of the Indians who was playing for their Mahoning Valley affiliate. As I crouched beside the dugout on the Mahoning Valley side of the field, McClure looked in my direction for a few moments while he was on deck — and this meant that I could get a bunch of shots of him from just a few feet away. This shot, in particular, isn’t an “action” shot per se, but it’s one that I really liked:

d'vone-mclure-mahoning-valley-scrappers

I started following McClure on Twitter after the game and he even followed me back. I tagged him in some of my photos and he sent me his email address so I could send him the originals. I’ve been eagerly hoping for McClure to rise through the ranks of the Indians system, but that hasn’t been the case. He played just nine games last season and was released by the Indians during spring training of this year.

But the good news is that we all might to get to watch McClure again — on TV on Saturdays.

The former outfielder, who was also a standout wide receiver in high school, just committed to the University of Arkansas to play on its football team — and that’s where my photos come into play.

Late last week, Danny West, a reporter who covers the Razorbacks for Rivals.com, contacted me and asked to use a photo of McClure that I’d taken on that day in Jamestown for an upcoming article about McClure committing to the U of A. I sent him the shot I posted above, as well as a couple others — and he ended up using two of them!

Check out Danny’s story here to read all about McClure’s path from the minor leagues to Div. I football, or take a look at this screenshot that uses my photo:

dvone-mcclure-article

Pretty cool, huh?

I’ve had a few different news organizations use my photos over the years, and it’s always a thrill.

Speaking of thrills, I’m almost ready to announce my latest ballpark trip, so keep an eye out for that!

Playing Tourist in Pittsburgh – August 29/30

Two days after I had a chance to spend a full day playing tourist in Cleveland back at the end of August, I arrived in Pittsburgh bright and early for a pair of Pirates games at PNC Park. Last season was the second straight year I had the fortune of seeing two games at the beautiful downtown ballpark, and the second year that I’d be staying at the top-notch Hampton Inn & Suites Pittsburgh-Downtown.

My plan was to get to the city well in advance of my hotel’s check-in time, park for free in the hotel lot and do some sightseeing. A year earlier, I’d noticed that the hotel is directly across the street from the Senator John Heinz History Center, a Smithsonian-affiliated museum that includes the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. Here’s a shot that shows the hotel on the left and the museum on the right:

hampton-and-museum

Anyway, I’d been short on time and wasn’t able to visit during my previous stop in Pittsburgh, so I was determined to make time during this visit.

So, just a couple minutes after leaving my car in the hotel’s parking lot, I was standing directly in front of this:

sherman-tank

This is a WWII Sherman tank that sits in front of the museum. It’s obviously quite hard to miss and certainly a head-turner, given that it sits just a few yards from the street. Once I’d taken this photo, I bought my ticket and started to check out the sights — and, boy, were there lots of things to see! The museum is 275,000 square feet with displays on multiple levels. Although I was anxious to get to the sports area, I was interested in the various historical displays, too.

Here’s a 1936 Ford DeLuxe sedan with a body made of stainless steel:

stainless-steel-car

It was designed by Allegheny Steel, a Pittsburgh company, along with Ford. If you’re wondering, the museum concentrated on exhibits with ties to Pittsburgh, but there were a ton of great general American history things to see, too.

You’ve probably seen the iconic “We Can Do It!” WWII propaganda poster featuring the female production worker known as Rosie the Riveter. What you might not know, however, is that the poster was designed by a Pittsburgh artist named J. Howard Miller. In addition to the numerous copies of the poster on display, there was a statue of the poster’s character:

rosie-riveter-statue

The museum had a ton of WWII displays, which was interesting because I was obsessed with WWII history when I was a kid. (And I still have a hard time turning the channel away when I come across a WWII documentary on TV.) The next display I saw was impactful — this photo shows nearly 7,000 dog tags hanging from the ceiling, and each one represents five Pennsylvanians who lost their lives in the war:

dog-tags

Whenever I’m in a building, I tend to favor the stairs over the elevator. I was glad that I sought out the stairs at this museum, because they have a sports theme. Check it out — the ninth stair is labeled as the Bill Mazeroski stair, the 21st stair (the landing, actually) is the Roberto Clemente stair, and so on:

pittsburgh-sports-museum-stairs

For whatever reason, the museum was largely empty during my visit. In fact, on some of the upper floors, I’d only come across another two or three people. This obviously meant that some of the floors were extremely quiet … which was fine except for that fact that when I heard a booming voice and saw this historical reenactment figure talking on this screen that I initially thought was a mirror …

scary-video-guy

… I must’ve jumped a foot in the air. I didn’t stick around to hear what this mustachioed gent was telling me; as my heart rate slowly returned to normal, I continued browsing and stopped at another sobering display. This one is a calendar that shows the industrial-related deaths in Allegheny County from July of 1906 to June of 1907. We certainly take workplace safety for granted in many industries today, but look at this calendar — anything from 35 to 60 people killed in workplace accidents per month over the course of this year:

county-death-count

The good news it that it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The museum was certainly packed with uplifting displays, too, and things only got more exciting as I made my way through the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum portion. Here’s a life-size model of the Franco Harris “Immaculate Reception” play:

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A Jason Kendall replica locker stall:

jason-kendell-locker-stall

And a Willie Stargell autographed jersey:

willie-stargell-signed-jersey

The museum had a number of interactive displays, too, like this mini-putt hole:

mini-putt-area

I’m not sure of its significance in terms of Pittsburgh sports history — or maybe it was just there to keep kids occupied. Either way, I gave it a go. I hit my ball roughly from where I took the above photo, laid it up where I’ve placed the “X” on the photo and then had a short putt to get this result:

ball-in-hole

After deciding to walk away from my mini-putt career while still on top, I checked out this Buck Leonard signed ball and Homestead Grays jersey …

buck-leonard-display

… and then spent some time in this enormous room dedicated to Pirates baseball:

pittsburgh-sports-museum-pirates

There were seats from old Forbes Field (which I’d visit a couple days later and you can read about at the end of this blog post):

forbes-field-old-seats

And a life-sized statue of Mazeroski:

bill-mazeroski-statue

If you’ve read my blog posts about visiting PNC Park, you might recall my picture of the Mazeroski statue outside the ballpark or that I got a replica souvenir statue during my visit last year.

There was even an Official Green Weenie from 1965:

pittsburgh-official-green-weenie

If you aren’t acquainted with this bizarre object, here’s the official description from a plaque at the museum:

Broadcaster Bob Prince developed the green weenie as a good luck charm for the Pirates. Fans were encouraged to point the weenie at the opposing team and shake it, bringing bad luck to the opposition.

That might be the best description I’ve ever read.

After I’d spent a bit of time browsing all the baseball stuff, it was over to the football display, where I threw a few passes to John Stallworth and Lynn Swann:

pittsburgh-steelers-passing

And then used my hand to show just how big former Steelers tackle Max Starks’ (6’8″, 345 lbs.) size 19 cleats are:

max-starks-shoes

There were a ton of other cool displays at the museum but, hey, why don’t you just make time to check them out if you ever visit Pittsburgh for some ballgames?

Once I stepped outside the museum, it was time to check into my hotel and quickly get ready to head over to PNC Park. You can read all about that visit here.

Fast-forward to the following morning and it was time to do some more touristy/sightseeing stuff. The Pirates were playing an afternoon game, which meant I was up early to check out the sights before I entered the ballpark.

My main goal was to visit Point State Park, which is the park featuring the famous Pittsburgh fountain that you’ll often see on TV broadcasts when you’re watching the Pirates or the Steelers. As you can see from this map, it’s very close to PNC Park and an easy walk from my hotel, which I’ve marked with a star — and you can click to enlarge the map:

pittsburgh-map

The walk along the shore of the Allegheny River is picturesque. Not only do you get to enjoy checking out the bridges and the water, but PNC Park is within view, too:

pnc-park-across-river

As I walked past the ballpark, here was my view:

walking-along-river

Point State Park is directly ahead and on my left, while kayaks moved quietly through the water to my right. It was perfect.

From this point, I also had a nice view of Heinz Field:

heinz-field-pittsburgh

But the scene got even better when I finally made it to the park, which is the meeting point between the Ohio River, Allegheny River and Monongahela River. The park is so vast that it’s hard to capture it in a single photo from the ground. Here’s a panorama I took:

point-state-park-pano

And here’s a wider-angle shot of the fountain and Heinz Field directly behind it:

point-state-park-fountain

Point State Park should truly be on your itinerary if you visit Pittsburgh for any reason; I truly regret not making time to check it out a year earlier. In addition to the park itself, there are lots of things you can see from this vantage point. For example, here’s the Duquesne Incline, which is an inclined railroad built in 1877 that travels a distance of 800 feet and climbs 400 feet:

duquesne-incline-pittsburgh

I spent a couple hours walking around the park, just hanging out on the benches and, in general, enjoying the view. And, sometimes, snapping shots of myself that make it look as though the fountain is coming out of my head:

malcolm-in-front-of-fountain

During this time, I also stopped to take a photo of this plaque that is embedded in the ground right at the point of the park …

point-state-park-plaque

… and was amused a little while later to see that the plaque was the exact site for a small wedding that was taking place:

point-state-park-wedding

As you might expect, given its location, the Point State Park area played a key strategic role in Pittsburgh’s history. It was the site of Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne, which you can read all about online. I won’t try to recount these forts’ extensive history here. Everywhere I looked, though, there were signs of the forts. See the stone layout in the foreground? It was put in place to show the elaborate outline of Fort Duquesne:

duquesne-fort-outline

A short distance away stood the Fort Pitt Museum, a cannon and the Fort Pitt Block House, which was constructed in 1764:

fort-pitt

The fort itself was built between 1759 and 1761, and was visited by George Washington on three occasions, which is extremely cool. Here’s a plaque commemorating these visits:

fort-pitt-plaque

Admission to the block house was free, so I went inside and took this photo through one of the observation ports in the wall:

fort-pitt-viewing-port

I didn’t spend long inside the block house, so I was soon back outside touring the park. I saw a couple practicing some partner yoga …

partner-yoga

… kids playing catch and a park employee playing Frisbee golf with some tourists. A couple final landmarks for you — this is the entrance to the Fort Pitt Tunnel, which is visible from the park:

fort-pitt-tunnel

And here’s the Carnegie Science Center with the USS Requin submarine docked out front:

carnegie-science-center

After I took the above photo, it was time to say goodbye to the park (not aloud, of course) and retrace my steps to the Roberto Clemente Bridge, cross the river and enjoy everything PNC Park has to offer.

The next morning, I got up early in anticipation of the eight-hour drive home, but I had a fun stop to make first. Before I drove away from Pittsburgh, I wanted to visit the site of old Forbes Field. It was the home of the Pirates between 1909 and 1970 and was demolished in 1972 after a pair of fires. So, there’s not much that remains to the old ballpark, but some of the park’s old fences are intact. It was a short drive from my hotel to the Forbes Field site, which is on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh.

I parked on the street, grabbed my camera and hopped out of the car — only to realize that I’d have to wait for several minutes to take some shots. I’d had my hotel room so cold with the A/C and it was so hot and muggy outside that the camera lens instantly fogged up severely. Nevertheless, after walking around for a few minutes, the camera was good to go and I was able to take a handful of photos. Here’s the historical marker:

forbes-field-plaque

Part of the fence and the flagpole:

forbes-field-fence-1

And a little more of the fence with its ivy covering:

forbes-field-fence

I spent a little time walking around the site (it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in Pittsburgh) and then it was time to get back on the road, given the length of the drive ahead of me.

As always, it was a great time in Pittsburgh — both at PNC Park and getting a chance to play tourist — and I hope to get back to the city again soon.

 

 

Playing Tourist in Cleveland – August 27

For all the traveling I do for The Ballpark Guide, I don’t often have much spare time to play tourist. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve had the opportunity to check out a bunch of great attractions over the years, but it can be a real challenge to find considerable time to devote much time to sightseeing. (Not complaining, by the way!)

That’s why, when I was putting together my second-last baseball trip of the 2015 season and had games in Cleveland on August 25 and 26 and an indy-league game outside of Pittsburgh on August 28, I was excited with the idea of having an off-day on August 27. My schedules are such that off-days are rare — actually, I’ve never had one on any of my trips.

I’ve been lucky to visit Cleveland for Indians games a number of times over the years and have done a bit of sightseeing, but never a full day’s worth. So, on the morning of my lone off-day, I was up early and headed out toward the North Coast Harbor area of the city to check out a whole host of touristy things. Once I parked my car and started the short walk to my first destination, I stopped and took this photo that shows some of the attractions ahead:

cleveland-north-coast-harbor

From right to left, you’re looking at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Great Lakes Science Center and, directly behind it, FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Cleveland Browns. (Not to be confused with FirstEnergy Park, home of the minor league Lakewood BlueClaws, which I’ve visited twice.) I’m a huge music fan, so I planned to spend several hours at the rock hall:

rock-hall-of-fame-cleveland

I don’t know if I ever knew of Cleveland’s connection to rock music history, but checking out this historic plaque cleared that up for me:

rock-hall-of-fame-marker

My first stop before entering the hall was the late Johnny Cash’s longtime tour bus, known as “The House of Cash.” It’s parked outside the rock hall and while admittance was closed during my visit, I took this exterior photo …

rock-hall-of-fame-johnny-cash-bus

… and then hurried into the hall just a few minutes after it opened for the day. Tickets aren’t cheap — adult tickets cost about $25 — but you can spend several hours checking out all the artifacts, so the value is really good.

Now, if you’re not a music enthusiast, you might want to skip ahead a little bit. Also, I’m a guitar player and general guitar nut, so you’ve been forewarned that guitar photos are coming. Otherwise, here are a bunch of varied and interesting (to me, at least) photos of items that have played a role in music history, in no particular order.

Stevie Ray Vaughan’s 1961 Fender Stratocaster:

rock-hall-of-fame-srv-guitar

A bunch of Chuck Berry artifacts, including a guitar, suit jacket and handwritten lyrics:

rock-hall-of-fame-chuck-berry-guitar

Jeff Beck’s 1954 Fender Esquire, looking like it’s been played a minute or two over the last 60 years:

rock-hall-of-fame-jeff-beck-esquire

Joey Ramone’s leather jacket:

rock-hall-of-fame-joey-ramone-jacket

(You’ll have to pardon the glare in some of these photos. Virtually everything was protected by thick glass and, in general, the lights were dim throughout the hall to help preserve the items.)

The original lyrics sheet to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” along with one of Angus Young’s famous schoolboy outfits:

rock-hall-of-fame-ac-dc-lyrics

A pair of Jay-Z’s shoes:

rock-hall-of-fame-jay-z-shoes

Dickey Betts’ 1954 Gibson Les Paul:

rock-hall-of-fame-allman-guitar

Bruce Springsteen’s rough lyric notes for “Born to Run.”

rock-hall-of-fame-born-to-run-lyrics

The second line of the song is, “At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines,” and you can see that The Boss was working out a bunch of variations to this idea. I’m a big Springsteen fan, so this was incredible to see.

Speaking of Springsteen, here’s a hotel telephone message that shows that Springsteen missed a call from Cat Stevens of all people. It’s dated January 7, 1978  — and, hey, Cat Stevens’ phone number is there if you want to try to give him a shout:

rock-hall-of-fame-cat-stevens-phone-message

By the way, kiddies, back in the day before smartphones, this is how messages were taken.

The handwritten lyrics sheet for “London Calling” by The Clash, which looks a little worse for wear:

rock-hall-of-fame-london-calling-lyrics

Michael Jackson’s jewel-studded glove:

rock-hall-of-fame-michael-jackson-glove

And, just for the general hilarity, Sly Stone’s vest from 1970 — I’m sure no drugs were involved in the designing, making of wearing of said vest:

rock-hall-of-fame-sly-stone-thing

Ringo Starr’s drum kit that he used from 1964 to 1968:

rock-hall-of-fame-ringo-starr-drums

One of Mick Jagger’s outfits from the 1980s, although I imagine he might be wearing it right now if it wasn’t behind glass:

rock-hall-of-fame-mick-jagger-outfit

The family couch from Jimi Hendrix’s childhood home, complete with stains and cigarette burns. This is where Hendrix sat while he mastered the guitar:

rock-hall-of-fame-jimi-hendrix-couch

All told, I spent about four hours touring the rock hall before I stopped for a terrible lunch at the cafeteria, browsed the gift shop and then headed outside to continue my sightseeing. I decided not to stop at the Great Lakes Science Center — I suppose I like music more than I like science — but I did want to check out the William G. Mather Great Lakes freighter that operated between 1925 and 1980, carrying ore, coal, grain and more throughout the Great Lakes:

william-g-mather-cleveland1

I don’t know very much about big ships, but I always enjoy checking them out when I get the chance. Back in 2012, I spent part of a day touring Battleship Cove outside Boston in what’s probably my other biggest day as a tourist. And, while I didn’t bother to board the William G. Mather, it was cool to walk its entire length (618 feet) and marvel at its sheer size:

william-g-mather-cleveland

After checking out the ship for a bit, it was time to continue my walk by visiting Voinovich Park, a park that juts out into the lake and provides a great view of the city’s skyline:

cleveland-skyline-panorama

I sat for a little bit on a bench and watched the boats and airplanes pass — the Burke Lakefront Airport is also part of the North Coast Harbor complex, so there was an almost steady parade of small planes flying past me on their descent:

cleveland-airport-plane

Voinovich Park was super peaceful. Despite so much going on in the surrounding area, it was really relaxing to sit and enjoy the sound of the water and all the interesting sights around me. It’s definitely a spot that I’ll return to on my next trip to Cleveland, time permitting.

Once I’d watched the boats and planes for a while, I decided to continue my walk. I wanted to check out more of the scene and still be able to get back to my hotel, the Hyatt Place Cleveland/Independence, before it got too late in the day and I got stuck in traffic. I went to a Cleveland Browns game several years back, so I wanted to take a look at FirstEnergy Stadium and grab some photos. It’s sort of hard to tell in this photo that I snapped as I approached, but there were a lot of people waiting in line outside the stadium and milling around in general:

firstenergy-stadium-cleveland-browns

Given the time of year, I wondered if perhaps the Browns were having some sort of open practice, so I was curious to check out what was going on and maybe add a fun twist to my day. Soon enough, though, I realized that 99 percent of the rapidly growing crowd was made up of teenage girls, so I tossed the football theory out the window. I couldn’t make much sense of what the event was, but I decided that pushing my way through the throng of teens wouldn’t be a fun experience, so I started to make the walk back toward my car. About a minute from the stadium, there were a bunch of police officers — several cars and even the bomb squad truck towing a very curious-looking trailer. I stopped to check it out and when an officer approached me, I asked what was going on at the stadium.

“One Direction concert,” he replied, sounding sort of amused.

“And they called you guys in, just in case?” I asked.

I know nothing about One Direction, but it sounds like maybe some people do not like the group as much as the hundreds of teenage girls that I saw a few minutes earlier.

Anyway, the police officer was super friendly, so I asked him about this funky-looking trailer that the bomb squad truck was hauling …

cleveland-pd-bomb-squad

… and had a really informative discussion about what this device is and what it does. It’s called a total containment vessel, or TCV. When the bomb squad’s robot picks up a suspicious package, it places the object inside this white sphere, which is made of steel and lead. The package can then be detonated safely and the TCV will provide air quality readings so that the nature of the bomb can be assessed. I asked if this was for pipe bombs and other things of that nature, and was wildly surprised to hear that a nuclear dirty bomb can safely be detonated inside the sphere — wow!

I guess the officer sensed my fascination and curiosity, so he asked if I wanted to get my photo taken in front of it. The answer:

malcolm-cleveland-bomb-squad

Although I could’ve asked a bunch more questions, I didn’t want to interfere with the officer, so I started to head back to my car. As I thanked him for his time, he asked me where I was from, and I told him about my baseball trip. He shook my hand (“crushed my hand” is a more accurate assessment) and told me to feel welcome in the city and to approach any police officer without hesitation if I ever needed something.

By the time I made it back to my parking lot, it was jam packed and the parking rate had doubled! Satisfied with my parking success, I hopped in the car and was back relaxing in my hotel before long — after I’d enjoyed an enormous steak dinner at a nearby Outback.

Houston Astros – September 22

What’s better than an absolutely awesome, jam-packed first day in Houston?

The feeling I had waking up on the morning of September 22 and knowing that I had another full day to explore Minute Maid Park, enjoy my downtown stadium-facing hotel and soak up all the fun that a baseball road trip provides.

I woke up super early so that I could set up my GoPro on one my window ledges and capture the sun rising over Minute Maid Park. Pretty majestic view, right?

While the GoPro snapped hundreds of shots that I used to build this time-lapse video (I’d love if you could click the thumbs-up button, by the way!) I started to browse the photos that I’d taken at the Astros game the night before and catch up on some highlights on ESPN of the previous evening’s action — all while enjoying hanging out in my outstanding hotel room.

In case you missed my previous post, I was fortunate to be staying at the Westin Houston Downtown — one of the nicest hotels in Houston and a perfect choice for fans visiting the city to see the Astros. Its great location aside, my guest room was one of the nicest I’ve ever been in. I was fortunate to get a corner room, which meant there were windows on two sides of the room, giving it a nice, open feel. Here’s one look at the room:

westin-houston-downtown-room-1

And another shot:

westin-houston-downtown-room-2

It was a great experience to relax in my awesome room for a bit, but soon it was time to explore the hotel a little. The hotel really plays up its close proximity to Minute Maid Park — each of the conference/event rooms in the hotel has a different baseball-related name and one of the on-site restaurants is called the Ballpark Cafe. Given the name of my website and blog, it only made sense to check the place out for lunch.

Boy, was I impressed! This was no ordinary lunch — it was one that I can easily count among the very best meals I’ve ever eaten.

You can check out the Ballpark Cafe’s menu here to view all the impressive fare. Despite what I ate the previous night at the ballgame, I was hungry again and absolutely enticed by many of the menu’s items. I started with the Yellow Tuna Tataki dish, which featured sliced tuna with edamame aioli and ginger soy sauce; for my main course, I had the Certified Angus Filet Mignon, served with Patron green peppercorn sauce, mashed potatoes and asparagus.

Now, I’m no food reviewer, but I can tell you that every bite of each dish was absolutely outstanding. The meal was one of those that I consider myself fortunate to have eaten.

Once I’d eaten, I headed back to my room to relax for a bit before snapping this shot of downtown Houston out my window …

downtown-houston-from-westin

… and then setting up my GoPro to take another few thousand shots that I could use to build another time-lapse video. I like how the clouds cast shadows on the buildings in this one:

Once I my GoPro finished its work and I enjoyed a bit more lounging in my room, it was time to pack up for the super-short walk over to the ballpark.

Having a second day in an MLB city is ideal because it doubles the time you can devote to checking out the park and the area around it, so I soon found myself exploring areas that I hadn’t had a chance to see a day earlier. My first stop was another parking lot that provided a spot where I could take this panorama of the outside of the ballpark:

minute-maid-park-outside-pano

I spent the next little while wandering around the exterior of the park, taking shots like this one:

minute-maid-park-outside-gates

And this one, of the park’s notable tower structure:

minute-maid-park-tower

Despite the searing heat, the pregame walking was a blast — it’s always awesome to get to check out MLB facilities. Soon enough, it was time to head inside. A day earlier, there were a few people ahead of me in line; on this day, I was the first fan into the park through my gate. Needless to say, the scene was pretty quiet even a few minutes later:

minute-maid-park-empty-seats

I took advantage of the early lack of a crowd to head down to the visiting side’s dugout so that I could see some of the Angels players up close. I had no trouble securing a spot in the front row where I had an awesome view of the action. Shane Victorino, who is a player I’ve enjoyed watching for years, was so close to where I stood that I heard him actually say “Aloha” to a fan who’d joined me in the front row. A moment later, I snapped this shot of the Flyin’ Hawaiian playing catch …

shane-victorino-pregame-tossing

… and I was amused that he’d yet to put on his belt. It’s hard to see in the above photo, but Victorino was wearing a custom Nike warmup shirt that paid tribute to his Hawaiian heritage. Here’s a zoomed-in shot of another picture I took that depicts the logo:

shane-victorino-t-shirt-closeup

Soon enough, this guy captured my attention:

albert-pujols-throwing

Albert Pujols has been one of my favorite players since he came into the major leagues, so it was awesome to see him so close. I’d previously seen him back in 2012 at Fenway Park and, of course, a day earlier in Houston, but now he was immediately on the other side of the dugout railing and just a few feet away. I took a ton of pictures of him, including this one that I really like:

albert-pujols-throwing-2

When Pujols finished tossing, he moved over toward the cage to begin stretching, so I followed him as best I could and took shots like this:

albert-pujols-stretching

Afterward, he moved back toward me and I took a bunch of shots like this, which show just how close he was:

albert-pujols-marucci-pregame

OK, convinced that I was stalking Pujols? You’re sort of correct, but let’s move on, shall we?

I took one more photo from the dugout area — this shot of Collin Cowgill’s glove …

collin-cowgill-glove

… and then it was time to find some other parts of the park to explore. My first stop was the second deck in right field, where I took this shot of the custom iron work on the railings:

minute-maid-park-railing-detail

And this panorama of the scene from where I stood:

minute-maid-park-pano-second-deck

As you might have noticed in the panorama, the huge windows beyond left and center field were casting crazy shadows on the field. I like how this shot of four Angels and their shadows turned out:

minute-maid-park-player-shadows-bp

I continued on my quest and noticed a couple cool MLB All-Star Game artifacts from past seasons, including this cowboy boot from the 2004 game in Houston:

minute-maid-park-boot-2004-all-star-game

And from the 2010 game in Anaheim:

minute-maid-park-mickey-mouse-2010-all-star-game

Sort of interesting that these two statues represented the home fields for the two teams playing in the evening’s game, huh?

By this time, first pitch was starting to sneak up, so I took advantage of the opportunity to check out the concession stands like I had done a day earlier. This time, I made up my mind pretty quickly — I went with a chicken fried steak sandwich that featured Nolan Ryan Texas Beef. (He’s got a beef company in Texas, as you might have guessed.) Here’s a shot of this glorious sandwich:

minute-maid-park-food-chicken-fried-steak-sandwich

It was delicious! I’d never eaten chicken fried steak in the past, but I figured that a visit to Texas was the right time to try it. The steak was nice and tender and it didn’t take long until this hulking sandwich was just a memory.

I took a post-meal digestion break by watching a few minutes of the Astros pregame show …

minute-maid-park-astros-pregame

… before heading over to the third base side of home in time for the start of the first inning:

minute-maid-park-first-inning-view

I was glad to have this spot because the visitor’s side of the first inning proved to be eventful as Mike Trout …

minute-maid-park-trout-home-run

… and Pujols hit back-to-back home runs:

minute-maid-park-pujols-home-run

Fireworks aside, it was awesome to have such a close view of the action. Here’s Houston’s 5’5″ Jose Altuve, who is one of the more exciting MLBers to watch:

minute-maid-park-altuve-at-bat

After I’d spent a few innings in this spot, it was time to continue exploring the park. I headed all the way up to the upper deck and over toward the train that you’ve undoubtedly seen on TV broadcasts. This next shot gives you a behind-the-scenes view — I took it while standing at the end of the train tracks; obviously, the train only travels as far as the windows that you see in the center of the image, but it was neat to have this vantage point of the train:

minute-maid-park-train-tracks

Upon looking at the train, I went out to the seats and found an open area where I watched a couple innings with this view:

minute-maid-park-pano-upper-deck

From up here, I had a different view of the train:

minute-maid-park-train

I don’t think I’d realized from seeing the train on TV over the past several years that it has a driver — although I admittedly don’t watch Astros games very often. I also thought it was funny how the train car has the Nolan Ryan Texas Beef logo on it, yet it’s carrying a load of oranges as a tip of the cap to the company that holds the ballpark’s naming rights.

Once I’d spent a bit of time with this bird’s-eye view, I went back down to the main level and checked out one of the team shops. I was drawn to one of the historical displays featuring seats from the old Astrodome:

houston-astrodome-seats

Did you know that it was originally called “Harris County Domed Stadium” when it opened in 1965? I sure didn’t.

As I often do during the latter half of the game when I’m visiting a ballpark on consecutive days, I found a seat with a great view of the action — behind home plate, in this instance — put my camera away and simply enjoyed the remainder of the game. After the final out, I made the quick walk back to my hotel room and got to bed in anticipation of getting up at 4 a.m. to fly from Houston to Chicago, Chicago to Toronto and then drive home.

Thanks for joining me to read about my adventure in Texas. It truly was an outstanding experience and one that I look forward to experiencing again soon!

Houston Astros – September 21

After an exceptionally long travel day getting to Texas and a whirlwind tour of Globe Life Park in Arlington, it was time to take a short flight from Dallas/Fort Worth to Houston, and get ready for Astros games on back-to-back nights. My flight between the two cities was short and before long, I was hopping in a cab outside George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston for what turned out to be about a $75 (in Canadian dollars) cab ride to my airport. Stupid exchange rate.

Of course, my temporary frown over the fare was turned upside down when I was dropped off in front of the Westin Houston Downtown, which I’d quickly realize was one of the best hotels I’ve ever visited. I’ll share some details and photos about my hotel stay in this post and my next post, but let’s start by discussing the hotel’s location. Well, it’s a short discussion, really — it’s across the street from Minute Maid Park, home of the Astros! I’ve said it before, but I LOVE hotels that offer a ballpark view. I mean, I’m nuts about them. I’ve been fortunate to stay at a number of hotels that offer this feature over the years, so I knew I’d be in for a treat in Houston. Of course, your guest room has to be facing the ballpark, so I held my breath as I made my way up the elevator, down the hall and into my room. I hurriedly ran to the window and saw …

downtown-houston-view-from-westin

… a nice view of downtown Houston but no Minute Maid Park. Not the end of the world, right? I thought about my situation for a minute and although I’m not a complainer, I returned to the front desk to see if there was a way I’d be able to get a room on the ballpark side of the building. The desk clerk checked but revealed that all those rooms were booked. A little discouraged, I returned to my room and looked around. I’d been so crazed to run to the window when I first arrived that I didn’t realize I had a corner room.

Corner rooms = two walls with windows.

I swung open the drapes on the newfound window and, ta-da, here was the view:

minute-maid-park-room-view-from-westin

Slightly too bad that there was a church steeple in the way, but I had a spectacular view of Minute Maid Park and, with the retractable roof currently open, I could see some of the seats and part of the video board inside the stadium.

So, so awesome.

I had some time to kill before the game, so I ordered a chicken Caesar salad and a couple of bottles of water from the cafe on the ground floor of the hotel and scarfed them down while enjoying my awesome view. Minute Maid Park’s allure was too strong to keep me in my hotel room for much longer, so I quickly gathered up my camera stuff and headed over to the park. First, though, I snapped this shot in the hotel lobby to show you just how swank the scene was:

westin-houston-downtown-lobby

I was hit with a wave of 90-degree heat when I stepped out the door of the hotel, but even the mugginess couldn’t dampen my excitement at the scene before me:

minute-maid-park-from-westin-houston-downtown

This shot, for the record, is from the valet parking area of the hotel and shows that when I said the ballpark and hotel are across the street from one another, I wasn’t exaggerating.

After my missed flight a couple days earlier meant that I had to cram two days’ of sightseeing at Arlington’s Globe Life Park into one visit, it was a huge relief to know that I had two full days to check out the area inside and outside Minute Maid Park. When I crossed the street, I turned around to take this shot of the hotel from the outside …

westin-houston-downtown-front-day

… and then it was full steam ahead to check out Minute Maid Park. When the park was built prior to the 2000 season, it carefully incorporated Houston’s Union Station, which opened in 1911 and was named to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1977. You’ll see inside the Union Station ballpark entrance shortly, but for now here’s a plaque that connects the old train station with the ballpark:

minute-maid-park-union-station-sign

I was excited to see a wide variety of baseball-related features around the park. Some were somewhat subtle, like these baseball stitching effects in the concrete:

minute-maid-park-sidewalk-baseball-stitches

And others were perhaps more noticeable, including a variety of plaques in the sidewalk that were recognizing past Astros greats:

minute-maid-park-nolan-ryan-plaque

 

The left field entry to the park was a fun hub of things to see. There were a bunch of plaques …

minute-maid-park-outside-plaques

and a small-scale baseball field, complete with statues:

minute-maid-park-outside-diamond

 

And if you decided that you’d enjoy sitting and watching the imaginary action on the field, there was a perfect spot for you:

minute-maid-park-outside-stands

I checked out everything in this area for a little bit and it was still early enough before the game that I was essentially the only fan around. After being satisfied that I’d seen everything around the left field entry, I retraced my steps and began walking down Texas Avenue, which is the street on which the ballpark’s home plate entry is located. Much of the walk was lined with baseballs:

minute-maid-park-balls-sidewalk

Here’s what the home plate entrance looked like:

minute-maid-park-home-plate-gate

And here’s a shot of the famous tower structure that’s so highly visible from the outside of the park:

minute-maid-park-tower-outside

After I took this shot, I wandered over to the season ticketholder parking lot and the diamond club entrance, which was guarded by a security guard standing in the full sun and chugging on a 2L bottle of Dr. Pepper. I’m not sure he was getting the hydration that he thought he was. Anyway, I took this panorama from the parking lot, which is partially cut off along the bottom because the lot was lined by bushes that prevented me from getting back far enough:

minute-maid-park-outside-panorama

By now, I was starting to get really hot and I figured I had the option of asking the security guard for a swig of his Dr. Pepper or heading to the Union Station entrance and enjoying some air conditioning before the park’s actual gates opened. I chose the latter and a few minutes later, I was standing here:

minute-maid-park-union-station-entrance

With a bit of time to kill before I could get inside the park, I was happy to see that there were plenty of things to see while I waited. There were a ton of awesome displays of game-used gear and other Astros-related artifacts that were a blast to browse. Here’s a shot (pardon the glare) that shows some game-used uniforms:

minute-maid-park-houston-astros-game-used-jerseys

A display that notes the connection between the Astros and the space program:

minute-maid-park-space-items

The #132 jersey, for example, was taken into space aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2010. Awesome!

And, finally, the game-used jersey and cap that Mike Fiers wore during his no hitter at Minute Maid Park exactly a month before my visit:

houston-astros-mike-fiers-jersey-no-hitter

Once I’d perused all the displays and wandered around the room a little more, I was ready to line up to get inside the ballpark. I spent 20 minutes standing in line behind a local Little League team that was taking part in some pregame thing on the field, and then, at 5 p.m., I entered my 11th MLB park and 57th park between the majors and minors!

The Union Station entrance puts you roughly in the left field corner, so I hustled toward the field and was greeted with this sight:

minute-maid-park-houston-texas-flag

(No confusion about which state I was visiting, right?)

As you can see, the roof was thankfully closed. I was happy for the opportunity to see it open from the hotel window earlier, but given the day’s heat, had no suspicion that it’d be open for the game.

The scene on the field was as follow: The Astros were nearing the end of their batting practice and the visiting Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were getting ready to hit. Here’s what the scene looked like in panorama form from the left field foul pole:

minute-maid-park-panorama-left-field-corner

Upon taking this photo, I faced a big-time dilemma about what to do next. I love standing and watching batting practice (and seeing if I can snag a ball) but it’s hard to think about staying put when there’s an entire stadium to explore. I reached a compromise with my internal conversation by watching BP for a few minutes from this spot …

minute-maid-park-bp-view

… and then setting out to begin exploring Minute Maid Park. If you’ve seen the ballpark during TV broadcasts, you might recall the cool-looking arched structure beyond the fence in left field and left-center. It’s a standing-room area for fans during the game and immediately behind it there’s a wide walkway that runs from the left field gate area over to center. It’s a fun spot to be during BP and during the game — I got to experience both — because long home runs smack off the facing of the wall above you, which a) makes a super loud noise and b) creates a scramble below as all the fans try to grab the ball when it falls into the seats. Anyway, located in the seventh arch moving from left to right is the Home Run Pump, which tallies all the Astros home runs since they moved into Minute Maid Park. It’s a popular spot to stand during games, but since it was still about two hours before first pitch, the area was mostly isolated when I took this photo:

minute-maid-park-home-run-pump

After moving on from the Home Run Pump, I stood above Tal’s Hill, a unique (and ridiculous) feature in straightaway center:

minute-maid-park-tal's-hill

For anyone who’s wondering the #7 painted onto the hill was in honor of longtime Astro Craig Biggio, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.

I watched a few more minutes of batting practice from this spot, enjoying the hubbub of activity on the field:

minute-maid-park-center-field-bp

Next up on my stop, as I made my way down the concourse from center field to right field, was the team’s game-used and autographed memorabilia stand:

minute-maid-park-game-used-store

If I could describe this spot in one word, it would be: OhmanIneedtobuyeverythingherebuthowwillItakeithomeontheplanewithme?

I love collecting game-used stuff, as you might have read in previous posts, so I desperately wanted to buy something to remember my Houston visit — especially when I saw that lots of the stuff was more affordable than I would’ve expected. The only problem was that I hadn’t checked any luggage on my flight, so my two carry-on bags were as full as I could make them. Hmmm. What to do? Fortunately, I had two days to decide.

Here’s a cross-section of some of the cool things for sale, ranging from not very affordable — a Nolan Ryan signed jersey for $700:

minute-maid-park-nolan-ryan-autographed-jersey

To pretty darned affordable — dozens and dozens of batting practice-used jerseys for $50:

minute-maid-park-game-used-bp-jerseys

There were lots of other neat things, too, like this game-used first base with lots of cool wear:

minute-maid-park-game-used-base

And a whole host of bats:

minute-maid-park-game-used-bats

I considered my first visit to the stand a recon mission; I took stock of everything for what turned out to be multiple later visits, and then continued on my walk. When I got around to behind home plate, I saw that the Little League team I’d been standing behind was now on the field watching BP. You can see them in front of the first base dugout in this panorama:

minute-maid-park-panorama-first-base-plate

I also grabbed a shot of myself in this same spot …

minute-maid-park-malcolm-field

… before moving over to the area directly behind home plate to take the following panorama:

houston-astros-behind-home-plate-pano

At a handful of parks, security prevents you from accessing the seats behind home plate, even during BP. I was pleased to see that wasn’t a factor at Minute Maid Park. In fact, every staff member — ushers, security, etc. — I met was exceedingly courteous. Other teams could learn a thing or two from watching Houston’s staff, let me tell you. Case in point — here’s the cross-aisle in front of the Insperity Club:

minute-maid-park-seats-behind-plate

Fans were free to walk through this area before the game with no harassment from anyone. I can think of several parks off the top of my head that you can’t even dream of cutting through such an area.

I continued my walk and enjoyed taking in all the sights. It was awesome to know that I had two days to explore the stadium; no stress over trying to see everything and plenty of time to take it all in. As I walked around, I was loving the design of Minute Maid Park and, in particular, the arches. They definitely give the park a cool, vintage feel. I grabbed this shot of myself in front of some the arches and one of the park’s signs:

minute-maid-park-malcolm-sign

Eventually, I made it all the way back to the seats in the left field corner where I’d began my journey. This shot shows you the small seating section in this area, known as the “Crawford Boxes,” some of my beloved arches and the signs above that would rattle loudly when hit by batting practice home runs:

minute-maid-park-crawford-boxes

With the Angels now hitting, I wanted to find a spot in the front row behind the dugout to see the action and take some photos. Again, accessing these seats was easy and laid back; no overzealous security checking peoples’ tickets or getting people in trouble for leaning against the dugout. (The latter sounds ridiculous, but I’ve experienced it.)

Here’s a shot I got of several Angels waiting while Albert Pujols took his turn in the cage:

minute-maid-park-angels-bp

Each time after hitting, Pujols would stand on the opposite side of the cage so any photos I took of him were pretty obstructed. But, when he wrapped up his session, he made his way  semi-close to me to sign some autographs for the fans on the field:

minute-maid-park-albert-pujols-autographs

I stood behind the dugout for as long as the players were on the field, and once they moved into the clubhouses, I was on the move again, too. Since I’d already made one circuit of the main concourse, I took a climb to the upper deck where I captured the scene in this panorama:

minute-maid-park-panorama-behind-plate-upper-deck

I actually spent a little while in the upper deck just relaxing. There was a spot with a nice blast of air conditioning, so I enjoyed just hanging out and watching the scene unfold before me. The stadium was slowly starting to fill, so it was cool to see people making their way into the various sections and watch the grounds crew do its thing.

Eventually, Houston starter and eventual 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel made his way from the dugout toward the bullpen to begin his pregame throwing, so I scrambled back down to the main concourse and hustled over to find a spot close to the ‘pen. On my way, I paused briefly to snap this shot of the living roof that makes up the batter’s eye at Minute Maid Park. I haven’t seen anything like this before, I don’t think:

minute-maid-park-batters-eye-green-roof

The crowd wasn’t very thick around the home bullpen, so I was able to get a spot in the front row to watch Keuchel toss the ball around in the outfield for a while:

dallas-keuchel-houston-astros-long-toss

When he moved into the bullpen, I shifted my position slightly and found a great spot directly behind his catcher so I could take some cool straight-on photos. If you look carefully at this first one, there’s a random piece of Dubble Bubble on the mound in front of the rubber:

dallas-keuchel-houston-astros-bullpen-gum

Soon enough, Keuchel kicked the gum away; you’ll see that it’s no longer present in this photo I took a couple minutes later:

dallas-keuchel-houston-astros-bullpen

I watched the entirety of Keuchel’s bullpen session and when he headed toward the dugout a few minutes before first pitch, I found a spot in left-center where I snapped this panorama in the top of the first inning:

minute-maid-park-panorama-right-center

The first few innings breezed past, in part because the view from this spot was so perfect. Eventually, I abandoned my spot to find a seat in right-center. The overhang of the deck above provided a cool view — you could basically just see the field. I also liked the vintage-style scoreboards hanging from the ceiling:

minute-maid-park-right-center-field-view

Pretty soon, it was time to go hunting for something to eat. I’d been checking out the options during my initial walk around the concourse and, boy, was I impressed. I was also a bit of a loss — there were so many enticing items to consider. The concession stand that intrigued me the most was called Street Eats and the menu looked delicious:

minute-maid-park-food-selections

Here were the choices:

Chicken Waffle Cone: Waffle cone stuffed with mashed potatoes, fried chicken and drizzled with honey mustard and sprinkled with green onions.

Texas Hold ‘Em: Texas Toast with smoked pulled barbecue chicken, coleslaw and fried jalapenos.

Brisket Curly Fries: Curly fries topped with brisket, queso, queso fresco and green onion.

If you have the choice, which one would you go for, and why? Feel free to let me know in the comments below. As far as I was concerned, the Chicken Waffle Cone was the clear-cut winner, so that’s what I ordered. Unfortunately, the staff at Street Eats was struggling, to put it mildly. The Chicken Waffle Cone proved to be the big seller at the time, and it was nearly 25 minutes until I got mine. Ridiculous, really, but all was forgiven when I was handed this monstrosity:

minute-maid-park-food-chicken-waffle-cone

How does that look? Pretty incredible, right? Part of me wondered if — given the novelty nature of the item — it wouldn’t taste that great, but it was absolutely awesome. The fried chicken, which I’d originally suspected might be the weak link of the dish, were meaty and perfectly cooked. The potatoes were tasty and the tangy taste of the honey mustard and green onions topped everything off perfectly. I ate everything that was spilling out of the top of the cone with a fork, and then when I was left with just a waffle cone filled with mashed potatoes, I walked around the concourse eating it like an ice cream cone in order to get a few laughs.

After eating, the game was already in its late innings, so I did as I often do — put my camera away, found a seat with a perfect view of the action, put my feet up and enjoyed the rest of the game. The late innings of a game can often feel melancholy, but I certainly didn’t have any such feeling as I knew that I’d soon be headed back to a great hotel and the next day, I’d be doing everything over again. As soon as the final out took place, I hopped out of my seat, found the stadium exit across from my hotel and was looking at the exterior of the Westin at night:

westin-houston-downtown-front-night

And, I’m thankful to say, I was relaxing in my superb room about two minutes later — and eagerly anticipating my second day in Houston.

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