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Ottawa Champions – June 17

Even though I focus on the major leagues and minor leagues when I plan my road trips for The Ballpark Guide, I had my eye on a mid-June visit to Ottawa since the early spring. Why? Because the independent Can-Am League’s Ottawa Champions were hosting the Cuban National Team, and if that’s not a unique reason to head to the ballpark, I don’t know what is.

The Cuban squad, which is the same group of players that hosted the Tampa Bay Rays in Cuba during Spring Training, was scheduled to play a handful of games in North America, and I knew that I wanted to at least see the team in action once. This was a special occasion because it would mark the first time since 1954 that a Cuban team played baseball in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. That team, the Havana Sugar Kings, is one that you’ve likely heard of if you know baseball history.

I visited Ottawa’s Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park once last season, as you might recall, and was eager to visit the former home of the International League’s Ottawa Lynx once again. I got to town a couple hours before first pitch to give me time to explore the stadium a bit, as well as get down to field level and watch the Cuban team warm up, which I was especially excited about.

Here’s how RCGT Park looks from the parking lot:

ottawa-champions-rcgt-park-outside

The ballpark was built in 1993 and while I’m generally not the biggest fan of the look of ’90s-era “bowl-style” stadiums, you’ve got to admit that the exterior of this one looks sharp. The combination of brick and silver looks cool, and I especially like the variety of colors of glass in the middle structure.

Although I was, as usual, eager to get inside the park, I wanted to take a quick look around the surrounding area. RCGT Park is located next to the highway, and there’s a modern pedestrian bridge …

ottawa-champions-rcgt-park-outside-bridge

… that runs between the stadium and close to one of Ottawa’s train stations, making the stadium easily accessible on foot if you decide to visit Ottawa by train.

The bridge provides a cool vantage point of the stadium, too, and I took this photo of the side of the building when I was standing at the entrance of the bridge:

ottawa-champions-rcgt-park-outside-1

From this spot, I could also hear that batting practice was taking place, so I decided to quickly head inside and check out the action on the field. To my surprise, it was the Ottawa side — not the Cuban team — that was hitting first. This is what the scene looked like after I made it through the concourse and to the cross-aisle behind the lower bowl seats:

ottawa-champions-first-field-view

I watched BP from the cross-aisle for a few minutes, before deciding to start walking around and surveying the park from various spots. My first mission was to head down the third base line to the large grass berm, which features a variety of seating options beyond actually sitting on the grass:

ottawa-champions-berm-and-chairs

The weather was super hot and sunny, and I was amused to see three members of the Champions getting a tiny bit of relief from the shadow of one of the light posts; one player seemed to be making sure that his arms were in the shade, too:

ottawa-champions-players-in-shade

There were a couple baseballs laying in the grass on the berm, but since the gates weren’t yet open, I didn’t want to take them — although I made a pledge to remember to return to the area once the park was open to all fans.

The Champions were kind enough to hook me up with a press pass, which gave me field access. Although I’ve been on professional fields a ton of times, the thrill never gets old — and I wanted to be standing behind the batting cage when the Cuba side began to hit. I took a spot on the visitors’ side of the field and enjoyed the action for several minutes with this view:

ottawa-champions-bp

Ottawa wasn’t showing any sign of giving up its BP just yet, which meant that the Cuban hitters probably wouldn’t take the field for a while, so I decided to head to the upper row on the first base side and snap this panorama:

ottawa-champions-rcgt-park-pano-upper-deck

When I got some reprieve from the sun by standing against the cement wall between the upper deck and suites, I saw this sign and had to laugh:

ottawa-champions-sign

It reminded me of a time that I broke this very rule myself — way back during a chilly April doubleheader in Syracuse.

A few minutes later, the Champions left the field, so I went up to check out the press box during the break in the action. Here’s the view from up there:

ottawa-champions-early-press-box-view

You can see the grass berm I visited earlier on the left side of the photo; there’s no berm down near the right field foul pole, as the stadium’s batting cages are in that area instead. I also want to draw your attention to Coventry Road, which passes behind the left field fence. The road is less than 50 feet from the outfield fence, so long home runs definitely have a chance of reaching it. Additionally, you’ll often see passers-by lining the chain-link fence behind the berm on game nights, as there’s a good view of the field from the sidewalk.

I spent a few minutes in the press box enjoying the view, and then headed back down to the main concourse. By this time, a pair of horses and riders were taking laps around the warning track. Certainly not something you see every day at the ballpark, right? In fact, I think this is probably the first time I’ve seen horses on the field at any of the 60-plus parks I’ve visited. I quickly descended to the field and snapped this picture of one of the horses and its rider …

ottawa-champions-horse-2

… and then shot this one of the other horse and rider:

ottawa-champions-horse

I watched the horses take a bunch of laps around the field, but that was about it for the action down at field level. The Champions were in the clubhouse, and the Cuban side seemed conspicuously absent; I hadn’t seen a single player wearing a Cuban uniform, despite first pitch being on the not-so-distant horizon. I figured the national team was still in its clubhouse, but when I went back to the press box and talked to a couple members of the Champions broadcast team, I learned that the club had yet to arrive! Apparently, the Cuban bus had experienced some sort of problem on the way to Ottawa. We learned that the team was scheduled to get to town in time, but that it wouldn’t be hitting, unfortunately.

When the gates opened, I went back down to the berm where I’d previously seen the ball, and snagged it:

ottawa-champions-baseball

I love the black bat smudge on this one. I grabbed another baseball, too, and gave it away to a little boy midway through the game.

A little while later, I saw a positive sign out the press box window — a coach bus wrapped in Cuban colors backing up to the stadium:

ottawa-champions-cuba-bus-arriving

The players actually came off the bus wearing their uniforms, so I quickly bid farewell to the press box and returned to field level to watch the warm-ups. I really enjoy watching international baseball, so it was a thrill to be standing next to these Cuban pros, and I took a ton of photos, like this one of some players stretching:

cuba-national-team-players-1

And this one:

cuba-national-team-players

That’s catcher Yosvani Alarcon in the foreground and a teammate whose #35 doesn’t appear to be on the official roster in the background.

Here’s Osvaldo Vazquez, another catcher, who seemed to be posing for me:

osvaldo-vazquez-cuba-national-team

And Jefferson Delgado, an infielder:

jefferson-delgado-cuba-national-team

And Raul Gonzalez, another infielder:

raul-gonzalez-cuba-nationa-team

Next, I witnessed a reunion of sorts. I was standing in front of the visitors’ bullpen down the first base line, when a couple of the Champions players approached and embraced several of the Cuban guys. The two players, Donal Duarte and Alexandre Malleta, signed with Ottawa earlier this season after long careers as professionals in Cuba, playing on the island since 2001 and 1998, respectively. Here’s Duarte with some members of the Cuban team:

ottawa-champions-duarte-reunion

There was definitely a unique buzz in the ballpark with the Cuban team in town, and it was an experience I won’t soon forget. It just felt … different, but it was also neat to realize that despite all the differences between North America and Cuba, baseball is just baseball. From that perspective, things on the field didn’t feel very different at all. Of course, there were always constant reminders of the special nature of the night, like this selection of Team Cuba gear in the visitors’ bullpen:

ottawa-champions-cuba-bullpen-bags

As the Cubans wrapped up their truncated on-field drills, and first pitch approached, I set off in search of something to eat. Well, it was more of a beeline walk than a meandering wander — straight to the poutine kiosk on the first base side. I’d eaten a tremendously good order of poutine a year earlier, and even though I like to vary my ballpark food to try as many things as possible, I knew there was no way I wasn’t going to partake again.

While I waited in line, I noticed that the Champions offer a team-branded craft beer, which I thought was neat — especially at the independent level:

ottawa-champions-beer

As I did a season earlier, I ordered the “Tao Poutine,” an Asian-inspired dish with breaded chicken, hot sauce, diced green onions and black and white sesame seeds atop the poutine mainstays of fries, cheese curds and gravy:

ottawa-champions-food-tao-poutine

It was absolutely delicious once again, and for $5.75, it was a heck of a lot of food. It might seem like a random comment, but I was also hugely impressed with the attention to detail of the food services worker making the meal for me. All the poutine is made to order, which means that there can occasionally be a bit of a lineup. One young man was handling all the assembly, and while he was working quickly, he was also putting a great amount of care into putting the orders together. With mine, for example, he sprinkled some green onions on top, held the container out to inspect it, and then sprinkled just a couple more to top it up. That type of care is impressive and appreciated, and I can tell you this from experience; there have been too many times that I’ve had my food thrust at me at various stadiums with barely a grunt and absolutely no interest in the task at hand. It’s a thumbs up for the Champions, and I hope other fans have had this experience, too.

I mowed through my food during the pregame ceremonies, which included lots of photos and first pitches, and was intrigued with what I saw next: After the two national anthems were played, the Champions and Cuban National Team moved through the infield and shook hands. I don’t know if this is the norm in Cuba, or if it was just to celebrate the moment, but it was a nice scene of solidarity:

ottawa-champions-pregame-handshakes

As the players wrapped up their handshakes, the two horse riders (carrying Canada and Cuba flags) took a fast run along the outfield warning track …

ottawa-champions-horses-on-track

… and then it was finally time to play ball. I settled into a standing-room spot behind the visitors’ dugout:

ottawa-champions-cuba-dugout

You probably know by now that I enjoy watching each game I attend from numerous vantage points, so as much as it was fun to hang out behind the Cuban team and watch the goings-on, I wanted to find a different spot for the bottom of the first inning. I settled on the berm when I’d previously found the BP balls, and I think you’ll agree that it provides a great view of the ballpark:

ottawa-champions-berm-view

Did you notice the Cuba flag hanging from one of the suites in the above photo? If not, here’s a closer shot:

ottawa-champions-cuba-flag-suites

There was one hanging over the visitors’ dugout rail, too, although it faced in the wrong direction from where I was standing:

ottawa-champions-cuba-team-dugout

I spent the next stretch of time watching an inning here, an inning there, and enjoying all of it. Here’s my view from the press box:

ottawa-champions-rcgt-stadium-press-box-view

And a panorama from the cross-aisle behind home plate:

ottawa-champions-rcgt-park-pano-behind-plate

Here’s an action shot I took an inning or two later, which shows something cool — the grounds crew had painted Champions and Team Cuba logos in the dirt behind home plate:

ottawa-champions-field-logos

Later in the game, Cuba had reliever Frank Medina warming in the bullpen, so I made my way over to the front row at the fence and snapped some shots like this …

frank-medina-cuba-national-team-1

With Medina on the mound soon after, I spent the last part of the game from this spot, watching Ottawa cruise to a 6-1 win:

ottawa-champions-night

I left quickly after the game wrapped up, snapping this panorama of the exterior of the ballpark on my way out:

ottawa-champions-rcgt-park-pano-outside-night

As was the case last year, I was highly impressed with my visit to RCGT Park. Currently, the Champions are tied 1-1 in the first round of the Can-Am League playoffs with the New Jersey Jackals, whose ballpark I visited back in 2013 to see my friend Jeremy Nowak play. If the Champions are able to advance, I’m going to try to catch another game — and get some more of that poutine.

Frisco RoughRiders – May 21

When I woke up early on the morning of May 21, my first mission was to run to my balcony and check out the view of Dr Pepper Ballpark like a kid charging downstairs on Christmas morning to see if Santa came. Yep, the ballpark was still there, as expected, and it still looked great.

Next, it was time to excitedly think about returning to the ballpark — where I’d spent an awesome evening a day earlier — later that day.

While I was pumped to get inside on the nicest MiLB parks I’ve visited, I was especially excited for two stomach-related things:

  1. Filling my stomach in the exclusive JC Penney Club, thanks to an invitation from Jason Dambach, executive VP and general manager of the Frisco RoughRiders.
  2. Feeling butterflies in my stomach being interviewed during the team’s broadcast.

After a big, delicious breakfast at my hotel, the Embassy Suites Hotel and Convention Center, I settled down at the desk with my laptop to catch up on a little blogging … but I’d also intermittently go out to the balcony, sit on the chair and just take in the beautiful view in front of me. This was the pattern for the bulk of the day, and pretty soon it was time to pack up my stuff and walk over to the ballpark. I walked through the gates early so that I could shoot a bunch of video with my GoPro, which you’ll be able to see on my YouTube channel in the future.

In between recording video clips, I also wanted to make sure that I could simply enjoy the ballpark experience. I’d be up around 4 a.m. the next morning and had a travel day that exceeded 12 hours, so I wanted to have a relaxing visit and savor every last minute of my 10th day in Texas. One of the first things I did was stand right behind the home plate netting and enjoy a long stretch of batting practice … turning around for a brief moment to take this picture:

dr-pepper-ballpark-malcolm

While I was in that spot, I took a bunch of peeks at the JC Penney Club, where I’d be eating later:

dr-pepper-ballpark-jc-penney-club

Let me explain the context: A day earlier, I’d met Jason and we’d talked about my baseball trip, Dr Pepper Ballpark and bunch of other cool things. The topic of food came up, and I’d excitedly told him about my plan to eat the Texas Mac & Cheese BBQ Sandwich. He mentioned the JC Penney Club, an upscale eatery with a great view of the ballpark, and told me that I’d be hard-pressed to find better food in all of the minor leagues — and then told me that he’d make me a reservation to eat there before the RoughRiders game a day later. Wow!

I was scheduled to eat at 5 p.m., and had about an hour to continue to explore the park before then; I wanted to do lots of walking around, as I suspected I might be a little sedentary after experiencing the buffet-style dining.

With BP still taking place, I took a walk down the first base line and found a spot to stand next to the visiting team’s bullpen. From there, I watched a pitcher throw a side session, while also keeping an eye on the action on the field. It was glorious:

dr-pepper-ballpark-visitors-bullpen-1

In my blog post about my first day in Frisco, I wrote about the unique, fan-friendly position of the home bullpen. The visitors’ bullpen is in basically the same position, albeit on the first base side, but is a little different in the way that it’s laid out. It has seats on two sides of it and a party deck above, which is where I was standing a moment earlier. Here’s what the scene looks like:

dr-pepper-ballpark-visitors-bullpen

And, for good measure, here’s a panoramic shot of Dr Pepper Ballpark during BP from the first base side:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-first-base-side

My next stop was the Diamond Deck group party area in the left field corner. I’d originally planned to hang out on the grass berm for a bit, but when I passed the Diamond Deck, something caught my eye:

dr-pepper-ballpark-deck-with-ball

See the baseball right below the rail?

I picked it up after taking the above photo, and saw that it was a generic minor league practice ball:

dr-pepper-ballpark-practice-ball

I’ve got a few of those in my collection, but I don’t think I’ve seen once since I visited G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, home of the Potomac Nationals, back in 2011. Anyway, since the gates weren’t open and I didn’t want to keep the ball, I tossed it to a San Antonio Missions player (the guy in the middle):

dr-pepper-ballpark-san-antonio-missions-players

It was awesome to still have a bit of time until the ballpark opened; I was loving just watching BP from various vantage points and taking in the park’s beauty and uniqueness — here, for example, is a look at the separate buildings down the third base line, which I talked about in my previous blog post:

dr-pepper-ballpark-concourse-buildings

Soon enough, it was time to head up toward the JC Penney Club and check out the buffet. First, though, I shot this image of the construction crew still hard at work on the lazy river …

dr-pepper-ballpark-lazy-river

… and this shot of the beautiful ballpark as the grounds crew performed its post-batting practice duties:

dr-pepper-ballpark-from-second-level

I was impressed when I finally entered the JC Penney Club. The room was long and thin, and had identical buffets on each side of the door, which meant that long lineups wouldn’t be an issue. There were a number of bistro-style tables throughout, and windows that ran the full length of the club, giving diners an outstanding view of the ballpark from wherever they sat:

dr-pepper-ballpark-inside-jc-penney-club

The menu, however, was what impressed me the most:

  • Beef Wellington with shallot and red wine sauce
  • Pan-seared chicken with chasseur sauce
  • Roasted carrots with hazelnut tapenade
  • Lyonnais potatoes with herb compound butter
  • Baked Brie with assorted dried fruits and nuts

There were also several salads — let’s be honest, I wasn’t going to focus much on them — and some traditional ballpark fare that seemed favored by the kids who were dining at the same time as me. When I stepped up to the buffet for the first time and asked for a slice of the beef, the server asked, “Just one? You’ll be back for sure.” And then, a bit later when I did indeed return, he offered, “I told you that you’d be back,” with a smile.

For those of you who enjoy my food photos, check out plate #1:

dr-pepper-ballpark-meal-1

That’s the beef Wellington on the left side, a huge chunk of the baked Brie on the top and the pan-seared chicken on the bottom right.  And, of course, there was also another plate:

dr-pepper-ballpark-meal-2

You’re looking at more beef Wellington, baked brief, pan-seared chicken and, this time, some of the Lyonnais potatoes and a bit of chick pea salad, too.

I can definitely say that the meal was one of the best I’ve ever eaten at a ballpark, and the tremendous quality of the food was as good as you’d find in a fancy restaurant. If you get the chance to eat at the JC Penney Club, make sure that you go for it!

For a reason that could only be described as greed, I grabbed these two cookies before I hit the road …

dr-pepper-ballpark-cookies

… and waddled back down to the concourse level. (Come to think of it, waddling seemed to be a bit of a theme on my Texas trip!)

As I made my way along the concourse, well, looking for somewhere to sit down for a little bit, I noticed the Roughned Odor-themed drinks that had made headlines a little earlier in my trip. As you likely remember, the Texas Rangers infielder had sucker punched Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista after a hard slide at second, and the RoughRiders capitalized on the moment quickly by producing souvenir cups depicting the image and filled with a red energy drink. I hadn’t noticed the drinks for sale during my first day at Dr Pepper Ballpark, so I was glad to track them down on my second day. It turns out, there was a “licensing issue” about the use of the cup, so the promotion had to be changed a little. The teams were offering the cups for a donation, and I stopped to snap this picture:

dr-pepper-ballpark-roughned-odor-drink

I sat in a shaded area in the left field corner while my food digested, and then returned to the standing room area behind home plate in time for the anthem:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-anthem

I watched the first inning from the same spot, enjoying views like this …

dr-pepper-ballpark-home-plate-view-game

… before heading down the third base line and finding a spot against the railing, where I had this view:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-left-field-corner

After a couple of innings in that spot, it was time to make my way toward the press box, as I was slated to join the broadcast in the top of the fourth inning. As I said earlier, I had a few butterflies in my stomach, which is always the case when I’m interviewed on the air. This time, though, I wasn’t as nervous because I’d had a chance to talk to the broadcast guys during a quick visit before the game. They were all super down to earth and fun to talk to, and we exchanged lots of baseball stories. They even asked me to name my best ballpark adventure story, which was an easy one to answer.

Anyway, I hung out outside the broadcast studio, and as soon as the third inning wrapped up, I went in and grabbed a seat and a set of headphones between Nathan Barnett and Ryan Rouillard. My nerves quickly subsided, thanks to the fun, easy banter and professionalism of Nathan and Ryan, and the top of the fourth was just about in the books. Luckily, Nathan asked if I’d stay on for the bottom half, and of course I was thrilled for the chance. We talked about my Texas trip, my assorted ballpark visits and more, and it was an absolute blast. As soon as the inning ended, the third member of the broadcast team, Steve Goldberg, took a photo of me between Nathan and Ryan:

dr-pepper-ballpark-malcolm-in-broadcast-booth

By the way, give the RoughRiders broadcast team a follow on Twitter, and check out a broadcast online, too. These guys are great.

When I left the press box for the last time, I went back to the concourse and picked up a lemon ice …

dr-pepper-ballpark-lemon-chill

… and then grabbed a spot behind home plate to watch the remainder of the game, which seemed to fly by quickly. Each passing inning meant that my Texas trip was coming to an end, but I was grateful for all the wonderful memories I made, the great people I met and the help of all those who contributed to the adventure. I’m certainly looking forward to returning to the Lone Star State again soon.

The next morning, I was up about 4 a.m. to begin my long trip home — but I couldn’t resist taking one last photo of the darkened Dr Pepper Ballpark from my balcony:

dr-pepper-ballpark-early-morning

So long, Texas. I hope to see you soon again.

Frisco RoughRiders – May 20

The final days of a baseball road trip can be a little challenging — sometimes, I simply don’t want the trip to end. Other times, I’m exhausted and admittedly ready to get home and resume a normal schedule that includes sleeping and eating vegetables. Fortunately, that wouldn’t be the case on days nine and 10 of my Texas trip — I was thrilled to visit Frisco and see the RoughRiders for a pair of games.

Frisco is located just north of Dallas, and is about a five-hour drive from Midland, where I’d spent May 18 and 19 seeing the RockHounds in action. Although the RoughRiders were playing an evening game, I was anxious to make the drive east through Texas and get to my hotel for an early check-in. It’s an understatement to say that I was excited to experience my hotel, the Embassy Suites Hotel and Convention Center. That’s because — in addition to looking very impressive online — it is located directly beyond the outfield of Frisco’s Dr Pepper Ballpark, meaning I’d once again be fortunate to visit a hotel with a field-facing room.

I pulled into the hotel’s parking lot just after 3 p.m., hurriedly unloaded my backpack and suitcase and checked in quickly. I remember being amused at myself as I walked with a profound sense of purpose through the hotel lobby to the elevator, and then from the elevator to my room, as I was pumped to see what the view was like.

Well, it certainly exceeded my expectations!

I dropped my luggage in the living room area, made a beeline down the hall and through the bedroom, went out onto the balcony and saw this:

dr-pepper-ballpark-first-view

Wow!

What a great looking ballpark, eh? I instantly loved the unique structure of the park — instead of the standard look that I’ve often seen around the minors, this park was visually engaging because of the smaller structures around the concourse, instead of one larger building. Like other parks, Dr Pepper Ballpark has a number of concession stands around the concourse and suites above, but I think it’s neat how it’s not all one continuous structure. The little walkways between the buildings, I’d soon find out, make getting around this ballpark really easy and fun.

The only thing that troubled me about the glorious sight in front of my eyes was the way the trees were overgrown and partially covered the Dr Pepper Ballpark sign. I realize this is a first-world problem, but I think it’d be nicer if the sign were fully visible to people in the hotel.

As you might have seen in the above photo, the batting cage was set up and the players were hitting, but I didn’t want to get to the park just yet, as I’d skipped lunch and was starving. I made a quick run across the street (heading in the opposite direction from the ballpark) to the Stonebriar Centre mall to grab a quick lunch from the food court. As you might suspect, I brought the food back to enjoy eating it with the great view from my balcony.

After eating, I snapped this panorama from my balcony …dr-pepper-ballpark-hotel-view-pano

… and then noticed the baseball field-shaped details in the balcony railings, which I thought were cool:

dr-pepper-ballpark-hotel-railing-detail

I love when hotels think of small details like that.

Once I finished eating, I checked out a generous gift basket that the people at Visit Frisco had left me. They were instrumental in setting up my visit, and surprised me with a bunch of goodies, including a RoughRiders cap and towel and some other sports gear from the local area’s teams — a Dallas Cowboys pin and a Dallas FC scarf, as well as some other awesome treats.

Next, it was time to pack up my camera and GoPro and head out to the ballpark. Just as I love the view from ballpark-facing hotels, I love the short walk when you stay so close to the park: No sitting in traffic, no paying for parking — just a pleasant walk that lasts only a few minutes. As I left the hotel, I turned back and shot this photo; my room was on the right side of the left bank of balconies, fifth from the top:

embassy-suites-frisco

From where I stood on the sidewalk just outside the hotel’s doors, here’s what the view looked like ahead of me:

dr-pepper-ballpark-walking-to-the-ballpark

Awesome!

Within a minute or so, I was standing outside the fence beyond the outfield and soaking up the view and atmosphere:

dr-pepper-ballpark-from-outside-gates

Next, I made my way along a side street to the main gates of Dr Pepper Ballpark, where I snapped this photo:

dr-pepper-ballpark-front-gates

Again, you’ll see that this park has a unique look, with a series of individual building sections (and turrets, of course) that make the home of the RoughRiders unlike any other MiLB park I’ve seen.

Here’s the area as a panorama:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-front-gates

After taking the above photo, I entered through the main gate, went through reception area and out to what I expected to be the concourse — and, boy, was I surprised. Here was the scene that awaited me:

dr-pepper-ballpark-first-view-inside

Yes, there’s a huge kids’ play area ahead and a bar/eatery on the right side, but check out the gravel walkway! And the trees! It felt like I was in cottage country or at a campground. Now, make no mistake — there is a traditional concrete concourse at Dr Pepper Ballpark, but behind the buildings that line the concourse, you’re treated to this campground/neighborhood feel, and it’s outstanding.

Although I was anxious to get exploring what I could already tell was going to be one of my favorite ballparks, I wanted to watch batting practice for a bit first. I made a beeline for the grass berm in left field, where this was my view:

dr-pepper-ballpark-watching-bp-from-berm

 

The San Antonio players were hitting bombs left and right. Look at all the balls that were sitting on the grass in a perfect line just to the left of me, obviously having hit the facing of the deck and then rolled back down the hill:

dr-pepper-ballpark-bp-baseballs

I left them where they sat because the gates weren’t yet open and, instead, moved a little closer to center field to take this panorama:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-center-field

After standing on the berm for about 10 minutes and enjoying the action, I moved a little farther away to a spot behind the video board, where I took this shot partly to just show a different view of the scene during BP, but also to show the plants that grew at the base of the video board — once again giving Dr Pepper Ballpark a comfortable, natural feel:

dr-pepper-ballpark-beneath-video-bard

And, while I was in the area, I snapped this shot of me, squinting into the bright sun:

dr-pepper-ballpark-malcolm

Although it was tempting to just enjoy my spot on the berm and watch more BP, I was itching to finally explore more of the park — so that’s what I did next. My main priority was to first check out some of the unique sights around the ballpark, like the area I’d seen immediately upon entering earlier. Behind the third base concourse — there’s another gravel area with plenty of trees, plants and concession stands selling diverse food products like funnel cakes, custom-built hamburgers, street tacos and more:

dr-pepper-ballpark-relaxing-area

And the structure you see in the background is the batting cage area, so you can watch players taking some pregame cuts while you wait for your food. How perfect is this setup?

I found this area to be extremely serene before the gates opened; even though there was music playing, the smell of stadium food wafting through the air and staff members hustling around, being in this spot seemed to transport me back to going to the cottage as a kid, enjoying the crunch of the gravel beneath my feet and the trees and bushes around me. And, funny enough, I still had this experience even once the gates opened and the area was flooded with fans. A little more exploring revealed this wasn’t the only tranquil spot in Dr Pepper Ballpark — head behind the first base concourse, and you’ll enjoy this sight:

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Being away from home, traveling every day or two and often being in crowded environments can feel a little hectic, so it was comforting to be able to take a walk through the quieter areas of Dr Pepper Ballpark whenever the feeling suited, and I certainly encourage you to try it, too.

After enjoying the aforementioned tranquility, I headed out to the main concourse, where I snapped this photo …

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… and stood to watch batting practice for a few minutes. Having been to 62 major and minor league ballparks, I’ve seen a lot of great views from behind home plate, and this one is right up there. Don’t you agree?

Next, I took a walk down the first base line, enjoying the sun and the sounds of batting practice. As I descended to field level, a baseball caught my eye:

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As you can see, the ball was jammed under one of the doors leading out to the field. My “no baseballs before gates open” rule kept me from grabbing it, but I vowed to return after the gates had opened up, to see if it was still there.

Once I put the ball out of my mind, I stood in the front row and enjoyed a little more BP with this view:

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From this vantage spot, I couldn’t resist taking another photo of my awesome hotel:

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It wouldn’t be long until BP wrapped up, so I paid another visit to the outfield grass berm to enjoy the last group or two of hitters:

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Next, with nothing to watch on the field and plenty of time before first pitch, I continued exploring the park. Heading back to the tranquil food area on the third base side, I now saw some food trucks parked inside the park’s gates, including this one:

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What a cool feature! Food trucks arrive on game day, park inside the ballpark and then leave at the game’s conclusion. I’ve often seen food trucks outside ballparks — especially in the majors — but I can’t recall seeing one inside a park; just another creative thing that the RoughRiders do very well.

Since I was in the area, I watched a bit of action in the batting cages, and then decided to take a climb up to the press box area to check out the view. The myriad levels, walkways and bridges connecting the various buildings made this short walk unique — and also provided some cool vantage points. Here’s a view looking down from one of the pedestrian bridge/walkways a few levels up …

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… and here’s another view that shows the unique layout of this ballpark:

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As expected, the press box offered a sensational view of the park:

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I stood at one of the press box windows and took everything in, allowing my eyes to slowly pan from left to right, and then it hit me — the baseball that was hiding under the gate! I’d been so enjoying all the sights that I’d forgotten to check for the ball after the gates had opened. By now, the gates had been open about 20 minutes, and while there were lots of fans in the park, most of them were congregating around the concourse and concession stands. This meant that there was an outside chance of the ball still being there, so I hustled down to the concourse, made my way toward the right field corner and … voila!

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Above five minutes after grabbing the ball, I was leaning against the railing and enjoying the view, when a young family (parents and a boy about five) approached and asked me to take their photo. They descended a couple steps in front of me and I snapped a few shots with their iPhone. As I went to give the phone back, I pulled the ball out of my pocket and handed it to the kid, whose jaw dropped enough that the ball might’ve fit in his mouth. As much as I love collecting balls for myself, it’s sure a thrill to give them away, too.

Speaking of thrills, my next stop at Dr Pepper Ballpark was to see one of the most unique sights I’ve ever seen at any park, MLB or MiLB. In case you haven’t heard, the RoughRiders have installed a lazy river beyond the right field fence! It wasn’t complete when I visited, unfortunately — I guess I’ll just have to make a point of visiting again to check it out — but I was able to take a look at it and snap some photos.

In the following shot, you’ll see how the lazy river rises above the outfield fence; it’s behind the stone wall, which also serves as the backdrop for a waterfall:

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And here’s a shot from behind the foul pole, which gives you an idea of the layout and depth of the lazy river:

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Lazy rivers are my absolute favorite attraction at water parks. You can keep your slides and wave pools; give me a lazy river and I’ll happily float around for hours. Can you imagine how cool it would be to watch a minor league game from this vantage point? Hmm, I really need to return to Frisco, don’t I?

With still a bit of time before first pitch, I took a walk through the outstanding team shop, Riders Outpost:

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The store was enormous and was one of the best I’ve seen in the minor leagues. I couldn’t resist buying this Under Armour long-sleeved shirt:

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After restraining myself to avoid buying more, I went down to field level on the third base side, where I shot this picture of the main building behind home plate:

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As seems to be the theme at Dr Pepper Ballpark, this building is different than virtually everything else I’ve seen during my travels. On the concourse level, there’s a large open area where fans congregate during games. The second level is the JC Penney Club, an upscale eatery that I had the fortune of experiencing on the second day of my visit — and you’ll want to make sure that you read that blog post. The third level is made of suites and way up on the fourth level is the press box. Also, how awesome does this building look?

While at field level, I noticed the netting over the dugouts. Now, I get the important reason for it, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that it somehow makes the game seem farther away, as well as all but negates your chance of having a ball tossed to you at the end of an inning. This netting is slowly getting more common at MiLB parks, but I noticed something cool above the dugout — there’s a small opening next to the railing:

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I don’t know the specific reason for the inclusion of this opening, but if it was to give fans a chance to get pregame autographs from players, I give a big-time kudos to the RoughRiders for creating a fan-friendly element to the netting.

Speaking of autographs, I checked out the team’s autograph area down the third base side next. A player signs before the games, and pitcher Victor Payano (who pitched when I was in Midland) was signing for some kids:

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This is another thing that’s awesome about the minor leagues. When a MLBer signs in a designated area before a big league game, it’s pandemonium. In the minors, countless fans were passing by the autograph area without making a fuss. Some were exchanging greetings with Payano, others were shaking his hand and others were completely oblivious. As a fan, the idea of running up and grabbing an autograph and a photo without having to dedicate an hour to the process is truly welcome.

As first pitch approached, I took a few minutes to watch the pregame show on the video board. I was especially interested because it was hosted by two of the team’s three broadcasters, Nathan Barnett and Steve Goldberg:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pregame-show

This was significant because I was scheduled to join the live broadcast to talk about my Texas trip, blog and website a day later. I’ve been interviewed on the air in several different cities, and it never fails to be a huge thrill … and something that’s a initially a bit nerve-wracking, too. So, seeing and listening to the guys in advance of joining them on the broadcast helped me to relax a little.

I browsed the park until first pitch, and then grabbed a spot along the railing to watch the early innings, enjoying this view:

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By the end of the first inning, the seating bowl below me had filled up significantly, which was a sign of things to come. Both RoughRiders games I attended were packed with fans:

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About this time, I got the chance to meet up with Jason Dambach, the executive VP and general manager of the team. (And the president of the State College Spikes, too!) He’d tweeted at me before the game and we’d agreed to meet up, and it was great to get a chance to tell him about my travels and hear some details about the ballpark, too. One of the best things about visiting so many ballparks is the opportunity to chat with friendly baseball people, and Jason certainly fits that description to a T. I’m looking forward to crossing paths with him again somewhere down the line.

My next stop was the berm in left-center, which had filled up, too:

dr-pepper-ballpark-berm-game

I watched a little bit of the action from the berm, and then headed over to the Frisco bullpen down the first base line. In general, most bullpens in the minors are set up in a way that gives fans outstanding access, whether it’s to get an autograph before the game, ask for a ball or, as I enjoy, just standing next to the bullpen and taking in everything. The Frisco dugout is actually situated between different seating sections. This means that you can stand next to the bullpen on three of the four sides, which provides an awesome vantage point for watching pitchers get warmed up. See what I mean?

dr-pepper-ballpark-home-bullpen

It was nearly time to eat — I’d been walking around a lot because I knew I’d need a big appetite for the meal I’d soon be tackling. First, though, I wanted to take a few more photos to show just how beautiful this ballpark is. Here’s a panorama from the first base side …

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… and here’s a shot from behind home plate that I really like because I think it captures the beauty of this ballpark:

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Time to eat!

Before my trip, I’d researched all of the notable concession stand items at each of the five Texas ballparks I’d be visiting, and Frisco offered the one I was most excited about — the Mac & Cheese BBQ Sandwich. Behold:

dr-pepper-ballpark-food-mac-and-cheese-bbq-sandwich

This memorable sandwich comes on a mac and cheese bun; allow me to explain. Take a hunk of mac and cheese, form it into a patty, cover it in bread crumbs and deep fry it — and you’ve got one half of a “bun.” Sound excessive? Sure does! You get a choice of meat, and I got smoked brisket. That meant that each bite had a nice crunch, the gooey deliciousness of the mac and cheese as the breading broke open and, of course, the tender smokiness of the brisket. It all made for a sandwich that was outstanding and truly original.

As you might have guessed, it’s not optimal to do much walking after eating this sandwich, but I managed to waddle my way back to the standing room area behind home plate, where I enjoyed this awesome view:

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Here’s the same view as a panorama; it’s too good not to show this way, too:

dr-pepper-ballpark-pano-night

Then, midway through the ninth inning, I slipped out of the park and walked back to my hotel. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll know that I don’t like to leave games early, but that I’ll do so if there’s a worthwhile reason, as I did when I visited El Paso. Well, I had a good reason on this night — I wanted to sit on my balcony for the Friday night fireworks show that would begin soon after the final out, rather than watch it from inside the park. (The team has fireworks after Friday night games throughout the season and Sunday night games (during the summer) and one thing that is really neat is that fans can sit on the field to watch.

I made it back to my hotel just as the game was wrapping up, so I enjoyed a view minutes of this view …

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… and then used my GoPro to film the show. I wasn’t the only hotel guest enjoying the fireworks; there were a ton of people sitting on their balconies to take in the show. Here’s how it looked:

Midland RockHounds – May 18 and 19

Following an awesome two-day visit to El Paso, it was time to hop back in my rental car and set my sights on Midland for the seventh and eighth days of my Texas road trip. The drive from El Paso to Midland is one that I’d been cautioned about by multiple people soon after I announced my trip — including a Twitter friend named Steven Ericson, who is a geography instructor and knows about such things. He strongly advised me to make sure that my car was full of gas before I left El Paso, given that there are long stretches without gas stations (and without much at all, to be honest) between the two cities.

I heeded the advice, topped up my car and pulled out of El Paso about 7:30 a.m. on May 18. There was a Midland RockHounds game scheduled for that evening and, while the drive from El Paso to Midland is only about 4.5 hours, I’d be losing an hour due to a time zone change. Plus, I was scheduled to meet with some folks from Visit Midland in the afternoon before the ballgame to tour the area a bit.

As promised, the drive between the cities was indeed memorable — and not because of running out of gas, thankfully. There was plenty of beautiful terrain to enjoy, including the mountains around El Paso …

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… and vast areas of flat ground that stretched as far as the eye could see:

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Occasionally, I’d see a small town, so I’ll pull off and top up my gas. In one stop, my car would only take $5 to fill the remainder of the tank, which shows you that I wasn’t taking any chances! Someone told me there’s a stretch of about 80 miles without a gas station. I didn’t measure, but this doesn’t seem improbable.

Eventually, the scenery around me began to change, and I was soon seeing pump jacks and flares on each side of the road for miles on end. Yep, I was definitely entering oil country. In addition to being the midway point between El Paso and Fort Worth, Midland is very well known for its oil. Oil was discovered in the Permian Basin in the 1920s, and the oil production has been going strong ever since. I’ve since read that today, this area produces around 20 percent of the country’s petroleum and natural gas. One more quick noteworthy fact about the area — if you’ve read the book “Friday Night Lights” or seen the movie or TV show of the same name, you’ll recognize the name of Permian High School. Well, it’s located in Odessa, which is just outside Midland. Or, you could say that Midland is just outside Odessa — there’s definitely a sports rivalry between the two cities!

Under dreary skies, I pulled into Midland and checked into my hotel just 10 minutes before I was supposed to meet up with Visit Midland. After spending so many hours in the car, I only had the chance to drop my luggage in the room, splash some water on my face and run back down to the lobby. There, I met up with Visit Midland’s Lyndsey White and Amy Harrison, who’d arranged for me to have a private tour at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, which had just undergone a $18 million renovation to improve the facility and its exhibits for local residents and tourists alike. It was an informative experience, and one that I’ll write about in a future blog post. For now, though, here’s a photo of me in front of two pump jacks on the museum’s property:

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I came into the experience knowing very little about oil production, so it was interesting to learn a lot from our well-versed tour guide, as well as see a ton of artifacts from the area’s rich oil history. Lyndsey and Amy dropped me back at my hotel later in the afternoon, and I had a few minutes to relax and check out the amazing gift basket that had been left for me by the people at Visit Midland, who really went out of their way to make my stay memorable. I hadn’t had time to look at it earlier, but I was excited to now check it out. It was brimming with cool RockHounds souvenirs, including this bucket hat, Security Bank Ballpark replica and logo baseball:

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There were also treats from local vendors, including some white chocolate-covered Oreos with baseball stitching from a local candy store — and how Visit Midland knew that Oreos are my weakness is beyond me!

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Before making the short walk over to the ballpark, I thought I’d check to make sure that the game was still on. Though it wasn’t raining, the sky was definitely dark and rain was in the forecast. I looked on my Twitter to see if there were any updates about that night’s game and, to my disappointment, I read that it had been postponed due to the weather. There was good news, though — there’d be a doubleheader the next day.

A little more good news: The hotel I was staying in, Home2 Suites Midland, was outstanding, and the idea of having a sit-down dinner and then relaxing in the air conditioning for the evening more than a little appealing at this point on my trip. The hotel was new, clean and the suite-style rooms were huge, so I zipped out for a big steak and loaded baked potato at Outback, and then returned to relax for the evening … and also shoot this photo from my window looking across a few parking lots to Security Bank Ballpark under dreary skies:

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The next morning, I’m pleased to say that the scene outside my window looked significantly brighter, as you can see here:

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The doubleheader was scheduled for 4:30 p.m., and I had plenty to fill my time before then. I was fortunate to get invited to lunch with Lyndsey and several of her colleagues, as well as Ray Fieldhouse, the RockHounds assistant general manager/operations, to taste some local fare and learn more about the city. We went to Gerardo’s Casita, a place that has authentic Mexican cuisine and reminded me a bit of L&J Cafe, a place I’d visited in El Paso a couple days earlier. I ordered the steak enchilada platter, and it was delicious:

midland-food

During lunch, the discussion turned to the fact that President George W. Bush was raised in Midland, which is something I hadn’t realized. In fact, the Bush family home is still intact and now serves as a museum. After eating, Lyndsey took me over to the museum and had a tour, which I’ll be blogging about in a future post. Here, though, is a shot of me in front of the house:

george-bush-home-malcolm

Lyndsey dropped me back off at the hotel shortly after 2 p.m. and I immediately headed out for the short walk to Security Bank Ballpark. I figured that the crowd would be pretty sparse for the early innings of the first game, as is often the case with doubleheaders, but I still wanted to get to the park good and early to tour around, take lots of photos and shoot some video with my GoPro.

Although I’m always excited when I approach a ballpark, this one had an extra-special feel, as it was the 50th different Minor League Baseball park I’ve visited since 2010. By the way, if you want to see everywhere I’ve been, it’s all at this link.

After I took the photo of the main gate …

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… my plan, like always, was to take a long walk around the park’s perimeter and check out everything from all angles. I enjoyed a nice walk around the quiet park by myself, stopping occasionally to photograph things like this statue, which has plaques recognizing the team’s various championships and awards:

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(The RockHounds won back-to-back Texas League titles in 2014 and 2015, and those plaques are on the base of this statue behind the catcher.)

When I stopped in the team’s office to pick up my press pass, I saw those two championship trophies, as well as another from when the club won the Texas League championship in 2009. The tall trophy second from the left is the John H. Johnson President’s Trophy, which was awarded to Midland in 2007 after it was named the top franchise in the minors:

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This was the first photo I took upon entering the ballpark:

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As you can see, it was a little dreary and there were a few puddles from the previous day’s rain, but I had my fingers crossed that weather wouldn’t interfere with the doubleheader. I set out down the third base side to take my customary lap of the concourse and, as this picture shows, Security Bank Ballpark was still majorly empty, which suited me just fine, as it would make my life easier when it came to shooting some video:

security-bank-ballpark-empty-concourse-early

Although Security Bank Ballpark had a pretty standard feel (it was built in 2002 and shares a lot of traits with other parks from that era) there were a bunch of cool features that I enjoyed seeing. Check out the expansive areas down the baselines — perfect for hanging out if you want to catch a long foul ball:

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Another neat thing was the grass berm beyond the left field fence:

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The berm is very tall — more of a hill than a standard berm, and climbing it provided a great panoramic view of the park. Here’s the view from close to the top of the berm:

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After climbing back down from the berm, I took this shot of myself with my 50th different MiLB ballpark as the backdrop:

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Then, I walked around a baseball-themed splash pad in center field …

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… and a good-sized kids’ play area nearby:

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While the grass hill in left field might be the prime attraction as far as grass seating is concerned, it’s hardly the only place to throw down a blanket and enjoy the game. There’s also lots of grass seating just to the right field side of the batter’s eye:

security-bank-ballpark-berm-pano

If you’ve been following along with my Texas trip, you’ll know that I’ve been impressed with the basketball courts at several of the parks I’ve visited. Well, Security Bank Ballpark no different, and actually has the best in-stadium basketball court I’ve seen in all my travels. It has one of those rubber-mat surfaces in RockHounds colors and is emblazoned with the team’s logo:

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Speaking of that logo, I found a foam RockHounds ball near the basketball court, just after taking the above photo:

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I grabbed it and gave it to a kid soon after the gates opened a while later.

Shortly before the gates opened, I snapped this photo from the wide concourse area down the first base line to show just how empty the park still was:

security-bank-ballpark-wide-concourse-foul-balls

Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of staffers running around getting ready for the game, but there were occasional pockets of time in which I was really the only person in the area — and that was awesome. It’s always such a treat to get to wander around an empty ballpark; it’s hard to explain, but it’s a feeling that I really enjoy when I get to experience.

About the time that the gates opened, the teams came onto the field and began to play catch. I was in the area behind home plate, so I snapped this photo that shows the view from the area:

security-bank-ballpark-home-plate-view-pregame

Did you notice the big hill in left field? This picture should hopefully put its size into perspective.

As I suspected, the crowds weren’t exactly flooding into Security Bank Ballpark right away. But, I suspected that by midway through the first game, the park would be hopping — and that was indeed the case, thanks in part to the team’s Thirsty Thursday promotion that began after the conclusion of Game #1.

So, how empty was the ballpark at the start of the first game? Here’s a shot I took in the top of the first inning that puts things into perspective:

security-bank-ballpark-first-inning-no-crowd

I was positively giddy about the initial emptiness, thinking that I’d have an excellent chance of snagging a foul ball or two. In fact, I even sent out a tweet jokingly wondering how many foul balls I’d end up with. Well, the answer was a little humbling. Despite hanging out in a great area — I sat in the top row of right near that wide concourse that you saw a few photos earlier — no balls came even close to me. I had easy access to a couple seating sections, as well as the wide concourse behind me and down to the corner, and there wasn’t a single ball hit anywhere near that area in the first few innings. I suppose that if I’d stayed, my luck might have changed, but I never like to sit in one single area for too long, so I soon headed off to enjoy the ballpark from different areas.

My next stopping place was the grass berm in right field. By now, there were a few fans on the left field berm, but the right field one was empty. I watched a bit of the action from this spot and was surprised to end up with not one, but two baseballs:

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Now, they weren’t home run balls, nor were they hit during BP. They were both sitting on the grass berm when I arrived, and were soaking wet. They hadn’t been there earlier, so I’m certain they were found in a bullpen by a pitcher and simply tossed up onto the grass for a fan to find. Since I was the only fan in the area, I was happy to add two more Texas League balls to my collection.

After snapping the shot of the two balls, it was time to get something to eat. Before my visit to Midland, I’d seen that the RockHounds’ entry in the MiLB Food Fight competition was a unique hot dog, and I knew I wanted to try it. It was a hot dog with a couple strips of bacon and slathered in peanut butter and jelly. Sound good? I thought it was:

security-bank-ballpark-food-pbj-hot-dog

In fairness, I think it could’ve afforded more peanut butter and jelly, as I found they got a little lost behind the strong flavor of the bacon and the hot dog itself. I was impressed with the solid amount of bacon, though, and I think I may try to recreate one of these hot dogs at home sometime.

After eating my first meal of the evening, I decided to find a front-row seat on the first base side and shoot some action photos. The crowd was still pretty thin, so it was easy to get a good spot and start clicking away with my camera. Here’s Midland starter Sam Bragg:

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And Frisco starter Connor Sadzeck:

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I spent an inning or so right behind home plate where, despite shooting through the netting, I was able to get a decent shot of Midland infielder Franklin Barreto just after making contact:

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For the remainder of the game, I took a few more laps around the concourse, shot a bit of video with my GoPro and, in general, just enjoyed a laid-back night at the ballpark.

During the break between games, I grabbed a spot at field level to rest my legs, and noticed something amusing. The Midland groundskeeper had a dog with him. Now, we’ve all seen the bat-retrieving dogs at minor league parks, but this wasn’t the deal here. The dog simply appeared to be a pet — and one that enjoyed hanging out on the field while it was being prepped. It was nice to see a dog behaving so calmly, despite lots going on around it; while the infield was being leveled, the dog just waited at the end of the grass:

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Here’s a wider-angle shot that shows the scene:

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Some dogs aren’t crazy about water hoses, but when the base paths were being watered, the dog — once again — just hung out nearby. It was definitely neat to see:

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Soon enough, the players returned to the field and began tossing. I was still at field level on the third base side, so I got some cool shots, like this one of Frisco infielder Luis Mendez:

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And this one of Frisco catcher Alex Burg:

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As the game began, I made another trip over to one of the concession stands to get something else to eat. This time, I went with something that was a little more conventional for a ballpark — a sausage on a bun, which I loaded up with lettuce, onions, pickled jalapenos and mustard:

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I watched the early innings of the game behind home plate. By now, the crowd had definitely thickened, but I found a good spot in the front row, where I was able to enjoy views like this one of Frisco starter Victor Payano on the mound:

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Here’s a picture from the same spot that turned out sort of neat:

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Midland first baseman Viosergy Rosa has just made contact, and you can see the ball against the outfield fence.

Partway through the game, I watched a bit of the action while leaning on the railing at the edge of the concourse behind home plate, where the view looked like this:

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Great looking view from home plate, right?

As the sun set, I slipped out of the ballpark to snap this panorama of the main gate …

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… and then went back inside to watch the last couple innings from my earlier seat behind home plate and just enjoy the game and the park. It was too bad I didn’t get to experience two days at Security Bank Ballpark, but I’m glad that the doubleheader allowed me to spend lots of time at this Texas League facility — and the other things that I was able to experience in Midland certainly made this a memorable stop on my Texas trip. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit again soon.

When the game wrapped up, I had just a quick walk back to my hotel where I’d relax for a few hours and then go to bed knowing that I’d be up in the morning to drive to Frisco for the last two days of my Texas trip.

El Paso Chihuahuas – May 17

After the outstanding first day I had in El Paso, I was eager to get my second day in town started — and I wouldn’t have to wait too long. The Chihuahuas were hosting the New Orleans Zephyrs in an 11 a.m. game, so I planned to get to Southwest University Park between 9 and 9:30 a.m.

First, though, it was time to check out one of El Paso’s top restaurants. The plan was to again meet up with Leesy McColgary from Visit El Paso to have breakfast at L&J Cafe, a restaurant that you’d hardly notice from the outside but that is ranked third on TripAdvisor’s list of top El Paso eateries.

When I exited the DoubleTree Downtown El Paso to meet Leesy, I was amazed at how cool and fresh the morning air was. El Paso has virtually no humidity, and while I’d found it hot a day earlier, it was downright chilly in the morning, which I certainly welcomed.

As I waited, I was excited to look at Southwest University Park just across the street from my hotel:

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Soon enough, Leesy arrived and we were off to L&J Cafe. It’s a favorite spot for locals — so much so that when we arrived about 15 minutes before the restaurant opened, there was a lineup outside. On a Tuesday. Here’s the outside of the restaurant:

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Since we were a little early, we took a quick tour of the historic Concordia Cemetery, which is something that I’ll blog about in an upcoming post.

While the breakfast choices on the menu looked good, I’m not a huge breakfast guy — and, besides, the other examples of traditional Mexican food were making my taste buds tingle. I decided to forgo the idea of a traditional breakfast and, instead, order an enchilada platter with a combination of red and green sauce. This, ladies and gents, was my breakfast, and it was absolutely delicious:

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And, in case I needed more, Leesy suggested that we order some sopaipillas, which are fried pastries served with honey:

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They were much lighter than I expected and definitely something I’ve craved a few times since.

This was one of the best overall meals I’ve had in a long time, and I can assure you that L&J Cafe will be on my agenda whenever I make it back to El Paso. Once I finished eating, Leesy dropped me back at my hotel and I waddled over to Southwest University Park, eager to get my second visit underway.

My first visit a day earlier had included a private tour and a lot of ballpark exploring, and frankly it was nice to know that during my second visit, I could do a little more focusing on the game and just enjoying the view. Doing so isn’t always possible when I only have one day in a city, so I was once again thankful for having two days in each city on this trip. Before I grabbed a seat and relaxed, though, I had an exciting experience — I was meeting up with Felix Chavez from the El Paso Times for an interview. I’ve done a handful of newspaper interviews over the years, and as a longtime journalist myself, it’s always fun to be on the “other” side of the interview. I met Felix outside the press box as soon as I arrived, and we chatted for several minutes about my baseball travels, blog/website and, of course, my impressions of Southwest University Park. It was super enjoyable; I’ve occasionally been interviewed by disinterested reporters, but it was clear that Felix was curious about my adventures, which made the process really pleasant. (By the way, you’ll see his story at the end of this post.)

Felix also had a surprise for me — one of the Times‘ photographers was there, and he’d be following me around for a while to take some photos of me to run with the story. I met the photographer, Victor Calzada, after my interview, and we headed down toward the concourse. I was impressed with Victor’s ethical approach to taking my photo. I asked him how he wanted to set me up, and he told me that he didn’t want anything that was staged. Instead, he asked me to do my thing and he’d be a “fly on the wall” behind me for 20 or 30 minutes. It was definitely a new experience to walk around a ballpark and have someone following me to snap photos, but Victor was such a natural that it made everything easy.

This is the first shot I took at the ballpark on this day …

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… and as I looked at the video board through my camera’s viewfinder, I could hear Victor snapping off shots in the background.

Since I’d taken so many ballpark shots a day earlier, I primarily wanted to focus on action shots during this visit. I love grabbing a spot close to the field and shooting the players, so that was my main goal today … and Victor was always just a few steps behind me. I began by going down to field level on the first base side, where I took some shots of New Orleans warming up. Here are outfielder Kenny Wilson, a former Toronto Blue Jays prospect, and infielder Elliot Soto:

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Even though my focus was on player shots, I still couldn’t resist documenting the beauty of Southwest University Park. It’s one of those places that looks great from every angle. I walked along the outfield concourse and snapped the photos to make up this panorama:

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While I was there, I noticed that the grass berm was much more full than it had been a day earlier:

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Because it was a morning game, there were a bunch of school groups in attendance, and many of the kids had clearly flocked to the berm.

As I did a day earlier, I went down to the El Paso bullpen to take action shots of the Chihuahuas’ starting pitcher warming up. On this day, it was Daniel McCutchen, and I got a bunch of photos that turned out well, including this one:

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Once he finished tossing, I made my way behind home plate snapped this panorama just before the anthem that shows just how beautiful this ballpark is:

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I forget exactly when Victor and I parted, but I think it was during the first inning. In any case, he took some great shots of me doing my thing, as you’ll see at the bottom of this post. As the first inning got underway, I found a spot in the front row above the dugout on the first base side, which gave me a great place to shoot the action.

One of the fun things about watching baseball at the Triple-A level is seeing all the guys you recognize from MLB stints, so you’ll likely see some players throughout the rest of this post that you’ve seen on TV in the big leagues.

Here is New Orleans’ Robert Andino …

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… and here is El Paso’s Josh Satin, each of whom has played parts of multiple seasons in the bigs:

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It was wonderful to sit in the front row on a hot, sunny day and shoot the action. There were a few empty seats on each side of me, so I wasn’t cramped at all as I shifted left and right to snap my shots, like this one of Manuel Margot jumping out of the way of a pitch:

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Chris Reed making a pick-off move:

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And Margot swiping second base a pitch after the pick-off attempt:

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Here’s something interesting that I noticed: Reed, the New Orleans starter, is 6’3″, but has a squat delivery to the point that he looks much shorter just before he releases the ball. Don’t you agree?

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As for Margot, he proved himself to be impressive on the base paths, promptly stealing third base, too:

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There was plenty of action at home plate, too. Here’s El Paso’s Hunter Renfro about to connect on what ended up being a home run …

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… and celebrating with teammate Alex Dickerson just after crossing home plate:

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Here’s a funny shot I snapped of Rocky Gale experiencing the definition of chin music:

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And this is a better shot of the El Paso catcher connecting on a pitch a moment later:

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(I always love when I get a shot just as the bat meets the ball!)

Here’s another of Wilson, who is on his way to the New Orleans dugout after hitting a home run:

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After a couple innings of shooting, I decided to get back to walking around the ballpark. Remember this shot of the nighttime view of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez that I took from the upper level of the park a day earlier? This is how the scene looked in the daytime:

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Next, I went down to the front row behind home plate for an inning of action. Shooting through the netting rarely yields outstanding photos, but the overall view from this seating area was certainly enjoyable:

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By now, it was past noon and although the thought of a ballpark lunch was appealing, I was way too full from my breakfast. I was a bit disappointed to miss the opportunity to sample something else of the Southwest University Park menu, but that’ll just have to wait for another visit.

Speaking of food, I was continuously noticing fans with frozen drinks — which made sense, given the hot temperature. I’m a sucker for frozen lemonade and other such products, so I made my way to the “Slush’ae” concession stand down the first base line. Now, I’d been particularly intrigued by the yellow and red combination of slushie that I’d seen countless fans drinking, and I wanted to give it a try. I scanned the available flavors and, for some inexplicable reason, decided that the mystery color combination had to be pink lemonade. (This, despite the fact that red and yellow do not equal pink. Maybe the heat was getting to me.)

Anyway, I was handed this …

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… and while it was delicious and chilly, it didn’t satisfy my curiosity for the red and yellow product that continued to be enjoyed around me.

As I took this photo …

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… I said to myself, “Time for another slushie,” and returned to the same concession stand where I’d been less than 10 minutes earlier. “Back again?” the server asked me, with a smile on her face. I explained my predicament and she handed me what is arguably the most unique ballpark drink I’ve ever had:

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You’re looking at a mango slushie. Pretty standard, right? Yes, but here’s where the twist comes. The red stuff on the top and bottom of the cup is chamoy sauce, which I certainly hadn’t heard of. It’s a Mexican sauce made of pickled fruit (typically apricot or plum), and the taste is difficult to explain. You’d expect gooey red sauce to be super sweet, but that isn’t the case. It’s sort of a combination of salty and sour, if that makes sense. You can choose how much chamoy sauce you want added; since I was a newbie, the server gave me a small amount, but I saw people who’d obviously asked for a heap of it.

The intrigue didn’t end with the chamoy sauce. It’s hard to clearly see the straw in the above photo, so take a look at this one:

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The red stuff wrapped around the straw is flechazos, which is a dried fruit that’s not unlike what is often called “fruit leather.” It’s sweet, chewy and delicious. The twist, though, is that the flechazos-covered straw is rolled in chili powder, which gives you a unique spiciness that you certainly don’t expect when you’re having a frozen fruit drink.

The slushie was outstanding, and something that you should definitely seek out whenever you visit Southwest University Park. I’d definitely order it again, maybe even twice.

Once I slurped down the slushie and gnawed the chili and flechazos off my straw, I headed back down to the front row behind the dugout to take some more action shots — and just in time. Nick Wittgren, who I’d talked to a day earlier during BP, had just taken the mound, and I was anxious to photograph him in action:

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I also took another shot of him on the way to the dugout after one efficient inning of work:

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It took him just six pitches to get three outs. He was called up to the majors a week after this outing and picked up his first career MLB win a little over a week later.

Wittgren’s efforts aside, his Zephyrs fell to El Paso. And, unlike a day earlier, when I’d slipped out early to enjoy the last bit of the game from my hotel’s roof deck, I had a front-row seat for the final out and the post-game high fives:

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As the fans began to filter out of Southwest University Park, and I followed suit, I was definitely sad to be leaving. Although I’d had two full and awesome days in El Paso, they’d gone by very quickly. Still, as much as I was sad to be leaving this beautiful ballpark, I was looking forward to taking a walk around the city and then hanging out in my hotel room, so that’s what I did for the afternoon and evening. There was a short rainfall late in the afternoon, and a nice rainbow right outside my window:

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The next morning, I woke up early in advance of my drive to Midland. First, though, I needed to track down some copies of the El Paso Times to read the story about me. I walked over to the Times building, but it didn’t open until 8 a.m. and I wanted to be on the road well before then. So, I took the opportunity to snap this photo of me in front of the newspaper’s building …

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… and then found a gas station and bought five copies of the newspaper. “You know they all say the same thing, right?” said the clerk when I flopped the stack of papers down on the counter.

I eagerly flipped through to the sports section and was shocked to see my story as the top item. Here’s a scan of the front page banner:

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And the front of the sports page:

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And, finally, the turn on the third page of the sports section:

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If you’re interested in reading the story, you can click the above images to enlarge them.

Special thanks to everyone who helped make my visit to El Paso so memorable. I can’t wait to return!

Next up, a doubleheader at Security Bank Ballpark, home of the Texas League’s Midland RockHounds.

El Paso Chihuahuas – May 16

The good: I woke up on May 16 knowing that I’d be spending two days in El Paso, seeing the Pacific Coast League’s Chihuahuas play the beautiful Southwest University Park and staying in an awesome hotel across the street from the ballpark.

The bad: My alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. that morning.

The ugly: The weather that had caused a rainout a day earlier had intensified into one of the strongest storms I’d ever seen and I had an early morning flight to catch.

Time to get things started.

I’d gotten myself organized the night before, so I was out of my hotel before 4 a.m., into my rental car and peering through the windshield (with the wipers on psycho mode) at the dark and rain-ravaged streets of downtown Corpus Christi a few minutes after the top of the hour. My hotel was only 10 or 15 minutes from the airport, but the drive was one of the most harrowing I can recall — steering with one hand, holding my GPS with the other and gritting my teeth when I’d hit places that had an inch or two of standing water on the road. I was glad to pull into the airport about 4: 30 a.m. — even if it meant getting completely soaked on the walk between the rental car drop-off lot and the terminal.

“Quite a storm,” said the cheerful lady when I checked in at the Southwest desk. “We’re hoping to fly out this morning.”

Uh, hoping? Turns out that my apocalyptic view of the storm wasn’t exaggerated. Corpus Christi got something like five inches of rain overnight, many roads throughout the city were closed and a fellow passenger in line behind me heard that people in certain areas were being evacuated from their homes.

Of course, I wouldn’t have to worry about any of this silly weather in the desert climate of El Paso — but I’d have to get there first. With some time to kill, I hung out in the quiet airport …

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… and was delighted a short while later to learn that my 6:30 a.m. flight was still scheduled to depart on time. Soon enough, I boarded the flight and had this view:

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A little over an hour later, though, the view had dramatically improved:

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I took the above shot of the mountains through the window of the El Paso International Airport shortly after touching down and, as you can imagine, I was very pleased to see the clear skies after the previous day’s rainout.

I picked up my rental car and made the short drive to downtown El Paso to check into my hotel. It was still only mid-morning (there’s an hour’s difference between Corpus Christi and El Paso) but my hotel room was free, so I was thrilled to be able to get in and relax a little. I was staying for two nights at the DoubleTree Downtown El Paso, which is an absolutely fantastic hotel and the perfect spot to stay for baseball fans visiting El Paso. As I wrote earlier, it’s basically across the street from Southwest University Park and many of the rooms face the field. Mine didn’t, but I had a great view of the city and of the mountains beyond:

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I’d planned to have a short nap after arriving, but when I settled into my room and saw a bunch of welcome goodies from Destination El Paso (the city’s tourism department) I got too giddy to sleep. There were some delicious treats that served as a late breakfast for me, as well as this:

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Wow!

Speaking of Destination El Paso, I was scheduled to visit with Veronica Castro, the director of tourism development, and Leesy McCorgary, the digital marketing manager, to learn more about the city — and, of course, talk some baseball. We visited Anson 11, a restaurant within walking distance of the DoubleTree, and I ate a delicious plate of pork belly nachos with kimchee slaw, avocado and smoked mayo:

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You could certainly say that my visit to El Paso was off to a good start.

After lunch, we took a walking tour of the city’s downtown area and checked out a number of interesting sights, and I was thoroughly impressed with the downtown area. El Paso is an interesting city, seemingly equally influenced by Texas and Mexican culture. It’s right on the border with the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, which has often made headlines for its astronomical murder rate. El Paso, however, is exactly the opposite — it has repeatedly been named the “Safest City in America,” and I could see why. I did a ton of walking all around the downtown area during my visit, both with Veronica and Leesy, and on my own, and I was struck by how clean everything was and how safe it felt. El Paso is definitely in my sights for a return visit.

Anyway, after checking out some of the downtown sights, I was paired up with Angela Olivas, the Chihuahuas’ director of marketing and communications, for a one-on-one tour of Southwest University Park. (The day just kept on getting better and better!)

Beyond the insider information that I always get on my tours, one of the best things is getting access to areas I’d never otherwise see — even with a media pass. Our tour began in the bowels of the ballpark and we soon made our way through the tunnels into this grounds crew area, which is somewhere I wouldn’t have explored on my own …

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… and then out onto the field!

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No matter how many times I get to stand on a professional baseball field, it’s always a thrill. I routinely find myself bending down to touch the grass and kicking at the dirt just to feel it.

Sometimes, a tour’s visit to the field is short. This time, however, we spent several minutes out there while Angela explained the top-notch job that the team’s grounds crew does. You can imagine, given the desert climate, that it’s a big challenge to keep the field in pristine shape, but as you can see from these photos, the grass looked sensational.

By the way, how cool are the structures in right field? Here’s a closer look, and you can rest assured that you’ll see lots more photos (including the view from inside) later on in this post:

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One of the neat features that Angela pointed out while we stood on the field is Southwest University Park’s Peter Piper Pizza Porch, which is also known as the “blue monster” as a tip of the cap to the Green Monster at Fenway Park:

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This one isn’t quite as tall, but it’s an awesome feature and has seats above it, just like its green counterpart.

Before long, the tour continued through the tunnels below the ballpark. Check out how bright and clean everything was:

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We went past the home clubhouse …

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… and into an area called the “Dugout Club.” It’s a posh spot that the season ticket holders can access. Now, it’s nothing new for a team to provide swank surroundings for those who support the team in this manner, but the Dugout Club area has an awesome feature that I hadn’t ever seen before — a private viewing area of the indoor batting cages!

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Players use these cages before the game when it’s either raining (not very often) or so hot that they don’t want to hit on the field (likely more often). Can you imagine how cool it’d be to stand at the window and watch indoor batting practice? And, as cool as that vantage point is, here’s something else that was impressive — season ticket holders’ access to the seating bowl:

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(Can you tell that I’m just a tiny bit excited about my visit to El Paso? I sure hope so!)

After checking out the Dugout Club, we continued through the tunnels past the umpires’ locker room …

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… and eventually out to the concourse, where Angela led me toward the group decks in right field:

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This multi-level area was ultra impressive. Here’s how one of the seating/dining areas looks before the doors are rolled up at game time:

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On the wall opposite from the roll-up doors, there were dozens of artifacts related to the long history of baseball in El Paso:

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(In the above picture, did you notice the baseball-themed women’s bathroom sign on the right side?)

We then visited another of the enclosed seating decks in this area …

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… before going out to the stadium-style seating at the front of the structure:

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As you can see, this area provided an outstanding view of the entire ballpark, and gives those who book space here an awesome atmosphere.

Next, we descended to the bottom of this structure to check out the visitors’ bullpen. Whereas the home bullpen is in foul territory on the third base side (pretty standard in the minor leagues) the ‘pen for the visiting team is in this area behind the right field fence and below the party decks:

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It was built this way to allow fans to have close-up access to the visiting team — not only from the concourse, but also from the sidewalk outside the ballpark! In this next shot, you’ll see the field, the bullpen, the concourse and the sidewalk (and street):

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So many teams design their parks so that passing pedestrians can’t see any of the action, but that’s obviously not the case here, and I think it gives the facility a friendly vibe. Just a few steps from the bullpen, there’s another nice seating area. The seats here aren’t reserved; they’re on a first-come, first-served basis, and are obviously a hot commodity among fans who get to Southwest University Park as soon as the gates open:

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And speaking of hot, there’s a great place for kids to cool down on sweltering days, and that’s the splash pad in center field. Water shoots through a bunch of jets in the ground to keep kids feeling refreshed, and I was contemplating going over and lying on third base, given the heat:

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There’s also a sizable baseball-themed play structure in the area …

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… but my favorite center field attraction is the grass berm that offers this view:

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Once we were done checking out the berm (and I was done catching imaginary home runs in my mind), Angela took me over to the exclusive seating section on top of the Peter Piper Pizza Porch:

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Next, we went back through the clubhouse and road an elevator to the club level. We passed through this upscale eatery …

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… and entered the press box, where I enjoyed this spectacular view:

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Now, I know that each ballpark offers a unique view, and there are some sensational ones throughout the minors. It’s always hard to compare, but this one is definitely among my favorites of the 50+ parks I’ve been to. (Did you notice my hotel just to the left field side of center?)

Here’s the scene as a panorama:

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As we left the suite level, I was looking over toward Ciudad Juarez, and Angela explained what I was seeing. In this photo, you can see two arched bridges. There’s such heavy traffic between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez that one bridge is for people going one direction, and the other is for those coming the other direction:

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After a tour that lasted more than 45 minutes, Angela and I parted and I met up once again with Leesy to do a little more sightseeing, which I’ll write about in an upcoming blog post. Soon enough, I was back enjoying my hotel room — in particular, the air conditioning and the view.

A couple hours later, I made the short walk back to the ballpark, this time using my GoPro to document the sights. I’ll have a video put together to share very soon. Anyway, I was eager to check out the view from behind home plate again, and can you blame me? Here’s how things looked now that the visiting New Orleans Zephyrs were hitting:

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And of course, I couldn’t resist taking this shot of my hotel:

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(If you’ve followed my blog for a long time, you’ll know my love affair with hotels that face ballparks, and you’ve probably seen more than a few shots like the above.)

Wearing my GoPro on a chest harness (and looking like a major minor nerd), I went out to spend some time on the grass berm in center. I didn’t have my baseball glove with me on this trip, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until I could snag a home run ball. True enough, just a couple minutes after arriving, this Pacific Coast League ball landed nearby and I grabbed it:

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A moment later, I got the attention of New Orleans pitcher Nick Wittgren, who has since been recalled to the Miami Marlins, and tossed it to him. And I’m pleased to say that I got this cool moment on video, thanks to my GoPro and chest mount.

After throwing him the ball, I asked Wittgren what it was like playing in such heat. To my surprise, he actually turned around and walked over to me, and we chatted for several minutes. I told him all about my travels, and we compared some of the different ballparks we’ve both visited. A short while after he and his teammates wrapped up BP, I sent him a quick tweet and was surprised to get one back from him just a few minutes later:

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Even though the field was now empty, I couldn’t resist hanging out on the berm. No, I didn’t think I’d get a home run ball; I just was loving the vibe out there:

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There was still more than an hour before the gates were set to open, so I had 60-plus minutes to enjoy this breathtakingly beautiful park all on my own. Once I’d stayed on the berm for a bit, I shot this photo of my shadow on the field …

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… trying to recreate this photo that I took in Jamestown, N.Y. a couple seasons ago. What do you think? Pretty similar?

Given the thoroughness of my tour with Angela, I wasn’t in a hurry to run around and take a million photos before the gates opened, which I customarily do on my ballpark visits. While I did indeed take some shots, I mostly just wandered around for the next hour and enjoyed the sights. Occasionally, I’d hear the low rumble and high-pitched whistle of a freight train, so I went to investigate. Here’s a shot that I took from the landing of the stairs up to the upper deck:

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You can clearly see the train tracks on the left side of the image, and you’ll also note that they’re pretty darned close to the ballpark. In fact, the gap between the concourse and the tracks is netted off to prevent foul balls from hitting any passing trains. I’ve certainly seen parks that are close to the tracks, but this is about as close as you’ll ever get — and the trains rumble past very regularly, so you’ll definitely see lots of action.

Once the gates opened, my first stop was one of the two team shops at Southwest University Park. This one is located behind home plate (the other is in right field) and it’s very impressive. My favorite feature was the enormous wall of caps:

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Before long, the players hit the field, so I went down to the third base side to watch El Paso’s starting pitcher, Jeremy Guthrie. He, of course, has had a long major league career, so I wanted to take a bunch of shots and shoot some video of the righty getting in his pregame tosses. The location of the home bullpen means that you’re just a couple feet from where the pitchers warm up. See what I mean?

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From here, I also had a good view of some of the El Paso position players. Here’s third baseman Diego Goris:

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Center fielder Manuel Margot:

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And catcher Rocky Gale:

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I stayed in that area through the National Anthem, and then relocated over to the top of the blue monster for the top of the first inning, where I had this view:

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Between the top half and bottom half, I bolted over to this spot and enjoyed this wonderful view:

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Once the first inning was in the books, it was time to eat. It’d been a long time since lunch, and I’d done more walking than on any single day during this trip, so I was definitely hungry. There were tons of good-looking options in front of me, and I wanted to get something that was unique to the area. With that in mind, I opted for the Chihua Dog — an all-beef hot dog wrapped in applewood smoked bacon, topped with pinto beans, pico de gallo, jalapenos, guacamole and mayo:

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Delicious? Yes!

I ate the hot dog from a seat along the edge of the upper deck concourse, where I had this view:

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In the top of the third, I snapped this amusing image of the video board:

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Did you catch what I found funny? If so, post it in the comments. (Clicking to enlarge the picture will help your chances of spotting what I’m talking about.)

I ended up staying in this spot for a few innings. The view was great, there was a pleasant breeze that helped to counteract the heat and the usher for my section, Quincy, was among the friendliest ushers I’ve ever come across. I told him all about my travels, and we had fun talking about the various parks we’d each been to. As the sun began to set, I snapped some shots to make up this panorama, which I’m really happy with:

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Although the hot dog had strangely filled me up, I was eager to sample something else with local ties. I almost never drink alcohol, but I couldn’t resist a margarita — El Paso claims to be the place where this drink was invented, although there are also cities that make a similar claim. Either way, it’s a popular drink in this city, and the one I ordered was perfect:

southwest-university-park-margarita

(And, yes, I did manage to spill salt on my thumb before I took this photo. Oops.)

I spent the next few innings walking around the park and enjoying it from various vantage points. I wasn’t feeling pressured to take a ton of photos; I knew this blog post would already have several dozen, and I also knew that I’d be back at the park a day later to do it all over again.

When the sun set, I was interested in checking out the view outside the walls of Southwest University Park and, in particular, seeing Mexico.

Here’s a shot that shows Ciudad Juarez in the distance:

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And another that shows the two bridges after dark:

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Next, I went down to field level in right field to watch a bit of the action with this view:

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In addition to wanting to see a bit of the game from this unique spot, I also wanted to hang out around the New Orleans bullpen, given that there was now starting to be some action in it. Here’s what it looks like in the dark:

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Pretty cool, huh?

I’d hoped that Wittgren would be warming up so that I could watch him throw, but he was settled on one of the benches between a pair of teammates:

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After watching a Zephyrs pitcher warm up, I went back to the grass berm to shoot this nighttime panorama:

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At the top of the eighth, I did something I rarely do — I left the ballpark and went back to my hotel.

But I have a good reason, I promise. The DoubleTree has a rooftop pool and patio area on the seventh floor that faces the ballpark. I’d checked it out earlier and had grand aspirations of standing on the deck in the dark and watching the last inning or so of the ballgame, and then having a swim. Sounds perfect, right? That’s exactly what I did, although I didn’t bother taking my camera to the pool, so you’ll have to trust me on this. It was amazing to see the game from this one-of-a-kind location, and then jump into the pool and splash around while listening to the post-game sounds coming from across the street. I had the entire area to myself, too, which made it even better.

After my swim, I went back to my room and checked out the view a little more. In this photo, the bright light that appears to be floating in the air is actually an enormous star on Franklin Mountain:

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It’s a famous feature in El Paso that is managed by the chamber of commerce. People can pay a fee to have the star lit on certain nights. For example, if it’s your wedding anniversary, you can arrange to have the star lit in your honor, and also have your message posted on the chamber’s website. A pretty cool feature, I think.

Given that I was up at 3:30 a.m., I hit my bed about five minutes after taking this photo, already excited for my second day in El Paso.

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:

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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 …

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

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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:

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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:

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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 …

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… 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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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 …

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… a basketball court …

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… and an impressive play structure setup:

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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 …

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

dell-diamond-rocking-chair-view

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:

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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:

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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:

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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 …

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… 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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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 …

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… 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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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A rock climbing wall:

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A basketball court:

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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 …

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… 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:

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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.