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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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(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:

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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:

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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:

whataburger-field-press-box-spanish-radio

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

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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:

whataburger-field-ball-on-concourse

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

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

whataburger-field-visitors-bullpen

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

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

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

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

whataburger-field-swimming-pool

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

whataburger-field-rocking-chairs

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

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

whataburger-field-kids-ball-diamond

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

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

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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 …

whataburger-field-boilers

… 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:

whataburger-field-bam-bam-window

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

whataburger-field-pence-home-run

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

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

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

whataburger-field-downtown-skyline

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

whataburger-field-behind-fence

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

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

whataburger-field-oil-tanker

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

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

whataburger-field-cotton-press

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

whataburger-field-warning-track-pano

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

whataburger-field-citgo

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

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

whataburger-field-texas-style-cheesesteak

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

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

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

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

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

whataburger-field-right-field-seats-view

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:

whataburger-field-party-deck-pano

The sunset still looked great from my new vantage point:

whataburger-field-citgo-sunset

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

whataburger-field-bridge-night

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

Round Rock Express – May 13

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

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

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

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

po-boy-sandwich

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

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

round-rock-sports-indoors

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

round-rock-donut

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

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And here are just a couple of the baseball fields:

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

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

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

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

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

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

dell-diamond-front-pano

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

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

dell-diamond-okc-warming-up

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

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:

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(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:

round-rock-express-lava-rock

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

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

round-rock-express-veggie-garden

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

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

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

round-rock-express-nolan-ryan-cow

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

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

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

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-water

Then, it was time for some fist bumps …

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

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

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-pitching

And this one from the third base side:

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-on-mound

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

round-rock-express-yu-darvish

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

round-rock-express-press-box-view

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

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

dell-diamond-home-plate-pano

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

dell-diamond-yu-pano

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

dell-diamond-home-run-porch-pano

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

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

anthony-carter-round-rock-express

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

round-rock-express-jefri-hernandez

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

round-rock-express-bullpen-candle

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

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

IMG_0032

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

round-rock-express-trampolines

A rock climbing wall:

round-rock-express-rock-climbing-wall

A basketball court:

round-rock-express-basketball-court

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

round-rock-express-swimming-pool

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

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

dell-diamond-grass-berm-pano

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

round-rock-express-steps

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

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-fence

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

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

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-press

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

round-rock-express-yu-darvish-legs

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

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

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

round-rock-express-home-plate-view

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

round-rock-express-player-concourse

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

Ten Days in Texas!

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

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

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

globe-life-park-malcolm-sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Major Website Is Using Two Of My Photos

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

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

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

d'vone-mclure-mahoning-valley-scrappers

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

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

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

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

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

dvone-mcclure-article

Pretty cool, huh?

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

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

Playing Tourist in Pittsburgh – August 29/30

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

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

hampton-and-museum

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

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

sherman-tank

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

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

stainless-steel-car

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

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

rosie-riveter-statue

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

dog-tags

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

pittsburgh-sports-museum-stairs

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

scary-video-guy

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

county-death-count

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

franco-harris-immaculate-reception

A Jason Kendall replica locker stall:

jason-kendell-locker-stall

And a Willie Stargell autographed jersey:

willie-stargell-signed-jersey

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

mini-putt-area

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

ball-in-hole

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

buck-leonard-display

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

pittsburgh-sports-museum-pirates

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

forbes-field-old-seats

And a life-sized statue of Mazeroski:

bill-mazeroski-statue

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

There was even an Official Green Weenie from 1965:

pittsburgh-official-green-weenie

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

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

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

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

pittsburgh-steelers-passing

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

max-starks-shoes

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

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

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

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

pittsburgh-map

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

pnc-park-across-river

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

walking-along-river

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

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

heinz-field-pittsburgh

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

point-state-park-pano

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

point-state-park-fountain

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

duquesne-incline-pittsburgh

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

malcolm-in-front-of-fountain

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

point-state-park-plaque

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

point-state-park-wedding

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

duquesne-fort-outline

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

fort-pitt

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

fort-pitt-plaque

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

fort-pitt-viewing-port

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

partner-yoga

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

fort-pitt-tunnel

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

carnegie-science-center

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

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

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

forbes-field-plaque

Part of the fence and the flagpole:

forbes-field-fence-1

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

forbes-field-fence

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

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

 

 

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