A Game-Used Bat and a Jersey Mystery

I’ve traveled to more than 50 stadiums for The Ballpark Guide, and have managed to pick up some pretty cool souvenirs along the way. These include:

- A Jeremy Nowak (Frederick Keys) home run ball;
– A Tony Caldwell (Greensboro Grasshoppers) home run ball;
– A Randy Ruiz game-used bat;
– A New Hampshire Fisher Cats game-used jacket;
– A Ryan Skube (former Padres prospect) game-used bat;
– A Curtis Thigpen clubhouse nameplate — OK, not “game-used,” but you know what I mean.

Well, as promised, I added a couple really neat items to my collection during my travels last year.

Here’s the first one:

o'conner-bat-full

This is a game-used bat that belonged to Justin O’Conner, the Tampa Bay Rays‘ first-round draft pick in 2010. I bought it in May when I visited Bowling Green Ballpark, home of the Bowling Green Hot Rods. (You can read about this visit here.) It’s exciting to have a bat from a first rounder. I actually saw O’Conner play back in 2012 at the Futures at Fenway game at Fenway Park, and managed to get his autograph on a ball. Last year, when I saw his bat in the team shop at Bowling Green Ballpark, I couldn’t resist grabbing it.

As you can see here, it’s got his name written on the knob:

o'conner-bat-knob

Lots of signs of use on the handle:

o'conner-bat-handle

And a ton of wear on the barrel, which shows that he used this bat an awful lot before it broke. Here are some ball marks:

o'conner-bat-wear

And some little chips, which are caused by when you tap the bat’s barrel against your cleats to them off:

o'conner-bat-cleat-marks

O’Conner hit .223 for the Hot Rods in 2013 but showed some solid pop with 14 home runs in 102 games. I’ll be excited to see where he starts the 2014 season and look forward to following his career.

The next item I added to my collection has a little mystery to it. It’s a Lexington Legends game-used batting practice jersey, and here’s a picture of it:

legends-jersey-front

When I visited Whitaker Bank Ballpark, home of the Legends, in May, I was excited to see a TON of game-used jerseys for sale at decent prices. Often, you see Minor League Baseball game-used jerseys for around $100, which seems like a little much. Anyway, the BP jerseys were just $25, which was impossible to resist. I browsed through the available jerseys, worn during the 2012 season, while checking out the team’s 2012 roster on The Baseball Cube. My goal was to find a jersey of a player with promise, and when I came across the #8 jersey, I saw it apparently belonged to first baseman Zach Johnson. While with Lexington in 2012, Johnson hit 15 home runs and added 108 RBIs. I was sold, and grabbed the jersey off the rack.

When I took it to the counter, the staff member said, “Nice — Delino DeShields, Jr.” Huh? I told him I was pretty sure this was Johnson’s jersey, pointing to the data on my iPod.

He replied that he thought DeShields might have worn the #8 on a promotional jersey night when his usual #4 wasn’t available in his size. If that was the case, what number did Johnson wear on that night? Or did Johnson play? As I said, it’s a mystery.

I have to admit I’m intrigued about DeShields, though. While with the Legends in 2012, he stole 83 bases in 111 games. Yep, you read that right. He added 18 more steals in 24 games with High-A Lancaster to finish the year with 101 stolen bases. This total would be enough to be the best in the entire minor leagues virtually any year, if not for a guy named Billy Hamilton. Hamilton, of course, set the all-time record by swiping 155 bases. (I was lucky enough to see him play at Louisville Slugger Field last year, too.)

So, did I have the jersey of Johnson, a slugger who was released last year, or of DeShields, Jr., a first-round draft pick who might be on the fast track to the majors? (He played in High-A last season and stole 51 bases while batting .317 while just 20 years of age.)

Let’s look at some more pictures of the jersey before we wade even deeper into this mystery. Here’s a shot of the #8 in question:

legends-jersey-number

The back of the entire jersey:

legends-jersey-back

And a close-up of the Legends logo, which has a sharp design:

legends-jersey-logo

Now, back to the mystery. I’ve found proof that Johnson wore my jersey in 2012. I didn’t take this picture, but dug it up online:

zach-johnson-lexington-legends

And here’s one that shows the front of the jersey:

zach-johnson-lexington-legends2

The Baseball Cube says DeShields wore #4 in 2012, and I’ve found proof of that with this picture:

delino-deshields-jr-lexington-legends2

And here’s the front of his jersey:

delino-deshields-jr-lexington-legends

As you can tell from these photos, they’re taken during BP, not during a game.

So, based on what The Baseball Cube says, and with the photographic proof I can find online, I’m sure the jersey is Johnson’s. But I’m curious about the suggestion of the team shop employee, and I’m determined to find out the truth. I’m going to contact the Legends, as well as DeShields, Jr., himself, to get to the bottom of this mystery.

And when I have an answer, I’ll share it here!

** UPDATE **

Well, that didn’t take long. Immediately after publishing this blog post, I sent messages on Twitter to DeShields, Jr. and the Legends. DeShields was the first to respond, and he straightened things up:

deshields-tweet

Now, I’m not up on the nicknames of former Legends players, but it looks like “Ziggy” is Zach Johnson, which means my initial understanding about the jersey’s rightful owner was correct. An hour later, the Legends confirmed things:

lexington-tweet

I suppose there’s still a chance DeShields wore the jersey once, but that’s probably difficult to confirm. In any case, the theory about the rightful owner of the BP jersey sure made for a fun mystery while it lasted.

As always, thanks for reading. Please visit The Ballpark Guide for comprehensive fan guides to MLB and MiLB parks and remember, each of your visits help support my road trips!

2014 MLB Prospect Watch

In years past, I’ve waited anxiously for Major League Baseball to release its list of top 100 prospects for the coming year. As a baseball fan, I’m excited to look at the rankings and read up on the various prospects. But as a baseball road tripper, I’m even more pumped to read about the listed players I saw last season on my travels for The Ballpark Guide.

I’ve blogged about this list in the past and have seen some pretty outstanding (and high-ranked) prospects over the years, including Bryce Harper, Jacob Turner, Travis d’Arnaud and Matt Harvey. You can take a look at those blog posts here and here, if you’re interested. It’s fun to look back at the names of current MLB stars and think of them being highly touted prospects just a few short years ago.

So far, Harper is the only top-10 prospect I’ve managed to see in person. I’m always curious to see how many guys in the top 100 I’ve seen. Ready for a look? Here we go!

26. Maikel Franco — Reading Fightin Phils

maikel-franco

I saw Franco, the 26th-ranked prospect and the fourth-ranked third baseman, in action at FirstEnergy Stadium on July 11. He went 0-for-4 in a 5-1 loss to the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, but was batting .392 at the time. He ended up batting .339 in 69 games for Reading.

27. Tyler Glasnow — West Virginia Power

tyler-glasnow

I watched Glasnow pitch on May 28  in a losing effort at Appalachian Power Park, falling 12-3 to the Greensboro Grasshoppers. The loss was Glasnow’s first of the season and one of only three on the year, as he cruised to a 9-3 record with a 2.18 ERA. At the time of my visit, I didn’t know he was a highly touted prospect; what caught my eye as I watched him warm up before the game was his height — he’s 6’7″.

33. Jackie Bradley, Jr. — Pawtucket Red Sox

jackie-bradley-jr

Pawtucket was delayed on their way to Louisville Slugger Field to face the Bats on May 20, but the delay didn’t slow down Bradley, Jr. He picked up two of Pawtucket’s seven hits as the visiting team got pummeled 10-0.

33. Billy Hamilton — Louisville Bats

billy-hamilton

Bradley, Jr., wasn’t the only top prospect I saw in action on May 20. Hamilton, who’s got the best set of wheels in all of baseball, put on an impressive show with two hits, two runs scored and his 24th stolen base of the year in his team’s 10-o win.

38. Adalberto Mondesi — Lexington Legends

raul-mondesi-jr

At the time I saw Mondesi on May 27 at Whitaker Bank Ballpark, he was known as Raul, but MLB now lists him by his middle name, Adalberto. Whatever the case, Mondesi put on the best display of offense I saw all summer, hitting for the cycle in just four at-bats.

53. Jesse Biddle — Reading Fightin Phils

jesse-biddle

Biddle played for Reading for all of 2013 and had the start during my July 11 visit. He placed third in the Eastern League in strikeouts, with 154, and fanned five New Hampshire batters in four innings. He also gave up 11 hits and eight runs and picked up the loss in a 5-1 game.

55. Marcus Stroman — New Hampshire Fisher Cats

marcus-stroman-in-stands

Boy, my July 11 visit to Reading was a pretty good day for prospects. In addition to seeing Franco and Biddle play for the Fightin Phils, I also saw Stroman in the stands. Sure, he didn’t pitch, but I snapped the above picture of him after noticing him a number of times during the game.

74. Josh Bell — West Virginia Power

josh-bell

I saw a pair of Josh Bells play in 2013, but only one of the is a top-1oo prospect. West Virginia’s Bell went 0-for-5 at Appalachian Power Park during my visit on May 28. The other Bell, who played last year for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, is one of the guys I watched take batting practice with Derek Jeter as I stood just a few feet away.

94. Taylor Guerrieri — Bowling Green Hot Rods

taylor-guerrieri

I was lucky to see Guerrieri pitch in the Futures at Fenway game in 2012 when he was a member of the Hudson Valley Renegades, and got to see him against this past May as a member of the Hot Rods. Guerrieri didn’t get a decision in a 6-5 loss to Fort Wayne, but struck out five batters in six innings.

So, that’s it. Nine guys in the top 100. Not exactly a ton, but it was cool to see these future MLBers in action. I should also note that a number of other guys on the list were in uniform during my visit but didn’t play — starting pitchers in between starts and position players with an off-day.

I’ve got a bunch more off-season blog posts coming before Opening Day, including a new top-10 food list, a look at the awesome game-used souvenirs I got in 2013 and plenty more before I shift my sights to 2014 and start sharing some of my plans. Thanks for reading, as always, and for visiting The Ballpark Guide.

Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory Visit

A genuine perk to visiting city after city as I travel around for The Ballpark Guide is getting to see so many new locations. While my visits to most cities consist of arriving, checking into my hotel, blogging, going to the game, blogging some more, sleeping and then departing, I’m occasionally able to do some exploring when my schedule allows it.

If you’re a longtime follower of this blog, you might remember some baseball-themed explorations such as the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, the Little League World Series complex and checking out a bunch of NCAA baseball facilities. Non-baseball touristy things I’ve done include war ships, Super Bowl rings and choppers back in 2012.

This May, I visited Louisville to watch the Bats host the Pawtucket Red Sox at Louisville Slugger Field, and was lucky enough to have time to explore the city. As a huge boxing fan, the first stop on my agenda was the Muhammad Ali Center, a six-story museum dedicated to The Greatest. But since you’re probably reading this because you’re a baseball fan, I’ll share details about another exciting stop — the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, which is just a mile from the ballpark.

If you’ve heard of the museum, you’ve likely seen a picture of the 68,000-pound bat, which definitely catches your eye as you approach:

louisville-slugger-museum-outdoors-front

Like my sensational visit to the Sam Bat factory in 2012, I got the opportunity to take a tour and see how bats are made. Unfortunately, however, Louisville Slugger doesn’t allow photographs in the factory, so you’ll have to settle for this semi-illicit photo that I took looking through the window from outside the building:

louisville-slugger-museum-outside-through-window

The tour was impressive. As the largest bat manufacturer in the world, it was fascinating to hear about how the various levels of bats are made. The Slugger bats you see for sale at Walmart? Let’s just say they aren’t made the same way — or from the same wood — as those custom ordered by today’s MLB stars. On our tour, we watched scores of bats being made for retailers and a smaller number being made to ship to MLB teams. We also heard funny anecdotes about past MLB greats who used the company’s bats. In today’s era of lucrative endorsement deals, you’d probably be amused to hear Ted Williams signed with Louisville Slugger for a set of golf clubs.

While I can’t share images from the factory tour, I do have a bunch of shots from the museum portion of my visit, which was equally impressive. First, though, I stopped in the huge gift shop and bought a T-shirt, a magnet and got an actual bat engraved with my brother’s name for his birthday. Here’s a look at part of the shop:

louisville-slugger-museum-gift-shop

Outside the shop is something you can stare at for a long time — it’s called The Signature Wall, and is made of wooden blocks featuring the name and signature of most of the MLB players who’ve signed contracts with Louisville Slugger. There’s also a Hall of Fame section, which notes that more than 80 percent of HOFers were under contract with the company. Here’s just a small snippet of The Signature Wall …

louisville-slugger-museum-signature-wall

… and a close-up of the HOF section, with some names you’ll likely recognize:

louisville-slugger-museum-hof-signatures

The museum itself had a wealth of displays, mannequins and, of course, bats:

louisville-slugger-museum-inside-main-room

There were life-size displays of notable Louisville Slugger stars, including Ken Griffey, Jr.:

louisville-slugger-museum-griffey-jr-statue

And Derek Jeter, whose face was repeatedly bashed by a kid with a replica bat just before I took this photo:

louisville-slugger-museum-jeter-statue

After spending an hour or so perusing all the displays, I relaxed for a minute in the dugout area:

louisville-slugger-museum-malcolm-dugout

(I don’t think I looked like a deer in the headlights the entire time.)

Before leaving, I checked out the coolest part of the museum — one that gave me the opportunity to actually hold a game-used bat from one of the biggest stars in MLB history. Visitors had to don a pair of batting gloves, but were then able to pick up and swing a bat belonging to one of the following players: Carlton Fisk, Mickey Mantle, Cal Ripken, Jr., David Ortiz, Derek Jeter or Joey Votto. It was an easy choice for me to pick Mantle’s bat:

louisville-slugger-museum-malcolm-mantle-bat

Whose bat would you pick? Let me know in the comments below.

And while you’re commenting, let me know how you’re getting through the baseball off-season. I’m taking advantage of the downtime to add more ballparks to my website. I’ve got about 20 more guides to complete before opening day. I’m also gearing up for some more off-season blog posts, including a few more recaps of my 2013 adventures, a look at some of the awesome game-used souvenirs I got, my third annual top 10 food list and plenty more.

Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum

Back in late May, I visited Cincinnati for a couple of days as part of my May road trip for The Ballpark Guide, and caught two Reds/Cubs games, which you can read about here and here. As I mentioned at the time, I’d walked past the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, and pledged to make time for a visit.

That visit came on the morning of May 25, several hours before the Reds were set to host the Cubs in an afternoon game. The HOF is attached to the Reds team shop and directly outside Great American Ball Park’s main gate, so it’s a must-see place any time you’re in town for a ball game:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-outside

Part of the reason for my enthusiasm to visit — other than my love of baseball history — was to check out the special autograph exhibit. I understand this exhibit isn’t a permanent fixture of the museum, which made it more exciting to see. The Reds have a long, storied history, and the exhibit featured autographs of nearly every single player to ever suit up for the Reds.

This picture isn’t that great, but gives you an idea of how many of the autographs were displayed:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-autograph-display-2

As an autograph collector myself, I was in awe as I browsed through the artifacts. Some autographs were on index cards, while others were on baseball cards, but they were all beautifully framed with each player’s name and years of service. I got a kick out of seeing how players from bygone decades took the time to actually sign their name — not just draw their first initial and add a squiggle. Some autographs featured just the player’s name, while others included greetings like “Your Truly,” and so on. One of the best such notations I saw was from pitcher Cy Morgan, who had a 10-year career between 1903 and 1913. He wrote:

Hello Peggy,
Pleased to know you are so interested in base ball, for it is a grand, good, American game. Keep it up, little girl. Good luck to you.
Harry R. Morgan
or “Cy.”

Although the lion’s share of the autographs were on index cards and baseball cards, there was a sizable signed baseball display, part of which looked like this:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-autographed-balls

There were also hundreds of signatures from various elements of life, including other sports:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-auto-displays

The autograph exhibit filled the downstairs portion of the hall, but there was still more to see upstairs. On the way, though, I stopped to sign a giant wall that was reserved for visitors to leave their “autographs”:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-autograph-wall-malcolm

The walk up to the second floor was mesmerizing. Along the way, there were thousands of baseballs — 4,256, to be exact — that represented every hit of Pete Rose’s career. You won’t find much recognition of Rose in Great American Ball Park itself, but the Reds HOF was loaded with Rose displays. Here’s a partial look at the 4,256 balls:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-pete-rose-balls

(Of course, they’re not the actual balls he hit — just regular balls representative of each hit.)

One of the first displays on the second floor recognized the Reds’ farm system. As a big Minor League Baseball fan, I got a kick out of seeing the jerseys of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, Bakersfield Blaze, Billings Mustangs, Louisville Bats and Dayton Dragons — the latter two teams I saw on this same road trip:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-milb-affiliate-jerseys

There were a ton of displays featuring artifacts from throughout the team’s history, and several exhibits specifically focusing on players. The Joe Morgan one, for example, included several of his baseball rings:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-joe-morgan-rings

The top two are World Series rings, the next two are National League Championship rings and the remainder are All-Star Game rings.

Baseball-related items weren’t the only things that caught my eye as I moved around the floor. Here’s the pocket pistol of Garry Herrmann, who served as the Reds’ president between 1903 and 1927 — he also was one of the people instrumental in the development of the World Series:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-pocket-pistol

Other unexpected things? How about the enormous dog collar for Schottzie, the St. Bernard of former team owner Marge Schott?

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-dog-collar-schottzie

The team’s 1976 payroll ledger:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-payroll-ledger-1976

Perhaps the sport’s most uncomfortable uniform:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-old-reds-uniform

An an original turnstile from Crosley Field, home of the Reds between 1912 and 1970:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-crosley-field-turnstile

The first interactive display I checked out looked like this:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-pitching-area

I took this photo as I stood on the mound, and then put my camera and backpack aside and tested out my arm. This wasn’t a speed pitch game; it was designed to see if you could throw a strike from 60 feet, six inches away. It’s hard to see in the picture, but there’s a strike zone painted on the wall next to the batter. The game was pretty simple — hit that box and you’ll hear an umpire yell “Steeerike!” Miss and, well, you know the deal.

It’d been a long time since I’d thrown off a mound, and given that my arm was completely cold, I didn’t know what to expect. Instead of rearing back and ripping an errant pitch toward the zone, I decided to test out a curveball, which I’m always working on when I play catch. I figured the solid-colored background would allow me to see how much the ball broke, if at all.

I found a ball with decent seams, wound up and “pulled the string.” The ball sailed through the air and hit the top inside corner for a strike. Hmmm. I figured lightning couldn’t strike twice, so I threw another curve — this one miraculously plunked against the wall in the center of the zone. I was beaming like a fool and looked around to see that no one was sharing in my glory. Undeterred, I grabbed a third ball, threw a third straight hook and this one dotted the inside edge of the strike zone. “Strike three — batter’s out!” yelled the umpire.

Then, in a baseball version of a freestyle rapper dropping the mic, I flipped my last ball to the ground and walked out of the cage, thoroughly delighted with myself.

Sparky Anderson, who’d been watching from a few yards away, didn’t seem as impressed:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-sparky-anderson-statue

Next up was a visit to the building’s actual “hall of fame.” Everything I’d seen so far, I believe, was part of the museum, but the hall was filled with plaques for each member:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-plaques

After spending a good chunk of time browsing the plaques, I doubled back to another room that featured the team’s World Series trophies and a bunch of bronze statues depicting the Big Red Machine era:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-bronze-statues

The best testament I can give to the Reds Hall of Fame and museum is this: When I finished checking everything out, I exited … and started again on the ground floor. Everything was that good, and I didn’t want to miss a single thing. (Another perk of the place is your ticket is good for re-entry as many times as you’d like throughout the day.)

An hour later, I made it to the building’s last room in time to get a spot near the head of the line for an autograph signing. Reds HOF member Leo Cardenas, who played for the team between 1960 and 1968, earning a Gold Glove Award and four All-Star Game nominations during the span, was signing for visitors:

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-leo-cardenas

He’s 74 years old, but was full of energy and happy to share stories with the scores of fans who filtered past his table. I got his autograph on a ticket stub that I’ll share at a later date. And speaking of things to share, admission to the museum also netted me a small statue of former Reds catcher and HOFer Ernie Lombardi. I’ll unpack and photograph the statue sometime over the off-season and share it a blog post about some of the cool souvenirs I picked up this summer.

Thanks for reading!

I’m on a Professional Baseball Jersey!

When I was a kid, I dreamed that one day, my name would be on a professional baseball jersey.

It took a while, but it’s finally happened!

OK, so it’s not exactly what I dreamed about. But I’m still pretty excited.

This spring, I read that the Fort Wayne TinCaps would be wearing a special social media jersey for a game in June. Promo jerseys are nothing new in the minor leagues, but this one made me take notice — it would feature the Twitter handles of all 6,000-odd of the team’s followers. Awesome, right?

I started following the ‘Caps on Twitter early in 2011, before I visited Parkview Field in May of that year. That visit still ranks as one of my favorite ballpark experiences, and you can read all about it here. The highlight, though, was this: During the game, TinCaps general manager Mike Nutter introduced himself and gave me a lengthy tour of the ballpark, including a stop in the clubhouse and tunnel next to the dugout. I’ve semi-kept in touch with Mike via Twitter since then, and I sent him an excited tweet upon hearing about the social media jersey. He responded right away, assuring me I’d be on the jersey, and that was all I needed to hear.

While it was temping to travel to Fort Wayne in June to watch the game and bid on a game-used jersey, I restrained myself and waited till the one-of-a-kind items came on sale that month. I bought one online and when it arrived last week, I excitedly tore open the package and unfolded the marvelous-looking jersey:

tincaps-social-media-jersey-full

See how the team’s name is “@TinCaps,” rather than just “TinCaps?” Super cool.

And, in keeping with the social media theme, check out the logo on the right sleeve:

tincaps-social-media-jersey-sleeve-logo

And check out the special commemorative badge noting the date the jerseys were worn:

tincaps-social-media-jersey-date-stamp

Once I’d marveled at the look of the jersey, the lengthy process of finding my Twitter name began. I was also keeping an eye out for Craig Wieczorkiewicz’s Twitter name. You hopefully know Craig as the Midwest League Traveler, and he and I have been excitedly exchanging tweets about this jersey for a couple months. I spent the afternoon searching for both names at regular intervals. I’d stop when I was a little cross-eyed and resume a short time later.

No luck.

Later that evening, I was showing my wife the jersey and we both looked for a few seconds before she pointed out a Twitter name that included the word “baseball,” and groaned, “Ah, I thought that was you!” I looked in the direction of where she was pointing and somehow managed to immediately spot my name, @BallparkGuide:

tincaps-social-media-jersey-ballpark-guide-name

It turns out my name is on the front of the jersey, roughly below the “a” in “@TinCaps” and between the fourth and fifth buttons. (I know you were wondering.)

I’m still busy scouring the jersey for Craig’s name and am having fun noticing the other MiLB clubs and people I’ve met on Twitter.

And that brings me to my next point: Is your Twitter name is on the jersey? Would you like to know where it’s located and get a picture of it? I’m happy to help. All I’m asking in return is to support my baseball road trips by making a small donation to The Ballpark Guide, and then I’ll track down your name and get in touch with you.

Lakewood BlueClaws – July 15

Planning baseball road trips for my website, The Ballpark Guide, is a heck of a lot of fun, but it’s not the easiest thing to do.

When you’re planning to be away for 10 or more days, a lot of factors are involved in planning — teams’ schedules, travel times, geographical considerations, etc. It can take hours to create a perfect road trip itinerary … and then a rainout can quickly wipe out all your meticulous work.

That’s what happened on my first road trip of 2012. I woke up very early, drove for nearly eight hours to Lakewood, N.J., and the BlueClaws’ game was rained out. This hardly ruined the road trip, but it did mean a return visit to Lakewood was in the cards. At the time, I had no idea when I’d get back to check out the South Atlantic League team but, when planning my road trip for this July, decided to wrap up the 10-day trip in Lakewood. (And I kept my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t rain again.)

Lakewood isn’t far from Philadelphia, but I wasn’t planning to stay directly in Lakewood. Because I’d face a long drive home the day after seeing the BlueClaws, I decided to stay in New Brunswick, N.J., as it’s directly on the route between Lakewood and home. As it turns out, my decision to stay in New Brunswick was a good one. I booked a night’s stay at the Hyatt Regency New Brunswick, and it was outstanding. Just a short jaunt off I-95, the hotel was easy to find and when I reached the lobby, I was looking at one of the sharpest-looking lobbies I’ve ever been in. (Take a look at the professional photos on the hotel’s website to see what I mean.)

As nice as the lobby was, I was equally impressed with my room. (And the ride up the glass elevator was cool, too!) First, though, I took a photo of the guests’ lounge on my floor …

hyatt-regency-new-brunswick-floor-lounge-area

… before documenting my room:

hyatt-regency-new-brunswick-room1

As you can see, it’s got a big bed, a couple of sitting chairs, a huge desk and HD TV and, in general, plenty of room. Here’s a look at the room from the other direction:

hyatt-regency-new-brunswick-room

Other perks? The room had a balcony and the hotel had perhaps the biggest athletic center I’ve ever seen at a hotel — scores of machines and free weights and refrigerated towels to use to help you cool off post-workout. Although I didn’t have a chance to eat at the Hyatt Regency New Brunswick during my stay, the hotel had a great-looking restaurant and lounge. I definitely recommend this hotel if you include a visit to Lakewood’s FirstEnergy Park on your baseball road trip schedule. It’s less than an hour from the ballpark and is in a perfect spot whether you’re heading northeast to New York City or southwest to Philadelphia.

I spent about an hour enjoying my room and exploring the hotel before packing up and making the drive to Lakewood for the last game of this road trip.  The drive breezed past and before long, I was standing here:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-outside-panorama

You’ve got to admit FirstEnergy Park sure looks great from the outside, huh?

Well, it looks pretty darned good from the inside, too. And I got the chance to check out the park good and early, long before the gates opened. The team’s media and PR manager, Greg Giombarrese, had left a media pass for me (thanks, Greg!), which meant just a couple minutes after parking my car, I was looking at this:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-hickory-bp

A glorious sight, no? And a much better sight than during my last visit. (Although that one was cool in the sense of being able to get into the empty park and wander around.)

Given my love for watching batting practice, I was eager to find a spot with a good view of the field and just hang out and enjoy the scenery on the last game of my road trip. The weather was perfect and with the park empty except for players and staff, I had my pick of the spots. The grass seating berms in the outfield, one of which you can see here …

firstenergy-park-lakewood-video-board

… seemed like a great place to enjoy BP, so that’s where I headed. Over the next 45 minutes or so, I hung out in several spots — both grass berms, the center field picnic area, along the walkway and even right beneath the video board:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-under-video-board

Obviously, home run balls were plunking to the ground (and occasionally hitting the walkway and bouncing like crazy) all around me. As much as it was tempting to add ‘em to my collection, I once again stuck to my code: If I’m in the park early because the team has given me a media pass, I won’t take any balls. Instead of just leaving them where they landed, I had a blast picking them up, photographing them …

firstenergy-park-lakewood-bp-ball

… and then calling to any of the Hickory Crawdads outfielders and tossing them back. With the exception of my ceremonial first pitch in Auburn on the first day of this trip, I’d never thrown a ball to a professional ballplayer, so it was fun standing on the berm and firing the balls back into rotation to guys like Sam Stafford:

sam-stafford-hickory-crawdads

And Cody Kendall, who’s since been promoted to High-A Myrtle Beach:

cody-kendall-hickory-crawdads

This was the pattern for the next stretch of time, and the balls were plentiful:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-bp-ball-2

I probably grabbed and tossed back at least a dozen before heading over to the group picnic area in the right field corner, as I figured there were more balls to find here:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-picnic-area-rf

Sure enough, there were a handful, including this one:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-picnic-area-ball

I grabbed some and chucked them to the closest Hickory player. But before I could throw the last one, he’d already walked out of range. There was a ball sitting on the bullpen rubber just in front of me, so I decided to toss my ball onto the mound so it’d sit next to the one pictured below:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-bullpen-mound-ball

Unfortunately, it took a crazy bounce of something on the mound and rolled away, finally ending up here near the foul line:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-bullpen-mound-balls

Oops.

As I watched the ball roll away from the mound, I heard a voice behind me: “Did you just toss that ball on the field?”

I turned around and started to explain myself to an usher, who interrupted me: “Thanks for doing that, but you could’ve kept it for yourself.”

Go figure. Anyway, as BP started to wrap up, I went up to the suite level to check out the view. From here, I took this panoramic shot of FirstEnergy Park:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-suite-level-panorama

By now, the gates had just opened, so I took the stairs back down toward the concourse, rounded a corner and … screeched to halt. I’d come within inches of colliding with Lakewood pitchers Miguel Nunez and Delvi Francisco, who were on the way from the BlueClaws clubhouse to the autograph table on the concourse:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-players-concourse

I followed them toward the autograph table, which sits outside the team shop. During my last visit, I didn’t get to check out the team shop, so I was anxious to see what it was like. Turns out, it’s nice and large and has a huge selection of BlueClaws and Phillies gear:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-team-shop

Since the gates were open, BP balls were fair game, as far as I was concerned. I set out toward the outfield to see if I could track one down to add to my collection. It didn’t take long. Turns out, there were a pile of balls farther back on the grass berm on the far side of the outfield concourse. Within a couple minutes, I had this:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-kept-ball-1

And this:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-kept-2

There was still a bit of time to wait before first pitch, so I went up to the press box where I captured this panorama:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-press-box-panorama

After checking out the suite level, which was the only place I didn’t get to see during my last visit, I went back down to field level to wait for the BlueClaws to begin tossing. Within a few minutes, they came out and I sat in the front row along the first base side and took a pile of photos. Here’s second baseman Alejandro Villalobos:

alejandro-villalobos-lakewood-blueclaws-1

Once I’d watched Lakewood for a bit, I zipped over to the Hickory side, as this was the first time I’d seen the Crawdads on my travels. Here’s Luis Marte, whose pants are begging for the end of the season to come to a quick, merciful end:

luis-marte-hickory-crawdads

And starter Andrew Faulkner, who gave up just one hit over six innings to pick up his third win of the season:

andrew-faulkner-hickory-crawdads

Throwing out the first pitch before this game was none other than Mookie Wilson. You’ll remember him as the “other player” from the infamous Billy Buckner play, of course, but he’s also a longtime resident of Lakewood and got a huge ovation after he threw out the pitch:

mookie-wilson-lakewood-first-pitch

I stayed on the third base side for the first inning, before heading up to the concourse to watch Wilson sign a few autographs. The autograph line was insanely long — I’m guessing about 500 people. Wilson’s often remembered as a friendly, easy-going player and, after watching his interactions with fans, I can definitely agree with that statement. Here’s a shot of him signing:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-mookie-wilson-signing

Once the game began, I decided to watch a few innings from behind home plate, and found a spot with this view:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-behind-home-plate

Sitting in this area not only gave me a panoramic-type view of the park, but also allowed me to keep tabs on the speed of each pitch, as the radar gun was just a few feet away:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-radar-gun

From here, I had a great view of Lakewood starter Nic Hanson, who was promoted to High-A Clearwater soon after this game:

nic-hanson-lakewood-blueclaws

When I casually glanced over toward the BlueClaws dugout, I did a double take to see longtime Toronto Blue Jays catcher Ernie Whitt, who’s a roving instructor for the Phillies:

ernie-whitt-phillies-lakewood

Quick side note: When I was a kid, Whitt was one of my favorite players. Around 1988 or 1989, he was scheduled to sign autographs at a mall near Toronto and my mom packed up my younger brother and me, bought a pair of baseballs and headed to the mall in hopes of getting my first-ever autograph. Of course, the line was extremely long and as we slowly snaked toward Whitt, his allotted signing time was quickly running out. Sure enough, the staff cut off the line before we got there — in fact, my brother and I were at the head of the line. We must’ve looked heartbroken, because Whitt caught a glimpse of us and waved us up to get his autograph. Needless to say, I’ve always liked and respected Whitt even more since then and wish I’d noticed him during BP so I could’ve told him this story.

I took a handful of action shots from this area, including Villalobos again:

alejandro-villalobos-lakewood-blueclaws-2

And this guy, whose name I missed:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-blueclaws-player

By the middle innings, I was hungry. During my pre-game walk, I’d spotted a great-looking taco stand in the concession area in the right field corner, and knew there were a couple tacos with my name on them. I went with the mahi taco — blackened mahi mahi with avocado, lime, cabbage, pineapple and pico de gallo. The verdict? Delicious:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-food-fish-tacos

The taco was refreshingly tasty and light, making it a nice footnote to my 10-day baseball road trip. I’d definitely eat it again and suggest that when you visit Lakewood, the taco stand should be on your radar.

Once I’d eaten and enjoyed the view from center field, I went back up to the suite level and captured this sunset over the parking lot, which looks cool:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-sunset

I was so impressed with the bright glow of the sun that I headed out the front gate to take a look at how the sun was illuminating the front of the park. The result was this shot, which I love:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-sunset-outside-panorama

The shots that made up this panorama proved to be the last baseball pictures of this road trip. After taking them, I went back inside, found a seat and enjoyed the remaining few innings that wrapped up this awesome adventure.

***

Thanks for checking out all the details from my July road trip. Through your support, my blog ranked eighth among MLBlogs last month! I couldn’t do it without you. Rest assured, I’ve got lots more content coming. I’m still hoping to take a short road trip or two next month and have a ton of other content to share over the coming weeks and months.

Philadelphia Phillies – July 14

One day after a marathon, 24-inning doubleheader at Citizens Bank Park, I got up early to work on my blog for a very short period before hopping in the car for the half-hour drive to the ballpark. My road trip for The Ballpark Guide was rolling on, despite averaging about five hours of sleep over the last week.

On my first visit to CBP, I parked for $15 but on my subsequent walking tour, came across a $10 lot even closer to the ballpark’s gates. Go figure. That’s where I headed during this visit and, after parking and walking for a couple minutes down a side street, here’s what I was looking at:

citizens-bank-park-first-view-day-2

(Cue the sound of triumphant trumpets playing.)

I was in plenty of time for the 1:35 p.m. start; instead of rushing to buy my ticket as I had a day earlier, I took a quick lap around the ballpark, stopping to note McFadden’s Restaurant and Saloon, which you can enter before the gates open:

citizens-bank-park-food-mcfadden's

Of course, with it being about 10:30 a.m., a greasy cheesesteak wasn’t exactly what I wanted just yet. Instead, I went to the corner of Pattinson Avenue and South 11th Street to take a series of photos to make this panorama. Because the crowds weren’t too heavy yet, I think this shot gives you a cool look at what the area looks like:

citizens-bank-park-outside-avenue-corner-panorama

After taking a series of photos that show Citizens Bank Park parking options, which I’ll show on my website rather than here, I grabbed my ticket …

citizens-bank-park-ticket

… and picked up the day’s giveaway item, a Phillies travel mug:

citizens-bank-park-phillies-travel-mug-giveaway

Being able to get into the park soon after it opened gave me the ability to get down to field level without crazy fan traffic. I headed to the third base side first and watched a handful of White Sox sign autographs for kids. While here, I snapped this photo that I think is pretty cute:

citizens-bank-park-autograph-signing

Anyone know who the player is? I can’t place him off the top of my head. If you know, please feel free to leave a comment below.

I then made a beeline over to the first base side where a number of Phillies were hanging around. My mission wasn’t to get autographs; instead, I was hoping to get some up-close shots of some players, which I’d failed to do a day earlier. As I watched a couple pitchers signing autographs, my eye caught a tall player out toward center field, and I instantly recognized him:

citizens-bank-park-roy-halladay-1

Doc! I had no idea Roy Halladay would even be in Philly during my visit, Halladay played catch for several minutes as he continues to rehab after his shoulder surgery this spring. It was absolutely awesome to watch him. After his throwing session, he and a coach stood in right field and talked for several minutes:

citizens-bank-park-roy-halladay-2

Halladay then made the long walk to the Phillies dugout and disappeared, while I stood grinning like a nerd, I’m sure, that I just happened to see him for the first time since he played for Toronto:

citizens-bank-park-roy-halladay-3

About an hour before first pitch, I decided to get some lunch, Philly-style. Faced with the prospect of choosing between the park’s three cheesesteak vendors, I picked Campo’s. As I waited in the sizable line, I heard a commotion behind me and as I turned, I saw former Phillies slugger Greg Luzinski walking past. That’s him with the tan shirt and ridiculous calves:

citizens-bank-park-greg-luzinski

Luzinski was a four-time all-star and had a pair of seasons in the mid-1970s in which he hit at least 34 home runs, drove in 120 or more runs and batted at least .300. He ended up with more than 300 home runs during his 15-year career.

Once I grabbed my cheesesteak from Campo’s, I went up to the Budweiser rooftop, climbed up the small set of bleachers and took this photo:

citizens-bank-park-food-campos-cheesesteak-wrapped

And then this one:

citizens-bank-park-food-campos-cheesesteak

As for my verdict? It was … good. I realize that’s not the best adjective to assign anything, but this cheesesteak certainly wasn’t great, nor was it awful. The next time I’m in Philly, I’ll have to try the other brands of cheesesteak at CBP to make a comparison, but I wasn’t overly impressed with the Campo’s selection. Of course, every cheesesteak company bills itself as the best in the city, so I had to start somewhere.

As I sat on the bleachers, an usher ventured over to ask if I had a ticket for the section. I explained that I didn’t, but I was using the empty bleachers as a spot to eat my meal, and then I’d be gone. I expected the the usher to tell me to get lost, but she was fine with me sitting there and asked where I was sitting. I explained that I had a standing-room ticket and, after furtively glancing around, she took about five minutes to explain to me how to sneak into certain sections to grab a seat without being caught by ushers. Not a conversation you’ll come across every day, right?

My next stop was in the upper deck. From my vantage spot, I could look down at a semi-crowded Ashburn Alley:

citizens-bank-park-ashburn-alley-above

If you look carefully, you’ll see a number of bronze-colored plaques embedded in the bricks down the length of the alley. They represent different standout players from throughout the team’s history — great idea, right? Yes, but what an awful location. Whenever I visit a park, I love looking at the historical displays, but these are virtually impossible to admire. Any time you’re in Ashburn Alley, so too are hundreds of other fans, which means several hundred feet are continuously trampling over the plaques. What a bad design idea.

I was enjoying my spot in the shade because, like yesterday, it was extremely hot again at Citizens Bank Park. As I kept out of the sun for a few minutes, I took this panorama that shows the relatively empty seats about 45 minutes before first pitch:

citizens-bank-park-upper-deck-panorama

Remember yesterday’s post, in which I stood right beneath the green Citizens Bank Park sign beyond center field? Here’s another shot of that area, but this one also shows the Liberty Bell:

citizens-bank-park-park-sign

Before I left the upper deck, I walked over to the seats behind home plate to get this shot, which I think looks pretty cool. Every ballpark, of course, has a unique view with some perks and some drawbacks, but I love how you can see downtown Philadelphia here:

citizens-bank-park-upper-deck-view

By the time I got back down to the 100 Level, there was still a good amount of time till first pitch, so I headed to the Memory Lane area off Ashburn Alley to see if I could get a close-up view of some of the plaques I couldn’t see yesterday. Unfortunately, the area was once again blocked off (it was open when I was in the upper deck) so the closest I could get to the plaque area was this:

citizens-bank-park-phillies-wall-of-fame-plaques

I spent right up until game time checking out the silent auction tables on the concourse. I love when teams do this and, while the prices are mostly crazily inflated, it’s fun to check out a variety of autographed and game-used memorabilia. Here are a couple game-used jerseys from John Mayberry, Jr. and Domonic Brown, for example:

citizens-bank-park-silent-auction-jerseys

And an autographed Chase Utley bat:

chase-utley-phillies-signed-bat

I watched the first inning of play from this spot in the left field corner …

citizens-bank-park-left-field-corner-view

… and then, in need of some refreshment, I hit the Philadelphia Water Ice concession stand for some frozen lemonade:

citizens-bank-park-food-philadelphia-water-ice-lemon

The menu included a cherry and lemon swirl flavor, which I thought looked good — but when I ordered it, the cheery fella behind the cash literally grunted, “Out.” If you imagine the noise a hippo would make after you threw a rock at it, that’s the noise he gave me. I’m sure it will come as a surprise to you that his tip jar was empty.

I spent the remainder of the game, which Chicago won 4-3 (in extra innings, no less), walking around Citizens Bank Park, checking out the sights and taking a pile of photos. I love the openness of this park — from virtually every location, you can see the surrounding area, which I think is great. It’s a crummy feeling to be in a bowl-style park without any idea of what the area around you looks like. That’s certainly not the case at CBP. I talked about the ballpark’s close proximity to Lincoln Financial Field and the Wells Fargo Center in yesterday’s post, but check out this panorama that captures the scene:

citizens-bank-park-surrounding-area-panorama

And here’s a cool-looking shot that shows several of CBP’s parking lots, as well as the downtown skyline beyond:

citizens-bank-park-parking-lot-panorama

Unlike yesterday’s long, awesome day at the ballpark, this visit seemed to fly by, despite the game going into extra innings. Before long, I was back in my car making the short drive to my hotel for the weekend, the Hyatt Place Philadelphia/King of Prussia. If you read my most-recent post, you’ll remember how impressed I was about this hotel upon checking in — everything from the friendly, professional front-desk staff to my huge room to the cupcake and welcome note waiting for me. After a great day at the ballpark, I was looking forward to chilling in my room for the evening. Before I kicked off my shoes and relaxed, though, I drove about four miles to an Outback steakhouse for dinner — something that’s become a bit of a tradition on my baseball road trips.

Whether you enjoy Outback or not, staying at the Hyatt Place Philadelphia/King of Prussia gives you a ton of eating and shopping options for your downtime. The hotel is virtually within sight of the enormous King of Prussia mall, which is the largest mall in the country, apparently. As such, you’ve got dozens upon dozens of nearby restaurants to consider. And if you’re the shopping type, the mall has more than 400 stores.

A bunch more features about the hotel are worth considering when you’re planning to visit Philadelphia. It’s got free Wi-Fi, complimentary breakfast, a 24-hour gym and a variety of sandwiches, salads and other quick bites to eat for sale just off the lobby — one of my favorite features of Hyatt Place hotels. And the guest rooms are enormous. I’ve used this analogy before, but this room was significantly bigger than my first apartment.

Here’s a look at the outside of the hotel:

hyatt-place-philadelphia-king-of-prussia-outside

And here’s the bathroom, which I’ll explain below:

hyatt-place-philadelphia-king-of-prussia-bathroom-area

You know how some hotels have small bathrooms that make getting ready in the morning a pain? At this hotel (and the last Hyatt Place I visited), the “bathroom” isn’t its own room — it’s an open area outside the actual bathroom, which is really convenient. Lots of light, a huge mirror and more counter space than you’d ever need.

Finally, here’s the sectional couch in my room — perfect for lounging after the game and watching Baseball Tonight:

hyatt-place-philadelphia-king-of-prussia-living-room

Despite three extra-innings games, my visit to the City of Brotherly Love flew by and although my road trip was quickly coming to an end, I had one more awesome ballpark and game to check out.

Philadelphia Phillies – July 13

After a week on the road, I’d hit several ballparks and seen hours and hours of baseball, but had yet to visit an MLB park. Time for that to change!

On the morning of July 13, after an awesome visit with Jeremy Nowak and his family the night before in New Jersey, I set my sights on the City of Brotherly Love. The plan was to spend Saturday and Sunday in Philadelphia and watch the the Phillies host the Chicago White Sox for a doubleheader on Saturday and a Sunday afternoon game.

It didn’t take long to get to Philly and when I parked and opened my car door, I was hit with air that was thick and muggy enough to cause my camera lens to fog up as I took this photo:

citizens-bank-park-parking-lot-humid

Nonetheless, this was my first view of Citizens Bank Park, the eighth MLB park I’ve visited since 2010. The parking scene at CBP was fun and had the general atmosphere of an NFL game. There were thousands of people tailgating and, as a tailgate scene, it’s the best I’ve come across among the MLB parks I’ve visited. Here’s a panorama that shows the scene; in addition to Citizens Bank Park, the other big structure you can see is Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles:

citizens-bank-park-parking-lot-panorama

The spot I’d parked was just a few minutes’ walk from the ballpark, which was good, as I still needed to buy my ticket for the afternoon’s doubleheader. I approached this glorious scene …

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… and a moment later, had this in my hand:

citizens-bank-park-ticket

One of the cool things you’ll notice about the area surrounding Citizens Bank Park is the selection of statues recognizing past Phillies greats. This idea obviously isn’t unique to Philly, but it’s done really well here. This statue of Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, for example, has a life-like quality:

citizens-bank-park-robin-roberts-statue

Although the ballpark’s gates had just opened, I wasn’t in a hurry to get inside. I’d be spending a ton of hours at Citizens Bank Park over the next two days, and my immediate priority was to survey the scene around the park. I walked past the front entrance to Lincoln Financial Field:

lincoln-financial-field-gate

The enormous Xfinity Live complex, which is right in front of Wells Fargo Center, home of the Flyers and 76ers:

xfinity-live-philadelphia

A statue of Mike Schmidt:

citizens-bank-park-mike-schmidt-statue

And free ice cream samples from Turkey Hill:

citizens-bank-park-turkey-hill-vanilla

Mmm! It might have been just after 11 a.m., but I couldn’t resist a sample. I chose the vanilla bean flavor, and it was delicious. So delicious, in fact, that after eating it, I can’t deny that I made a return to the ice cream stand to try the other flavor, salted caramel:

citizens-bank-park-turkey-hill-caramel

Loaded with energy, I continued my tour around the park and finally entered via the right field gate — after a rather intimate pat-down, of course. One of the best things on any baseball road trip is your first couple steps inside a new park. I always feel a combination of excitement mixed with a “where do I go first?” feeling. The logical choice at Citizens Bank Park, of course, is Ashburn Alley, which opens early and is a fun place reminiscent of Yawkey Way at Fenway Park. Here’s a shot looking down Ashburn Alley and, as you can see, the field is on the left and a ton of concessions line right the right side:

citizens-bank-park-ashburn-alley-view

The concession stands in this area feature a who’s who of notable Philly food — Campo’s cheesesteaks, Tony Luke’s cheesesteaks and Chickie’s & Pete’s. I recognized the latter name from Trenton’s Arm & Hammer Park, where I tried the chain’s famous crab fries. After just eating a couple containers of ice cream, however, food wasn’t exactly on my mind. Instead, I took a trip up to the Budweiser Rooftop, which sort of reminded me of a similar area at Detroit’s Comerica Park. From up here, I had this glorious view:

citizens-bank-park-budweiser-rooftop-view-panorama

Whenever I visit an MLB park, I’m always anxious to check out some of the notable scenes I’ve seen on TV. If you’ve ever seen the Phillies on TV, and I imagine you have, you’ll probably recognize the green Citizens Bank Park sign beyond the outfield. From the rooftop, I was able to get right under the sign, look up and take this picture:

citizens-bank-park-sign-close-up

The view from the Budweiser Rooftop is awesome, no matter where you look. Turn your back to the field and you’ll have a picture-perfect view of Philly’s skyline:

citizens-bank-park-philly-skyline-lower-deck

I quickly identified the Budweiser Rooftop as a place I wanted to visit during the game but, for now, I still had lots of exploring to do. After checking out this statue of longtime Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas …

citizens-bank-park-harry-kalas-statue

… I started my walk through the concourse and stopped at the Phillies Authentics store, which had an awesome selection of game-used stuff:

citizens-bank-park-phillies-authentics

Next up, I decided to return to Ashburn Alley to check out Memory Lane, which presents the team’s history year by year. You can actually see it in the panorama from the rooftop deck, but here’s a closer look at some of the displays:

citizens-bank-park-memory-lane

Part of the area, however, is blocked off at select times. Why? Because the visiting team’s bullpen is directly below the security guard in the blue shirt, and I’m guessing bullpen staffs over the years haven’t had positive encounters with the Phillies faithful:

citizens-bank-park-bullpen-access-cut-off

After taking a bit of trip down, well, memory lane, I continued the retro feel by checking out the Mitchell & Ness Alley Store, which sits at the end of Ashburn Alley. This isn’t the official team shop; rather, it sells a wide range of M&N gear and it was hard not to go on a spending spree. Check out the goods:

citizens-bank-park-mitchell&ness-team-shop

After a full loop around the lower-level concourse, I climbed up to the park’s upper level to check out the scene. From here, I had an awesome view of Lincoln Financial Field:

lincoln-financial-field-from-cbp

A somewhat dizzying look down toward field level:

citizens-bank-park-seating-levels

And, once the game began, a nice view of the video board:

citizens-bank-park-video-board

I continued to wander around the upper deck, taking in the scenes while keeping en eye on the game. When I made it over to the left field corner, I had a great view of Harry the K’s bar, the Budweiser Rooftop and Ashburn Alley:

citizens-bank-park-upper-deck-view

I also had a good view of the city’s downtown:

citizens-bank-park-philly-skyline

And I couldn’t resist taking a photo of this giant burnout on the concourse itself, which made me suspect a staff member had been driving his cart somewhat aggressively after hours:

citizens-bank-park-concourse-burnout

Next, I went back down to the main level to check out the team shop — I always enjoy browsing team shops, but the frigid air conditioning inside definitely beckoned on this hot, humid day. The multi-level shop was great, as expected. IT had a “deal of the day” on 2012 bobbleheads, and I bought a Roy Halladay one. The sale dropped the price to just $5, and while I was browsing the available players, a 40-something guy next to me loaded up his arms. When his wife gave him a quizzical look, he said, “These are all $5. They’re a great deal. I’m getting all of them.”

And her response: “For yourself? … FOR YOURSELF?!?!?!”

As great as the store was, know what wasn’t awesome? When you exited, you walked right into the death cloud of Citizens Bank Park’s smoking area. Awful. Smoking facilities should always be well outside the park’s gates. One thing that amused me, though, as I escaped the death cloud, was the first garbage can outside the team shop’s exit — looks like it’s turned into a place to stick the sticker off your Phillies hat:

citizens-bank-park-garbage-can-stickers

Time for some baseball watching! My standing room ticket meant I couldn’t get down into the field-level seats to take any action shots, so I put my zoom lens to the test and, from the concourse, got Darin Ruf fouling off a pitch:

citizens-bank-park-darin-ruf

And Carlos Ruiz, whose signature hot dog I’d eaten a couple days earlier in Reading:

citizens-bank-park-carlos-ruiz

Partway through the game, I could see action in the Chicago bullpen and went over for a closer look. Of course, I couldn’t get into the closed-off area I showed earlier, but I could stand in Ashburn Alley and get a pretty good view of Donnie Veal warming up:

donnie-veal-chicago-white-sox-bullpen

And Addison Reed chilling on the steps by himself:

addison-reed-chicago-white-sox-bullpen

The game was breezing right along; in the eighth inning, Antonio Bastardo (who’s since been suspended in the Biogenesis case) came in to pitch and I went back up to the Budweiser Rooftop for this perfect view:

citizens-bank-park-cf-view

Late in the game, the sky opened much in the same way it had the night before at Yogi Berra Stadium. Before long, this was the view from the concourse, where I’d run to take shelter:

citizens-bank-park-rain-delay-tarp

I wasn’t the only person with this idea — take a look at just how congested things were during the 41-minute rain delay:

citizens-bank-park-crowded-concourse

Once the sky cleared up again, the game resumed but went to extra innings. (Just what players forced to play a doubleheader hope for, right?) Chicago won 5-4 in the 11th. The nightcap also went into extra innings before the Phillies won 2-1 in the 13th to bring the day’s total to 24 innings. In those two games, Domonic Brown went a combined 0-for-9. Ouch.

Obviously, it was a long, exciting day, but by the end, I was exhausted. I’m tentative to even calculate the house I spent at Citizens Bank Park! I was excited to drive to my hotel and crash. For my two days in Philly, I chose to stay at the Hyatt Place Philadelphia/King of Prussia, and I was glad I did. I stayed at a Hyatt Place for the first time back in May when I visited Cleveland’s Progressive Field, and really loved the hotel. This one was awesome, too. It’s about 20 or so minutes from the Citizens Bank Park and, while I could’ve stayed closer, it was nice to be in the suburbs. The drive gave me a chance to see some of the city’s sights and the hotel itself is close proximity to a ton of stores, restaurants and so on.

When I checked in, the staff were immensely friendly and welcoming — so much so that when I got to my room, this freshly baked cupcake and a welcome note was waiting for me:

hyatt-place-philadelphia-king-of-prussia-cupcake

As for the room, it was giant. After a week of changing hotels daily, it was nice to find a place where I could stay for a couple nights and relax a bit — and have the space to spread out. Here’s the view from the door, which shows the size of just part of the room:

hyatt-place-philadelphia-king-of-prussia-room

And here’s the king-sized bed and the TV that swivels so you can see it from the bed, living room area or desk:

hyatt-place-philadelphia-king-of-prussia-bedroom

Since I was spending two nights at the hotel, I’ll have more details about it (and more photos) in my next blog post. I crashed soon after checking in; after all, I had to get back to Citizens Bank Park in just a few hours!

New Jersey Jackals – July 12

If you’ve read more than a couple of my blog entries, you’ll know I get pretty excited about traveling to new ballparks. And while I was pumped for my entire July road trip, I especially had my July 12 visit to Yoga Berra Stadium, home of the New Jersey Jackals, circled in my mind.

But the reason wasn’t what you might guess. I wasn’t particularly pumped to visit this ballpark itself and I can’t name a single player on the Jackals. I was more interested in who was coming to town.

I’ve regularly mentioned Jeremy Nowak in this blog dating back to 2011 and, if you’re not familiar with his story, I absolutely recommend checking out part one and part two before you continue reading this post. It’s definitely the coolest story I’ve encountered since starting The Ballpark Guide.

All caught up? OK, good. Unfortunately, after a stellar 2012 campaign for the Frederick Keys, Nowak was released by the Orioles during Spring Training. This happened despite him being a 2012 Carolina League all-star and leading the Keys in games played, hits, runs and doubles, all while batting .281. This spring, Jeremy signed with an independent team in the Can-Am League, the Trois-Rivières Aigles, or Three Rivers Eagles, if your French isn’t up to par. I’d planned to go see him play in Three Rivers at some point this season, but when I was planning my July road trip, checked the Eagles schedule on a hunch and saw they’d be in Little Falls, N.J, when I was close to Philadelphia. I talked to Jeremy and made plans to see him on July 12.

After driving from Allentown, PA, earlier in the day, I made it to Yogi Berra Stadium more than a couple hours before game time. The park is located on the campus of Montclair State University. After parking on a very gray day weather-wise, I took a look at the front gate of the park and, as you can see, there wasn’t much activity:

yogi-berra-stadium-front-gate

I wasn’t able to get a press pass for this visit, but something even cooler happened. Jeremy said he’d leave a ticket for me at the ticket office! I can’t deny I was very excited to tell the ticket office employee, “A player on the visiting team left a ticket for me.” You might have trouble reading it, but the bottom of the ticket reads “Team Comp Visiting.” Pretty cool, huh?

yogi-berra-stadium-jackals-ticket

With my ticket in hand, but the gates not yet open, I decided to spend the next hour or so wandering the area. Because rain was in the forecast and the field was wet, batting practice was cancelled, but I still wanted to take a walk around the perimeter of the stadium to look for a ball. I started, though, by checking out the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center:

yogi-berra-museum-outside

And a statue of Berra:

yogi-berra-statue-new-jersey

The parts I saw of the Montclair State campus were picturesque, and the ballpark itself is surrounded by woods on a couple sides. With ample time to kill, I decided to wander down this path:

yogi-berra-stadium-path

Despite thinking how this is how a lot of scary movies begin, I kept treading through the underbrush until I could spy the field through a break in the trees. There were a few guys playing catch on the field, but as the Eagles and Jackals both wear red, white and black uniforms, I couldn’t even tell which team the players were from:

yogi-berra-stadium-trail-view

I retraced my steps and ventured over to the other side of the park, where I saw a team (I’m still not positive which one, given the uniform color issue) using the batting cage:

yogi-berra-stadium-batting-cages

Then, it was down a dirt and gravel road to the area behind the outfield fence:

yogi-berra-stadium-behind-fence

I could see a few more guys on the field by this point, but sure didn’t recognize Jeremy, much less decipher which team I was looking at. After watching the players play catch as I stood in the open door in the fence, I set my sights on finding a ball. With the wooded area behind the fence, I knew there had to be dozens of balls hiding in the brush, much like the Hudson Valley Renegades’ Dutchess Stadium. It took less than a minute to see this ball:

yogi-berra-stadium-bp-ball-woods

And less than five seconds to decide to leave it where it sat. It was down a pretty steep embankment that was slippery with mud and littered with all sorts of sharp branches. I’d find a different ball that wouldn’t require slipping to my muddy and humiliating death, I decided.

Unfortunately, the area wasn’t as ball-ridden as I’d hoped. I walked and walked and walked and didn’t come up with anything, although I did take this picture of a neat university building:

montclair-state-university-building

I went back to the opening in the fence and checked out the scene again. From here, I had a good view of the entire park, as well as the university buildings nearby:

yogi-berra-stadium-outfield-view

As I began the long walk back toward the front gate, I took another look at the ball, which seemed to be mocking me. And then I reminded myself of one of my favorite lines — “Do it for the story.” I began slipping and sliding down the slope until I reached the ball. Going down was the easy part, and after grabbing a branch and trying to Tarzan my way back up to the roadway, I emerged from the brush (with no one around, thankfully) with a Can-Am League ball for my collection:

yogi-berra-stadium-bp-ball

I jammed the ball into my backpack and with that mission accomplished, headed back to the main gate and was the second fan to enter:

yogi-berra-stadium-entry

The park wasn’t exactly brimming with activity. I’m guessing the Jackals don’t draw too well, but if they do, the fan base was at home because of the weather. I walked around the virtually deserted park for a while and took a handful of photos, including this one that shows the seating on the first base side and the team shop. My favorite part, though? Check out the suite on the upper level. If you enjoy peace and quiet as you watch baseball, I think this suite has your name on it:

yogi-berra-stadium-seating

I quickly figured out the Aigles/Eagles dugout and bullpen were on the first base side, so I walked over to the fence between the two to wait for Jeremy. The players enter the field from a gate directly behind home plate, so I’d be able to spot him early and say hello when he was done warming up. Only a handful of players were out at this point, so I checked out the grass seating area in the right field corner and found this:

yogi-berra-stadium-foul-ball

This ball was in pretty good rubbed-up condition, so I’m guessing it was a foul ball from an earlier game that no one chased down. In any case, I was glad to see it displayed the league name much better than the muddy ball I’d found just a short while earlier.

Several members of the visiting team filed out on the field but there was still no sign of Jeremy. As I glanced around, however, I did see a familiar face heading toward me … Jeremy’s dad! I’ve never met Jeremy’s folks, but I’m friends with his dad, Kevin, on Facebook. I had no idea Jeremy’s parents were planning to drive to New Jersey for this game, and it was an absolutely awesome surprise. We were both pretty excited and amused to finally meet each other, and before Jeremy hit the field, Kevin took me up to meet his wife and Jeremy’s mom, Maria. We made plans to sit together for the game and before another minute passed, Jeremy appeared along the fence and Kevin and I went down to greet him. We chatted with Jeremy for a few minutes, and then he had to run and get ready for the game.

I was excited to sit with Maria and Kevin for the game. You know when you meet people and within a moment of talking, it feels like you’ve known each other forever? That was the case here. The three of us sat jammed in our seats and never shut up for the whole game. It was an absolutely wonderful time.

In the first inning, I hopped up to get down toward field level to take photos of Jeremy. I was excited to capture him hitting but, before I got the chance, I snapped this four-photo series of him catching a fly ball:

nowak-running-catch

When Jeremy was due up in the second inning, I went around to the third base side to take a handful of photos of him, including this one:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-inside-pitch

Early in the game, Kevin got a text message from Alicia, Jeremy’s girlfriend. If you’ve read the background on Jeremy, you’ll know Alicia is the reason I ever came to know Jeremy. I’m paraphrasing here, but her text basically said, “I don’t know if Jeremy told you, but Malcolm will be at this game. Maybe you’ll meet him.” Kevin leaned over to me, snapped this photo with his cellphone …

kevin-nowak-text

… and texted it back to her as his response. We all had a good laugh.

The next time Jeremy was on deck, I took this photo of him:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-on-deck

And then took this one of him in the subsequent at-bat:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-batting

Jeremy advanced a runner on that at-bat and got some fist bumps from his teammates upon returning to the dugout:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-fist-bump

By now, the rain decided to make an appearance. Of all games on this road trip, I was hoping this one wouldn’t get rained out. Fortunately, the rain came and went and, when necessary, I shared the two Nowak family umbrellas:

yogi-berra-stadium-under-umbrella

And so went the game. Lots of chatting, a little rain here and there and when Jeremy came to the plate, I’d dash off to get some photos.

Before Jeremy’s third at-bat, I noticed his name was engraved on his Old Hickory bat, which I thought was really cool:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-bat-engraving

A moment later, he drove the ball on this swing …

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-hit

… and ended up on second on what should’ve been a double:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-on-second-base

Instead, the scorekeeper called it an error and the Jeremy Nowak fan club in attendance (me, Maria and Kevin) voiced our disapproval to no avail. As I stood on the third base-side cross aisle and snapped photos of Jeremy’s lead off second base, like this one …

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-baserunning

… the skies opened up and it absolutely poured. It was one of those rains that made you think, “Gee, I don’t think it could possibly rain harder.” Jeremy ended up scoring a run in the inning:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-crossing-plate

And although the rain was starting to fall a little lighter, the Jackals pitcher kept complaining to the umpires until they called a delay after six innings. Soon enough the skies opened up again and, as you can tell in this photo, it was soon rather rainy and dark:

yogi-berra-stadium-rainout

Maria, Kevin and I were as dry as could be under the umbrellas, so that’s where we stayed. (Actually, I was soaking from standing out in the rain to take photos, but at least it was dry under the umbrellas.) Before long, it became pretty clear the game wasn’t going to resume, so we found a dry spot on the concourse and watched in amusement as a bunch of the Eagles came out in their underwear and did a tarp slide once the game was called:

trois-rivieres-aigles-tarp-slide

(They were subsequently scolded by a member of the grounds crew.)

I think the three of us were the last three fans in the park and soon enough, the lights were turned off. We made our way up to the pavilion in front of the main gate in the dark and saw Three Rivers’ bus:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-bus-back

Recognize anyone on it? Here’s a closer look:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-bus-back-closeup

That’s Jeremy on the right! Pretty cool, huh?

Eventually, Jeremy emerged and it was great to talk to him again, despite standing in the pouring rain. I wanted to get a photo with the Nowaks, but it was pitch black. I hatched an idea — the parking garage where I’d left my vehicle was decently lit, so we all piled in their SUV and drove to the garage. With a little help from my camera’s self-timer, I got this photo:

nowak-family-with-malcolm

Soon enough, we had to say our goodbyes, despite Maria inviting me several times to travel back to their hotel and hang out with the family for a bit. (As I said — super, super friendly people!) Although it was certainly tempting, I didn’t want to infringe on their family time and, besides, I was soaking wet and also looking forward to checking out my own hotel. The hotel I picked for the trip to Little Falls was the Saddle Brook Marriott, which was about 10 minutes from Yogi Berra Stadium. The hotel looked awesome online, and once I got there, I was really impressed.

Here’s what my room looked like the following morning:

saddle-brook-marriott-room

As you can see, there was a king-sized bed, sitting area, desk, big TV and everything was clean and modern. That evening, I did nothing but change into some dry clothes and watch ESPN. On Saturday morning, though, I took some more pictures of the hotel, including this one that shows the room from another angle:

saddle-brook-marriott-room-2

Next, I went outside and took this photo of the exterior of the building:

saddle-brook-marriott-outside

I definitely recommend this hotel for people traveling to the area. Not only are the hotel rooms spacious and clean, there’s a huge indoor pool, well-stocked fitness area and a restaurant and lounge adjacent to the lobby. If you want to go out for dinner, there are Italian, American and seafood restaurants within a couple miles. And speaking of close proximity, this view out my window shows how accessible to the hotel is:

saddle-brook-marriott-out-window

That’s the Garden State Parkway and I-80 you see. I was glad at how easy the hotel was to find, given that it was raining like crazy when I arrived shortly after leaving Yogi Berra Stadium.

As for Jeremy, I’m rooting like crazy for him to get back to affiliated ball. And I’m already looking forward to seeing him in action again and crossing paths with his folks, too — whenever and wherever that may be.

Reading Fightin Phils – July 11

For the third consecutive day, I stayed within the Philadelphia Phillies system on this road trip. After checking out the Phillies Short-Season A and Triple-A affiliates (Lehigh Valley and Williamsport, respectively), I traveled to Reading, PA, to check out the Fightin Phils, who play in the Double-A Eastern League. The who, you might ask? The team’s been known as the Reading Phillies since 1967, but during the offseason, management made a number of changes that included a name and logo change.

I was anxious to explore Reading’s FirstEnergy Stadium on this trip. The park opened way back in 1951, but the team has consistently made upgrades to give the park a historic feel with modern-day perks. Best of all, I’d get an awesome opportunity to check out the entire park with director of PR Eric Scarcella, who had not only given me a media pass for my visit, but had also arranged to give me a tour once I arrived. I hung out around the press box to meet up with Eric, and snapped the photos to make up this panorama, which should give you an idea of how things look:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-pressbox-panorama

The first stop on our tour was a huge plaza outside the first base stands that was very reminiscent of Fenway Park‘s Yawkey Way or, more aptly, Citizens Bank Park’s Ashburn Alley. At FirstEnergy Stadium, this area opens early and fans can grab some food, catch some live entertainment and even play carnival-style games. Here’s what the area looks like from the opening:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-pavilion-area

From there, Eric took me outside the park to check out the recent renovations to the front gate area. The brick walkway is full of plaques recognizing different inductees from throughout the team’s history. If you’ve been a fan of the Phillies (or should I say a phan of the Phillies?) over the last half-century, it’s pretty likely that your favorite players once suited up in Reading. Here’s a plaque honoring a trio of 1987 Reading hall of fame inductees with a couple names you’ll surely recognize:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-hall-of-fame-plaque

Eric was more than generous with his time and we kept a pretty good pace throughout the tour because we had so many spots to hit. Up next was the main concourse, which is absolutely awesome. It’s under the stands, and while this type of concourse can occasionally seem dark, damp and dingy, that’s not the case in Reading at all. In fact, when you walk through this area, it feels like you’ve just stepped back in time. The signs are hand painted to really give the area a vintage feel — much in the same way as some parts of Fenway Park. Here’s a concession stand, for instance:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-concourse-concession-stands

On top of the concessions, the concourse is also lined with historical displays. If you want to know virtually every detail about the history of baseball in Reading, take a wander through here and you’ll soon be a walking trivia machine. Here’s one example of the year-by-year data:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-historical-displays

Once Eric had given me a crash course on the team’s history, we followed the concourse up the area behind the third base line and took this ramp:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-ramp-third-base-side

To the right of this ramp, we stopped in the ’67 Club, a picnic area with this view:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-67-club

Then, it was farther along the walkway and over to this awesome deck area in the left field corner:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-left-field-deck-area

This deck is an absolutely perfect place to enjoy the game. It’s got standing room areas, bar-style tables and, my favorite, boxes like this one:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-left-field-seating-box

I think if I was visiting FirstEnergy Stadium with a handful of people, I’d push pretty hard to buy tickets in one of these boxes. Wouldn’t you?

As we checked out the sites, I couldn’t help but try to keep an eye on the field. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats were taking batting practice, and balls were thudding into the area all around us. Want proof?

firstenergy-stadium-reading-bp-balls

Those balls weren’t the only ones I saw. There were at least eight or 10 others in various spots throughout the deck. Although I left most of them where they saw, I couldn’t resist grabbing one for my collection:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-batting-practice-ball

Eric had already spent more than half an hour with me and there was still lots to see. We retraced our steps back down to the concourse, where I snapped this photo to give you an idea of what it looks like when it’s empty:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-empty-concourse

Our next stop was the party deck area in right field, which has this view:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-right-field-corner-view

But as great as the view is, it’s not the prime spot in this area. You know the swimming pools in Miami’s park? Check out Reading’s version of this style of “seating”:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-swimming-pool

By now, Eric had spent about an hour with me and soon had to get back to his pre-game responsibilities. First, though, he took me to two last spots in the park, starting with the team shop. I’ve found on my travels throughout the minors leagues that team shops at MiLB parks vary considerably. The one at FirstEnergy Stadium, however, is one of the nicest I’ve visited. In addition to an enormous selection of Fighting Phils stuff — including a ton of their various jerseys — I was impressed with the Mitchell & Ness wall of retro Phillies gear:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-team-shop-mitchell-ness

Equally impressive, albeit for another reason, was a pair of lockers dedicated to a couple former Reading stars — Ryan Howard and Darin Ruf. Each locker was loaded with a bunch of game-used gear, plus some other neat items:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-team-shop-locker-displays

Just when I thought our tour was over, Eric led me through a door into the team’s offices, where I not only spotted this Mike Schmidt signed jersey …

firstenergy-stadium-reading-mike-schmidt-jersey

… and raised an eyebrow about this Taylor Swift plaque. Turns out that Swift grew up just a few miles from Reading and still has ties to the area. In fact, long before she became a household name, she sung the anthem before a game at FirstEnergy Stadium:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-taylor-swift

Once Eric and I said our goodbyes and he went to get ready for the game, I went back out to the seating bowl and contemplated my next move. My brain was swimming with all the information Eric just dropped on me, and I was pumped to get wandering around and see all the sights again. It made sense to start outside, so I went back through the gates (which were now open and full of people streaming in) and checked out the front of the park, which I captured in this panorama:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-panorama-outside

I also got a closer look at the two ostriches outside the front gates. We all know that ostriches are extremely fast and have big eggs, but did you know they can stand up to nine feet fall and weigh more than 300 pounds? Neither did I. (That’s comparable to Shaq, by the way.) I learned this information by talking with the staff member handling the pair of birds. The two are female, as males would be too aggressive toward fans. One last interesting tidbit: During the season, the two ostriches live at FirstEnergy Stadium in a pen behind the outfield fence. Here’s one of them checking me out:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-ostrich

Next, I went back into the plaza behind the first base stands to capture this panorama, which shows just how happening the area is:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-plaza-panorama

I got back to the seating bowl just in time to see a few Fightin Phils heading to the field. One of the best parts of FirstEnergy Stadium is just how close you can get to the players. I mean, this concept is common throughout the minors, but it’s at a different level in Reading. The home team’s clubhouse is just behind this door …

firstenergy-stadium-reading-home-clubhouse-door

… and before the game, the guys cut across the concourse and through a walkway to the field. You’re close enough to touch the players although, as with the ostriches, I suggest keeping your hands to yourself. Here’s one player making his way toward the field:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-players-entrance-path

It was neat to see a handful of Fightin Phils up close, but as a Jays fan, I was more interested in seeing the Fisher Cats. I raced through the concourse and got to the spot outside the visiting clubhouse just in time to see a bunch of New Hampshire players pass by:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-visitors-entrance

After watching most of the guys walk by, I saw 2012 first-round draft pick Marcus Stroman leave the clubhouse in his street clothes. He was carrying a clipboard, so he was obviously tasked with charting pitches for the game:

marcus-stroman-reading-concourse

That’s him in the plaid shirt with the New York Rangers cap, and the two guys walking in front of him are also members of the Fisher Cats. I’ve followed Stroman’s path through the minors and can’t wait until the “Stro Show” takes the mound for the Jays.

Anyway, wanting to confirm my theory that Stroman was charting pitches, I trailed him through the concourse until he took his seat behind home plate:

marcus-stroman-sitting-reading

I moved out to the left field deck for the anthem and the first inning, and then set my sights on dinner. When I asked Eric about the park’s notable eats, he recommended the Churger — a burger, slice of cheese and a chicken breast on a roll. If this had been the first day of my trip, I would’ve wolfed down this sandwich, but having eaten ballpark food for several days, I decided to get something lighter. Not healthier, mind you, but lighter. When I’d passed through the concession area earlier, I was intrigued with the several varieties of gourmet hot dogs, and decided to pick the Chooch Dog, named after Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz. It features chili, shredded mozzarella cheese, coleslaw and hot sauce. And it looks like this:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-food-chooch-dog

OK, so it might not look that great, but it was tasty. A little tough to eat, which reminded me of the Pops Special hot dog I ate back in April at Syracuse’s NBT Bank Stadium.

Once I finished eating (and finished glaring at the drips of hot sauce that were mocking me from my T-shirt), I found a camera bay-type area on the third base line and started to take a bunch of action photos. As much as I love touring new parks, I really enjoy taking action shots — especially since I upgraded my camera. I’ll continue to upgrade my lenses over time but, for now, I’m pretty happy with the shots I’m able to get. Here’s Fisher Cats second baseman Ryan Schimpf:

ryan-schimpf-new-hampshire-fisher-cats

(You’ll notice a large sign for the Churger in the background, mocking me.)

Fightin Phils third baseman Maikel Franco:

maikel-franco-reading-fightin-phils

And New Hampshire DH Gabe Jacobo who, in his first game after being promoted from High-A Dunedin, had a three-hit game that included a home run and two runs batted in:

gabe-jacobo-new-hampshire-fisher-cats-on-deck

His home run came just a moment after I captured him on deck, and from my spot next to the New Hampshire dugout, I had a great view of Jacobo shaking hands with Fisher Cats manager Gary Allenson:

gabe-jacobo-new-hampshire-fisher-cats-home-run

I spent several innings in this spot and shot dozens more action photos before taking another walk through the stadium. I soon came across Stroman, and snapped this photo of him:

marcus-stroman-in-stands

Speaking of the Fisher Cats, they were en route to a 5-1 win, thanks (in part, at least) to Jacobo’s blast). As the game progressed, I decided to make a lap around the outside of the park, as I hadn’t had a chance before the game. One of the neat things you’ll notice outside FirstEnergy Stadium is a giant brick wall, which gives the park a really neat, retro feel:

firstenergy-stadium-reading-brick-wall

After a full lap, I went back inside, found a seat and watched the remaining few innings before packing up and heading to my hotel. Although I was in Reading, I decided to drive on to Allentown, PA, for the night. I’d been in Allentown for the previous night’s IronPigs game, but heading back to the city made sense geographically. The next day, I was driving on to Little Falls, N.J. to see Jeremy Nowak play again, and Allentown was right on my way. Before long, I got to my hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn Allentown – Bethlehem Airport. I love staying in Hilton Garden Inns. I’ve done so a number of times in the past and the Allentown hotel was as great as I’d expected. I didn’t take any photos upon arriving, but the next morning snapped this one of the outside of the hotel:

hilton-garden-inn-allentown-bethlehem-airport-outside

The room was great and had all the amenities I’ve grown to expect at a Hilton Garden Inn — comfy bed, desk, sitting chair, fridge, etc. Here’s a look at the room from the front hallway:

hilton-garden-inn-allentown-bethlehem-airport-room

And here’s the scene looking back toward the door:

hilton-garden-inn-allentown-bethlehem-airport-room-1

The next morning, I went down to the hotel’s main level and swam for about half an hour in the indoor pool, which I often love doing on my baseball road trips. Afterward, I hopped in the car and checked out the surrounding areas. One of the perks of staying in this hotel is the neighborhood. Not only is the hotel close to the highway, it’s also close to virtually anything you’d need. It’s across the street from a Target, which I visited for some snacks and a couple packs of baseball cards, and eateries including Five Guys, Dunkin’ Donuts, Friendly’s, Sonic, Waffle House, Starbucks and more are within walking distance. And if you’d rather eat in the hotel, it has a neat feature I don’t recall encountering in the past. A Red Robin sits across the parking lot from the hotel, and you can order things off the Red Robin menu for room service. Pretty cool, huh?

I’d definitely recommend the Hilton Garden Inn Allentown – Bethlehem Airport when you’re staying in the area, and this will definitely be the place I visit next time I’m back. Up next, though, I’d head back to New Jersey for the first time since 2012. This time, I’d be checking out some indy league action!

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