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:

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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:

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And this:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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And free ice cream samples from Turkey Hill:

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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:

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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:

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A somewhat dizzying look down toward field level:

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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:

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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!

Lehigh Valley IronPigs – July 10

Every player in the Philadelphia Phillies system who suits up for the Short-Season A Williamsport Crosscutters dreams of one day moving up through the minor leagues to Triple-A in Allentown to play for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. It’s a journey that takes some players years to make, while others never get the chance to make it at all. I was lucky to make the jump from Williamstown to Allentown in less than 24 hours.

OK, so I wasn’t exactly promoted through the ranks of the Phillies system, but I was checking out my second Phillies affiliate in two days when I stopped at Coca-Cola Park to watch the IronPigs host the Pawtucket Red Sox.

I got to experience Coca-Cola Park last May, and when setting the schedule for this road trip, I was excited to visit this gem of a ballpark once again.

The IronPigs were hooking me up with a press pass like they did during last year’s visit (thanks, Matt!), so I got to the park a couple hours before first pitch so I could take in all the sights. The team was giving away an IronPigs replica cap at the gate, which meant that shortly after 5 p.m., this was the scene at the right field gate:

coca-cola-park-fans-lineup

Fortunately, I grabbed my credential, entered through the media entrance and a few seconds later, was staring at this:

coca-cola-park-batting-practice

I love walking into a park and seeing batting practice underway. It’s one of the best moments I get to enjoy on my road trips.

When I make return visits to parks, I’m always curious to see what’s changed since I was last in town. This year, the IronPigs introduced PorkCenter, which you can follow on Twitter. It’s a social media booth with a pile of TV screens and staffers who post regular updates about the team on social media. It sort of brought back memories of my visit to the Social Suite at Progressive Field earlier this year, and it’s a really neat feature. Here’s what the outside of the studio looks like, and if you’re visiting Coca-Cola Park, be sure to check it out. It’s on the concourse on the third base side:

coca-cola-park-porkcenter

With the park largely deserted except for employees scurrying around, I took the opportunity to take a big circuit of the concourse. One of the things I stopped to photograph was the park’s video board:

coca-cola-park-video-board

It’s one of the nicest-looking boards I’ve seen on my travels. The video portion, of course, is huge, and I love the use of iron in the board’s construction to pay tribute to the area’s iron industry. See the Coke bottle up top? It lights up and moves when the ‘Pigs score a run, which is cool. I love interactive stuff like this that people might not immediately notice.

The Red Sox were taking batting practice, so I stopped on the grass berm in center field for a few minutes to watch the action. From here, I had this great view:

coca-cola-park-center-field-panorama

And as I looked around, I caught a glimpse of a pair of home run balls sitting at the base of the batter’s eye. I’m leery about picking up baseballs I find before the gates open, and since there was a little fence between the balls and me, I decided it’d be better to leave them where they sat:

coca-cola-park-batter's-eye-balls

Did you see the giant acoustic guitar on the left side of the panorama above? Martin Guitars, which arguably makes the best acoustic guitars in the business, is located in nearby Nazareth, PA, and this guitar standing area is new to the park this year. It’s got a few places to lean against and watch the game. Check it out:

coca-cola-park-martin-guitar-view

I’m an avid guitar player, so this perhaps the coolest music-related thing I’ve seen on my travels.

Speaking of cool, I took the opportunity to cool off up in the suite level. It was an extremely hot day and the air conditioned suite level offered a nice reprieve from the muggy heat. It also provided a great view, which I captured in this panorama:

coca-cola-park-suite-level-panorama

I suppose not everyone who visits Coca-Cola Park gets to experience the suite level, so I thought I’d share a neat photo for you here. One of the interesting visuals you’ll encounter is an enormous timeline of the team’s history, dating back to the team’s move from Ottawa, Canada, before the 2008 season. That moment and dozens of others are mentioned on the timeline, which winds along the hallway:

coca-cola-park-suite-level-timeline

By now, the gates were open and the park was quickly filling up, so I went back down to the main level of the park and took another walk around. In the terrace in left field, I briefly watched the team’s pre-game broadcast with Matt Provence and Doug Heater being filmed, which was neat:

coca-cola-park-ironpigs-pre-game-show

This area is also home to the Red Robin Oasis, which I saw last year but didn’t study in depth. Turns out, it’s a really fun place to watch the game and enjoy a meal. At first glance, it looks like a group picnic area, which might convince you to steer clear of it. It’s open to all fans, however, and all you need to do is find a table and wait:

coca-cola-park-red-robin-oasis

Pretty soon, a server will be over to take your order, and as you wait, you can enjoy the game and the Philadelphia Phillies broadcast on numerous TVs throughout the area. The menu here looked great. I didn’t end up eating in this area, but was certainly tempted. Menu items included pierogies, BBQed turkey, chicken skewers, flank steak sliders, burgers and s’mores. I’m getting hungry just thinking of it. Why the heck didn’t I eat here?!

Well, in short, the answer is that I wanted something light tonight. After several consecutive days of pounding heavy ballpark food, I was looking forward to something that wasn’t going to feel like a bowling ball in my stomach. I found what I was looking for at the Aw Shucks concession stand in right field. Now, I don’t want to alarm you, but the following food photo contains a vegetable:

coca-cola-park-food-aw-shucks-corn

The seasoned corn on the cob is one of Coca-Cola Park’s signature dishes, and I definitely recommend trying it out. My cob was tasty and the seasoning — salt, Parmesan cheese and an assorted spice rub — was delicious. And I have to give the folks at Aw Shucks credit; they even supply toothpicks!

After dinner, my next mission was to find a seat on the first base side and shoot some action shots with my new camera. On the way there, I looked back and saw a couple people using the giant guitar, and snapped this picture to give you a better idea of what the front of the guitar looks like:

coca-cola-park-martin-guitar-area

Here’s an action shot that only loosely involves the word “action.” It’s PawSox first baseman Drew Sutton in mid-spit:

drew-sutton-pawtucket-red-sox

Sort of gross, but the chances are good if you’ve watched a ballgame in the past, you’ve seen more spits than you care to recall.

Here’s some better action. This is Lehigh Valley catcher Erik Kratz fouling off a pitch:

erik-kratz-lehigh-valley-ironpigs

PawSox third baseman Will Middlebrooks striking out:

will-middlebrooks-pawtucket-red-sox

And Pawtucket starter Charlie Haeger, one of just a handful of knuckleballers in the minors:

charlie-haeger-pawtucket-red-sox

After spending a couple innings behind the first base dugout, I took another walk through the suite level and then made my way back out to the outfield grass berm, from which the park looks awesome at night:

coca-cola-park-center-field-panorama-night

Once I spent an inning with the above view, I returned to the first base side to shoot a few more action shots. Here’s Red Sox third baseman Xander Bogaerts, who had a home run later in this at-bat:

zander-bogaerts-pawtucket-red-sox

And Tyson Gillies and Freddy Galvis celebrating Galvis’ two-run home run in the home half of the inning:

tyson-gillies-freddy-galvis-lehigh-valley-ironpigs

The ‘Pigs scored three runs in that inning to bring their total to nine, and cruised to a 9-4 win over Pawtucket, thanks to 16 hits from their offense and 11 strikeouts from their pitchers. I had a blast during my second visit to Allentown and a day later, I’d be demoted (well, you know what I mean, right?) to the Phillies Double-A franchise, the Reading Fightin Phils.

Williamsport Crosscutters – July 9

My visit to Williamsport, PA, began not at historic Bowman Field, the second-oldest ballpark in the minors, but at another famous baseball site across town.

Although my reason for visiting Williamsport was checking out the Crosscutters, who play in the New York-Penn League, I was also excited to visit the Little League World Series complex, which is just a few miles away. You’ve almost certainly seen ESPN’s summer coverage of the Little League World Series, and this is where it all goes down. In addition to several baseball fields, the area includes a giant housing complex for visiting players, the headquarters of Little League International and a Little League museum and gift shop.

All the fields are in a valley; once I parked and took this shot of Howard J. Lamade Stadium, which is one of two fields used for games …

little-league-complex-lamade-stadium-above

… I took a walk down a pathway to check things out. The parking lot of the facility was packed, but except for a number of maintenance men, I was the only person around. Here’s another shot of Lamade Stadium:

little-league-complex-lamade-stadium-side

It was neat wandering around the complex. On my drive to Williamsport, I was hoping the entire grounds weren’t closed to spectators, but a sign invited people to take a “self-guided walking tour.” As I continued to navigate the grounds, I found Little League Volunteer Stadium, the second official field at the complex:

little-league-complex-volunteer-stadium

Obviously, such as sprawling facility gets big-time donations, and a number of plaques throughout the area recognized financial contributors. Most of the names were corporate, but I also saw lots of retired MLBers, including Mike Mussina:

little-league-complex-donor-plaque

As I climbed back up the hill one more time, I took a last shot of Lamade Stadium:

little-league-complex-lamade-stadium

And a shot of a statue of Casey of “Casey at the Bat” fame. The plaques around the base of the statue feature the entire poem:

little-league-complex-casey-statue

After exploring the Little League facility for half an hour, I made the short trip over to the Residence Inn Williamsport, where I was staying for the evening. When I was planning this trip and looking at hotels, the Residence Inn jumped out at me. It’s the top-ranked hotel on TripAdvisor in all of Williamsport and has an outstanding location. It’s less than a minute off the highway, virtually next door to an enormous Wegman’s supermarket and less than three miles to the Crosscutters’ Bowman Park.

The hotel is new, extremely clean and has all the amenities you’d need — and it’s baseball friendly, too! Just check out the art on the wall of my room:

residence-inn-williamsport-wall-art

Gotta love it, right? One of the things I loved about this hotel was the size of the room. It was equipped with a desk, couch, king-sized bed, huge shower and a kitchen bigger than the one in my first apartment. Here’s the latter:

residence-inn-williamsport-kitchen

And here’s the desk, TV and bed. As you can see, everything is modern and clean:

residence-inn-williamsport-room

Given the amount of time I spend driving on these baseball road trips, I love when my hotel is within walking distance to a supermarket or restaurant. It’s nice to just park and walk around instead of hopping in the car again. I walked over to the Wegman’s before checking in and again after the game. It’s perfect. If you’re looking for other places to eat, there are a ton of other bars and restaurants within walking distance. Finally, here’s a look at the outside of the hotel:

residence-inn-williamsport-outside

I hung out in my room for a couple hours and then made the short drive over to Bowman Field. A brief history of the park is described on this plaque:

bowman-field-plaque

And here’s a look at the park itself — talk about an old-school baseball feel, right?

bowman-field-outside

The Cutters’ Gabe Sinicropi had left a media pass for me, so I grabbed the pass and headed into the park. A second after walking in, I ran into Graham Doty, the voice of the Auburn Doubledays. The Doubledays were in town to play the Crosscutters, and if you remember my visit to Falcon Park that kicked off this road trip, Graham interviewed me before the game. We got caught up for a few minutes and then I headed up this ramp …

bowman-field-tunnel

… to the seating bowl, where this was my first view of the field:

bowman-field-bp-cage-field

As you wander around Bowman Field, there’s no mistaking this ballpark for a new one. It’s definitely got an old feel but the team has obviously made significant investments in seating and amenities to give fans the best of both worlds — a historic-feeling park with modern (at least by MiLB standards) comforts. Here’s a look at the bleachers and box seats, for example:

bowman-field-stands

The park has a couple great picnic decks down the third base line, which is where I hung out for a few minutes at the start of Auburn’s batting practice:

bowman-field-bp-picnic-area

BP is always fun to watch, but I really get a kick out of watching infield practice. It’s even more impressive when you’re close to the field, and it’s absolutely incredible to watch how sure-handed these guys are, even at Short-Season A ball. Here’s Auburn’s Jean Carlos Valdez fielding a ball:

jean-carlos-valdez-auburn-doubledays

After BP, I stayed in the area and waited until Auburn’s players came back out to the field in the game uniforms. Bowman Field gives you the ability to really get close to the teams; after BP, they cut across the concourse to go to their clubhouse, and then come back through the concourse to return to the field. Here are some photos of a couple noteworthy guys. This first photo is Brenton Allen, who was Washington’s 20th-round selection in this year’s draft:

brenton-allen-auburn-doubledays

My July 6 visit to Auburn was Allen’s first game with the Doubledays. While I was standing on the field waiting to throw out the first pitch, Allen was in the dugout introducing himself to teammates.

And speaking of that first pitch, here’s a look at Austin Chubb, who was my catcher:

austin-chubb-auburn-doubledays

Finally, I was glad to see Greg Zebrack back in action:

greg-zebrack-auburn-doubledays

He was the Doubledays player who was hit in the head during my visit and it’s good news that he’s returned so quickly. In fact, in his first game back, two days after being hit, he went 3-for-3 with a home run — his best game as a professional so far.

But it wasn’t just Auburn guys I was photographing. Here’s Williamsport’s Dylan Cozens, a second-round pick in last year’s draft, ducking away from some high heat:

dylan-cozens-williamsport-crosscutters

And Julio Reyes, who gave up just one run on two hits over five innings to get the win for the Crosscutters:

julio-reyes-williamsport-crosscutters

Up next, I stay within the Phillies organization but step up to Triple-A with a visit to Lehigh Valley’s Coca-Cola Park. As always, you can follow me on Twitter to get the latest news on my baseball road trip!

State College Spikes – July 8

After pulling the plug on my Metro Bank Park visit in Harrisburg because of the rain delay, I drove through crazy storms to get to State College, PA. If you’re a baseball fan, you’ll know the New York-Penn League’s Spikes play here. If you’re an overall sports fan, you’ll recognize State College as the home of Penn State University.

Although seeing the Spikes host the Mahoning Valley Scrappers at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park was my priority, I also wanted to check out the Penn State campus and, in particular, Beaver Stadium. Fortunately, the ballpark and football stadium are across the road from one another. (Penn State’s baseball team shares use of Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, for the record.) I parked in the media lot and, upon exiting my car, I had this view of the ballpark to my right:

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-parking-lot-view

And when I turned to my left, there was Beaver Stadium:

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-parking-lot-beaver-stadium

The Penn State campus is in immaculate shape and must have an enormous crew of workers keeping it that way. I took this shot as I followed the sidewalk that runs alongside the road between the ballpark and stadium to give an idea of just how great everything looks:

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-street-view

After picking up the media pass that Joe Putnam had left for me, I took my customary lap around the ballpark. As I passed through the field behind the outfield fence, I got this neat shot that shows Beaver Stadium looming high above:

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-behind-fence-beaver-stadium

Next up was a lap around the football stadium, which obviously took much longer than a walk around the ballpark. I was struck at the size of the complex; I’ve been to a number of NFL and NCAA stadiums, but it’s easy to forget how huge they are until you’re standing in front of them. During my walk, I couldn’t help notice the new-look area on the east side of the stadium, which is where the Joe Paterno statue used to stand. Looking at the picture below, you’d hardly know this was the spot you’ve seen a million times on TV, right?

beaver-stadium-former-statue-area

With my exterior sightseeing wrapped up, I entered the park and took the first door I saw, thinking it would lead up to the press box. The stairs only went down, however, so I curiously followed them …

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-stairs-down

… until I got to the bottom, looked in the tiny window in the door and saw a bunch of players sitting in their clubhouse. Oops. I quickly found an elevator up to the park’s suite level where I had another great view of Beaver Stadium:

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-beaver-stadium-view

And even found Penn State’s baseball team office:

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-penn-state-baseball-office

In the press box, I met with Joe and talked about the ballpark for a few minutes. The press box view from Medlar Field at Lubrano Park has to be one of the nicest in baseball. Every good view had its own perks, but you can’t deny how great this view is:

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-press-box-view

That’s Mount Nittany in the distance and, yes, I realize the view is slightly hampered by the tarp on the field. It was that kind of day, unfortunately. After talking with Joe for another few minutes, I went down to the concourse and started my tour with a stop in the team shop. It’s technically in the ballpark, but its in its own building at the front of the park. I spent a few minutes checking out the Spikes and Nittany Lions gear …

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-team-shop

… and by the time I was ready to leave, this was the view out the window:

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-team-shop-rain

Uh-oh. I dashed through the open pavilion between the team shop and the covered concourse, getting soaked in the process. When I was safely beneath the concourse, here’s what the seating area looked like:

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-rain

Fortunately, the rain stopped as quickly as it had started and soon enough, the Spikes announced the game’s start time would be pushed back to 7:20 p.m., which wasn’t bad, all things considered. I spent the time touring the concourse and taking photos, as you might imagine. Check out this view of the ballpark, Beaver Stadium in the background and the sky that looks like it hadn’t just poured five minutes ago:

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-panorama-left-field-corner

By now, I was hungry and debating between a couple items that caught my eye. There’s a stand in the right field corner that sells gourmet burgers, and Joe recommended the Nittany Lion burger — two half-pound patties, two pieces of cheese and the usual lettuce, onions, tomato, etc. The stand also had some other tasty-looking burgers, but I decided to pass in favor of a hot dog from a stand on the third base side. These weren’t any regular hot dogs, either. They were loaded with a variety of toppings and after a recommendation from the guys working the concession stand, I chose the Firecracker — a hot dog on a pretzel bun loaded with shredded spicy chicken, pepper jack cheese, jalapeno peppers and chipotle mayo:

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-food-firecracker-hot-dog

Despite being challenging to eat, as you might suspect, it was tasty. I wasn’t a fan of the pretzel bun, as it just seemed like a dense, semi-stale normal bun. The toppings were good, though. After eating, I moved down close to field level to take some action shots. I really like this three-shot series of Scrappers third baseman Robel Garcia:

robel-garcia-mahoning-valley-scrappers-1

robel-garcia-mahoning-valley-scrappers-2

robel-garcia-mahoning-valley-scrappers-3

Three or four innings into the game, as I was sitting in the second row on the first base side, a player hit a foul ball a mile in the air. I watched it drift toward the seats and realized it was going to land pretty darned close to me. As I was busy taking photos, I didn’t have my glove ready and wasn’t going to try to make a barehanded catch. I think one of the silliest things you can do if a foul ball is heading your way is to panic and run. When you take your eyes off the ball, you’re more at risk of getting walloped. I calmly watched it reach its apex and start to descend, and remember thinking, “This ball is going to land right on my head. What are the odds of that?” As it sped toward me, I watched and watched and finally turned my shoulder and ducked out the way at the last second, hearing it smash off the aluminum steps right beside me. It bounced away and I decided I was happy to give up the chance for a foul ball in favor of keeping my camera gear intact.

I sat in that same seat until the fifth, when I began another walking tour of the ballpark. While walking down the concourse on the third base side, I liked how the park’s video board looked with Mount Nittany behind it:

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-video-board

In the seventh inning, I made a quick trip out to my car for a moment and as I walked, heard the sound of a ball smacking off asphalt just a few feet away — apparently I was wearing my foul ball magnet shirt today. I turned quickly and sure enough, saw a ball bounce high off the ground, rattle between two cars and land on the grass. The area was completely deserted, so I had no trouble walking over and grabbing it:

medlar-field-at-lubrano-park-foul-ball-malcolm

I quickly realized that being temporarily outside the park, I had no idea who hit it. Not the end of the world, but I like to know these things. I considered sprinting back to the park to check the video board or running around toward the outfield where I could see the video board, but then had a better idea. I waited for the PA announcer to introduce Mahoning Valley batter Ryan Battaglia, which meant the previous batter — and the one who hit my foul ball — was Paul Hendrix. At the time, Hendrix was just 11 games into his professional career. He was drafted in the 18th round of this year’s draft out of TCU by Cleveland. It’ll be fun to follow his progress.

Hendrix and his teammates fell 4-3 to State College in an exciting, 20-hit game. Once things wrapped up, I was happy to only have to drive a couple minutes to my hotel. My hotel for the evening was the Country Inn & Suites State College, which sits less than two miles from Medlar Field at Lubrano Park and is a perfect choice for baseball fans visiting the area. It’s only about a year old, too, which means it’s exceptionally clean and almost has that “new car” smell. Its location is perfect, too. There are dozens of shopping and dining choices about five minutes away, and after the game, I stopped at a supermarket at the edge of the Penn State campus to grab some snacks.

Here’s a shot of the exterior of the hotel at night:

country-inn-&-suites-state-college-night-outside

I was excited to check in and see my room, given all I’d read about this hotel before my visit. It’s ranked second among State College hotels on TripAdvisor and has a 95 percent approval rating. Before I got to my room, though, I was impressed with the front desk staff. I’ve said before that some front desk people act inconvenienced that you’re checking in, but the people I dealt with at the Country Inn & Suites were outstanding — friendly, helpful and warm. About 10 minutes after getting to my room, one of the people at the front desk called to make sure I was happy with everything. The room was a suite and was huge. Here’s a shot of the desk and living room area:

country-inn-&-suites-state-college-suite-living-room

The basket of complimentary treats left in my room:

country-inn-&-suites-state-college-treat-basket

And a shot from the door, which shows just how big everything is:

country-inn-&-suites-state-college-room-from-door

I love suite hotels for my baseball road trips. When you’re stuck in the car for hours a day, it’s nice to get to your hotel and be able to spread out a little, and this room definitely gave me that feeling. It’s cool to sit at the desk, work on my blog and watch Sportcenter, and then head down the hall to the bedroom to sleep. It’s sort of like being at home, actually. And speaking of sleeping, here’s the king-sized bed:

country-inn-&-suites-state-college-suite-bedroom

I didn’t take a photo of it, but you could also see the very top of Beaver Stadium out my window. Pretty awesome. I definitely know where I’ll be staying whenever I return to State College.

In the meantime, though, the road trip continues! Next up, another NYPL franchise — the Williamsport Crosscutters.

Harrisburg Senators – July 8

One of the things I love about baseball road trips for The Ballpark Guide is that every day seems to have something special.

On day one, I threw out the first pitch in Auburn.

On day two, I watched Derek Jeter rehab in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Day three began early with a trip to Harrisburg to watch the Eastern League’s Senators host the Bowie Baysox at Metro Bank Park. When I planned this road trip, my priority was getting to State College on the evening of July 8, which meant most of the day would be wide open. But when I saw the Senators were playing a rare noon game, I knew I could pull off another two-city doubleheader.

I got to Metro Bank Park about 10 a.m. and when I pulled into the parking lot, I explained to the attendant that I was picking up a media pass and asked if I was on the media parking list. “Don’t worry,” he responded, “we don’t start charging for parking until 10:30 a.m.” Awesome! What a great perk for Senators fans — come early, check out the area around the park and save a couple bucks. More teams should do this.

Although I explain a lot about Metro Bank Park in the fan guide on my website, I’ll remind you that one of the coolest things about this park is its location. Its on Harrisburg’s City Island, which means you get to cross a bridge (or swim, if you’re really dedicated, I suppose) on your way there. Once I parked, I took a walk along the pedestrian bridge that runs between downtown Harrisburg and the island:

metro-bank-park-pedestrian-bridge

I picked up my media pass that Terry Byrom had left for me (thanks, Terry!) and decided to take a walk around the entire park before entering. Here’s the first shot I took after getting my pass:

metro-bank-park-front

From the island, you have a pretty good view of Harrisburg, including the Pennsylvania State Capitol building, which is the big dome on the right:

harrisburg-skyline-from-city-island

When I was walking back toward Metro Bank Park from the point of the island, I noticed this banner of former Senator Bryce Harper:

metro-bank-park-bryce-harper-banner

Last time I was in Harrisburg in 2011, Harper was still playing Class-A ball in Hagerstown and hadn’t even made it to the Senators. And now he’s taking part in the MLB home run derby.

After my lap of the park, I decided to go inside and check out the action. The noon game meant no batting practice, but the players on both teams were on the field. Before I focused on the players, though, I wandered through the nearly empty park. Metro Bank Park has some awesome seating options that are definitely worth considering if you plan to visit. There are bar seats in a couple spots in the outfield and a boardwalk behind them. Here are the seats in left-center:

metro-bank-park-bar-seats

In the washroom, I noticed the Senators are one of a handful of MiLB teams that put the logos of their league rivals in the urinals. I took a photo of one, thinking it would be cool to share. But upon looking at it just now, I figured no one wants to see a close-up view of a urinal. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

As I continued throughout the stadium, a shirtless man roaming through a patch of lilies outside the park caught my eye. You know when someone is acting suspicious and it just rings an alarm for you? That’s what was happening here and I stopped and watched as I tried to figure out what he was up to. Soon enough, I realized he was trying to find foul balls. Fair enough. But to avoid suspicion, it seemed, he was also halfheartedly weeding the flowerbed. Bizarre:

metro-bank-park-guy-looking-for-balls

One of the neat things about getting into a park early is the proliferation of players wandering around. By now, they’d finished their on-field stretching and many were sitting or walking through the concourse talking on cellphones. As I approached the Senators clubhouse, I saw a handful of players but a sign recognizing the 2011 flood caught my eye. I actually blogged about that flood at the time, which you can check out here. Much of the park was underwater and this sign noted how high the water was in the park’s lower level:

metro-bank-park-flood-sign

It reads: “September 2011 Flood: High Water Mark” and the line has to be nearly six feet up the wall. I remember reading that both clubhouses were completely full of water, and quickly noticed the park’s elaborate water-tight doors now covering the home clubhouse door:

metro-bank-park-clubhouse-water-proof-doors

The ballpark has an upper concourse boardwalk and a lower concourse. The boardwalk is more fun to walk along, but the lower level has its perks, too. One of those perks is standing next to the road bullpen and watching the action from just a couple feet away. You’re so close you can hear the ball zip past you. By the time I reached the bullpen, Bowie starter Tyler Wilson was just about to start throwing. I waited for a few minutes and then was able to get shots like this one:

tyler-wilson-bowie-baysox

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll know one of the things I enjoy doing on my road trips is capturing moments you don’t notice on TV. Sometimes they’re funny and sometimes they’re a subtle reminder of life in the minor leagues. As I stood behind the Bowie bullpen after the anthem, I shot this photo:

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It’s reliever Chris Petrini’s glove sitting on the bullpen phone box, but the thing that caught my eye was the bottle of water sitting in the box. In the majors, players often have climate-controlled bullpens, but that’s not the case in the minors. Whoever had this bottle of water stashed it here to keep it out of the glaring sun.

After the first pitch, I sought out something to eat. During my last visit, I sat in the all-you-can-eat seats, so I didn’t try anything at the other concession stands. This time, I settled on some wings at Arooga’s Wing Shack. I’m not usually a fan of boneless wings, but chose them instead of traditional wings to avoid too much of a mess:

metro-bank-park-food-aroogas-wings

The sauce was really tasty but the chicken was far too breaded for my liking. One neat thing about Arooga’s is if you like a particular type of sauce, you can buy a bottle of it in the Senators team shop. I love when teams make smart decisions like that.

I spent the first inning in the shade in a picnic area in center field, and then made my way down to the box seats on the third base side to take some action shots. Here’s Bowie’s Seth Loman fouling off a pitch:

seth-loman-bowie-baysox

Unfortunately, that was as far as I got. A minute later, a light rain started falling. About 30 seconds after the light rain, the skies completely opened up and I ran — along with dozens of other fans — to the team shop where I looked out and had this rainy view:

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The view lasted just a few more seconds. The umpires postponed the game right away and the players scurried out of sight. Given the darkness of the sky and intensity of the rainfall, I weighed my options. If the game had a substantial delay, which looked likely, I’d have to leave early to get to State College. On the other hand, as the last game before the Eastern League all-star break, the officials might just decide to postpone the game and resume it in the second half of the season. As much as I hate leaving games early, I decided to hit the road and start the rainy drive to State College. The rain delay in Harrisburg lasted about 90 minutes, so I’m not too heartbroken with my decision to leave.

Check back soon to read about my State College experience, which included more rain, a foul ball and a tour around Penn State’s Beaver Stadium!

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders – July 7

With day one of my July road trip for The Ballpark Guide in the books, it was time to shift my attention to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, PNC Field and Derek Jeter. I planned this trip months ago, and when I heard last week that Jeter would begin rehabbing with the RailRiders on July 6, I had my fingers firmly crossed he’d still be around a day later during my visit.

Fortunately, the team confirmed the news on Twitter and I was thrilled to get a chance to see the captain up close. What perfect luck!

I was also excited to see the new PNC Field. I visited the park back in 2011 and found it outdated and in need of a facelift. In case you don’t follow the International League, the S/W-B team played its entire 2012 campaign on the road while a multi-million dollar renovation put a new face on PNC Field, and I can definitely say the new look is outstanding.

I arrived just before 10 a.m. for the 1 p.m. game and a pile of fans were already waiting for Jeter in the parking lot. As much as I was tempted to hang out and see if I could spot him, I was more excited to document the stadium renovations. Here’s a panoramic shot of the front gate area:

pnc-field-front-panorama

(If you click on the link about my 2011 visit, you can see how the park looked back then and draw your own conclusions.)

John Sadak with the RailRiders had left a media pass for me at Will Call, which was awesome. Thanks, John! Not only would it give me a chance to get in early on what would be a Jeter-induced sellout, but I’d get the opportunity to really explore. I entered the park through the Mohegan Sun Club entrance and climbed the stairs to find an MLB-quality bar/lounge area:

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I believe this area is only open to suiteholders, but if you’re lucky enough to score a suite at PNC Field, you’ll sure enjoy this spot:

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The club was virtually deserted except for a few servers scurrying around and a guy mopping the floor. I went outside to the suite-level seating to take this panorama of the park and its hilly backdrop, which I think gives the park a really cool feel:

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Next, I went down to field level to take in the sights. In its previous incarnation, PNC Field’s concourse was a dark tunnel that ran beneath the seats. I’m not a fan of this type of design because you miss the game as you’re standing in line for food. The new look, however, was bright, wide open and welcoming:

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An added perk was you could now walk around the entire field — there wasn’t anything in the outfield during my last visit. I love parks like this, and the walk with the field on one side and the cliff on the other was awesome:

pnc-field-outfield-walkway

Many parks have grass seating areas, but the grass area at the new PNC Field has trees and rocks to make it fit in with the surrounding terrain, and it definitely works. Some of the other post-reno features? An enormous, four-level party deck in the left field corner:

pnc-field-group-party-deck

An upscale bar area in right field:

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And standing-room areas in the outfield, bullpens you can stand over and a huge kids’ play area:

pnc-field-outfield-view

The RailRiders dugout is on the third base side, and while the players can access their clubhouse through the tunnels, many were walking around the concourse. I saw third baseman Josh Bell talking on a cellphone and pitcher Dellin Betances walked so close to me that I had to step out of the way. I don’t think I realized how big he is, but at 6’8″, he towered over me. Before he disappeared into a doorway, I quickly snapped this photo (he’s on the left):

pnc-field-dellin-betances-concourse

Surprisingly for an afternoon game, the cage was on the field and I was hoping Jeter would be among the players hitting. I kept an eye on the RailRiders side of the field and sure enough, he emerged at 11:09 a.m. Although dozens of media members were descending on PNC Field for the game, I can safely say I got the first photo of Jeter after he came out of the dugout:

derek-jeter-railriders-first-appearance

The area between the cage and the stands was roped off for the media, and since I had a pass, I went out onto the field and stood about 20 feet from the cage for the next 45 minutes or so. I took dozens of photos of Jeter and while there’s no need to share them all, here are a few that I like. Before he hit the cage, he jogged up and down the line:

derek-jeter-railriders-jogging

And when teammate Addison Maruszak stepped in, Jeter stood and watched:

derek-jeter-railriders-addison-maruszak-cage

The whole batting practice experience was amazing. I was so close I could hear Jeter groan when he hit a ball awkwardly and yell “Wooo!” when a teammate hit a home run. The group that joined Jeter was small — just Thomas Neal, Bell and Maruszak. Here are the latter three waiting while Jeter hits:

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And here are Maruszak and Jeter chatting:

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It was cool to see Maruszak again. I saw him in Columbus on my first big road trip and follow his wife, Breanna, on Twitter. She writes a really cool blog, Married to Baseball, about her life as the wife of a professional baseball player, and I’d get a chance to meet her later in the day and talk baseball for about 10 minutes.

When the gates opened, it didn’t take long for the autograph-seeking crowd to pour down the steps to field level and begin screaming Jeter’s name:

pnc-field-autograph-seekers

After the captain finished hitting, he took some infield drills, and it was absolutely surreal to stand there on the field and watch it all unfold:

derek-jeter-railriders-grounder

It was also funny watching how everything revolved around Jeter. For example, when he saw Lehigh Valley pitching coach Ray Burris walk past, Jeter just stopped fielding ground balls and everyone waited for him to finish chatting with Burris:

derek-jeter-railriders-ray-burris

After Jeter finished the drill, he headed down the line and signed for a few minutes with a pair of cops and three RailRiders employees surrounding him:

derek-jeter-railriders-signing-autographs

Before long, he disappeared back into the dugout and then the clubhouse, and I continued wandering around the park. The game’s starting lineups are displayed on a board outside the press box and, as you might imagine, people were anxious to photograph Jeter’s name:

pnc-field-jeter-lineup

I was getting pretty hungry, but as game time approached, I wanted to be sure to see Jeter’s first plate appearance before I went off in search of lunch. As you might expect, he got a lengthy ovation as he led off the bottom of the first …

derek-jeter-railriders-at-bat

… and then drew a walk:

derek-jeter-railriders-walk

After seeing him, my next mission was lunch, and I was drawn to the smoky smells of a concession stand in right field that had pulled pork, brisket and the like. I went with a beef brisket sandwich and chips:

pnc-field-food-brisket-sandwich

The beef itself was smoky and delicious and the sauce was good, too. My first bite, however, was not. Somehow, there was a chunk of fat nearly the size of a golf ball buried in the sandwich, which was beyond gross. It wasn’t a bit of gristle or a tiny sliver of fat. It was enormous and although it partly hurt the overall quality of the sandwich, I’d still recommend this meal — just inspect your meat first.

Before Jeter’s next trip to the plate, I made sure to get in better position, opting for a seat on the first base side. Jeter swung and missed at this pitch …

derek-jeter-railriders-swinging-strike

… but then hit a single for the first hit of his rehab stint with the RailRiders. He scored three batters later on a home run from Randy Ruiz. I mention Ruiz because back in 2011, I got one of his game-used bats in New Hampshire.

I spent several innings in this location and at one point, noted a mother and her kid who had sat down behind me. The kid was eating one of those fluorescent red frozen ice drinks, and I remember thinking how awful it’d be if he spilled it on me; I was wearing one of my new, white The Ballpark Guide polo shirts. They left soon enough, thankfully — but flash forward to me arriving at my hotel after the game and noticing the back of my shirt was completely covered in red dye. It’s probably ruined. I can understand that kids are occasionally clumsy, but think of the parenting here — watch your kid make a horrible mess on a stranger and then quietly leave before he notices? Parent of the year.

Betances, who I saw before the game in the concourse, pitched in relief and check out how long his stride is; in particular, how far he ends up away from the rubber when he releases the ball:

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Jeter had two more plate appearances — a strikeout and a walk, and I took a picture of him during virtually every pitch he faced and a bunch more after he walked:

derek-jeter-railriders-on-base

The RailRiders ended up winning 6-2 and regardless of the score, this game will go down as a real highlight for me since I started traveling for The Ballpark Guide in 2010. Although I’m not a Yankees fan, I’ve always admired how Jeter plays the game and carries himself and seeing him in this context was incredible.

The whole experience was awesome, but having been in the full sun for about six hours, I was majorly burned and was looking forward to getting to my hotel. Good news: The place I was staying is within walking distance of PNC Field! I’d booked a room at the Courtyard Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, which sits on the hill above the ballpark. In fact, I could see the roof of the hotel during the game:

pnc-field-courtard-from-park

If you’re taking in the RailRiders on your baseball road trip, this is the hotel to visit. Its convenience is just one reason to do so; I also found the hotel staff exceptionally friendly and personable. The lobby is huge and leads to a business center, sitting area and a large restaurant with a wide-ranging menu. For me, though, I was pumped that my room was great. Here’s a shot that shows the sitting area, king-sized bed and the corner of the desk:

courtyard-scranton-wilkes-barre-room

And here are the room from the other direction:

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And, finally, the outside of the hotel:

courtyard-scranton-wilkes-barre-outside

Beyond being close to PNC Field, you can’t beat the Courtyard Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s location. Less than a minute away is an enormous complex with a ton of eateries, shopping and even a movie theater. The eateries include a LongHorn Steakhouse and an Italian restaurant, plus a Quiznos, Panera bread, pizza place and Pancheros, which is where I grabbed dinner after the game.

The next morning, I got up early, packed up the car and drove to the same observation spot I’ve used on two other occasions. From here, it was cool to see the new-look PNC Field. If you’ve read my blog frequently, you might remember me taking similar photos during my 2011 visit and again in 2012 while passing through town:

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Next up: Two games in two cities in one day — Harrisburg and State College.

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