Just a Few Days Left

I’ve said before that while Opening Day is a big day for me, I really get excited when it’s time for my first road trip of the baseball season. Fortunately, that day is just about here.

About 5 a.m. on Monday, I’ll hop in the car for the drive to Manchester, N.H., home of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. I’ll be seeing three games at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium — Monday through Wednesday, April 14 through 16. All three games are against the New Britain Rock Cats.

I’ve been to Northeast Delta Dental Stadium twice before — once in 2010, on my very first summer of travels for The Ballpark Guide, and again in 2011. I’m returning not only because I’m anxious to see one of my favorite ballparks, but also because I get the awesome opportunity to be interviewed on the air during the game broadcast on April 15 by Tom Gauthier, the voice of the Fisher Cats. And the fact that I’m a Toronto Blue Jays fan doesn’t hurt either, as the Fisher Cats are the Double-A affiliate of the Jays.

I’ll also be staying at the outstanding Hilton Garden Inn Manchester, which is located just over the left field fence. As in previous visits, I’ll have a field-facing room so I can enjoy the ballpark even when I’m not inside it.

Here’s the panoramic view out my window during my first visit, which you can read all about here:

panorama-from-hilton-garden-inn-window

And here’s a scene from my second visit during pregame warmups from The Patio, an outdoor eatery at the hotel at which you can eat, watch batting practice and snag home balls:

hilton-garden-inn-patio

(To read the blog post about my second visit, just click here.

Finally, here’s a look at the hotel and its field-facing rooms, taken from the third base seats at the ballpark:

hilton-garden-inn-from-park

It’s shaping up to be a great trip and, as always, I’ll be tweeting and blogging along the way. Planning to be at any of these games? Send me a tweet and we’ll meet up and say hello.

If you enjoy reading about my baseball road trip adventures and want to support them, there are a few ways of doing so — you can read about them here at this link. If you shop on Amazon, for example, you can help my road trips without it costing you an extra cent. And you’ll even get a shout out on Twitter or here on my blog, too! Thanks for your support and I’ll talk to you next week from Manchester.

Snowy Comerica Park

I’ve got just 10 sleeps until my first baseball road trip of 2014, which I’ll be blogging about next week. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share one quick ballpark adventure I had over the winter.

Back in January, my wife and I made a quick to Detroit to see an Adam Carolla stand-up show at the Motor City Casino. I’ve been to Detroit a couple times in the past, including in May of 2011 for a pair of Tigers games at Comerica Park. You can read my fan guide to Comerica Park by clicking on the park’s name in this sentence, and blog posts about those two trips here and here.

Anyway, I’m a huge Adam Carolla fan and since he doesn’t travel to the east side of the continent very often, I couldn’t resist buying tickets. Where does baseball come in, you ask?

Well, first of all, we stayed at the casino hotel and ate dinner at one of its restaurants. From our seats, we could see both Comerica Park, the current home of the Tigers, and the site of old Tiger Stadium. The spot that Tiger Stadium once occupied is now a vacant lot. You probably wouldn’t even notice it, except the flag in center field still stands. I didn’t take my camera to the restaurant, and the dark, gray evening wasn’t very conducive to photos. There’s a great photo on Wikipedia, however, that show exactly what I’m talking about:

tiger-stadium-current-site

See the tall building on the left of the image? That’s the Motor City Casino, and the restaurant is behind the tall windows on the upper floor.

The morning after the show, we set out for the long drive home, but not before taking a drive around Comerica Park. It was neat to see the winter version of the park. Here’s me in front of the statues of Ty Cobb and Willie Horton, which are beyond the outfield fence:

comerica-park-winter-malcolm-statues

And here I am in front of the famous tiger statue at the Witherell Street gate:

comerica-park-malcolm-tiger-gate

The tigers on the side of the building were wearing snow caps:

comerica-park-snowy-tiger-heads

And we could see the snowy field as we peeked through from the sidewalk:

comerica-park-snowy-field

As we stood on Witherell Street, I snapped a series of photos to build this panorama to show the snowy scene looking away from Comerica Park’s gate:

comerica-park-winter-panorama

The building in the center is the historic Fox Theatre.

I really enjoyed my visits at Comerica Park, even though my second game was rain shortened. If you didn’t see the notice on my website last week, I’m excited to say that I’ll be heading back to Detroit in June as part of a road trip. The rest of the dates and cities aren’t confirmed right now, but I can definitely say I’ll be at Comerica to see the Tigers host the Blue Jays on June 4 and 5.

If you enjoy reading about my baseball adventures and want to support them, there are a few ways of doing so, especially if you shop on Amazon. Please take a look at this link to find out how you can support my trips at no extra cost to you — and receive my thanks on Twitter, too!

Shop Online, Help The Ballpark Guide

Do you shop on Amazon? If so, your shopping can help send me on more baseball road trips to provide you with comprehensive fan guides to the parks you plan to visit, entertaining blog posts and other adventures along the way. And best of all, your support won’t cost you an extra cent.

I’ve recently partnered up with Amazon as a method of generating revenue for my site, and I’m excited to tell you about it.

The premise is simple: Visit The Ballpark Guide’s “Support Us” page, click on the Amazon link for your country and do your shopping. When you pay for your order, Amazon takes a small percentage of that total and sends it my way, which I’ll use for more baseball road trips this summer, including some that require me to fly. The prices you pay by clicking through my link are the same you’d pay if you just typed Amazon’s URL into your browser, so there’s no added expense for you.

Here’s what the Amazon portion of the page looks like; as you can see, it’s pretty straightforward:

amazon-screenshot

Here’s another way you can help:

If you buy your favorite team’s gear on MLB Shop, perhaps in anticipation of your own baseball road trip, your shopping can also help me out. As with Amazon, I’ve joined forces with the MLB Shop and every time you make a purchase, I get a small percentage. And like Amazon, it doesn’t cost you an extra penny. Here’s a screenshot:

mlb-shop-screenshot

I’ve noted it on the page in question, but I want to reiterate how much your support means to me. To show my appreciation, I’ll give you some public recognition on my Twitter account or blog. All you have to do is get in touch with me after you complete your purchase, let me know that you used my site and I’ll do the rest.

Finally, I’d love if you could bookmark my “Support Us” page and start your online shopping there. I’m asking you to bookmark my page, rather than the Amazon/MLB Shop page to which you’re directed after clicking the link, because the site’s cookies eventually expire and Amazon/MLB Shop won’t be able to connect your purchase to me.

Any questions? Give me a shout. As a bonus, I’ll give a Twitter follow to the first person who makes an Amazon or MLB Shop purchase through my site!

As always, thank you for your support. This summer’s going to have some awesome trips and I can’t wait to share them with you.

My First Ballgame

“Would you like to go to a baseball game?”

That question, posed to me the morning of July 2, 1988, is what began my passion for watching live baseball.

I was six years old and a huge Toronto Blue Jays fan, but I hadn’t yet got the chance to see my team play live. On the weekend in question, my family was assembled at the cottage of my maternal grandparents for Canada Day. I imagine we celebrated the holiday with a barbecue, swimming and maybe even fireworks. And I’m sure I convinced one of the grownups to play catch with me. I don’t remember those details, but I do remember my dad, uncle and grandfather asking me early on that Saturday morning if I wanted to see the Jays play.

It took me all of zero seconds to give me response, and we were soon packed into the minivan for the 90-minute trip from the cottage to Exhibition Stadium. I remember thinking it was pretty cool that I was on a guys’ trip — no girls allowed.

I’ve been thinking about that first game a lot lately, and trying to recall specific moments. I remember a handful of notable moments from that day. I’ve been able to fill in the other details with the help of the day’s box score I found on Baseball-Reference.

The Jays were pounded 11-3 by the Oakland A’s. In those days, the A’s 2-3-4 hitters were Dave Henderson, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. That year, the trio smashed 98 home runs and drove in 317 runs. Yikes.

I remember lots of home runs during the game, and the box score confirms there were four. Henderson and Terry Steinbach hit home runs for Oakland, while Cecil Fielder and George Bell hit them for Toronto. I remember being ticked off about the A’s home runs and overjoyed with Toronto’s blasts, as any young Jays fan would be.

I also remember Mike Flanagan getting the start for Toronto and laying a total egg. The box score tells me he went 2.1 innings, surrendering 5 hits and 7 earned runs. Truth be told, I actually remember thinking, “I hate Mike Flanagan” while we were driving back to the cottage after the game. The problems of a six-year-old kid, I guess.

Unfortunately, no family photos from that day seem to exist, nor can I find my old ticket stub. I can clearly remember where we were sitting, though. Exhibition Stadium was originally built for football, and the seating arrangement for baseball games could be best described as awkward. Because of the vast football sidelines, the field-level seats when the stadium was configured for baseball felt like they were a mile away, and the seats down the lines were also ridiculously far from the action. We sat in the upper deck way down the first base line; the Internet tells me the seats were benches and the tickets cost $7, but I don’t recall those details.

I don’t remember what we ate, although I’m sure I had a hot dog or some ice cream. I also seem to recall staying in our seats the entire game — a big-time contrast from how I watch baseball now. The souvenir I took home from the game was the team’s 1988 yearbook. It not only brings back memories to flip through it now, but some of the pictures are absolutely hilarious. I carried this magazine around with me for what seemed like a year. In actuality, it probably was, as I didn’t see my second live ballgame until 1989.

Here’s the cover, which shows its age, despite my obsession with keeping things in their original condition:

1988-blue-jays-program-cover

You might notice some light pen marks on the letters “YEAR,” which I vaguely recall making before getting cold feet and stopping short of finishing the whole word.

A lot of the player pages take me right back to 1988. Here’s Fred McGriff, who was hands-down my favorite player of the era:

fred-mcgriff-blue-jays-yearbook-1988

(You can imagine how thrilled I was to meet McGriff last season at Rochester’s Frontier Field during the Pepsi MAX Field of Dreams game.)

Here’s a picture that screams 1980s — Juan Beniquez with a poorly fitting fat, enormous wristbands, super-short sleeves and a gold chain with a home plate-shaped medallion AND a baserunner:

juan-beniquez-1988-blue-jays-yearbook

Remember when Cecil Fielder was skinny? If you watched the Jays in the 1980s, that’s the Fielder you remember:

cecil-fielder-1988-blue-jays-yearbook

It’s hilarious to note that Fielder is listed at 220 pounds here, and the story about him talks about his good hands “for a big man.” If only they’d had a crystal ball in 1988.

Many of the advertisements are downright hilarious — and I imagine even more so if you’re younger than I am. First of all, there are a bunch of cigarette ads throughout the book, which is something you certainly don’t see anymore.

As far as other ads, here’s a full-page ad of a bank bragging that it has “instant teller” machines that are open … wait for it … 24 hours a day!

cibc-1988-ad

There’s also an ad for a state-of-the-art Panasonic VCR. Jealous?

panasonic-1988-ad

And what self-respecting connoisseur of VCRs would find himself without a 1988 Chevrolet Corsica?

chevrolet-1988-ad

Of course, any man about town might mix business and pleasure by taking his “portable computer” to the ballpark:

toshiba-portable-computers-1988-ad

(That last ad might be the best of all.)

That 1988 Jays team went 87-75 but didn’t make the playoffs. It did, however, have one of the best rosters the team has ever fielded. The outfield of George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield is unquestionably the team’s best outfield trio of all time, and the infield of Kelly Gruber, Tony Fernandez, Manny Lee and Fred McGriff was also pretty solid. Ernie Whitt and Pat Borders split the catching duties, and the starting rotation was Mike Flanagan, Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy, Jimmy Key and Todd Stottlemyre. The set-up man was Duane Ward and the closer was Tom Henke.

It would be another year before the Jays were bound for the playoffs. That year, the Jays moved from Exhibition Stadium to SkyDome, and I went to a few games and have the programs to prove it. Interested in another post like this? Leave me a comment below and let me know!

A Game-Used Bat and a Jersey Mystery

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

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

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

Here’s the first one:

o'conner-bat-full

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

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

o'conner-bat-knob

Lots of signs of use on the handle:

o'conner-bat-handle

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

o'conner-bat-wear

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

o'conner-bat-cleat-marks

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

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

legends-jersey-front

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

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

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

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

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

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

legends-jersey-number

The back of the entire jersey:

legends-jersey-back

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

legends-jersey-logo

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

zach-johnson-lexington-legends

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

zach-johnson-lexington-legends2

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

delino-deshields-jr-lexington-legends2

And here’s the front of his jersey:

delino-deshields-jr-lexington-legends

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

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

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

** UPDATE **

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

deshields-tweet

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

lexington-tweet

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

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

2014 MLB Prospect Watch

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

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

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

26. Maikel Franco — Reading Fightin Phils

maikel-franco

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

27. Tyler Glasnow — West Virginia Power

tyler-glasnow

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

33. Jackie Bradley, Jr. — Pawtucket Red Sox

jackie-bradley-jr

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

33. Billy Hamilton — Louisville Bats

billy-hamilton

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

38. Adalberto Mondesi — Lexington Legends

raul-mondesi-jr

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

53. Jesse Biddle — Reading Fightin Phils

jesse-biddle

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

55. Marcus Stroman — New Hampshire Fisher Cats

marcus-stroman-in-stands

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

74. Josh Bell — West Virginia Power

josh-bell

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

94. Taylor Guerrieri — Bowling Green Hot Rods

taylor-guerrieri

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

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

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

Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory Visit

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

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

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

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

louisville-slugger-museum-outdoors-front

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

louisville-slugger-museum-outside-through-window

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

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

louisville-slugger-museum-gift-shop

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

louisville-slugger-museum-signature-wall

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

louisville-slugger-museum-hof-signatures

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

louisville-slugger-museum-inside-main-room

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

louisville-slugger-museum-griffey-jr-statue

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

louisville-slugger-museum-jeter-statue

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

louisville-slugger-museum-malcolm-dugout

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

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

louisville-slugger-museum-malcolm-mantle-bat

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

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

Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum

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

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

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The team’s 1976 payroll ledger:

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

Perhaps the sport’s most uncomfortable uniform:

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

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

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

The first interactive display I checked out looked like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cincinnati-reds-hall-of-fame-plaques

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

I’m on a Professional Baseball Jersey!

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

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

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

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

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

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

tincaps-social-media-jersey-full

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

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

tincaps-social-media-jersey-sleeve-logo

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

tincaps-social-media-jersey-date-stamp

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

No luck.

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

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

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

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

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

Lakewood BlueClaws – July 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

… before documenting my room:

hyatt-regency-new-brunswick-room1

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

hyatt-regency-new-brunswick-room

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

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-outside-panorama

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

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-hickory-bp

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

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-video-board

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-under-video-board

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-bp-ball

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

sam-stafford-hickory-crawdads

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

cody-kendall-hickory-crawdads

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-bp-ball-2

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-picnic-area-rf

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-picnic-area-ball

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-bullpen-mound-ball

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-bullpen-mound-balls

Oops.

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

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

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-suite-level-panorama

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-players-concourse

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-team-shop

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-kept-ball-1

And this:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-kept-2

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-press-box-panorama

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

alejandro-villalobos-lakewood-blueclaws-1

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

luis-marte-hickory-crawdads

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

andrew-faulkner-hickory-crawdads

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

mookie-wilson-lakewood-first-pitch

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-mookie-wilson-signing

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-behind-home-plate

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-radar-gun

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

nic-hanson-lakewood-blueclaws

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

ernie-whitt-phillies-lakewood

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

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

alejandro-villalobos-lakewood-blueclaws-2

And this guy, whose name I missed:

firstenergy-park-lakewood-blueclaws-player

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-food-fish-tacos

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

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-sunset

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

firstenergy-park-lakewood-sunset-outside-panorama

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

***

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 431 other followers