With most of the local teams on the road for the Memorial Day weekend, we stretched out into eastern Pennsylvania to attend our first AAA game in Allentown PA, to see the Lehigh Valley IronPigs at Coca Cola Park. Years ago, I read a book called Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life In the Minor Leagues of Baseball, in which the author posits that no players actually want to be in AAA; players from below are waiting for their turn to move to “The Show”, while ex-MLB players are looking to get back there. Not having been to a AAA game, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I would have been surprised if we didn’t see some familiar MLB names in the lineup or on the mound in Allentown that afternoon.
From central NJ, the 80 mile drive to Coca Cola Stadium took about 90 minutes, with just some construction delays slowing us down on Interstate 78 in eastern PA. Arriving about 90 minutes before the scheduled first pitch (slated for 135 pm), we easily found parking in the onsite lots (which were much bigger than I expected, with parking on either side of the stadium) for the typical price of $5.00. Since there was not much surrounding the park, we headed inside the stadium.
From the right field entrance (which is the main entrance for the ballpark), we walked along the upper concourse toward centerfield. Most of the concession stands are located on the upper concourse, and not surprisingly, the more popular cuisine in the park was pig-themed (considering that the team name is the IronPigs). Not one to engage in more than the standard fare at a baseball game, I did not spend too much time or energy on the cuisine at Coca Cola Park, but I did run across a review of what’s good at the park here. We encountered a picnic area in right field, as well as more places to eat behind the right field foul pole. In addition, we saw an area behind the right field fence designed specifically to allow fans to socialize. This is something we have noticed in an increasing number of new stadiums, as the way fans watch the games has changed.
Unlike most ballparks, the concourse encircled the stadium, allowing us access to the outfield. From the behind the berm in centerfield (where people lounged on beach towels in the bright sunshine), we got a good look at the seating area in Coca Cola Park. There are two levels of seating; the lower level, extended from the right field foul pole behind home plate to the left field pole, and the upper level, from mid right field to mid level field. A set of luxury boxes stretched along the same length as the upper level. Factoring in the seating in the picnic areas in left field and right field, and the seating in the grass areas of the outfield, Coca Cola Park can accommodate just over 10,000 fans (making it one of the largest minor leagues parks we have seen with respect to crowd size).
Continuing our tour of the ballpark, we passed by the scoreboard/videoboard combination in centerfield, adorned at the top with a Coca Cola bottle. When home runs are hit by IronPigs players, the bottle shakes and fires off fireworks. Next to the scoreboard are the bullpens, and above them, the Tiki Terrace, which houses group seating and a bar open to all ticketed patrons. Adjacent to the Tiki Terrace is the Picnic Patio, which hosts group gatherings. As we headed toward home plate, it was clear that Coca Cola Park was designed with fan comfort and accessibility in mind. It is little wonder that the ballpark has often won awards (such as the Best Minor League Ballpark on a number of occasions).
The IronPigs draw exceptionally well for minor league baseball, and have the highest average attendance since the ballpark opened in 2008. Not knowing this fact, we did not secure tickets until just before the day of the game, and that ignorance resulted in our seats being located in the lower level down the right field line. Though all of the seats in Coca Cola Park are angled for the best view of the infield, I felt as though we were far from the action, even in a park that was relatively cozy when it comes to seating. After grabbing a baseball lunch from the nearest concession stand, we settled into our seats for the beginning of the game.
Lehigh Valley (the Triple A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies) hosted the Charlotte Knights (the Triple A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox) for the early afternoon contest. We expected to see some familiar names in the lineup or on the mound for this game, since AAA teams often have MLB veterans amongst their ranks. Though I didn’t immediately recognize any names in the Knights’ lineup, their starting pitcher was a different story. Taking the mound for the Knights was Brad Penny, celebrating his 37th birthday at Coca Cola Park. A 14 year MLB veteran, Penny was apparently attempting to catch one more ride to the The Show. There were a few familiar names in the IronPigs’ lineup, especially at the top of the order, who were with the Phillies at some point within the last year.
Not every seat in the ballpark was filled, but there did seem to be more than 9,000 fans in attendance for the game. A steady breeze from centerfield kept the temperature from getting too warm (as high temperatures can reach the 90s in eastern PA by Memorial Day weekend), and filtered sunshine made for a nearly perfect day for a ballgame. Charlotte struck first, scoring in the second inning, staking Penny to an early lead. However, Brad Penny did not have his best stuff that day, and after surrendering five runs in the third and fourth innings, his day ended after the sixth inning. Following a disappointing 2015 with the Knights, Penny left organized baseball.
During the IronPigs’ rallies in the third and fourth innings, we heard something we’d never heard at a ballpark. Rather than simply cheer or applaud, fans squealed or snorted like pigs. Though odd at first (during which time much chuckling ensued, mainly by me), the squealing fit the environment perfectly, as there are MANY aspects of the ballpark that are pig-themed in one way or another. The unique fan celebration lent an air of authenticity to the experience, and when combined with the ballpark itself, created a very enjoyable atmosphere for minor league baseball. Clearly, Allentown loves their IronPigs!
Being fairly close to the right field wall, I could not help but notice the prominence of the advertisement boards. While it is typical for minor league parks to have advertising extending along the outfield wall, these boards seem to rise much higher than most of the parks we had seen to that point. A fairly large set of advertising boards rose up from behind the bullpens in left field, and the signage made Coca Cola Park almost feel like an enclosed MLB park. Despite the signage and its large seating capacity, the ballpark had an imitate feel to it.
Charlotte rallied for runs in the seventh and ninth innings, overcoming a 5-3 deficit for a 7-3 victory. As we waited for the sizable crowd to exit the ballpark, I had a few moments to reflect on Coca Cola Park. The layout of the stadium, as well as the atmosphere created by the ardent IronPigs fans, made our experience enjoyable. Our first visit to a AAA park was a huge success, and had we known that the ballpark was such a jewel, we would have visited sooner.