Yet another move placed me near Harrisburg, PA this spring, and I am once again in a hot spot for baseball. Just 11 miles away is First National Bank (FNB) Field, the home of the Harrisburg Senators, the Double A affiliate of the Washington Nationals. My brother and I visited FNB Field once before, on our way back from a baseball trip that took us to eastern OH and western PA during August of 2019. There was no baseball that day (as the Senators were out of town), but we were able to wander through portions of the park. Of course, we could not get the true essence of the ballpark that day, but we vowed to come back here at some point in the future.
Fast forward nearly two years, and we did indeed return. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of FNB Field is that it is located on an island in the Susquehanna River. Known as City Island, the mile long island is home to the ballpark, as well as other attractions. We approached City Island from Harrisburg, taking the Market Street Bridge to the main parking lot adjacent to the ballpark. Concerned about the availability of parking on an island, we arrived well before the first pitch. Despite my trepidations, there was plenty of parking available in the main lot, as well as a lot just over the bridge.
A short walk from the parking lot to FNB Field ensued, which involved climbing stairs and an uphill walk before reaching the gate. The trek could present some issues for those fans with mobility issues, but free rides from the parking lot to the gate are available via bicycles equipped with a rider seat. Though I did not see anyone take advantage of this service, I imagine it would be helpful for those in need. Per our usual approach, we walked outside the stadium taking pictures. About halfway across the outside of the park, we entered through a gate behind first base. Pleasant staff members working at the gate welcomed us warmly as we presented our mobile tickets, reminding me we were in neither the New York City Metro area nor Maryland/DC.
Once inside the park, we wandered taking pictures. Our visit occurred during the pandemic, and masks were worn by most fans. Because of the continuing pandemic, I was concerned that our movements within the ballpark would be restricted to limit exposure. However, we were able to encircle the playing field, as the main concourse wraps around the park. The layout of the outfield and the seating along the concourse vaguely reminded me of Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, MD (home of the Atlantic League’s Southern Maryland Blue Crabs).
As we walked from the right field line to the left field line, I was surprised to discover than FNB Field held more than 6,000 fans. Even with a sizable seating area behind home plate. at first glance, I would have thought the maximum capacity was closer to 5,000, which would have been on the smaller side for a Double A team. However, when the bleacher seating along the first base side, and the “Cheap Seats” in the left field corner are considered, the ballpark holds about the average number of fans for Double A ballparks.
Located on the concourse near the left field foul pole was the Senators Team Store. Seemingly smaller than most team stores, it contained most of the standard fare fans would expect, and had much more of an Expos presence than Nationals Park (the Montreal Expos moved to DC following the 2004 season). After browsing in the team store, we headed down the left field course to our seats
Seating in FNB Field was arranged in pods to limit interaction among fans. Unlike the pods we occupied the week before in Arm&Hammer Park in Trenton NJ, seating here was not as restrictive. Being closer to fans, we wore our masks, removing them only to eat and drink. Sitting in section 201 (near third base), we had a great view of the entire park. Our vantage point afforded us a view of the hills to the north and northwest of the stadium, reminding me of our visit to FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading, PA. In addition to a standard videoboard/scoreboard in right centerfield, there was a supplemental horizontal videoboard in the left centerfield. This board contained information on the inning/score, the pitcher’s statistics, as well as the pitch speed. For avid baseball fans like us, the additional treasure trove of data was quite welcome.
The weather could not have been better, as remaining clouds melted away with the setting sun. Clear skies and pleasantly warm temperatures for mid May set the stage for a perfect evening for baseball. Though the crowd was necessarily small for the contest, that did not stop those in attendance from showing their affection for the Senators. Because of the pandemic, there was no minor league season in 2020, and the pent up frustrations of the faithful resulted in an almost raucous crowd.
Though there are a number of places to eat, we grabbed a standard baseball dinner at the concession stand on the concourse level behind the main seating area. Servers were friendly, prices were reasonable, and the service was relatively quick. After some of the BAD experiences we have had at other parks (especially MLB parks), cheerful faces were a welcome change of pace. Perhaps as I get a number of visits under my belt, I can comment further on the cuisine offered at FNB Field.
As evening blended into night, the view of the hills to the north and northwest disappeared, but the feel of the stadium unchanged. Unlike many Saturday night minor league games, the crowd did not leave early, as the game remained relatively tight until the end. Even with a small crowd, I became concerned that exiting an island from one parking area could take a considerable amounts of time. Reversing our course from the stadium to the parking lot, we took some time to admire the view of Harrisburg across the Susquehanna River. It was worth the detour; Harrisburg alit was quite a sight, especially since it was our first visit. If you have the time after a Senators night game, make sure to take in the skyline.
As expected, exiting the parking lot was a slow process, as several lines that developed in the lot bottlenecked at the confluence of the lines near the turn onto the bridge. Having been in parking lots that were slow to clear in the past, we knew that patience was key, and eventually we managed to get out of the lot, heading back toward the east side of Harrisburg. FNB Field is an excellent minor league facility, providing a great fan experience among the passionate faithful. Since this facility is my new “home” ballpark, I was very pleased to find such a great stadium so nearby.
During a brief return to NJ in the early 2010s, I became aware of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball‘s (ALPB) franchise in Camden NJ. Dubbed the Riversharks, the team played its home games at Campbell’s Field, located near the Delaware River. Campbell’s Field was the northern extent of the Camden Waterfront, a revitalization project which includes the Adventure Aquarium and the BB&T Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater. Opening in 2001, not only was Campbell’s Field home of the Riversharks, it also hosted baseball for Rutgers University, St. Joseph’s University, and Temple University. The field served as the home of the Riversharks between 2001 and 2015.
Living less than 20 miles away, the trip to the ballpark was relatively simple, taking state roads to the Waterfront. Parking was also simple, as there was generally many available spots in the main lot adjacent to the stadium. Driving through Camden, it was clear that the city was still in the process of recovery, with reclamation projects in progress. Not that many years before, people actively avoided Camden, as it had a reputation for violence, and that reputation kept the city from rebounding. With the opening of the Camden Waterfront, positive changes occurred, and by the time we visited Campbell’s Field, it was a much more pleasant environment.
Being an independent league, ALPB rosters often include ex-MLB players, minor leaguers out of options with their MLB club, and young players not drafted into the MLB pipeline. It is not unusual for teams to have a few notable ex-MLB players, and being able to seem them in a much more intimate setting can be a boost for the ALPB team’s attendance. Due to the mix of experienced players and young talent, the level of play at Campbell’s Field was good, rivaling the level of play in AA, and the pitching tends to be perhaps just a bit better. Pay in the ALPB is not great, so players in the league have motivation to perform well, as ex-MLBers play for one more shot at The Show, and younger players try to get noticed by MLB organization.
Walking up to Campbell’s Field, the view is dominated by the Ben Franklin Bridge, which connects Camden to Philadelphia, PA. Regardless of what we might find inside, the magnificent view of the suspension bridge superimposed on the ballpark was worth the trip itself. Entering the ballpark required climbing a not inconsequential set of concrete stairs (as shown in the first picture), which would pose an issue for those with mobility issues. Stairs climbed, we were deposited on the upper concourse. Almost all of the concession stands were located on the upper concourse, as well as a small team store. Unlike most ballparks we have visited, there were not any specialty cuisine locations available, but the “essentials” for a baseball dinner were available. Strolling along the upper concourse toward right field, there was not much to see, outside of the gorgeous view of the bridge. Doubling back to the left field line, there was Picnic Pavilion, a picnic area toward the foul pole. Just above the Picnic Pavilion was the Kid’s Zone, a place designed for younger fans.
During our tour, we discovered that Campbell’s Field had two levels of seating. Separated by a lower concourse, the lower level seats extended from mid left field behind home plate to mid right field. The upper level seating mirrored the lower level in coverage, and luxury boxes stood atop the ballpark near home plate. All told, the park held 6,700 fans, though the seating area did not appear to be big enough to accommodate that many fans. Like most minor league/independent league ballparks, advertisement boards extended from foul line to foul line just above the outfield wall. A small and seemingly dated combination scoreboard/videoboard was placed just behind the right centerfield wall. My overall impression was that Campbell’s Field was a functional but unimpressive modular ballpark, lacking many of the amenities seen in parks built during the same era.
Of course, the star of the stadium was the view of the bridge, which seemingly towers above the park as it stretches from just beyond left field (where one of the concrete supports sits) to out past right centerfield. Even during game action, I found myself transfixed by the view, and the effect was amplified at night when the bridge was lit. From most of the park, it was not that easy to see the Philadelphia skyline, but seats in right field afforded the best view. Even pictures don’t do the view justice, as the superstructure announces its presence with authority. To be honest, the remainder of the park pales in comparison, and in 2004, Baseball America named Campbell’s Field the Ballpark of the Year. Based on the view alone, I can understand why the honor was bestowed.
Apparently, the view at Campbell’s Field was not enough to entice fans to the ballpark. During each of our visits, attendance was disappointing. For a doubleheader in July of 2011, there were fewer than 750 fans in the park, making it look nearly deserted. Granted, the first game of the doubleheader started at 510 pm, which is just about the time most people in the area leave work, but the weather was warm and dry for July. Attendance statistics indicated that Camden drew about 3,200 fans per game, but we never saw anything close to that in the park. Having the Phillies just a few miles away might have had an influence on attendance, and perhaps the location had a deleterious effect on getting fans to the game (as the reputation of Camden seems to be slow to fade).
Even though Campbell’s Field was fairly close to my home in 2011/2012, we did not go to the ballpark very often. Competition from other baseball options meant that Camden was typically a last choice, especially when all other teams were out of town. Plummeting ticket sales meant that Camden would have difficulty holding onto its place in the ALPB. Sadly, Camden eventually lost its franchise, as the team folded after the 2015 season. Replacing the Riversharks in the ALPB was the New Britain Bees, which only lasted a couple of seasons before folding themselves. Between 2015-2018, all three colleges that called Campbell’s Field home found other accommodations, meaning that the stadium no longer had full time residents. With the prospect of attracting new teams looking unlikely, the ballpark was demolished late in 2018.
Aside from the amazing backdrop, Campbell’s Field held no charm for me. It was, after all, a modular stadium in a location that many felt was difficult to reach, or didn’t feel comfortable visiting. While I do not miss the park, I mourn the loss of baseball in an area that could have used it as another attraction to help a city on the rise.
Moving to the DC area in 2013 opened up quite a few baseball opportunities, including MLB baseball, minor league baseball (at just about all levels), as well as access to an Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB) team. Located in Waldorf, MD, I was aware of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, but their ballpark, Regency Furniture Stadium is a distance from my home. While the drive is only about 40 miles, traffic along the preferred route can be very difficult, especially during the evening commute. Colleagues living in that area report that the trip to Waldorf during the drive home can take as much as 90 minutes. That prospect caused my curiosity to wane, as there are many other baseball options closer to home. As a result, we did not visit Regency Furniture Stadium for the first time until 2015.
Our first trip to Waldorf occurred toward the end of the 2015 campaign, on a Sunday afternoon. That game was chosen as it promised to be a much less vigorous drive. Even so, the trip down to Waldorf took about 50 minutes, with travel conditions being nearly idea. Nestled away in a more rural portion of southern Maryland, we needed to consult Google Maps to find the stadium, which routed us through some bucolic scenes before reaching the ballpark. As we approached the stadium, it was clear that parking would NOT be an issue, as there is a large lot in front of the park. Though the Blue Crabs website stated that parking in the lot was $5.00, we did not see any attendants collecting fees, so we simply found a suitable spot and walked up to the stadium. In subsequent visits, we noticed that there never seemed to be anyone dedicated to collect payment for parking.
With very little to see around the ballpark, we headed to the ticket window to purchase seats for the game. It seemed as though few people were performing many tasks at the window, giving the place a mom-and-pop store feel. After securing seats, we entered through the main gate (located behind home plate), which featured an old-style turnstile. Attendants at the main entrance were friendly, reminding me that we were in southern Maryland, a much different environment from the DC area, where stadium attendants can be far less cordial (yeah, I’m looking at you, Nationals Park). Seeing the interior of Regency Furniture Stadium, it was clear there was something different about this place. Though it was obviously a modular stadium, there were aspects of the park that appeared to be an intentional departure from the cookie cutter minor league/independent park form.
Upon entering the park, we walked along the main concourse. Virtually all of the concession stands are located there. In addition to standard fare, there were many seafood based offerings available. Also located on the main concourse is the Blue Crabs team store. Relatively small when compared to other ballparks, it offers hats, jersey, jackets and other apparel, with very friendly and helpful staff that understand when you are “just browsing”. Walking down the right field line, we encountered Pinch’s Playground (named after the team’s mascot, Pinch), a fairly large area with games and attractions (including a rock wall for climbing) designed for younger fans.
Unlike most minor league/independent league parks, the main concourse encircles Regency Furniture Stadium, allowing us access to the outfield. From behind the centerfield wall, we were able to take in the entire ballpark. There is one main seating area in the stadium, extending from mid right field behind home plate to mid left field. Curiously, the seating area shrinks to just a few rows directly behind home plate, with luxury boxes sitting just above them. This is a configuration we had not seen before, but this would not be the last unique aspect of the park we would discover. In total, Regency Furniture Stadium holds about 4,200 patrons, which is a bit smaller than average for minor league and independent ballparks we have visited
Extending from mid left/right field to the foul poles are large yellow walls adorned with Wawa advertisements. A convenience store chain based in PA, we are very familiar with the chain, but were surprised it was advertising this far south. Like the seats behind home plate, we had not seen high walls like this in many ballparks, and I couldn’t help but focus on them. Bullpens for each team are located next to the Wawa walls in foul territory. Seating for the bullpen pitchers is located a bit further toward home plate. Placing the bullpen seating in these locations was a curious decision, as they are in prime areas for line drive foul balls, which could result in bodily harm. Not surprisingly, bullpen pitchers don’t actually sit there during play, preferring the relative safety of the dugouts. Following the concourse to left field, we found Crabby Cove, an artificial pond with paddle boats (though we never saw anyone actually using the boats). Near the left field foul pole stands the Legends Club. This facility is designed for private events, and we had not seen this facility open during the baseball season.
Following our brief tour of the stadium, we obtained a baseball lunch from the concession stand behind third base and headed toward our seats. From there, we saw on the large green left field wall a hand operated scoreboard, which is somewhat reminiscent of the scoreboard at Fenway Park in Boston. That final touch solidified, in my mind, that Regency Furniture Stadium was the quirkiest ballpark I had seen. However, rather than feeling forced, the eccentricities of the park seemed more organic, lending an air of authenticity to largely modular ballpark. There was enough to look at during breaks in the action to keep fans interested, and I found that refreshing.
Attendance was light for this game, and we had most of the section to ourselves. At first, I though it was odd that there were some many empty seats for the game, but after visiting a number of times, I learned that the Blue Crabs don’t draw very well. Perhaps it’s the location of the ballpark; getting to the stadium from the north during the evening commute can be brutal. Perhaps baseball just isn’t as popular here as it is closer to DC. In fact, we have never seen the ballpark more than one-quarter full, and there have been times when I’ve seen less than 500 people in the seats. It saddened me to see such little support from the community for the team, and I wondered how the seemingly poor attendance could justify keeping an ALPB franchise here.
Being an independent league, ALPB rosters often include ex-MLB players, minor leaguers out of options with their MLB club, and young players not drafted into the MLB pipeline. It is not unusual for teams to have a few notable ex-MLB players, and being able to seem them in a much more intimate setting can be a boost for the ALPB team’s attendance. We didn’t see any familiar names during this game, but given the fluidity of the ALPB team rosters, there is always a chance to see a former MLB star on the field in Waldorf. Due to the mix of experienced players and young talent, the level of play at Regency Furniture Stadium is surprisingly good. For those with knowledge of minor league play, the ALPB is close to that of AA, and the pitching tends to be perhaps just a bit better.
Pay in the ALPB is not great, so players in the league have motivation to perform well, as ex-MLBers play for one more shot at The Show, and younger players try to get noticed by MLB organization. Since the MLB and ALPB have a working relationship, it is not unusual for MLB teams to pluck players from teams like the Blue Crabs and place them in their minor league system. Right hander Chris Mazza, a Southern Maryland Blue Crab alum, has recently pitched in the MLB for the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox. As part of that relationship, the ALPB tests rule changes that the MLB is considering for the future, and because of that, my brother and I were in Regency Furniture Stadium when the first steal of first base occurred. Another important change is the use of an automated strike zone. Though I did not see the automated system in Waldorf, my brother has seen it in action in Somerset, home of the Patriots.
Most of the games we have seen at Regency Furniture Stadium seemed to have a weather memory associated with them. During the spring, cold air wedged against the mountains to the west results in cloudy, cool weather with drizzle and fog, and we have seen our share of those games. During the summer, heat and humidity is common at the ballpark, with a semi-regular threat of thunderstorms. On one occasion, thunderstorms east of the stadium lit up the night, but did not affect the game. While details of that game escape me, the images of the lightning pealing across the dark sky revealing storm clouds remains etched in my memory. Luckily, most of the games we’ve seen at the ballpark have been rain free.
Following night games, the drive back home to the DC area can be as peaceful as drive down during the evening commute are painful. Winding through the rural roads from the stadium is a dark drive with little in the way of street lights. It is not unusual for fog to develop, and we often see as many deer as we do cars on our way back to the highway. On these nights, the drive home can take as little as 45 minutes, with traffic light until we reach the DC suburbs.
Due to COV-19, the 2020 ALPB season was scrapped, raising fears that the league might not survive. Two of the flagship franchise left the league during the offseason to become minor league affiliates, further stoking concern about the viability of the ALPB to play a 2021 season. However, three new teams joined the league after being released as minor league affiliates, and the league is planning to play a 2021 campaign. This means another season of Blue Crabs baseball is in the offing. If you are within range of Regency Furniture Stadium when the team is in town, make sure to go and see the Blue Crabs, if for no other reason than to see one the quirkiest ballpark we have seen in our travels.
First visit: exact date unknown; probably during the summer of 2013
Most recent visit: Sunday June 9th, 2019
Until my brother moved close to Bridgewater NJ in the early 2010s, I must admit I did not know much about the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB). Established in 1998, the independent ALPBA saw many changes in the number and locations of teams in the league over the years, but the Somerset Patriots remained the flagship franchise from the inception of the league until 2019 (the 2020 ALPB season was scuttled by COVID-19). In fact, the Somerset Patriots (who played their home games at TD Bank Park) were the “New York Yankees” of the ALPBA, having won 13 division titles and six ALPB championships. To extend the New York connection to Somerset, the Patriots manager from 1998-2012 was Yankees great Sparky Lyle . Having Lyle manage the Patriots helped legitimize the team and the league, and though he no longer manages the team, he does still make occasional appearances at TD Bank Park as an ambassador for the ALPB.
Being an independent league, the ALPB does not have a steady stream of players shuttling through Somerset. Instead, rosters are typically filled with ex-MLB players, as well as some of the players we have seen in the minor leagues, and younger players that were not drafted into the MLB pipeline. From what we have seen, it is not unusual to have three to five players on each team that have MLB experience. Signing ex-MLBers can be a boon for the teams, as name recognition boosts attendance for home teams, as well as those coming to town. One of the more famous ex-MLBers to play for the Patriots was outfielder Endy Chavez. Mets fans fondly remember his tenure with the team, especially his spectacular catch in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. Chavez was a fan favorite for the Patriots as well, known for his gregarious style and willingness to engage with fans before the game.
Another ex-Met who played for the Patriots was left hander Bill Pulsipher. At the end of his playing career, Pulsipher would only play at home, not traveling with the team on the road. He showed up, made his start, left the game, and went home. Other players for the Patriots included teachers, and even front office officials. Though the ALPB does not pay very well, it can attract former MLB players trying to extend their careers, as well as young and hungry players utilizing the ALPB as a means to further their MLB aspirations. Given the mix of talent and experience, the level of play is actually quite good, about on par with AA teams in affiliated baseball. Being able to see these players in an intimate setting can be a big draw for die-hard baseball fans in areas with little in the way of other options.
My brother introduced me to the Somerset Patriots sometime during 2013, and I believe that we went to see games at TD Bank Park together that summer (though my brother has seen many more games there than me). From my brother’s home, the park is less than 20 miles away, but due to the volume of traffic in the area (especially near the evening commute), travel time to the stadium could easily reach 45 minutes. Because of scheduling (and the fact that I was living and working in Maryland during much of the 2010s), we typically attended games together on weekends, which eased the trek to some degree. The very end of the trip had us snaking through Bridgewater, crossing over the Peters Brook before reaching the stadium.
General parking is located just before the stadium, adjacent to the Bridgewater train stop of the NJ Transit Raritan Valley line (the train passes the left field wall, and is noticeable when it does) Parking is $2.00 (as it has been since the stadium opened), and typically there is plenty of parking available, particularly on weekends. Some people try to avoid paying for parking by leaving their vehicles in a store parking lot across the road from the stadium. This is a BAD IDEA, as the owners of the store parking lot will tow your vehicle if you are NOT shopping there. From the parking lot to the main gate of TD Bank Park, the distance is a manageable one-quarter of a mile, with sidewalks available for much of the walk.
Entering through the main gate behind home plate (which includes old style turnstiles) brings you to the upper concourse of TD Bank Park. Concessions and the Patriots team store are located on the upper concourse, which stretches from mid right field behind home plate to mid left field. Concession stands, for the most part, offer standard baseball fare, at reasonable prices. Down the left field on the upper concourse is a picnic area (complete with tables), as well as National BBQ. Extending down the right field line are additional concession stands, as well as the Kids Zone, containing activities designed especially for younger fans. There is a large grass berm located further down the right field line, which is available for larger groups. Finally, luxury boxes are located at the top of the stadium, adjacent to the Party Zone. In total, TD Bank Park hold about 6,100 seated fans, with standing room only adding another 2,000 to that total.
Like most minor league ballparks, visitor and home team bullpens lie down the left field and right field lines, respectively, easily within sight of most of the seats. Large advertising signs reach from the left field foul pole to the right field pole, and like many minor league parks, are stacked two high. A relatively small but functional scoreboard/videoboard combo rises up behind the wall in right centerfield. The scoreboard contains quite a bit of information for those fans who like it, and the videoboard is unobtrusive, used mainly for short video clips appropriate to the game situation. For a modular ballpark, TD Bank Park contains quite a bit of charm, while maintaining an understated feel absent in many new stadiums in baseball. Perhaps this is why the ballpark has won numerous awards, including Ballpark Digest’s Best Independent Minor League Ballpark, as well as best ballpark in the ALPB.
Somerset has carefully cultivated a baseball experience focused on families and kids. In between innings, there are games and contests for kids on the field, and the Patriots’ mascot, Sparkee, entertains the crowd throughout the game. One of my favorite interactions is when the PA announcer shouts “Somerset”, and the kids respond with “Patriots”. Affordable tickets prices, good quality of play, and a suburban setting combine to make the Patriots an attractive family outing. As might be expected, attendance at TD Bank Park is among the highest in the ALPB, with near sellouts common during the warmer months. During the hottest part of the NJ summer, Somerset schedules night games as often as possible, even starting at 505 pm on Sunday, for the comfort of the fans.
Unfortunately, the 2020 ALPB season was scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Patriots did play some games during the summer, taking on the NJ Blasters in a series games played on the weekend. A limited number of fans were permitted to see each game, and my brother was fortunate enough to see a number of games in the series. While another team in the ALPB played some games during 2020, other teams remained idle, and we were concerned that the ALPB might not survive the pandemic to play in 2021.
During the offseason, the Somerset Patriots accepted an offer from the New York Yankees to become their AA affiliate. New York chose a bizarre path for changing their AA affiliate, as the previous club, the Trenton Thunder, discovered they had been replaced in a tweet by the big league club. Affiliation with the New York Yankees meant that the Patriots would leave the ALPB, which is a blow to a league as it loses its flagship franchise. Another ALPB team (the Sugarland Skeeters) left the ALPB to become the AAA affiliate of the Houston Astros. We feared that the loss of the top two teams in the league could topple the ALPB, but the league announced replacements, and are planning to play the 2021 season.
Regardless of their status, we expect the same great baseball environment at one of the finest minor league stadiums in the Northeast during the 2021 season. A number of changes are expected at TD Bank Park as the Patriots become part of the New York Yankee family. Most of the changes will be to the internal portion of the park, such as an upgrade to player facilities. On the field, bullpens will move off the field, and new energy efficient lightning will be installed in time for the season opener. Some enhancements are planned to the videoboard, including better instant replay results. Depending on how quickly fans are allowed back into the stadium, we plan to attend games at TD Bank Park during the 2021 season. If you find yourself close to TD Bank Park during the summer, check to see if the Patriots are in town. You will be glad you did.
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.
On an overcast, humid Sunday afternoon in July, we decided to visit Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium (referred to as Leidos Field for the remainder of the post), the home of the Aberdeen IronBirds. The IronBirds (whose name is an amalgamation of Iron Man, a nickname for Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr and birds, a moniker for the Orioles) were an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles when we visited in 2018. Members of the Class A Short Season New York-Penn League, the IronBirds played an abbreviated 76 game schedule, stretching from mid June to early September. The New York-Penn League was an entry point into professional baseball, and the teams were chiefly composed on recent college graduate and draft picks of the parent club.
Leidos Field, located in Aberdeen MD, lies along Interstate 95, and is clearly visible from that artery. Living in the DC area, getting to games there could be tricky, as it meant dealing with seemingly unending traffic traveling north into northern MD, and for much of the time I lived near DC, the trip did not seem to be worth the hassle. Though the trip was 60 miles from my home to the ballpark, snarling traffic could make that a 90 minute (or longer) trek, particularly around the time of the evening commute. However, the warm and humid weather, along with the threat of rain, made the journey appear to be tolerable on a Sunday afternoon. Typically, Sunday afternoon in the summer in northern MD could be busy, as people try to beat the traffic leaving after the weekend.
Arriving less than an hour before the scheduled 405 pm start, we found that the parking lot at the ballpark was expansive, to say the least. Leidos Field is part of the Aberdeen complex, which also houses fields for other sporting events. We found parking almost immediately, and unlike most ballparks, parking was FREE. We briefly toured the outside of the stadium, as well as the complex, but there was very little to see or do that afternoon outside of the park. Having purchased tickets online before the game, we entered through the home plate entrance, which led us to the upper concourse. On the upper concourse we found the majority of concession stands, as well as the IronBirds team store (which was well stocked, and we indulged with purchases, including Aberdeen tee shirts).
As is customary for us visiting a new park, we walked along the upper concourse from the left field foul pole to the right field foul pole (the outfield was inaccessible to fans). We discovered that Leidos Field was a modular ballpark that opened in 2002. Much of the seating consisted of green seats divided into a lower deck and upper deck, separated by a lower concourse. Seating stretched from near the left field foul pole behind home plate to the right field foul pole, which was surprising considering the park’s main tenants played a shortened season. A party deck and the Kids Zone lie beyond third base in left field, and luxury boxes extend from dugout to dugout. In total, Leidos Field seats about 6,300 fans, which is a large capacity for the level of play.
A small but functional scoreboard stands beyond the left field fence, and a larger, more elaborate video board is located in right center field. Though not as large as video boards we have seen in other minor league parks, it was nonetheless an impressive piece of technology for a park that is used only for a portion of the baseball season. Bullpens are positioned behind the wall next to the foul poles. It is unusual for minor league parks to have bullpens not in play, but as we explored Leidos Field, we discovered that the park was impressive for any level of play in the minors. It was abundantly clear that the ownership spent a considerable amount of time and effort to construct a ballpark that provides an excellent fan experience in a comfortable setting.
Following our tour of the stadium, we backtracked in the upper concourse to the concessions, located near the home plate entrance. While there were some specialty items available on the menu at some of the concession stands, we chose more standard fare for our baseball dinner, and headed to our seats. Every game since Opening Day in 2002 has been a sellout at Leidos Field (a very impressive feat for a minor league team), and that fact had some influence on the seats we could secure for the late Sunday afternoon game. Though it was clear that the weather would have an impact on the attendance for the game, we could only garner seats in the lower tier just past first base, which provided a less than desirable view of action at home plate. Undeterred, we settled into our seats and awaited the start of the game.
On that afternoon, the IronBirds hosted the Auburn (NY) Doubledays, a team named for the supposed inventor of baseball. The Doubledays were an affiliate of the Washington Nationals, so there was a flavor of a local rivalry in Leidos Field that afternoon. Skies remained cloudy through the afternoon into the early evening, but conditions remained dry (with thunderstorms remaining distant from the ballpark in Aberdeen). Though the game was technically a sellout, there were far fewer than 6,300 people in the ballpark. Threatening skies and a late start on a Sunday may have been contributory factors with respect to attendance, but the ballpark looked and felt as though it was mostly empty.
Generally, the level of play in the Class A Short season is entry level; after all, most of the players are getting their first taste of professional baseball. However, it was fairly clear early that both teams were polished, and the level of play was better than I expected. Pitchers tend to lag hitters when it comes to development for the younger ballplayers, with control of their arsenal being the main sticking point. Both pitching staffs acquitted themselves well during the game, though the Aberdeen starter unleashed consecutive wild pitches in the top of the first inning, leading to an Auburn run. As is usually the case in minor league ball games, there were no pitching changes during play, as the respective staffs are as interested in evaluating how their prospects handle pressure as well as how they display their talent. Game situations do not typically determine lineup changes; those changes are based more on when management has seen enough of a particular player on that day.
Clouds and some mist dominated the weather conditions for the game, but even that could not tarnish Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium. Though the stadium is adjacent to Interstate 95, the ballpark felt as though it was perched in a suburban setting, with lines of trees visible beyond the left field fence. During the half-inning breaks, I spent my time admiring the facility, built as if it was designed for a higher level of play. In fact, the park was one of the finer minor league stadiums we have visited. Low attendance for this particular game made it seem empty, potentially robbing it of charm, which we did not feel on this visit.
Auburn won a tight contest 3-2, though the IronBirds scored a run in the bottom of the eighth inning to make the game closer. Toward the end of the game, the clouds thinned out, and there were a few glimpses of sun in the western sky as evening approached. Had I known that the ballpark was such a gem, we would have made an effort to see it before 2018, despite the ever present traffic issues. Since our visit, MLB made sweeping changes to its minor league system. Besides eliminating about one-quarter of the teams, MLB changed the structure, and Aberdeen was installed as the Class A High affiliate of the Orioles. This change means that they moved up in class, and more importantly, the IronBirds will play a full schedule in 2021. Having a full-time team at Leidos Field seems more befitting of the excellent facility. If you are close to Aberdeen during the summer months, and the IronBirds are in town, we would encourage you to deal with any potential traffic problems and see one of the better minor league ballparks we have seen in our travels.
With so many baseball choices within an hour or so of where I was living in Maryland, it took until 2018 before we finally visited NYMEO Field at Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick MD. NYMEO Field is the home of the Frederick Keys, the high A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, who played in the Carolina League until 2019. From my home, NYMEO Field is about 39 miles away, and the drive varies from 45 minutes to more than an hour, depending on the game time and resulting traffic. After clearing the DC Metro area, the drive becomes scenic in spots, and as long as the evening commute can be avoided, the drive is fairly stress free.
Main parking for NYMEO Field is located in the front of the ballpark, just off Stadium Drive, and is a short walk to the main gate. This parking lot tends to fill quickly, especially during good weather before evening games. If this lot is full, there is a secondary lot behind the right field wall, which requires a walk of less than one-quarter of mile to the main entrance. Unlike most ballparks we have visited, parking at NYMEO Field is FREE, regardless of the lot used.
NYMEO Field at Harry Grove Stadium is a modular ballpark, like many we have seen in our travels. Opening in 1990, it is one of the older minor parks we have encountered, yet its appearance does not bely its age. After entering the park through the main entrance, we crossed the upper concourse, which houses most of the concession stands in the stadium, as well as the team store. Once we emerged from the upper concourse, we saw that the main seating area at NYMEO Field was comprised of two levels, extending from third base base dugout behind home plate to the first base dugout. The lower concourse separates the two seating areas, with the lower seating area sporting orange seats, and the upper seating area adorned with navy blue seats.
Beyond each dugout, there is general admission seating consisting of aluminum benches. Finally, there is a row of luxury boxes atop the park, and a press level, which is flush with the upper concourse. In total, there are about 5,400 seats at NYMEO Field, which is typical of stadiums for this level of play. Ticket prices are reasonable, and all of the seats have good sight lines. There are four concession stands in the ballpark, with a number of portable stands all offering typical fare for baseball. The Roasthouse Pub and Kitchen Creations offer more in the way of variety, and I found myself going to the latter for my concession needs at the park.
Like many minor league (MiLB) parks we have seen, there is a portion of the park devoted to younger fans. Down the right field line is the Giant Eagle Fun Zone, which offers a carousel, a bounce house and water slides during the summer months. There is a distinct family friendly feel at NYMEO Field, and we saw more kids here than most other MiLB parks, especially when compared to the Orioles AA affiliate in Bowie MD. Sunshine and humid conditions during the early late morning gave way to more in the way of clouds as we reached the park, and there was a concern that thunderstorms might become an issue as the afternoon wore on.
As is typical for Sunday afternoon games following Saturday night contests, the attendance was comparatively light, and there were many good seats available. We sat just to the left of home plate, behind the protective screen in the lower deck. By game time (which was 205 pm), clouds had taken over the skies over NYMEO Field, and I became concerned that the game might be lost to the weather. The forecast was for thunderstorms, but I was hoping against hope that we could get the game in before the skies opened up.
As we kept a collective eye to the sky, the game started on time. Frederick played host to the Buie Creek Astros, the high A affiliate of the Houston Astros. The second batter for the Astros hit a home run, and the home team found themselves behind 2-0 before coming to the plate. In the bottom of the second inning, the Keys began to claw their way back into the game as second baseman Preston Palmeiro (the son of Orioles great Raphael Palmeiro) hit a home run to make the second 2-1. Rain started to fall in the top of the third inning, with lightning not too far away. Somehow the top of third inning was completed, but shortly thereafter rain and lightning chased most fans in the upper concourse (which was covered from the elements), and play was halted.
Rain and thunder continued for more than 30 minutes at NYMEO Field, and the outlook for the game to continue in these conditions was bleak. We stood with other fans in the upper concourse, vainly hoping we could resume play. While waiting, we perused the Keys team store, which offered standard fare, and listening to the sound of the rain pelting the roof of the stadium. When it became obvious that there would be no more baseball that afternoon, we prepared to leave. Just as we were walking to the exit, the game was officially cancelled. Rather than postpone the game, it was cancelled, since we were so close to the end of the MiLB season. Our first visit to see the Keys was washed out after just two and one-half innings. Disappointed, we pulled away from the stadium. Though the sample size was small, I was impressed with the stadium and its feel, and I knew we would have to visit again.
Fortunately, the weather was much more agreeable for our next visit on April 21st, 2019, as the Keys played host to the Salem Red Sox, the high A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Partly sunny skies and seasonable temperatures made for ideal conditions to see a game, and we arrived about an hour before game time. Having seen most of NYMEO Field during our previous excursion, we did not explore the park quite as extensively. Like most MiLB parks, the outfield was ringed by wooden advertising signs (with signs stacked two or three high in places). Sitting atop the the left field advertising signs was a small but functional videoboard and a small but functional scoreboard rose above the wall in right field. A smaller scoreboard and videoboard suited the ballpark nicely, functional and certainly unobtrusive.
Bullpens for the home and visiting teams were located about halfway down the foul lines, and like most MiLB parks, the bullpens were in foul territory. Because of the angling of the field, the seating area for each bullpen placed them in precarious positions for line drive foul balls. We found that pitchers did not occupy this area unless they were warming up to come into the game. More sunshine gave us a better feel for the ballpark, and increased my appreciation for it. In fact, I wished that it was located in Bowie (closer to where I live), since it seemed to be a much better facility than the one I frequented during the summer.
Visiting again on a Sunday, the crowd was fairly small, though the nice spring weather certainly wasn’t a deterrent. Because of the thin attendance, we sat in the first row directly behind the third base dugout, giving us a great view of the action. Unlike our previous visit, we were treated to a full game. Though the crowd was spread out across the seating area, they were enthusiastic. We learned that when the Keys were rallying, fans shook their keys (in addition to cheering), which seemed appropriate. To get a better feel for the atmosphere of NYMEO Field, you check out a video clip here.
The level of play in the Carolina League is better than the lower levels, but not nearly as polished as you would expect to see in MLB stadiums. At this level, hitting is usually better than the pitching, as the young arms are still developing. Talent on the field is unmistakable, but players are still, in some cases, working on fundamentals. The experience level in the Carolina League can be wide, as players as young as 18 years of age compete against former college players climbing the ladder through their respective systems. Keeping that in mind, baseball in the MiLB can be more fun than the MLB, watching players that you might see in MLB uniforms in the near future, in a much more intimate setting.
On this day, we saw a relatively well-played game, with fewer walks than typical for high A baseball, and the hometown Keys squeezed out a 4-2 victory. While NYMEO Field at Harry Grove Stadium is a modular stadium that resembles many MiLB parks we have seen, there is an family friendly atmosphere, which results in a pleasant baseball experience. A downsizing plan by MLB threatened to eliminate the Frederick Keys , as MiLB was slated to contract from 160 teams to 120 across the United States after the 2020 season. Given the cancelled season due to the pandemic, there was a distinct possibility that the Keys fans would have been robbed of the chance to say a proper goodbye to their team.
Fortunately, the Frederick franchise was spared the ignominy of oblivion, as they were chosen to host one of the teams of the MLB Draft League. The new league, featuring top prospects eligible to be drafted, will debut in 2021. Though the level of play may not as high as the Keys fans have come to expect, I would encourage you, if given the opportunity, to see a game at NYMEO Field.
Since the list of MLB stadiums to visit was becoming increasingly small, we decided to branch out and start visiting minor league (MiLB) stadiums. At first, the radius for visiting MiLB ballparks was limited to places within a three or four hour drive from central NJ. Being avid Mets fans, we set our sights on Binghamton, NY, the home of the Mets AA affiliate. Our first visit occurred in August of 2014, and rather than make it a day trip, we planned our weekend trip to cover the last two games of a three game set with the Akron RubberDucks. The drive from central NJ to NYSEG Stadium, the home of the Mets AA affiliate, was fairly easy, taking about three hours following a mostly interstate route.
After checking into our hotel, we headed out toward the ballpark ahead of a 705 pm game start. NYSEG Stadium is located in the southern part of Binghamton, nestled between the Chenango River to the west and the Susquehanna River to the southeast, about a mile from our hotel. Arriving an hour before game time, we parked in a private lot across from the stadium on Henry Street. With the businesses apparently closed for the day, parking here was plentiful, and the price was certainly right (a mere $5). This was not our only option, but it appeared first as we approached the stadium. There is a Binghamton team-run lot behind the right field wall of NYSEG Stadium (which is closed on Fireworks Nights). Parking there is also $5, and the walk to the ballpark is only a little bit longer than the private lots just across the street.
Located in a mainly residential area, there is not much in the way of activities or places to eat in the immediate vicinity of the park. As a consequence, our normal tour of the outside of a new ballpark was fairly short, and we entered the stadium through the home plate entrance.
NYSEG Stadium is a modular ballpark whose appearance is similar to the majority of the modular MiLB parks we have seen in our travels. There are two decks of seats extending from just beyond the third base line extending behind home plate to just beyond the first base dugout. The lower deck stretches from the main concourse down to the first seven to 10 rows, and the second deck rises up from the concourse to near the apex of the park. Atop the seating area are luxury boxes and the press level, which are covered by a small roof (as is the top of the second seating deck behind home plate). In total, NYSEG Stadium hold about 6,000 fans, which is on par with other AA stadiums.
Like most MiLB parks, wooden advertising signs span the outfield walls, and there is a relatively small video board/scoreboard in right center field. The layout of the video board/scoreboard is vaguely reminiscent of the old Shea Stadium scoreboard, and perhaps the likeness was intentional, as the Mets are the parent club. Overall, the ballpark itself seemed unassuming. It was surprising to learn that NYSEG Stadium opened in 1992, because in some respects the ballpark seems older. This was especially true of the park’s inner concourse, where the bulk of the concessions are located. After walking around the inside of the park (which is typical for a first visit), we obtained a baseball dinner and headed toward our seats.
Akron had been playing well for much of the season, and seemed to be a lock for a playoff spot. However, leading up the series with the Mets, they had been playing uneven baseball, allowing Binghamton to move to within striking distance of the RubberDucks for a playoff spot. Starting for the Mets that night was 26 year old righthander Greg Peavey. Leading the Binghamton staff in wins and ERA during the 2014 campaign, Peavy pitched well enough to keeping the suddenly struggling RubberDucks down for much of the game, with the Mets beating Akron 5-2.
In the Mets’ portion of the sixth inning, we saw something I had never seen before in person. With runners on first and second, a line drive off the bat of Mets second baseman Dilson Herrera was nabbed in right field on a great catch by the RubberDucks’ Jordan Smith. The Mets runners were on the move, thinking the ball would find a gap in the outfield, and both runners were unable to return to their bases after the catch, resulting in the first triple play I’d seen live. Later in the game, when RubberDucks manager Dave Wallace made a pitching change, we were close enough to see the desperation in eyes, as though he was witnessing the season slipping away. When the Mets pitching coach Glenn Abbott questioned a procedural error by Wallace, we could hear him say ” What the f**k? Just let it go!”
Following the game, we headed across the street to retrieve our car and head back to the hotel for the night. My first impression of the stadium was that is was fairly non descript, and that the crowd was tiny (far less than the announced attendance of 3,800) for a team that was fighting for a playoff spot. We would get a much better look at NYSEG Stadium during the Sunday matinee, the third and last contest of the three game set. Not surprisingly, the streets in Binghamton were nearly deserted as we made out way back for a good night’s sleep after a long day of travel.
We had some time on our hands on a bright sunny Sunday morning after breakfast at the hotel, so we walked along the the Chenango River (which runs alongside the Holiday Inn in Binghamton). We then walked the streets of Binghamton on the warm and dry morning. It was obvious that the city had seen better times, and Binghamton was beginning to show its age. With that said, I was impressed by some of the architecture of the city. There were hints of Art Deco, Neoclassic design and even some Modernism in the churches and government buildings, some of which were built during the Great Depression. Never having been here before, I had no idea what to expect, but I was impressed with the part of the city we explored before heading out to the ballpark.
Once again we arrived about an hour before game time, and we were able to secure parking across the street in a private lot. We wandered around the park a bit more than the night before, and discovered that there were some souvenir stands near the right field foul line, as well as some games for the kids. As is often the case for a Sunday afternoon game following a Saturday night game, the crowd promised to be fairly thin, despite wall to wall sunshine, pleasant temperatures and low humidity. Our seats for this game were very good, near the front row of the lower section just behind first base. From that vantage point, we were treated to a good view of the beautiful hills to the northwest of the ballpark, and the train track lying just behind the left field fence.
Part of the attraction of coming to Binghamton (along with seeing the ballpark) was seeing rising stars in the Mets minor league system up close and personal in their home setting. Fortunately for us, much heralded left handed starter Steven Matz was on the mound for Binghamton, and our seats gave a great look at someone who would be a member of the 2015 National League Champion New York Mets. Matz was impressive in the start, lasting five innings, and allowing no runs on three hits with six strikeouts. Akron struggled against Matz and a trio of relievers, as the Mets took the last game of the series 5-0.
With the win, the Binghamton Mets edged closer to an Eastern League playoff spot. This team loaded with young talent that would at least make an appearance with the parent club in the near future, and would ultimately win the 2014 league championship. As we were leaving for our three hour trip home, I reflected on what we had seen. Because NYSEG Stadium did not have any single outstanding attribute, I felt as though the ballpark took a back seat to the Mets AA team. Having seen the park and the city of Binghamton, I felt as though we had seen all there was to see there, and did not anticipate a return visit.
First visit: exact date unknown, probably in spring of 2001
Most recent visit: Saturday, June 8 2019
Growing up on the Jersey shore in the 1970s and 1980s, we did not have any local baseball. Our nearest ballpark was Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. During most of that time, the nearby MLB parks were difficult to reach, so we did not go to many live professional games until the mid 1980s. While we were aware of the minor leagues, we did not have any local minor league teams close to us. Had there been a local minor league team, we would have spent quite a bit of time at the ballpark, as thirsty as we were for live professional baseball. That would have been like a dream to avid baseball fans across central NJ.
Fast forward to 2001, when FirstEnergy Park, home of the Lakewood Blue Claws (the low A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies) opened. If you are not familiar with Lakewood, NJ, you are far from alone. Lakewood is a town in central NJ, about 15 miles from the shore, lying on the northern edge of the NJ Pine Barrens. Lakewood is about a 20 minute drive from where we grew up, and is easily accessible via the Garden State Parkway and US Route 1. The stadium is just a few minutes from either of these thoroughfares, and is not difficult to find the park using any of the standard apps. Parking is plentiful in front of the ballpark, and price for parking is very reasonable at $5.00 (paying attendants before entering the ballpark property). Depending on the crowd for the game, even the furthest most parking spots are just a few minutes walk to the home plate entrance.
FirstEnergy Park is a modular stadium, featuring a single deck of seats extending from just past third base behind home plate to just behind first base. Between the seats in left and right field and the walls, there are picnic areas, which tend to host families and groups of people in a more informal seating arrangement. A row of luxury seats sit atop the stadium, extending from dugout to dugout. All told, these areas hold about 6,600 fans, which is large for a ballpark featuring low A baseball. Beyond both the left and right field walls lie grass covered berms, which can accommodate another 1,440 fans, for a total capacity of 8,000. Again, this total is very high for a lower level minor league club, and would be more befitting of a AA team.
Unlike most minor league stadiums, the outfield is open, showing groves of pine trees, especially in left field, accentuating the suburban feel of FirstEnergy Park. In keeping with the “Jersey Shore” theme (though the park is about 15 miles from the nearest beach), there are lifeguard chairs at the top of the berms in left and right field. Finally, a nice video board (for the level of play) sits in left centerfield, between the berm and the batter’s eye. Food and drink at FirstEnergy Park is mostly generic, with standard offerings at the concession areas located on the main concourse above the seating area at reasonable prices. While the Biergarten in left field offers more exotic beer and alcohol choices, the cuisine in the remainder of the park is what you might expect.
FirstEnergy Park has a laid back feel to it, which fits the surroundings quite well. Not surprisingly, the Blue Claws draw fairly well, averaging about 5,350 fans per game, which is close to the top of the South Atlantic League. Though the date of our first visit to the park is unclear, it was in the spring of 2001. Weather in spring across central NJ (especially near the shore) can be fickle, with as many days of cool, drizzly condition as sunshine, and my memory of our first visit was the former. On those days, attendance can be quite low; in fact, it is possible to hear the players talking to each other when the weather is dank. During the summer months, hot and humid conditions can occasionally be modified by an afternoon sea breeze, which helps keep thunderstorms in the western part of NJ at bay.
Since Lakewood is a member of a league of younger, inexperienced players, the level of play is NOT the highest caliber in the minor leagues. Players are generally in their early 20s, but some are teens from other countries, and sometimes the level of play reflects that. However, there is talent in the league, and it often the second stop through the organization for players that you may see again in MLB. In fact, both Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels played in Lakewood on their way to MLB super stardom. If you understand that going into the event, baseball at FirstEnergy Park is fun in a relaxed environment.
Though very rare, it is possible to see MLB players on rehab assignments at FirstEnergy Park. Most likely, Phillies players working their way back from injury would play a few games here before returning to the major league club. However, my brother did get to see the next best thing. Tim Tebow, chasing his baseball dreams, played for the Columbia Fireflies in 2017. When the Fireflies came to Lakewood, the games were very well intended (as you might expect). Getting a glimpse of a sensation like Tebow in this intimate environment is impossible in larger venues like MLB, and access here is unparalleled. From a fan perspective, places like FirstEnergy park offer the best game experience for the money, and is ideal for families and large groups.
As part of the minor league realignment mandated by MLB, the Blue Claws were assigned to the new Mid Atlantic League for the 2021 season. Lakewood becomes the Jersey Shore Blue Claws, and moves up to A ball, which means more seasoned players and crisper overall play. There are other things to do and see when visiting central NJ and the Jersey shore, but if you are a diehard baseball fan, do you best to see FirstEnergy Park. It is a first class facility that is worthy of your time and effort.
First visit: exact date unknown, probably during the 2011 season
Most recent visit: August 18, 2018
Following a job change that took me from southern Maine (where I saw the Portland Sea Dogs at Hadlock Field) to southern New Jersey in 2010, I found that I had landed in an area that was teeming with baseball. The Philadelphia Phillies were 30 minutes away, and two minor league teams were within 45 minutes or so (the Trenton Thunder, the AA affiliate of the New York Yankees, and the Lakewood Blue Claws, the low A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies). Since my brother lives closer to Trenton, I chose to make the Trenton Thunder my new favorite minor league team.
Trenton plays their games at Arm&Hammer Park. Opening behind schedule in 1994 (as cold and snow the previous winter hampered construction efforts), the stadium was part of a larger complex containing office buildings and a night club, known as the Mercer County Waterfront Park. Though the ballpark is technically within Trenton city limits, it is located on the southern edge, away from the influence of downtown. Its location (just off Route 29, on Thunder Road) makes ingress and egress much easier than if the stadium was located downtown.
Parking at Arm&Hammer Park is fairly straightforward. After entering the complex, the first parking area encountered is a surface lot to the right. Most times, these spaces are unavailable to baseball fans, as they are either occupied by state employees working at the complex, or by fans with mobility issues. Just down the street from the surface lot is a three-tiered parking deck, which most times offers an orderly exit after games. However, we have learned through bitter experience that most people don’t know how to exit a parking deck, and that fact can add a considerable amount of time when trying to leave the complex. Parking is a very reasonable $5.00, and the walk from the deck to the stadium is about one-quarter of a mile or so.
As the name of the complex implies, Arm&Hammer Park lies along the Delaware River, which divides New Jersey from Pennsylvania. Before games, we occasionally walk along a path paralleling the river, a stark contrast to the urban area not too far away, and a view most people outside of the area would not expect to see in New Jersey. There are three entrances into the ballpark (each of which has a not inconsequential set of concrete stairs to navigate): one adjacent to the river walk on the first base side, behind home plate and behind third base. Arm&Hammer Park has two seating decks that extend from just beyond third base behind home plate to just beyond third base, as well as suites near the top of the stadium, bringing to the capacity of 6,150 (which is typical of a AA ballpark). Bullpens are located along the left field line (visitor) and the right field line (Thunder), and the outfield is nearly ringed by wooden advertising signs located above and just behind the outfield wall.
While Arm&Hammer Park is a fairly typical minor league ballpark, it does possess what might be the largest video board in the minors. Located in right centerfield, the size and resolution of the video board is more reminiscent of a Triple A ballpark. Being an affiliate of New York Yankees probably factored into the decision to place such a large video board in the ballpark, and it is the most prominent feature of the stadium. Just to the right of the video board, the outfield wall is low enough to allow home runs to leave the park and head toward the river. Actually, it IS possible to hit a fair ball down the right field line that can land in the Delaware River. Though I am not sure it has been done, it might be possible to hit a home run far enough across the river to have the ball land in the Pennsylvania portion of the river.
Arm&Hammer Park offers the standard fare when it comes to concessions, though there are a couple of places worth noting. My favorite is Chickie’s & Pete’s, located on the main concourse on the first base side. Chickie’s & Pete’s serves crab house food, and I rarely pass up the opportunity to indulge in a cup of crab fires (large French fries covered with Old Bay seasoning). They also offer excellent cheese steaks, brats and hot dogs, which are cooked to order. On the third base side is Boomer’s BBQ, which, as the name implies, offers an array of barbeque meals. Personally, I do not frequent this place as often, but when I do, I usually get the chicken sandwich. Most times, though, I elect to get a baseball lunch or dinner (which generally includes hot dogs) before heading to our seats.
When attending a Thunder game, you definitely want to be in your seats for the bottom of the first inning. During that half of the frame, after each Thunder hitter discards of his bat, the Thunder bat dog retrieves it. Currently, the bat dog is Rookie, but he was preceded by Chase and Derby in the recent past. While Rookie sometimes has difficulty grabbing the bat in his mouth to bring back to the dugout, he is successful most of the time, to the delight of the crowd. After the end of the first inning, Rookie returns to the clubhouse, his task for the day completed. As a side note, when the Thunder played the Bowie Baysox for the Eastern League championship in 2019, Rookie made the trip to Maryland, retrieving bats in the first inning. Probably because he was in a new environment, rather than retrieve the bat after a Thunder player walked, Rookie instead followed the player to first base. Murmurs permeated the air when Rookie did his thing, and the Baysox faithful were enamored with the visitor.
One of the biggest perks of seeing Thunder games is the potential to see MLB players on rehabilitation stints. Being a Yankees affiliate, many past and present Yankees have made appearances at Arm&Hammer Park, and more than 9,000 fans were present when Derek Jeter did his rehab assignment during the Fourth of July weekend in 2011. In 2013, when Alex Rodriguez appeared with the Thunder, Trenton drew in excess of 8,000 fans for each of his two games there. More recently, perennial fan favorite Curtis Granderson made an appearance.
In addition to rehab appearances, my brother (who goes to many more Thunder games than me) and I have seen many current Yankees as they came up through the minor league system. Since the Mets AA affiliate Binghamton Rumble Ponies are in the same division of the Eastern League as the Thunder, they come to Arm&Hammer Park a couple of times a year. My brother and I do our best to wrap our plans around these times, and that allows us to see future Mets up close. In the past, we have seen Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard on the mound, as well as many position players (like Michael Conforto and Ahmed Rosario) on the field in Trenton. There is something satisfying about seeing future stars in the MLB in such an intimate setting, before they become household names. We were fortunate enough to see Michael Conforto play in Trenton before making the jump to the New York Mets the next day in July 2015.
Being such a big Mets fan, my best memories of Arm&Hammer Park are tied to visits by the Binghamton Mets/Rumble Ponies. Perhaps the most vivid memory occurred on Friday July 24, 2015. We had just finished a tour of New England minor league ballpark in time to attend all of the four games of the weekend series between the Mets and the Thunder. On that night, Robert Gsellman started for the Mets, pitching seven and one-third innings of one run ball. The run Gsellman allowed tied the game at 1-1, and eventually the game went into extra innings. Trading scoreless innings, the Mets finally pushed across a run in the top of the 17th inning, defeating the Thunder 2-1.
A total of 13 pitchers were used that night (seven by the Mets and six by the Thunder), and the Thunder sent two position players to the mound (DH Taylor Dugas and 2B Danny Oh) for the 17th inning. Dugas allowed a run in the top of the frame before recording an out, and Oh mopped up, allowing no runs and no hits. The 17 inning game (the longest I have ever seen personally) took four and one-half hours to complete, and we left the ballpark just short of midnight. Fatigue from the road trip, combined with the long game that night, made me grateful we weren’t far from my brother’s home.
Arm&Hammer Park also hosted the only professional no-hitter I have seen in person, as the Binghamton took on Trenton in an Eastern League playoff game on September 9th, 2017. After the Thunder took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning, Rumble Ponies catcher Tomas Nido reached on a ground ball to third baseman Dante Bichette Jr in the top of the second. Initially, the play was ruled an infield single. Trenton left hander Dustin Sheffield then shut the Rumble Ponies down in a short but dominant performance.
In the sixth inning, a nearby fan asked me about the scoring of the hit by Nido, since I was keeping score of the game. When I told him about the hit, he directed my attention to the scoreboard. At some point, the official scorer changed the hit to an error, and suddenly we were witnessing a possible a no-hitter. Once the change was recognized by the crowd, there was an audible response at the prospect of seeing a no-hitter. Sheffield was lifted from the game after four innings (before the hit was changed to an error), and Taylor Widener threw five hitless innings to complete the no hitter. Because the scoring change occurred so late in the game, there was not the anticipation in the crowd that might have been expected to seeing a no-hitter, which was disappointing as a fan.
Though Arm&Hammer Park is a typical AA facility, it has grown on me over the years. Being able to see future Yankees (and occasionally future Mets when Binghamton visit) in such an intimate setting is enjoyable, and my experience in parks just like this has raised my appreciation of the minor league game over the MLB product. However, a disturbing change brought about by the New York Yankees organization has stripped the park of its association with the team. Instead, the Trenton Thunder will play the 2021 season as a founding member of the MLB Draft League. Even with the change, if you find yourself near Trenton NJ on a summer day, check to see if the Thunder are playing. You will be glad you did.
Due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, it was determined that the Toronto Blue Jays could not play their home games to start the 2021 MLB season. As they did in 2020, the Blue Jays would play their 2021 home games at Sahlen Field in Buffalo NY. Home to their AAA affiliate (the Buffalo Bisons), suddenly Sahlen Field would NOT be available for the Bisons 2021 campaign.
Numerous press reports indicated that there was something of a scramble to find a home for the Bisons. Eventually, MiLB decided on Arm&Hammer Park in Trenton. Having lost their primary tenants to Somerset, the stadium was available for use. To my surprise, the Bisons would play in Trenton as the Thunder (the previous name of the franchise). Since the decision to place the Buffalo team in Trenton occurred quickly (and without much fanfare), it was not clear how many baseball fans knew about the relocation of the Bisons to Arm&Hammer Field.
My first visit to the see the new Trenton Thunder occurred on Saturday, May 8th 2021, as they hosted the Worcester Red Sox (the AAA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox) on a rainy and cool night. In accordance with New Jersey’s COVID-19 protocol, fans were seated in “pods” (groups of fans surrounded by empty seats), which ensured proper social distancing. To their credit, the fans followed the guidelines set forth by the Thunder and MiLB, and because of the guidelines, attendance was limited to about 25 percent capacity for the game. For the most part, there was not much different about the park, despite the new occupants taking residence with little notice.
It was strange to see the Trenton Thunder in action again at Arm&Hammer Field, this time as a AAA affiliate. Occasional rain during the first part of the contest put a damper on the evening, but since this was my first live baseball game in nearly 20 months, the weather was hardly a concern. Because of the pandemic, there were small but noticeable differences at the ballpark. First and foremost was the absence of Rookie, the Thunder bat dog. Rookie normally retrieves bats for the Thunder half of the first (to the great delight of the home fans), but he did not dispatch his primary duty this evening. Also, there were no bat boys/girls. This meant players had to retrieve bats near home plate, secure foul balls on the field, as well as keep the home plate umpire’s ball supply up to date. There were no on field games for fans between innings, a family favorite at minor league baseball parks.
Though the teams were now AAA, the level of play overall seemed a step down from the AA baseball we had seen at Arm&Hammer Park in the past. Despite scoring eight runs on 14 hits, the Worcester Red Sox struck out 18 times during the Saturday night game. Clearly the obsession with launch angle and hitting home runs has trickled its way down in the minor leagues. In addition, play in the field was not as crisp as it should be at this level, which was even more apparent during the Sunday afternoon game. Granted, the weather was inclement, and could have been a proximate cause for the sloppier than usual fielding, but I was surprised by what appeared to be a lack of concentration on defense. Even with the perceived deficiencies in the play, I was VERY happy to have live baseball back!
For now, it appears as though the team will play its home games in Trenton as the Thunder for the balance of the 2021 season. However, this is contingent on whether the government in Ontario continues to ban the Blue Jays from their home. Should that decision change, it is possible that the Thunder become the Bisons again in Buffalo later in the season. If you are a baseball fan near Trenton NJ, I would encourage you to catch a Thunder game while they are in Arm&Hammer Park. From my perspective, this is bonus baseball at a level just below MLB.