Atlanta, GA Saturday August 13th 2011

Downtown Atlanta, GA. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Following a long but uneventful drive from south Jersey to Atlanta on Friday (with us dodging thunderstorms from the DC area through South Carolina), we settled into our hotel in suburban Atlanta. We arrived too late to catch the Braves’ Friday night game vs the Chicago Cubs, but we expected that would occur, following a 13 hour drive.

Google Map depiction of our drive from NJ to Atlanta, GA.

1. Downtown Atlanta

After breakfast at our hotel, we decided to explore downtown Atlanta. Never having been to Atlanta (other than changing planes at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport), I wasn’t sure what to expect. For some reason, I believed that Atlanta was a jewel of the South, perhaps fostered by descriptions of the city from more than 100 years ago.

What I found, however, was something altogether different. Downtown Atlanta was in fact an urban area, much like any urban area in the US. Once we found parking, we walked around the Centennial Park area. It was a sun splashed and warm morning, not as humid as expected, making our walk more comfortable than anticipated.

Centennial Park, Atlanta GA.

While walking through the park, we were approached by a group of young men. They were obviously attempting to intimidate us, momentarily blocking our way. One of the young men gave my digital camera a long look, as though it was something he might want to take from me. Being from New Jersey, we simply ignored them, and they moved on. Any illusion I might have had of Atlanta being a jewel of the South was shattered in that moment.

Annoyed but undaunted, we continued to explored the park. Views from the park included the CNN Building and the Georgia Aquarium. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Georgia Aquarium is one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Having seen aquariums across the country, I didn’t believe this one was better than the others I’ve seen, and didn’t give much thought to visiting. After learning more about it, I wish I had stopped in for a look.

The Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta, GA.

Our next stop was the Underground City section of downtown Atlanta. Originally designed during the 19th century as a depot for bustling train traffic, the Underground City opened in what would be its new form in the late 1960s, becoming more of a center for shops and restaurants. For years, I’d heard of the Underground City, but visiting it showed us that it was little more than a sprawling mall, not unlike we’ve all seen in our own cities. Following a cursory visit, we exited to find some lunch.

The Underground City in Atlanta, GA.

After lunch near the Underground City, we continued to explore Centennial Park. Eventually, the heat and increasing humidity wore me down, and the tour of downtown Atlanta was cut short. My opinion of Atlanta was lowered during our short visit. In fairness to the city, we covered a very small portion of Atlanta, and probably did not represent the area as a whole. It was not my intention to denigrate the city; I simply reported what I saw.

“This is CNN”.

2. Turner Field

Prior to the scheduled 715 pm start of the Cubs/Braves game, there was a softball game commemorating the 1991 Braves squad. The celebration drew a large crowd to Turner Field that evening, resulting in parking adjacent to the park filling before we arrived. We were directed to a satellite parking lot a few blocks from the stadium. Quickly we discovered that the neighborhood surrounding the park was not so nice, though we didn’t feel particularly unsafe, as we were walking with a large group of people toward the stadium. However, we later learned that someone was shot in that very parking lot shortly after we left it.

A softball game between the 1991 Atlanta Braves and a team of legends at Turner Field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Even though we arrived at the ballpark well ahead of the first pitch, we didn’t have much time to explore the park before the beginning of the softball game. The game pitted members of the 1991 Atlanta Braves (the first Atlanta baseball team to get to the World Series) against a team of “legends”. As might be expected, there were a number of players from the 1991 team on the field, with some playing and other simply there to join in the celebration.

On the field, John Smoltz hit a two run home run and made an over the should catch in support of a 7-7 time against a team of “legends” from that time frame. The 1991 Braves were managed by Bobby Cox, and there was a pre game video tribute to Ernie Johnson, a long time Braves’ TV and radio broadcaster, who passed the night before. Not surprisingly, the length of the softball games, as well as the preparation of the field, resulted in the MLB game starting late.

Celebration of the 1991 Braves. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

At first look, Turner Field appeared to be a typical MLB stadium. Originally built for the 1996 Olympics, the stadium was converted for use as a baseball stadium in time for the 1997 season. Turner Field had three decks from foul line to foul line, resulting in a capacity of 50,000. The entire lower concourse was continuous, allowing us to take pictures during our brief walk.

Given our time constraints, we located the nearest concession stand to pick up food and drinks, then headed out to find our seats. Despite a nearly packed house, we were able to secure fairly good seats for the Saturday night contest. The hot and humid afternoon was transitioning into a warm and muggy evening with light winds; in other words, a typical August night in Atlanta.

The view from our seats. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The night’s pitching matchup featured Randy Wells starting for the visiting Cubs, with veteran Derek Lowe starting for the hometown Braves. Lowe was struggling through a brutal 2011 campaign, sporting a 5.05 ERA and on pace to lead the NL in losses. Wells’ season was mediocre at best, and would be out of the MLB in less that two seasons.

Considering the quality of the starting pitching, we expected a high scoring affair, especially in the heat, which fosters an environment in which the ball carries. However, we were pleasantly surprised that the score was 1-1 entering the top of the fifth inning. The Cubs scored three runs off Lowe in that frame, who then surrendered two more in the top of the sixth to end his night.

Starling Castro on first after a single. Castro has four hits in five at bats in this game. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Meanwhile, Randy Wells was effective, tossing six innings arms leaving on the long side of a 5-2 score. The Cubs tacked on three runs in the tops of the eight to seal the victory. The lone bright spot for the Braves was Chipper Jones, who has three hits in four at bats.

Many of the 49,000+ in attendance stayed for most of the game, which resulted in a slow exit from the ballpark. Though we didn’t get much of a chance to explore Turner Field this evening, my initial impression was that it was a typical MLB ballpark with no frills or extras. We would get a better look at the ballpark the next afternoon.

Good night from Turner Field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Atlanta, GA Sunday August 14th 2011

Turner Field, Atlanta GA. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Having seen as much as Atlanta was we expected on Saturday, we hung out at the hotel after breakfast until it was time to go to the game. A 135 pm start meant that the gates opened after 1135 am, and we arrived at about that time. An early arrival allowed us to get a parking spot onsite. Considering what happened the night before at an offsite parking lot, we were happy to pay a bit more to park closer to the stadium.

Another hot day was in the offing in Atlanta, but a breeze helped keep the humidity at tolerable levels. Less humidity equaled a more pleasant experience as we walked around the ballpark, taking in what we missed the night before. One of our first stops was the place where Hank Aaron’s 715th home run landed in the previous Atlanta ballpark, Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.

The location of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, located in the parking lot of Turner Field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Old enough to remember the event, I saw the home run live on Monday Night Baseball (a staple of the NBC sports schedule in the 1970s). Seeing the location for myself brought the moment back as if it just occurred. It was heartening that the Braves and MLB had the foresight to maintain the historic site.

Just outside Turner Field were a number of statues commemorating various legendary Braves. Hammerin’ Hank, Phil Niekro, and Warren Spahn stood outside the ballpark, immortalized in bronze at entrance gates around the park.

Hammerin’ Hank outside of Turner Field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

After walking around the ballpark for about 30 minutes, we decided to go inside to get a better look at the park in the day time. As we found yesterday, the lower level concourse of Turner Field was continuous, which allowed to take pictures of the entire ballpark. A better look at the park reinforced my original impression; Turner Field was a typical MLB stadium. Built originally as an Olympic venue, by today’s standards the seating capacity is huge (nearly 50,000). Almost by definition, a stadium with that capacity cannot have the same intimacy of some of the smaller ballparks built within the past 20 years. The seating area is also more recessed that most newer parks, which made sitting in the lower levels seem further away.

Turner Field from the upper deck, with downtown Atlanta in the distance. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Ducking back into the concourse to escape the heat, we stumbled upon the Braves Hall of Fame museum. Located on the field field side behind the foul pole, the Ivan Allen Jr. Braves Museum and Hall of Fame displayed memorabilia celebrating Braves teams from Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta. The Braves Hall of Fame is oriented linearly, which could result in a crowded visit with a large fan presence in the stadium. Fortunately for us, there were not many fans in the Hall while we visited.

Team photo from 1974, the year Hank Aaron broke Bath Ruth’s home run record. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Before heading to our seats, we sought out a ballpark lunch. The Braves Chop House, located in right center field, offered causal dining within the ballpark. Not what we were looking for, we instead stopped at one of the many concession stands for hot dogs, popcorn and cold drinks for the upcoming hot afternoon.

As is typical at most ballparks (both MLB and MiLB), the Sunday afternoon crowd was smaller than the previous Saturday night. This allowed us to obtain better seats than the night before, in the lower level just behind the Braves dugout. Better seats meant we were splashed in sunshine. Temperatures in the lower 90s were tempered to some degree by a refreshing breeze, as we settled in for an afternoon of baseball.

The view from our seats. (Photo credit:Jeff Hayes)

The matinee’s pitching matchup featured Matt Garza for the Cubs (in his first season with Chicago) going up against Brandon Beachy for the hometown Braves. Beachy, a hard throwing right hander, was making the catcher’s glove pop this afternoon. His stuff was electric for this contest, and I was impressed by how easily his delivery seemed while throwing the ball near 100 mph at times. In 5 1/3 innings of work, he surrendered two runs on six hits, striking out seven and did not walk a batter.

This outing was typical of his 2011 season, during which he stuck 169 batter in 142 innings. However, after developing arm trouble during the 2012 season, Beachy tore his UCL, requiring surgery to repair it. After returning to Braves, it was determined he would need a second elbow surgery, and has not appeared in MLB since 2015.

Brandon Beachy delivering a pitch at a Turner Field on August 14th, 2011. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

In contrast, Matt Garza struggled for the Cubs, allowing four runs in five innings. The Cubs touched up Beachy for two runs in the top of the sixth inning, chasing him from the game. Braves relievers surrendered two more runs in that frame, as the Cubs tied the game at 4. The Braves took the lead in the bottom of the sixth, after which time the game became a battle of the bullpens.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez on the mound for a pitching change in the top of the sixth inning. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Most of the time, I barely take notice of fans near me at ballgames, as I am typically lost in the game itself. Today, however, was very different. A family of four, sitting across the aisle, caught my attention on more than one occasion. The young man had difficulty sitting still, which is in itself not unusual for kids at ballgames. His behavior suggested that he was used to getting his way, and his parents appeared to capitulate, taking the path of least resistance.

During one of the between innings events, Braves employees shot t shirts into the crowd, and one of the shirts landed in the lap of a woman in front of us. The young man, not having received a t shirt, melted down. The father, clearly frustrated by his son’s behavior, offered the woman cash for the shirt. She acquiesced, and the young man was mollified by the shirt. While this seems like a story hardly worth retelling, it struck me as a father simply reinforcing his son’s bad behavior.

The Chick-fil-A cow donning a Braves cap. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Returning to the action, the Cubs scored two runs in the top of the seventh to take a 6-5 lead, which the Cubs’ bullpen made hold up for the victory. Filing out of the stadium, I took one last look at the ballpark. The stadium itself was adequate, with few of the frills of most MLB parks (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Turner Field was a comfortable place to see a game, but the neighborhood surrounding made the experience less enjoyable. It was clear why the Braves wanted to move from this place, and they would get their wish six years later, moving to nearby Cobb County.

Goodbye Turner Field! (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Minneapolis, MN Thursday September 22nd, 2011

Looking at home plate from right center field at Target Field as the sun broke through the clouds.

Following a late night at Target Field the night before, we had breakfast at the Denny’s adjacent to our hotel, then relaxed until it was time to leave for the ballpark. Game time was 1210 pm, leaving little time to do much before arriving at the park as the gates opened.

We got a good look at Target Field during a cloudy evening, but hoped for a better look during the day. Unfortunately, the morning dawned cloudy, and remained so as we caught the Metro Blue Line from the Mall of America (which was adjacent to our hotel). Temperatures in the 40s reminded us that we were indeed in Minnesota in late September, which is a fall month this far north.

Our trip to Target Field via light rail took us past the old home of the Twins, the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome.

The trip took about 40 minutes, seemingly slow for the distance covered. That being said, the trip was pleasant, unlike mass transit we have seen in others cities. The Metro dropped us off right in front of Target Field, forgoing the need to drive and park at the stadium. There were few people milling around as the gates opened, suggesting that the game might be lightly attended, as the season was winding down for a team that wasn’t playing very well.

There was a distinct nip in the air at Target Field as we wandered throughout the seating areas. A gusty wind and temperatures struggling to reach 50 degrees was very different from the 80s and humidity we had been experiencing back home. In the light of day, we discovered that Target Field was quite photogenic, blunted only by the low clouds hanging over the city.

View of Target Field from the upper deck behind home plate. The sun lost its battle with the clouds for this picture.

Fans passed through the turnstiles as the stadium starting waking from its early autumn slumber. After encircling the stadium taking pictures, we hit the concession stand on the lower level for hot chocolate and hot dogs, which served as our lunch. Because the Twins were playing sub .500 baseball, tickets for the matinee with the Seattle Mariners were plentiful. As result, we obtained possibly the best seats we’ve ever had at an MLB game.

Our seats for the game, which offered a view of downtown Minneapolis.

The amazing seats gave us access we normally only get at minor league games. Our proximity to the field, as well as the sparse crowd, allowed us to hear chatter on the field. That is something we’ve never experienced in an MLB stadium. The announced crowd for the game was 37,000+, which was laughable. At most, there were 7500 souls in the park braving the early afternoon chill by the time the first pitch was thrown.

Leading off for the Mariners was Ichiro Suzuki. We’ve seen him a few times during our baseball travels, but never this close. Even among the Twins faithful, Ichiro was a fan favorite, receiving scattered applause as his name was announced. Ichiro was 3 for 9 in the two games we saw at Target Field, but each at bat was a thing of beauty from one of the best hitters in my lifetime.

Ichiro Suzuki at bat against the Twins at Target Field on September 22nd, 2011.

The pitching matchup for the final game of the series featured Anthony Swarzak for the Twins and Blake Beaven for the Mariners. Both starters were in their first full season with their teams, and each had a fairly mediocre campaign. The matchup seemed to be fitting for teams that were simply playing out their 2011 schedules, with little left to accomplish save evaluating young talent for the future.

The sun made a brief appearance shortly after we arrived at Target Field, but since that time the sky maintained a slate gray overcast, ensuring little warming during the game. The Mariners scored single runs in the first and second innings to take an early lead. The Twins tied it up with runs in the third and fifth innings. Despite the starters having little MLB experience, they each performed admirably.

Mariners starter Blake Beaven delivers a pitch at Target Field.

Breaks in the clouds after the fifth inning allowed a few rays of sun to sneak through, giving us a better view of downtown Minneapolis over the right field wall. Though there wasn’t enough sunshine to warm the air much, just seeing it through the overcast seemed to modify the fall chill firmly entrenched over the stadium.

A look at skyline of downtown Minneapolis as breaks in the overcast allowed the sun to make a brief appearance.

The Twins’ and Mariners’ bullpens shut down the opponent’s offense through the Mariners’ at bat in the top of the ninth. The Twins scored with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to seal a 3-2 victory. Despite the lack of scoring in the game, the contest clocked in at about three hours, which seemed longer in the late September chill.

The hometown Twins celebrate a walk off win at Target Field.

As we filed out of Target Field following the game, I turned around to take one final look at the ballpark. It had a clean, new feel to it, though I still couldn’t understand why a stadium in a place where snow can occur in May did not have a dome. It was a great place to see a game, and I may be back here someday, especially when the Mets are in town.

Strangely enough, this sign may have been my favorite part of Target Field.

Minneapolis, MN Wednesday, September 21st 2011

Minnesota Twins scorecard from 2011.

Our second MLB trip of the 2011 season took us to Minneapolis to see the Twins at Target Field. Planning the trip for late September, we knew there was a chance that the night game we would attend could be cold, with temperatures in the 30s. Circumstances dictated the timing of our visit, and we were delighted to get a chance to visit Minnesota. Though I have been to the Minneapolis airport (to change planes), this visit would be the first “real” trip to Minnesota for each of us.

In a perfect world, we would have driven to from central NJ to Minneapolis, as road trips allow us to see some much of the US. However, there simply wasn’t time, since the drive would have been 2400 miles round trip, taking 34 hours. With the drive not a viable choice, we flew from Newark, NJ to Minneapolis, MN. With the flight clocking in at two hours and 30 minutes, we arrived too late to catch the game that night (September 20th). Instead, we checked into our hotel in Bloomington and settled in for the night.

1. Minneapolis, Wednesday September 21st

The morning dawned cloudy, with temperatures in the 40s. That might not qualify as cold in September for Minnesotans, but considering we came from a place where it was still warm and humid, it felt as though we skipped fall and went straight into early winter. Luckily, we knew this was possible and dressed accordingly.

Following breakfast at the Denny’s that was part of the hotel complex, we drove to Minniehaha Regional Park, along the banks of the Mississippi River. A bucolic retreat from urban Minneapolis, the park reminded me to some degree of Central Park in New York City. A stroll along the Mississippi River in the late September chill made it feel more like football weather, but we enjoyed the fall like conditions, despite the lack of sunshine.

Waterfall in Minniehaha Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Based on the rock formations in the park, it seemed as though at least some of the features were carved out by glaciers. We’ve seen similar rock formations at the Delaware Water Gap on the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In fact, Minniehaha Park was very reminiscent of the Water Gap, from the rocks to the forest primeval. After following the river for a while, we decided to drive further up the river, closer to downtown Minneapolis.

Rapids in Minnehaha Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Parking near the locks on the Mississippi River, we walked up to Lock No. 1. Over the years, we have seen the Mississippi from different locations, but this view was special; we were near at the start of the mighty river. As we walked along the river side, we were surprised by a visitor; a bald eagle. The beautiful visitor caught us completely off guard, so we didn’t manage to get any pictures.

The view looking north along the Mississippi River from Minneapolis. The trees in the foreground left reminded us what is was indeed autumn here. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes).

Even though the sun never did peek out that day, the refreshingly cool autumn air made our exploration quite enjoyable. On the way back to the car, we wandered through some of downtown Minneapolis. Despite the tall buildings, the vibe of the place was more like a medium sized city. Remarkably clean for an urban area, Minneapolis possessed a charm that cities of its size do not have back East. My first impression of Minneapolis was overwhelmingly positive.

Mississippi River Lock No. 1 on a cloudy autumn day. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

2. Target Field

Rather than drive to Target Field and search for parking in an unfamiliar urban area, we opted to take public transportation to the game. Walking to a Metro stop from the hotel, we passed the Mall of America, which was just down the street from our hotel. Strangely, we did not visit the Mall during our stay, even though it is a top tourist destination.

Catching the Metro Blue Line near the Mall, the light rail took us to a stop just across the street from Target Field. Since the trip was on a local line with several stops, it took about 40 minutes to reach our destination. With trip being a mere 10 miles, the ride seemed fairly long, similar to that of the train ride from Manhattan to Citifield, the home of the Mets. However, that’s where comparison ends, since the light rail in Minneapolis was MUCH nicer than the New York City subway system.

Target Field on a cloudy and cool night. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

After getting off the train, we got our first view of Target Field. The curves and the glass on the exterior gave the park a futuristic look, yet the brick siding exuded a more retro vibe. Walking around the stadium, we discovered several bronze statues of Twins’ legends. Each statue seemed to capture the essence of the player, from the crouched batting stance of Rod Carew to the quiet dignity of Harmon Killebrew.

My favorite, however, was the statue of Kirby Puckett. It perfectly caught the fist pump of Puckett rounding the bases following the home run that won Game Six of the 1991 World Series. Glimpsing the statue took me back to that night, reliving the moment as if it happened yesterday. In my opinion, that image epitomizes Twins baseball.

“We’ll see you tomorrow night”. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The cloudy skies that night did not afford us the best view of the interior of Target Field, though we did wander the concourse snapping pictures and taking in the atmosphere. Target Field felt like a modern ballpark, with great sight lines throughout the stadium. Though the stadium seemed bigger in person than I expected (due primarily to the four deck seating layout, which included the press level), the seating capacity is just under 40,000. Yet, despite its size, there seemed to be some sense of intimacy that does not come through at home on TV.

Following our tour of the stadium, we searched for food before heading to our seats. Like most big league parks, there were many places to grab something to eat. The featured restaurant within the park was Hrbeck’s Restaurant, named for the Twins first baseman during the glory days of the 1980s and early 1990s. Open even when the Twins aren’t playing, it seems to be popular in the community, though Yelp reviews are not particularly flattering. As is our custom, we opted for more standard baseball fare, grabbing hot dogs and sodas before finding our seats.

The view from our seats. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Sitting in our seats in the autumn chill before the first pitch, I couldn’t understand why a ballpark in Minneapolis would be an open air stadium. Having seen all of the current MLB stadiums, it is clear to me that an outdoor stadium offers a better fan experience. However, when you play baseball in a place where snow is not that uncommon into May, pragmatism may have to have some place in the decision making process. Perhaps Twins fans are accustomed to the chillier conditions, but at least some baseball fans would trade comfort for ambiance in this situation.

The Twins hosted the Seattle Mariners on this night. Both teams were limping to the finish at the conclusion of disappointing seasons, and seemed to be playing out the schedule. Starting for the Mariners was the young right hander Michael Pineda, completing his rookie year. Following the season, Pineda underwent surgery to repair a right shoulder labrum tear, and it would take two full seasons for him to return the mound. For the home team, the starter was Kevin Slowey, suffering through a brutal 2011. This would be his last season in Minnesota.

Efficient use of space in left field at Target Field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

On this cloudy and cool evening, there were far fewer fans in the park than the announced crowd of 36,000 by the time the first pitch was thrown. The Twins scored runs in the first two innings off Pineda, whose night ended after four innings, and Slowey was pitching as though he would make the slim lead hold up.

The view from the lower level in left field with Ichiro Suzuki coming to the plate. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The Mariners’ offense awoke in the fifth inning, scoring two runs, followed by thee more runs in the sixth. That ended Slowey’s night after six innings. Though the Twins would score single runs in the 8th and 9th innings, the Mariners held on for the 5-4 victory. Even with the scoring, the game time clocked in at about two hours and 45 minutes, which is not bad for an American League contest. We left Target Field that night with a favorable impression of the park, and we would get a look at the stadium in the daylight the following day.

Goodnight from Target Field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Florida Baseball Trip 2014 – St Petersburg

Google Earth view of Tropicana Field, St Petersburg, FL.

1. Miami to St Petersburg, Florida Thursday May 8th 2014

The next and final stop of our 2014 MLB tour was St Petersburg, Florida, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. The three hour and 45 minute drive led us across the northern portion of the Everglades National Park, as well as the Big Cypress National Preserve. Never having seen an alligator in the wild (not many gators in the Northeast), we welcomed the opportunity to seek them out in their natural habitat.

Google Maps showing the drive from Miami to St Petersburg FL.

As might be expected, each stop along the way yielded no gator sitings. Granted, we did not venture far from the road, as we were not prepared to trek into the swamp. This greatly reduced our chances of seeing gators in the water. Disappointed, we abandoned our attempts and followed Interstate 75 North toward St Petersburg.

Along the way, we stopped shortly after crossing the Sunshine Skyway to get pictures of the bridge. While taking pictures along the waterline, we caught the attention of the local wildlife. A great egret, standing tall on a wooden pallet, made no attempt to hide her contempt for our presence near HER shallows. Even while taking pictures of her, she did her best to intimidate us. Not wanting to aggravate her further, we left as soon as we were finished with our picture taking.

A great egret looking us over with a jaundiced eye while perched on a wooden pallet near St Petersburg, FL. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Arriving at our hotel in St Petersburg well ahead of the 705 pm first pitch at Tropicana Field, we relaxed at the hotel before heading out to the ballpark.

2. Tropicana Field

Tropicana Field, St Petersburg, FL. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

We arrived at Tropicana Field about 90 minutes before game time, just as the gates were opening. There was ample parking in the general vicinity of the stadium, much of which is one-quarter of a mile or less from the stadium. On this night, with a fairly light crowd expected, parking was $15, but parking can vary between $15 and $30.

Upon arriving at the park, we walked around the stadium. Being a domed stadium, there was not much to see outside. Entering the park behind home plate, the brightness outside was replaced by the dimness of the translucence of the roof of Tropicana Field. Having seen what appeared to be a drab interior on TV, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that is was not as dark nor dank as I imagined. Fun fact; Tropicana Field is the only remaining MLB Park with a fixed roof.

The roof of Tropicana Field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the roof is that is slants from home plate down toward center field. While the slant is discernible from outside, it is much more exaggerated inside the park. Suspended from the roof are catwalks. They are part of the support structure of the roof, specifically the lighting and speaker system. There are four rings of catwalks, some of which are in play. Many times over the years, the catwalks have giveth and taketh away, resulting in confusion and loathing. Because of this, the catwalks have been a lightning rod for criticism since the opening of the park.

With plenty of time before the scheduled 710 pm start, we wandered inside the stadium. Outside of the roof, the stadium was a nondescript domed ballpark. Like most domed stadiums, the place seemed cavernous, with three levels of seats spanning from foul pole to foul pole. Much of the stadium was accessible via concourses, allowing us to take pictures of virtually the entire park.

Tropicana Field from the upper deck behind home plate. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Wandering the lower level in center field, we discovered the fabled ray tank. Arriving as early as we did, there was almost nobody around the tank, meaning we were able to pet the rays at will. Knowing very little about rays, I was unsure whether they were bothered by human contact. Of course, the rays are probably accustomed to the interaction, and petting them likely did not cause any additional stress. However, in deference to the animals, I chose not to pet them, instead admiring them from a respectful distance.

Viewing the ray tank at Tropicana Field from above. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Like most major league ballparks, there were more than a dozen locations from which food was available, including standard concession stands. Despite the large selection available, we chose to indulge in more standard ballpark fare before seeking out our seats for the game.

David Price delivering a pitch at Tropicana Field. (Photo credit:Jeff Hayes)

The Rays hosted the Baltimore Orioles this evening, the last game in a three game set. The announced crowd for this game was just over 11,000, which made Tropicana Field (with its 42,735 seat capacity) seem almost empty. The Orioles sent Umbaldo Jimenez against the Rays’ David Price in what promised to be a pitcher’s duel. Our seats for the contest were behind the Orioles dugout in the lower level.

The view from our seats. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The Rays opened the scoring with a run in the bottom of the first, with the Orioles scoring in the second and third innings to take a 3-1 lead. That was the extent of the scoring, as both starters and respective bullpens kept the promise of a potential pitcher’s duel. Despite being a low scoring affair, the game clocked in at just over three and one-half hours.

Front end of a double play at Tropicana Field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The extra time have us the opportunity to take in the feel of the park. While Tropicana Field was not as dungeon-like as I expected (based on what I’d seen on TV), the park lacked any significant charm or presence. It’s no wonder the franchise has been seeking another home, one that might provide fans with a warmer environment.

1. St Pete Beach, Friday May 9th 2014

St Pete Beach under sunny skies. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Following breakfast at the hotel, we had plenty of time to explore the region ahead of the 705 pm game time at Tropicana Field. Our first stop was St Pete Beach. Located on Long Key, a barrier island a few miles west of St Petersburg, St Pete Beach is consistently voted one of the top beaches in the United States.

Wall to wall sunshine and temperatures climbing into the 80s during the late morning resulted in a perfect beach day. The white sandy beach reminded me of those we saw at South Beach the day before. However, unlike the rougher surf we saw near Miami, the crystal clear waters along St Pete Beach were nearly calm.

Black skimmers walking along St Pete Beach.

Though the weather was conducive for beach going, there were surprisingly few people on the beach, and none in the water. However, there were plenty of birds on the sand and fishing in the shallow water of the Gulf. In fact, there were many more black skimmers (a bird I’d never seen before) than people on the beach that morning. Great egrets roamed the surf, occasionally pulling a fish out of the water.

Strolling along the beach, we saw much of the architecture had some connection to Art Deco, much like we noticed in Miami. Though it was only early May, the sun angle was high enough to give me a mild sunburn. As the temperature headed toward 90 degrees, we cut short our walk along the beach to find some shelter and lunch.

The Gulf of Mexico along St Pete Beach.

2. Sawgrass Park

Following lunch, we headed into St Petersburg. We happened upon Sawgrass Park, which looked like a good place to spend some time before riding back to the hotel to relax before the game.

Almost immediately after leaving the car, we became acutely aware of the lizard population. Brown anoles were everywhere; in fact, I had to actively avoid the lizards for fear of stepping on them. We started our exploration of the park near Sawgrass Lake, following a dirt path to an elevated boardwalk. Along the way, we passed a large variety of birds forging in the marshes.

A great egret using some ingenuity to catch fish in the marshes of Sawgrass Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

We stopped to watch a great egret stomping his way through marshes along the dirt path leading to the boardwalk. At first, it wasn’t clear why the egret was stomping. However, after stomping a few times, the egret pulled a fish out of the marsh. The bird was stomping until it found a fish and pounced on it. We watched this happen a few times before moving on.

Following the elevated boardwalk brought us to a viewing platform on the edge of the lake. A sign posted in the gazebo covering the viewing platform warned that we were in gator country. Gazing out across the lake, it seemed as though there were no alligators to be found. Being early to mid afternoon, I thought they were basking in the sunshine elsewhere, someplace less conspicuous.

Baby alligators lounging in the mud on the edge of the lake. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

My brother signaled to me that he found something in the mud on the edge of the lake; baby alligators. The hatchlings were partially submerged in the mud, numbering about a dozen (though there could have been others deeper in the mud). Despite being small and arguably cute, the hatchlings possess little but sharp teeth that could inflict some pain, if harassed.

Lurking not far offshore we finally spotted the mama gator. Like mothers of other species, this cow was keeping a sharp eye on her babies. Though she was a distance away, I had no doubt that if her young were threatened, she would take swift and definitive action to protect them. It seemed, though, that she was not particularly agitated, as if she had become accustomed to people being close to her young.

Mama alligator maintaining a watchful eye on her hatchlings. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Spending far more time in the park than anticipated, we left the park shortly after finding the gators, and headed back to the hotel to relax before the game. Wanting to see alligators while in Florida, I didn’t expect to find them in a park in St Petersburg. If you find yourself with some time near Sawgrass Park, I’d recommend a visit, if only to track down some gators.

3. Tropicana Field

Tropicana Field from the third base side. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Having been to Tropicana Field the night before, we did not arrive as early for this contest. With little to see outside the park, and exploring much of the park with the Orioles in town, we arrived about an hour before the first pitch, scheduled for 710 pm. The Rays’ opponent this evening was the Cleveland Indians, who were beginning a weekend series in St Petersburg.

For this game, our seats were on the first base side behind the Rays’ dugout in the lower levels. Once again, the announced crowd of 17,455 for the series opener seemed like an overestimate. The sparse crowd made the domed stadium feel nearly empty. Granted, the Rays were not playing well so far this season, but without fan support, the environment almost felt drab.

Our seats for the series opener against the Cleveland Indians. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Starting for the home team was right hander Jake Odorizzi, and right hander Corey Kluber took the ball for the visiting Indians. For Corey Kluber, 2014 was a breakout season which ended with him winning his first Cy Young award. Odorizzi was in his first full season with the Rays, and tonight’s matchup was promising to be a pitcher’s duel.

The game started out just that way, with both pitchers tossing three scoreless innings. The Rays scored single runs in the fourth and fifth innings, and as well as Odorizzi was pitching, two two runs looked as though they might be enough to ensure a Rays’ victory.

The Tribe completing a double play supporting the outstanding start made by Corey Kluber. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Jake Odorizzi struck out 11 Indians in five innings of work, but in doing so, threw over 100 pitches. With Odorizzi out of the game, the Indians torched the bullpen for a run in the sixth and five runs in the seventh. That outburst was more than enough to support Kluber, who struck out nine in six innings of work.

By the seventh inning stretch, the sparse crowd began to file out, all but assured of yet another Rays’ loss. A team with promise at the start of the season, a loss would drop them six games under the .500 mark. The Rays’ managed to score a run in the bottom of the ninth, but it wasn’t enough to prevent an Indians’ 6-3 win.

The Tropicana Field scoreboard tells the tale of an Indians victory. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Leaving Tropicana Field, I understood why some refer to this stadium as the least attractive in MLB. While the place lacks an discernible charm, and seems almost tomblike with small crowds in the cavernous building, it was not the dungeon I imagined it to be. Having said that, I get why fans stay away; should they return, they deserve a better home for their team.

Florida Baseball Trip 2014 – Miami

Google Earth view of Marlins Park in Miami, FL.

Our only Major League Baseball trip of 2014 was focused on the teams in Florida (Miami and St Petersburg). We chose early May for the trip, since it is just before the heat and humidity typically descend on the Peninsula. Because we were starting the trip in New Jersey (which is just out of range for a road trip, given the time constraints we had for the visit), we chose to fly to Miami, our first stop.

1. New Jersey to Miami, Tuesday May 6th 2014

While preparing for the trip, we discovered that it was more economical to fly into Ft Lauderdale, then drive to Miami, than to fly into Miami International Airport. In addition to being a cheaper flight, there were many more flights to Ft Lauderdale than Miami on the day we wished to travel. This could be due to the fact that Ft Lauderdale is a major port for cruise ships.

We chose to fly out the afternoon before the game in Miami. Even including the nearly three hour flight from New Jersey to Ft Lauderdale, we believed we’d built in enough time to get to Marlins Park before the 705 pm first pitch.

The view from our seats at Marlins Park in Miami, FL. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

However, shortly after boarding the flight, our carefully planned (and admittedly tight) timing was derailed by a problem with the plane. We have encountered mechanical issues with planes before, but the problem with this plane was new: toilet malfunction. Both toilets in economy were unavailable, though the first class toilet was functional. With just one toilet available for a nearly three hour flight, we were forced to deplane and wait for a replacement.

The delay ensured that we would miss the first pitch in Miami. Disappointed but undaunted, we eventually left New Jersey more than an hour late. After landing in Ft Lauderdale, we rushed to pick up our rental car and sped toward the park. Slackening evening traffic allowed us to get to the park in under 30 minutes. Parking was ample (after all, this WAS a Marlins home game), but still we arrived in the top of the second inning.

Bartolo Colon delivers a pitch against the Miami Marlins on May 6th, 2014. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The weather in Miami was delightful, with clear skies, temperatures in the 70s and low humidity (at least for Miami). The weather afforded us a view of Marlins Park with the roof open. Built in an area where thunderstorms are common (typically peaking right around 700 pm), getting to see a game with the roof open was a treat. There had been controversy concerning the roof, as the Marlins apparently had a much better record against the Mets with the roof closed. Tonight, however, that was not an issue.

The Marlins’ opponent for this evening was the New York Mets, and the starting pitcher for the Mets was ageless Bartolo Colon. The Marlins scored two runs against Bartolo before we had arrived, but he settled down for the next few innings. Meanwhile, the Mets offense sputtered against Marlins starter Henderson Alvarez III (who had thrown a no-hitter in 2013).

Giancarlo Stanton (going by Mike Stanton at the time) standing in against Bartolo Colon. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Overall, it wasn’t a bad appearance for Colon, who allowed three runs in seven innings. However, the Mets were no match for Alvarez, who tossed a six hit shutout in a 3-0 Marlins win. With both pitchers throwing efficiently, the time of the game was a mere two hours and eight minutes, one the shortest games we had seen in years.

Our late arrival did not allow us any time to explore the park, and the speed of the game kept our attention on the field, not the park itself. The initial impression of the park was that is was perfect for South Florida, with warm colors and an Art Deco feel. Fortunately, we would have much more time to investigate the park and it surroundings the next afternoon. Shortly after the end of the game, we headed to the hotel and settled in for the night.

2. Miami, Wednesday May 7th 2014

Outside Marlins Park, Miami, FL. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Following breakfast at the hotel just outside Miami, we headed to the ballpark early to explore the area. Unbeknownst to me, Marlins Park was constructed on the site of the former Orange Bowl, in Little Havana just west of downtown Miami. Unlike the trend in ballparks of the past couple of decades, Miami eschewed the “retro” look in favor of a more contemporary feel. From my perspective, the outside of the park was more reminiscent of an art gallery than a ballpark, but seems to fit in well in Miami

Strolling around the ballpark, we quickly discovered that there wasn’t much in the vicinity, outside of parking garages. However, the combination of architecture and landscaping (replete with palm trees) provided a very attractive environment, perhaps one of the finest we’d visited. Waiting outside for the gates to open, it seemed many of the fans we encountered were Mets fans, no doubt some of them transplants from the New York City metro area.

Marlins Park with the roof closed. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Walking into the park, it became evident that the roof was closed. Like most ballparks with retractable roofs, Marlins Park looked cavernous with the roof closed. It wasn’t clear why the roof was closed; sunshine and temperatures in the 70s made for an ideal early May afternoon in Miami. There was a breeze, but it didn’t seem as though the wind was strong enough to warrant closing the roof. The fact that the Marlins were again hosting the Mets for the Wednesday matinee may have been part of the decision. While I’m not sure there is enough evidence to implicate the Marlins in unsportsmanlike conduct, it DOES make a Mets fan like me wonder.

Arriving well before the first pitch, we had plenty of time to explore Marlins Park. Walking the concourse in the upper deck, we ran into a uniformed Florida State trooper, presumably working security. Since we were walking alone near centerfield, I thought he might give us trouble. After asking us what we were doing, he then followed us halfway across the concourse toward home plate, talking baseball.

Marlins Park from the upper deck in centerfield. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Following our tour of the inside of Marlins Park, we hit the concession stand on the lower level before finding our seats. As might be expected, there were more than a dozen eateries and bars scattered throughout the park, not counting the more traditional concession stands. Perhaps the most famous is the Clevelander in left center field, adjacent to the Marlins bullpen. Not surprisingly, there was a fair amount of Cuban and Hispanic food available, but we stuck closer to the standard fare for ballparks.

The view from our seats behind the first base dugout. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The closed roof changed the feel of the park, robbing it of whatever charm it possessed the previous night with the roof open. It seemed dark against the light streaming through the glass behind the left field wall, giving Marlins Park an almost drab feeling. It was against this backdrop that the Marlins hosted the Mets for an early afternoon game. The contest was a lightly attended affair, with far less than the announced crowd of 18,000 actually in the park.

On the mound for the Mets right hander Zack Wheeler, who was in the midst of his first full season with the Mets. A highly touted prospect acquired from the San Francisco Giants in 2011, Wheeler finally joined a promising Mets rotation. Unfortunately, after a encouraging 2014, Wheeler underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015. Recovery from the surgery, and subsequent setbacks, took over two years.

Zack Wheeler delivering a pitch at Marlins Park on May 7th, 2014. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

On this day, however, Wheeler was on top of his game. Wheeler threw six shutout innings, striking out seven but walking five, reaching 100 pitches before exiting. Not to be outdone, Marlins starter Tom Koehler matched Wheeler nearly pitch for pitch in what evolved into a classic pitcher’s duel.

Interestingly, the best play of the day was not made by a Met or a Marlin. During the top of the third, the Mets’ Reuben Tejada lined a fastball down the left field line. With the ball headed toward the seats in foul territory , a Marlins ball boy made a lunging catch of the screaming liner, diving into the seats to make the outstanding grab. The catch seemed even better in person, and the sparse crowd gave the kid a warm ovation.

A sea creature themed mascot race during the seventh inning stretch at Marlins Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The score remained tied 0-0 going into the bottom of the ninth of the briskly paced game, with each team mustering only two hits. The Marlins scored with one out in the ninth on a sacrifice fly, a seemingly fitting end to a game dominated by pitching (or was it inept offense?).

The Marlins celebrating their 1-0 walk off win over the Mets. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

As the crowd filed out of the stadium following the game, the roof was opened. The timing was curious, which made me wonder further about the conspiracy involving the closed roof and Mets’ losses. Marlins Park was a nice place to see a game, though the closed roof put a damper on its feel. While there was not enough to make me want to visit again in the future, Marlins fans should be thankful they have such a good home ballpark.

The roof of Marlins Park opening AFTER the game ended. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Following the game, we made a quick trip to South Beach. Ocean Drive, the main strip along the beach, was lined with bars and restaurants on one side, and a white sandy beach on the other. The ocean was rough that late afternoon, preventing people from entering the water. The setting sun and refreshing sea breeze made the visit enjoyable, but we left before the area got too crazy.

To my great dismay, neither my brother or I could locate our pictures of South Beach. Surely those pictures would have told a better story than me about the area.

Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, Manchester NH, July 19th 2015

Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, home of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The first stop on our three city New England minor league tour was Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, the home of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Located in Manchester, New Hampshire, the ballpark was almost five hours from our starting point in central NJ. The distance required a very early start (at least for me) in order to catch the 135 pm start.

Google Maps showing a four hour 45 minute drive to Manchester, NH.

Luckily for us, the Sunday morning traffic made navigating the NYC metro area fairly easy, allowing us to reach Manchester about an hour or so before game time. Arriving just after noon, we ate lunch at a local diner before heading to the ballpark.

Northeast Delta Dental Stadium is located in downtown Manchester (adjacent to the Merrimack River), and like most urban stadium, onsite parking was limited. VIP parking at the stadium was $10, but it puts you just steps away rom the main gate. We arrived early enough to take advantage of this convenience. Otherwise, offsite parking seemed plentiful, but likely fills up quickly for better attended games.

Welcome to Northeast Delta Dental Stadium! (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The brick facade of the outside of Northeast Delta Dental Stadium gave the park a retro feel, something akin to ballparks from the 1950s. However, after entering the ballpark, it was clear that the stadium was modular in construction, complete with steel bleachers down the left and right field lines.

Unlike most minor league ballparks, the concourse encircled the stadium, with a few rows of seats ringing the outfield wall. The access allowed us to take pictures from all angles while exploring the park. A building heat wave along the East Coast pushed temperatures into the lower 90s as game time approached, sending us seeking drinks and shelter from the sun.

The Hilton Garden Inn dominates the view at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, as well as a relatively small but functional video board. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Beside standard concession serving typical ballpark fare, the Sam Adams Brewhouse offers a more specialized menu with tables overlooking the field. Having just eaten lunch, we chose to forgo the food options present, instead loading up on drinks to combat the hot conditions.

Much like most minor league ballparks constructed in the 1990s, Northeast Delta Dental Stadium had a certain spartan feel, with little in the way of accoutrements than ballparks built a decade later. At first look, the ballpark seemed to have little in the way of “feel”, with no distinguishing characteristics (other than perhaps the hotel past the centerfield fence). However, it appeared to be a fine place to spend the afternoon watching a game.

The view from our seats. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Bright sunshine splashed our seats, located just behind first base in the lower level. Factor in the rising humidity levels, and it was a typical July afternoon for baseball. As we have seen at many Sunday minor league games, the attendance was fairly light. The sparse crowd watched the Fisher Cats (the Double A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays) host the Portland Sea Dogs (the Double A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox), with the first pitch occurring shortly after 130 pm.

There was a familiar surname in the ‘Cats lineup this afternoon. KC Hobson, the son of the former Red Sox third baseman Butch Hobson, was playing first base and batting cleanup. KC Hobson has been working his way through the Blue Jays’ system, and this was his second year in New Hampshire. Hobson would eventually be released by the Blue Jays, and caught on with Lancaster Barnstorms of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, where he played for his father.

Portland Sea Dogs starter Mike McCarthy delivers a pitch in the second inning at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

It became apparent early that this game would feature a pitcher’s duel, with each starting pitcher dealing. The Sea Dogs scored a run in the fourth inning off the ‘Cats starter John Anderson, while the Sea Dogs starter, Mike McCarthy, tossed 5 1/3 innings of shutout ball. McCarthy was taken out of the game in the bottom of the sixth, and there was no obvious reason why. It has been our experience that, in the minor leagues, it is more important to evaluate players than adhere strictly to game situations. In this case, it’s possible that the Portland manager saw all he needed to see from McCarthy that day.

Portland Sea Dogs RF Henry Ramos was thrown out at the plate in the third inning. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The hot and increasingly humid day did not result in thunderstorms in the general vicinity of the ballpark, but we did spy a large thunderstorm north of the stadium after the sixth inning. The storm kept its distance, and was not joined by others as they often do in the mid to late afternoon in the summer. We enjoyed the remainder of the game in a rain free environment.

A lone thunderstorm lurking in the distance at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The Sea Dog bullpen made the two run lead stand up, shutting down the ‘Cats offense for the reminder of the game. Following the game, we made the two hour drive up Interstate 95 North to Portland, Maine for the next stop on our New England baseball tour. We would see the same Portland Sea Dogs host the Trenton Thunder.

Portland, ME July 20th 2015

Portland Head Light, reputedly the most photographed lighthouse in the world. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The middle stop our three day baseball tour of New England was Portland, Maine. Having lived in southern Maine for 12 and 1/2 years, it was almost like coming home. We arrived in the Portland area the night before, and the morning brought sunshine and temperatures in the 70s, much cooler than the 90s we endured the previous day in southern New Hampshire. Game time in Portland was slated for 705 pm, giving us plenty of time to visit some my favorite places in the area.

1. Freeport/Yarmouth/Portland

Following breakfast at our hotel, a Holiday Inn Express in Freeport, Maine (though I didn’t feel any smarter for the experience), we headed for my favorite place in Maine: Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth. A former Army base, active during World War I and World War II, the main attraction of the 90 acre park is the Portland Head Light. Completed in 1791 (built on the order of George Washington), the lighthouse is said to be the most photographed lighthouse in the world. Considering that I personally have taken hundreds of pictures of the lighthouse, that claim is easy for me to believe.

Viewing Portland Head Light from the north. The complex (which includes a small museum and a gift shop) sits near the edge of a granite cliff. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

This sunny and pleasantly warm late morning drew a large number of sightseers, focusing mainly on the lighthouse. However, being very familiar with the park, I headed straight for the rocks behind the lighthouse. Facing Casco Bay, the rocks provide a great view of the bay, as well as the Halfway Rock Lighthouse.

On this morning, as is common during the warm months, the seemingly ever present fog partially shrouded the lighthouse. Located about halfway between Portland and the Atlantic Ocean, Halfway Rock stands approximately where the sea fogs recesses during the day, only to surge inland after the warmest part of the day.

Halfway Rock Lighthouse, partially obscured by sea fog. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The rocks adjacent to Portland Head Light present a very real hazard to boat traffic moving through Casco Bay, as strong storms and dense fog can obscure the coastline. Perhaps the most famous example of the hazards of the rocky Maine coast was the wreck of the Annie C Maguire on Christmas Eve 1886. The wreck has been immortalized on the rocks of the lighthouse.

The commemoration of the wreck of the Annie C Maguire on the rocks near the Portland Head Light. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The morning flew by visiting the park, and after more than two hours there, we headed north into nearby Falmouth for lunch at Richetta’s Brick Oven Ristorante. Featuring possibly the best brick oven pizza in Maine, we dined alfresco under brilliant sunshine with a cooling sea breeze.

Following lunch, we visited my second favorite place in Maine: Royal River Park in Yarmouth. Living less than a mile from the park for more than 12 years, it is a beautiful place to visit all times of year, but especially so during the summer. The Royal River was once the home of paper mills, and the river provided power for the mills. Though the mills are long gone, the foundations are still visible.

Paper mill foundations are still evident on the banks of the Royal River Park in Yarmouth, ME. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Rapids over the northern stretch of the river transition to still waters closer to Route 1. A tire swing along the banks of the river here provides recreation for the locals, and dogs often dive into the river to swim in the calm waters. Though it is tucked away west of Interstate 295, it is worth a visit if you are in the area, as it affords a view into the natural beauty Maine has to offer.

Calmer waters on the Royal River. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

2. Hadlock Field, Portland Maine

After a brief repair to the hotel in Freeport to relax before the game, we made the 20 minute drive to Hadlock Field, the home of the Portland Sea Dogs. Located on the edge of downtown Portland, Maine, parking was at a premium near the stadium. Fortunately, we were able to park just down the street from the park in a commercial lot; during the warm months, available parking is often more than a mile away. Access to the field from these lots is provided via shuttle bus.

Outside Hadlock Field in Portland, ME. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

My first game at Hadlock Field was back in 1998, when the Sea Dogs were the Double A affiliate of the Florida Marlins. A lot had changed over the years, as the Sea Dogs became the Double A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Shortly after the change, the stadium underwent a fairly substantial remodeling, adding changes that reminded fans of Fenway Park.

A replica of the Green Monster at Hadlock Field in Portland, ME. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Nestled between the hills of downtown Portland and Interstate 295 to its west, the view of Portland is one of the best attractions of the park. Since my last visit to the field, there were a number of additions, including a huge boot from LL Bean on the right field wall. While the additions may have enhanced the popularity of the park, I found that the changes may have detracted from the charm of the place.

The view from our seats. Note the buildings of downtown Portland in the distance. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Hadlock Field is a modular stadium, with aluminum grandstands along the left field line. During the summer months, a Sea Dogs ticket can be a hot commodity, and seats for this game were at a premium. Because of the demand for tickets, our seats were located more than halfway down the left field line, offering a less than ideal view of home plate.

The view of right field at Hadlock Field, including the bleachers and the LL Bean boot over the home team bullpen. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The design of Hadlock Field brings the left field foul line very close to the seats, allowing for a more intimate feel for the fans. However, bringing the fans that close to the line had an unintended side effect. Line drives off the bats of left hand hitters reach the seats at high velocity, making some of the seats flat out DANGEROUS. We saw two fans hit by these line drives injured during this game, both seriously enough to require medical attention.

Being a veteran of the ballpark, I knew enough to stay alert for line drives. Still, I was surprised upon my return that this portion of the seating area was not protected by a net. Hopefully, this has been addressed, as fans not paying close attention are putting themselves at a risk they may not truly appreciate.

The Hadlock Field display of retired Sea Dogs numbers, replete with familiar names to Red Sox fans. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Concessions were located in the concourse below the seating area. The concessions were mostly standard fare, but included fish sandwiches, as well as a Maine favorite, fried dough covered with powered sugar. We briefly toured the ballpark before settling into our seats shortly before game time.

The Sea Dogs hosted the Trenton Thunder, the Double A affiliate of the New York Yankees. The Sea Dogs opened the scoring in the bottom of the first, scoring four runs on four hits and a walk off Thunder starter Brady Lail. Meanwhile, Sea Dogs starter William Cuevas kept the Thunder scoreless through five innings.

Sea Dogs starter William Cuevas delivers a pitch at Hadlock Field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The four runs the Sea Dogs scored in the first inning capped for the scoring for the home team. Meanwhile, the Thunder clawed their way back into game, scoring a run in the sixth and two more in the seventh. The Thunder threatened in the ninth, as RF Danny Oh delivered a run scoring double, making the score 4-3. However, the game ended as Oh was thrown out trying to steal third base.

Thunder RF Danny Oh scoring in the sixth inning. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Though there were many changes to Hadlock Field since my last visit, it still ranks as one of my favorite minor league ballparks, the problem with foul balls in left field not withstanding. The great feel of the park, augmented by the vistas of downtown Portland, make this field worth the visit, if you can score tickets during the summer months.

Portland, ME to New Britain, CT July 21st 2015

New Britain Stadium, New Britain, CT. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The last day of the three-stop New England minor league tour started in Portland, Maine, following a game at Hadlock Field the previous night. Following breakfast in nearby Freeport, we headed for New Britain, Connecticut for an evening ball game at New Britain Stadium, home of the Rock Cats.

The weather had been spectacular across southern Maine the previous day, but as we drove south, we drew closer to a heat wave that was underway from southern New England into the Mid Atlantic states. By the time we reached New Britain in the mid afternoon, we traded temperature in the 70s in Portland for the lower 90s in Connecticut. In addition, the humidity levels were markedly higher, setting the stage for active weather later in afternoon.

Google Maps showing the three and one-half hour drive from Portland, ME to New Britain, CT

Having arrived in New Britain well before game time, we decided to explore the city. However, the hot and humid conditions were hardly conducive to walking, and after a quick tour of Walnut Hill Park, we took shelter in the New Britain Museum of American Art. Established in 1903, it was the first museum in the US dedicated to American art. Much of the art displayed during our visit was impressionist, as well as post-contemporary.

After about an hour in the museum, we headed toward the ballpark. While in the museum, hazy sunshine had given way to clouds, which were yielding scattered showers and thunderstorms. Conditions improved as we reached the park, with more hazy sunshine as we arrived. There was onsite parking for $5 (for better parking) and $3 (for the rest of the lot), and we got to the stadium early enough so that parking was ample.

New Britain Stadium from the left field concourse, adjacent to the picnic area. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Though it opened in 1996, the brick facade of New Britain Stadium gave the park an older, almost throwback feel. Once inside, it was clear that the ballpark was modular. Unlike most modular ballparks, there were no aluminum grandstands; instead, there were nearly 6,000 pine green seats. A concrete concourse spanned from left field to right field, with covered picnic areas near each foul line.

Storm clouds started gathering over the park, and suddenly a thunderstorm enveloped over the stadium. Thunder, lightning and pouring rain accompanied the storm, sending fans under the stands and toward the concession areas. While we waited for the rain to slacken, we visited the team store. As might be expected, the store was busy with bored fans killing time while the storm raged. The store possessed standard fare, and I indulged in a hat, a yearbook and a Rock Cats tote.

This is NEVER a good sight when hoping to see a ballgame. The rain delay pushed back the start time of the game by one hour and twenty minutes. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Just as the first storm ended, another followed on its heel. At that point, I became increasingly pessimistic that we would get the game in. Fortunately, the second storm dissipated almost as quickly as it formed, leaving just some drizzle as the darkness approached. Finally, the tarp was removed, and the game started about 830 pm, almost 90 minutes after the scheduled first pitch.

Fans milling around the inner concourse, waiting for the storms to end. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

For tonight’s game, the Rock Cats (the Double A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies) hosted the Binghamton Mets. In the lineup for the Mets was LF Michael Conforto. The left handed hitting Conforto had been swinging a hot bat for much of the season, though he had cooled off some heading into this series. Despite the dry spell, Conforto would make his MLB debut three days later.

Also in the lineup was CF Brandon Nimmo, a former number one draft pick, who was working his was through the Mets’ system. Finally, LJ Mazzilli started at 2B. Mazzilli, the son of former Met Lee Mazzilli, had been in the Mets system for a couple of years, trying to break through to AAA.

The sweet left handed swing of Michael Conforto. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Our seats for the game were adjacent to the Mets’ dugout, affording us a unique view of the Mets on the bench. Some of the hijinks in the dugout was nearly as entertaining as the action on the field. We were also treated to a close up look at players we would see in the big leagues in years to come.

Apparently, the weather delay chased away all but the heartiest of baseball fans. The sparse crowd that remained made the 6,000 seat stadium seem almost empty as the first pitch was thrown. Once the rain ended, the remainder of the night was dry, but clouds remained for the balance of the game.

The view from our seats gave us a direct look into the Mets’ dugout. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The B-Mets offense got going early, scoring three runs in the top of the first, featuring a run-scoring triple by Brandon Nimmo. Mets starter Gabriel Ynoa made those runs stand up, yielding a single run in his seven innings of work. Ynoa, who would eventually reach the MLB with the Mets, had possibly his best outing of the season.

Mets starter Gabriel Ynoa delivers a pitch at New Britain Stadium. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Ynoa, along with two relievers, held the Rock Cats to five hits while striking out 11. The quick-paced game clocked in at two hours and 30 minutes. Toward the end of the game, the sparse crowd thinned out even more. Among the remaining fans was LJ Mazzilli’s father, Lee Mazzilli.

It seemed that only a few in the remaining crowd recognized him, but his presence was brought to our attention by murmuring fans near his seat. Mazzilli seemed gracious, but his facial expression indicated that perhaps he just wanted to watch the game. After the final out, we saw him in the concourse, but left him alone.

Lee Mazzilli, donning an NYPD cap, shooting video, presumably of his son’s at-bats. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

At the conclusion of the game, we exited quickly, with a three hour drive ahead of us. New Britain Stadium was the epitome of a modular stadium, complete with a unassuming but functional video board. The 2015 season was the last for the Rock Cats, as the would become the Hartford Yard Goats in 2016, scheduled to move into the brand new Dunkin’ Donuts Park.

Binghamton, NY July 19-20 2016

NYSEG Stadium, home of the Binghamton Mets. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Our initial target for this baseball junket was Hartford, Connecticut to see Dunkin’ Donuts Park, the newly minted home of Hartford Yard Goats. Having recently moved from New Britain and rebranded the Yard Goats, this was their inaugural season in the new ballpark. However, construction delays and political rankling delayed the opening of Dunkin’ Donuts Park, forcing the Yard Goats on the road for the remainder of the their 2016 schedule.

With that target no longer available, we decided to change our focus and head to Binghamton, New York to catch the Mets (now known as the Rumble Ponies) series with the Bowie BaySox (the Double A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles). Changing targets presented little in the way of logistical problems, as the travel time for each trip was about the same.

Google Maps showing a travel time of a little more than three hours from central NJ to NYSEG Stadium in Binghamton NY.

The early afternoon drive was relatively easy, with just some construction delays slowing our progress. We arrived in Binghamton early enough to check into the hotel and relax for a bit before heading out to the ballpark. Having been here before 2014, we knew that there was ample parking across the street from NYSEG Stadium, as well as parking in a lot behind the right field fence.

1. Tuesday, July 19 2016

Located in downtown Binghamton, the ballpark is nestled between the Chenango and Susquehanna Rivers, with the Mt Prospect visible over the left field fence. Arriving about an hour before game time, we entered the ballpark behind home plate and walked the concourse taking pictures and enjoying the atmosphere.

The view from our seats, watching the exchange of the lineup cards shortly before game time. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The ballpark, opened in 1992, has a modular feel to it, not unlike many minor league parks constructed around the same time. The seating area features two levels, both of which have seats (as opposed to aluminum bench seating for grandstands in many other minor league parks). The main concession area is located behind the lower level, and there are picnic areas down each line.

In addition to the team store located behind the lower level to the left of home plate, there is an additional outlet down the right field line, adjacent to a small restaurant. Otherwise, the ballpark was unremarkable, with a relatively small but functional video board in right center field, as well as a scoreboard in left center field.

NYSEG Stadium viewed from the left field line, featuring a picnic area and small souvenir shop to the left of the seating area. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Despite the warm and dry evening weather, the crowd for the game was fairly sparse, with the number of people in the park far less than the 6,012 seating capacity of NYSEG Stadium. Our seats for the evening contest was just to the right of home plate, next to the Mets dugout. However, the seating area was covered by protective netting, which caused issues with picture taking.

The B-Mets lineup featured two future Mets, as well as a 2B with a familiar last name in New York Mets lore.

Though the Bowie BaySox are my “hometown” minor league team (I live about 20 minutes from their home stadium), my allegiance was solidly with the B-Mets. In the lineup for the B-Mets were SS Amed Rosario and 1B Dominic Smith, two highly touted prospects in the pipeline to join the Mets soon. Also in the lineup was 2B LJ Mazzilli, son of perennial Mets favorite Lee Mazzilli.

The B-Mets struck first, as Dominic Smith scored on a single to make it 1-0. Pitching dominated this contest as the teams traded runs in the sixth and seventh innings, as night descended on Binghamton. With the score tied at 2, the game went into extra innings, as cooler conditions replaced the late afternoon warmth.

Amed Rosario batting in the third inning at NYSEG Stadium. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The game ended in the bottom of the 11th as the winning run scored on a fielders choice. With the game ending after 10 pm, the stadium was nearly deserted as we exited for the parking lot. The hotel was only about a mile from the park, and we saw little in the way of activity as we made our way through downtown Binghamton.

Wednesday, July 20th 2016

Since we had some time before the 105 pm contest between the Bowie BaySox and the hometown Binghamton Mets, we ate breakfast at the hotel, then wandered along the Chenango River (which flowed adjacent to the hotel). The mid to late morning was growing warmer and more humid, so we cut the walk short, relaxing at the hotel before checkout time.

We arrived at NYSEG Stadium well before game time, this time parking on the lot beyond the right field fence (since the lot we employed the previous night was in use by local merchants). The bright sunshine afforded a better view of the park and its surroundings.

The view from behind the B-Mets dugout before game time. This view offers a great look at Mt Prospect. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

My favorite aspect of NYSEG Stadium has always been the view beyond the park. Just behind the left field fence lies an active train track, with Conrail trains occasionally passing during the games. Further in the distance, the hills provided a spectacular backdrop for the ballpark. During the games, I often found myself admiring the view almost as much as the action on the field.

B-Mets right hander Rafael Montero delivers a pitch in the first inning at NYSEG Stadium. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The starting lineups for each team were similar to those of the night before. The starting pitcher for the B-Mets was Rafael Montero, a prospect that showed alternating displays of brilliance and maddening streaks of inconsistency. Despite having made MLB appearances in the recent past, Montero’s start this afternoon in Binghamton was a clear sign that the Mets’ patience with the talented right hander was wearing thin.

The view from our seats. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

By first pitch, temperatures had climbed into the 80s, with just a touch of humidity in the air under full sunshine. The BaySox jumped out to a 2-0 lead against Montero, who allowed three runs in 5 1/3 innings of work. However, Montero also walked six batters, continuing the streak of inconsistent efforts that plagued his 2016 season.

B-Mets employee providing some relief from the heat to fans down the left field line. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The B-Mets struck back in the fifth with seven runs, highlighted by a two run home run by DH Dominic Smith. The potent B-Mets offense effectively put the game away, though the BaySox bullpen shut down the B-Mets for the remainder of the contest.

Dominic Smith celebrating with teammates after launching a two run home run in the bottom of the fifth inning. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

With the game in hand, I turned my attention back to the beautiful backdrop. Though the ballpark is on the edge of downtown Binghamton, it retains a suburban feel, taking advantage of the terrain to make the ballpark seem as though it was far from the city. The bucolic surroundings offset a ballpark that seemed to lack a charm of its own.

Amed Rosario turning a double play in the sixth inning at NYSEG Stadium. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Shortly after the final out in the 8-4 B-Mets victory, we headed back toward central New Jersey. The main reason to visit the park again was to see the Mets’ prospects in action, as there was no other compelling reason to return to the region. The visit takes on a greater significance in light of the MLB decision to pare as many as one-fourth of minor league teams after the 2020 season, with many reports indicating the Binghamton team is on the chopping block.

Given the current crisis, it is possible that 2020 minor league is in jeopardy. With that in mind, it is within the realm of probability that the Binghamton entry in the Eastern League may have already played its last game.