2018 Baseball Road Trip – Day 3 (New Orleans Louisiana/Biloxi Mississippi)

Sunday morning in New Orleans dawned wet and humid, with steady rain falling through mid morning. The rain tapered to showers by about 1000 am, as we awaited the 100 pm game between the Oklahoma City Dodgers and the host New Orleans Baby Cakes. To our great surprise, the Baby Cakes tweeted that the game was postponed not long after 1000 am. Though it was wet and humid, it seemed as though the game could have been played.

Suddenly, we were faced with a hole in our schedule. Not wanting to wander the French Quarter in the drizzle and fog, we searched for something else to do. My brother noted that there was baseball in Biloxi, Mississippi, with a 200 pm start time. Since there was no baseball here, we headed out to southwest Mississippi.

Google maps showed a 90 minute trip from our hotel to MGM Park in Biloxi, MS.

Unfortunately, the rain seemed to follow us east toward the border. In fact, it fell so heavily that I considered pulling off and waiting it out. As we drove, I was prepared for the possibility of arriving in Biloxi just in time for the game to be postponed. As we got closer to our destination, the rain subsided, though the sky remained threatening.

In spite of the rain, we made good time getting to Biloxi, which left us an opportunity to explore the city. The skyline of Biloxi was dominated by the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, located along the Gulf of Mexico. It is the largest building in Biloxi by far, and we could see it from the highway into town.

The Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, MS. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Driving through Biloxi, it was clear that the effects of Hurricane Katrina were still haunting the city. Newer construction was built on pylons several feet tall, hopefully saving the homes in the event of another hurricane. It was also clear that parts of the city haven’t recovered from the storm, with many unoccupied buildings away from the coast.

A home rebuilt on pylons to hopefully prevent damage in the event of another tropical system. (Photo credit:Jeff Hayes)

Of course, we happened on churches in Biloxi. The one that struck me most was the Nativity BVM Parish Life Center. The church towered over its section of Biloxi, and is part of a larger complex on Washington Loop. Even with the clouds and rain, the building exuded character. After driving through much of the city, we headed back toward the ballpark to find parking.

Nativity BVM Parish Cathedral, Biloxi MS. (Photo credit:Jeff Hayes)

1. MGM Park

Upon arriving at the ballpark, we found no parking in the general vicinity. We pulled into a parking lot adjacent to the park itself, where the attendant told us that the parking lot was for players, scouts and others involved in the game. When I asked where we could park nearby, the attendant looked in the car, pointed to my brother, and said “He looks like scout”. At first, I didn’t get it, but he was offering to let us parking in the players lot for the game. Talk about Southern hospitality!!!

Welcome to MGM Park in Biloxi, MS! (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

We proceeded to walk completely around the park before going inside. MGM Park is the home of the Biloxi Shuckers, the Double A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers. Their opponent this afternoon was the Montgomery Biscuits, the Double A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. The game was slated to start at 200 pm, but one look at the field suggested that time might be optimistic.

The rain had ended, and the sun was peaking out from the clouds, but there were puddles on the field. We wandered through the concourse as the ground crew worked feverishly to ready the field for the game (that’s how it’s done New Orleans Baby Cakes!). While we were walking, we heard a voice yell out “Bowie BaySox!”. Since I was the only one there wearing a Bowie BaySox cap, I assumed he meant me.

MGM Park about an hour before game time. Note the large puddle in the infield behind second base. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

As it turns out, the gentleman (whose name escapes me) worked in public relations with the Bowie BaySox years ago, but he remembered the BaySox caps. He gave us an oral history of MGM Park, and then offered us a tour of the press box. My brother took him up on his offer, and spent some time in the Shuckers press box before the game.

Just as we found our seats, the sun started to come out, with clearing coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. My brother applied sun screen, and asked me if I wanted to do the same. Saying “I think I’ll be ok” was me not respecting the sun in late April near the Gulf Coast. Eventually, bright sunshine splashed the field, and I was on my way to a nasty sunburn.

While we waited for the game to start, the ground crew worked to ready the field. Obviously, they had their work cut out for them. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Due to the diligent work of the ground crew, the game only started about 30 minutes late. Starting for the Biloxi was Wade Miley. He had signed late in the off season, and was sent to Biloxi to tune up before joining the Brewers. Miley was rusty, and it showed, as he gave up four runs (including two HRs) in three plus innings of work before being taken out of the game.

Wade Miley delivering a pitch in the top of the first inning. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The remainder of the pitchers entering the game for the Shuckers fared no better than Miley, giving up nine runs on 10 hits in mop up work. In contrast, the Shuckers offense was limited to three runs by the Biscuits’ pitchers. With the outcome of the game determined fairly early, some of the relatively sparse crowd exited early, leaving the ballpark nearly empty for the last half of the game.

A view of the a Gulf of Mexico from MGM Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

For the rest of the game, I admired the view of the ballpark. Even though it was obviously a prefabricated stadium (based on the appearance of the seating area), the views made this place stand out. With the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino prominent in centerfield, and Gulf over right field, the ballpark looked much bigger than it actually was.

The view from our seats, with the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino looming over the centerfield fence. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Following the final out, the Shuckers invited fans to play catch on the field. Of course, my brother and I were prepared, retrieving our gloves from the car. We spent the next 20 minutes playing catch on the field of MGM Park, before we were gently reminded that the ballpark would be closing soon. After our game of catch, we briefly visited the beach adjacent to the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. There were seemingly more seagulls than people as the sun began to set, and the white sandy beach reminded me of home.

The beach along the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi, MS. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The quick walk along the water was the perfect ending to a great day. This experience was my favorite of the trip, in part due to the fact that it was completely unplanned. The clear skies made for a much easier drive through the darkness back the hotel in New Orleans.

2018 Baseball Road Trip – Day 4 (New Orleans Louisiana to Houston Texas)

Following a very unpleasant experience at the hotel last evening, we spent far too much of the morning dealing with the aftermath. The wasted effort was carved out of time originally dedicated to exploring New Orleans. Undaunted, we checked out of the hotel and headed for the French Quarter.

1. New Orleans

The French Quarter, New Orleans. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Arriving at the French Quarter around 900 am, we surprisingly found parking fairly quickly. That was fortuitous, since we were slated to see a New Orleans Baby Cakes game starting at 1100 am. With little time to spare, we lit out to explore the area. Of course, we probably visited the French Quarter at the precisely wrong time to get a flavor for the place. Instead, we decided to take in the architecture unique to this part of the world.

Either the French Quarter was just waking up, or just going to bed. It was tough to tell. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

With relatively few people wandering the streets this time of day, we were able to cover a good amount of ground in short order. I found myself fascinated by the local architecture, which seemed to meld the Art Deco of Miami with baroque feel of Paris or Montreal. Much of the activity this time of day consisted of restaurant or bar employees hosing off sidewalks, and delivery people restocking for the day.

A couple of blocks from the Mississippi River we encountered some churches. Each church appeared to be more ornate than the last. Not being a religious person, I don’t share the same spiritual connection to the church as others, but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the architecture of the building. Something about the ornate design fascinates me, as though a story was being told by the structure itself.

Saint Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square.

In the time we had remaining, we walked down to the Mississippi River. New Orleans is the fourth location along the Mississippi that we have visited (the others being St Paul MN, St Louis MO, and Memphis TN), and each has its own charms. Following a wet and snowy winter upstream, the river was higher than normal, but the flow was gentle. There was little activity on the river (due primarily to the time of day), but it doesn’t take much to imagine it busy with commerce and pleasure crafts.

Looking south along the Mississippi River in New Orleans. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Game time was approaching rapidly, and admittedly we spent little time in this very special place. From the little we sampled, it was clear that there was much more than needs to be explored. New Orleans beckons for a longer stay, and I hope to do that in the near future.

2. Shrine on Airline

Shrine on Airline not long before the first pitch. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Fortunately for us, the ballpark was only about 20 minutes from the French Quarter, and we arrived early enough to walk around the ballpark before game time. The Baby Cakes hosted the Oklahoma City Dodgers (the Triple A affiliate of the LA Dodgers) at Shrine on Airline, located down the street from New Orleans International Airport.

Shrine on Airline from centerfield, shortly before game time. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The 1100 am game time is typical for get-away days for minor league teams. With the game ending around 200 pm, it allows teams to travel to their next destination at a reasonable time. When we made plans for this game, it was supposed to be the second game we saw here on this trip. However, the rainout the previous day left us this last chance to see the ballpark before moving on to Houston.

We didn’t know it at the time, but this WOULD be our last chance to see the ballpark (at least for the foreseeable future). Following the 2019 season, the Baby Cakes moved to Wichita, Kansas, becoming the Wind Surge for the 2020 Pacific Coast League season. New Orleans is seeking another minor league team, but there are no immediate plans to bring baseball back to the Big Easy.

Welcome to the Shrine on Airline! (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

After entering the ballpark, we conducted our typical trip around the stadium. Walking around, taking in the park, we got the feel of a modular stadium. The facilities seemed minimal, and while the ballpark holds 10,000 fans, it had more of a Double A stadium feel. The 1100 am start time resulted in a sparse crowd (which is typical). Many of the fans were members of local schools and clubs (also typical of an 1100 am start). The light attendance made the stadium feel nearly empty as the first pitch was thrown.

The Shrine on Airline, about 30 minutes before game time. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The starting pitcher for the OKC Dodgers was left hander Manny Bañuelos. The name was not familiar to me, but it was clear early that he brought his best stuff with him to the mound. Bañuelos allowed no run and no hits in four innings of work, striking out nine. Despite the great start, he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the fifth.

Manny Bañuelos delivering a pitch in the first inning for the OKC Dodgers. Bañuelos tossed four hitless innings, striking out nine. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

We have seen this in minor league games many times before. Players (especially pitchers) having a great game are suddenly and inexplicably removed. It has been our experience that minor league managers are more interested in evaluating talent than adhering strictly to game situations (seemingly at the behest of the parent club). For the Baby Cakes (the Triple A affiliate of the Miami Marlins), starter Sandy Alcantara (who would be promoted to the patent club not long after this appearance) nearly matched Bañuelos pitch for pitch, allowing one run on five hits in 5 2/3 innings.

The Baby Cakes scored two runs in the bottom of the sixth, breaking a 1-1 tie. They held on for a 3-1 victory, though the Dodgers threatened in the ninth, scoring one run and leaving runners at first and second as the game ended. Since we had miles to cover before our next stop, we did not linger long after the game ended. Though the stadium was “cookie cutter”, not distinguished from stadiums like across Minor League Baseball, I was glad we visited the Shrine on Airline, especially since the Baby Cakes have left New Orleans.

Google Maps showing our route from New Orleans to Houston.

Our next stop was Houston, a trip Google Maps depicted as a five and one-half hour drive. The drive was fairly easy, as we would miss the commute in New Orleans leaving in the early afternoon, and arriving in Houston as evening fell. The entire trip had us on Interstate 10, a highway on which we had never traveled. The trip was eye opening in that much of the roadway was over the bayou of southern Louisiana, a place we’d never been. By the time we arrived in Houston, I was tired enough for just a light dinner, followed by an early bedtime.

2018 Baseball Road Trip – Day 5 (Minute Maid Park)

Following a day of activities in the Houston area, we relaxed for a bit before heading out to Minute Maid Park for an evening contest between the Anaheim Angels and Houston Astros. We had been to Minute Maid Park once before, in September 2003. Having arrived just before game time back then, we didn’t leave ourselves time to truly explore the stadium. We planned to make up for that oversight.

1. Minute Maid Park

Welcome to Minute Maid Park! (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

We arrived about two hours before game time, not long after the gates opened. There was plenty of parking at a reasonable prices less than two blocks from the stadium, though I’m sure our early arrival made finding parking much earlier. Almost like an omen, my brother had difficulty having his ticket scanned from his phone. As it turned out, we had to scan a paper copy of the ticket to allow him enter Minute Maid Park. The callousness of the ticket staff was dismaying, but we let it go fairly quickly as we toured the inside of the stadium.

The train set against the coming evening in left field at Minute Maid Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Much had changed, but there were still many of the landmarks we saw in 2003. Gone was the flag pole in centerfield (no tears shed here), but the train on the left field wall was still present. The evening weather was as good as could have been hoped, and the roof was open for the game.

Our seats for the game. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Following a quick trip to the concession stand for dogs and drinks, we went in search out our seats. The stadium looked much bigger with the roof open (back in 2003, the roof was closed until the 7th inning), something we did not get to experience much in our previous visit. We sensed some trouble not long after settling into our seats. The people behind us were drunk and rowdy, and I began to get a sinking feeling, as though the experience was about to be ruined.

The roof at Minute Maid Park retracted over right field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

My fears were realized shortly after the first pitch, when one of the drunk fans vomited on us, with my brother taking the brunt. The fan explained it was his birthday, and he had too much to drink. His companion, also visibly drunk, starting screaming at the top of her lungs. Trying to be kind, I asked her to tone it down a bit, but I was told something I’d prefer not to write here.

Finally, I asked an usher to intervene. The usher talked to her, and tried to explain that she was just enthusiastic about the game. Dejected, my brother and I actively considered leaving, in order to maintain civility. The usher promised to watch over her, and eventually he did admonish her for her behavior. After that, the circumstance changed, and we were able to enjoy the game. Overall, I was disappointed by the response to the aberrant behavior, leaving me with a negative early opinion of Minute Maid Park.

Mike Trout at the plate in the top of the first. If memory serves, this is the first time I’d seen Mike Trout live. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

With most of the unpleasantness out of the way, we did our best to enjoy the game and the ballpark. In addition to seeing Mike Trout live for the first time, we also got to see Shohei Ohtani start for the Angels. Considering the amount of hype following him, I felt lucky to see him so early in his MLB career.

Shohei Ohtani delivering a pitch in the first inning. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Unfortunately, Ohtani did not have his best stuff that night, grinding out 5 1/3 innings, giving up four runs on six hits and five walks. However, the Astros pitching wasn’t much better, and the game took on the feel of a burgeoning slugfest. Angels SS Andrelton Simmons hit a ball completely out of Minute Maid Park (which only seems possible with the roof open), part of a two HR, 5 RBI night.

Minute Maid at night. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Simmons’ second HR night, a three run shot in the seventh inning put the game out of the reach. In total, 11 pitchers were used in the game. As it typical when this many pitchers are used, the game slowed to a crawl at times. On this pleasantly evening, in this beautiful ballpark, the pace of play was not as draining as it can be.

Following the last out, we exited the park and headed back to the hotel. Minute Maid Park is a beautiful place, but the fan unfriendly actions of just two took away from the experience. The Astros’ response was also distressing, leaving me with an overall negative feeling about the night. Hopefully the matinee tomorrow afternoon can wash away the unsettling vibe from tonight.

2018 Baseball Road Trip – Day 5 (Johnson Space Center/Galveston)

Having arrived in the Houston area the previous evening, we were well rested and ready for a day of exploring the region before taking in an evening game at Minute Maid Park. First stop was the Johnson Space Center, a visit both my brother and I had eagerly anticipated.

Entrance to the Johnson Space Center. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

1. Johnson Space Center

We arrived at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) shortly after it opened at 900 am. Arriving early, we found parking to be ample. Walking up the the visitor center, we encountered the first magnificent site of the day. The space shuttle Independence was placed atop a NASA 747, a mock-up of how shuttles were transported from landing site to launch site in Florida. Being old enough to remember the initial shuttle flight of the Enterprise piggybacking on a 747, it brought me back to the day of that flight so many years ago.

Space shuttle Independence atop a NASA 747 in front of the Johnson Space Center. The two craft are even larger than they appear in this image. In fact, I needed to back up as far a possible in the parking lot to include both in my picture. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Upon arriving at the visitor center, we decided to take the Tram Tour of the JSC. The $29.95 price seemed to be a bargain for what was sure to be one of the highlights of the trip. Assembling just outside of the visitor center to the right, we boarded the tram and awaited the start of the tour. Once we were underway, we saw something is did not expect to see: Longhorns.

A Longhorn lazing in the sun at the JSC. Unbeknownst to me, there is a long history intertwining the space program and the steer here. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Before this trip, I honestly didn’t know much about the JSC, and the tour guide took the time to explain the history of the Longhorns and the space program. Much of the land that the JSC now occupies what was once a steer farm, and NASA wished to retain some of the history of the land. If you are curious (as I was) about the connections, you can check out the Longhorn Project.

Following the visit with the Longhorns, we passed over a small gully, which contained surprise number two of the tour. In the gully was a five foot alligator. Seemingly unfazed by our presence, the gator sat nearly motionless as we passed by. Apparently, gators occasionally visit the JSC, traveling from Armand Bayou Park across the street.

The Tram Tour is different each day, though there are stops it makes each time. We passed by several buildings on our way to Mission Control. As we walked up to the access point to the old Mission Control, we were informed by our tour guide that access would require us to climb 82 steps to reach the site. Though there was an elevator for those with mobility issues, my brother and I decided to climb the stairs to reach the old Mission Control.

The view of the old Mission Control from the gallery. Visiting this place was a surreal experience, to say the least. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The effort was well worth it. We sat in the gallery seats just behind the controller locations. Unfortunately, the site was being renovated for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, so we were unable to walk among the workstations. While mildly disappointed, I was still thrilled to be in the same room where the magic happened. In fact, we sat in the seats were the Lovell family watched the Apollo 13 broadcast, not long before the mishap. Being old enough to remember the final Apollo missions, sitting this close to where a group of people worked together as one was like a dream come true. It reminded me of how far we came so fast in those days, and how we haven’t fulfilled the promise of the future forged by the Apollo program.

Personally, had the tour ended there, it would have been time well spent. However, there was much more to see. Next on the tour was Building 9, which housed some of the new technology NASA was developing for future space mission. While there was plenty to see here, I became transfixed by the Orion spacecraft.

The Orion spacecraft in Building 9 at the JSC. (Photo credit; Jeff Hayes)

The Orion is the capsule that will house astronauts as we return to space. Orion is expected to ferry four astronauts to the moon, where the yet to be built lander will bring them to the surface. Seeing the capsule buoyed my spirits concerning NASA and our potential for returning to the moon and possibly beyond.

Another piece of technology caught my eye on the floor in Building 9. Mimicking the movement of creatures on Earth, one of the probes was modeled after a spider. Though we didn’t see it in motion, it was intriguing to speculate how it might fare on an alien world.

NASA is apparently using spiders for exploration in the future. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The 90 minute tour ended far too quickly, though there was still one more place of interest to visit. The Saturn V building caught our attention. In front of the building was an ad hoc museum of the rockets used in the NASA arsenal through the years. While the other rockets were interesting, the Saturn V held the my gaze. The most powerful rocket ever to launch humans into space, the Saturn V is huge, occupying a building more than the length of a football field. Seeing it in person was sobering, a reminder of how amazing the program to put men on the moon truly was.

The Saturn V rocket. It was just about too big to fit in a single image. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

My brother has remarked that this was his favorite part of this trip. Even though I respectfully disagree, I will return to the JSC in the future, if only to visit the fully refurbished Mission Control.

2. Galveston

Never having seen the Gulf of Mexico on the Texas coast, we drove down to Galveston to find some lunch. We found parking near the beach, and walked down to the water near the pier. The white sand and amusement area on the pier reminded me of the Jersey Shore. Being a work and school day, there were few people on the beach, which afforded in nearly unfettered access.

The beach and pier in Galveston reminded me of the Funtime Pier on the New Jersey shore. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Walking onto the pier, we were disappointed to see that it was closed. Returning to the beach, I was captivated by the view of the Gulf. It reminded me of the story of Isaac Cline trying to warn the residents of Galveston that a hurricane was approaching in 1900, and how vulnerable the place seemed to the Gulf.

Though there were similarities to the Jersey shore here, we don’t have pelicans there. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Lunch was next on the agenda, and we decided on Jimmy’s on the Pier. Arriving late during the lunch rush, we were surprised to see so many people there. Despite being a seafood restaurant, we ordered more land based entrees. Seating was scarce after getting our food, but we were able to sit outside while we ate.

As soon as we were ready to leave, there were people prepared to take our seats. One last walk around the pier section of Galveston was followed by the trip to the hotel to relax before the game that evening. Though this was designed to be a baseball blog, I couldn’t help but share our experiences from the JSC.

2018 Baseball Road Trip – Day 6 (Houston to Marshall, Texas)

Following a busy first full day in Houston, we relaxed before heading to Minute Maid Park for a Tuesday afternoon matinee. Rather than squeeze in any more sightseeing in the Houston area, we stayed close to the hotel before checking out and heading for the stadium.

1. Minute Maid Park, Houston, Texas

Minute Maid Park, Houston, TX. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

We arrived at Minute Maid Park late in the warm and humid morning, finding parking plentiful across from the stadium. Unlike last evening, we had more than sufficient time to stroll the grounds before heading into the ballpark. As mentioned before, this was not our first visit to Minute Maid Park (our first visit game in September 2003), but we did not build in much time to explore the park before that game.

Wandering around the stadium we discovered there was much to see. Perhaps my favorite display outside the park was The Plaza at Minute Maid Park. It featured statutes of beloved Astros players, as well as a tribute to the Astros playoff teams of the past. Considering how few teams make good use of space outside the ballpark, the displays here was a refreshing exception to the rule.

The Plaza at Minute Maid Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The increasing warmth and humidity prompted us to enter the stadium to seek some relief a bit earlier than planned. Upon entering the ballpark, it was clear that the roof was closed (in contrast to the game the previous evening). When I asked a stadium employee why the roof was closed, the terse response was “because is 89 degrees in Houston”. Though I have been to Houston only twice, I assumed that the population was well attuned to heat and humidity, even in late April. The response reminded me of what I might hear in the Northeast; so much for Southern hospitality.

Wall art inside Minute Maid Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Undaunted by the response to my question, we continued to explore the inside of Minute Maid Park. While there were most definitely changes in the ballpark, some of the exhibits did not. The biggest change was the flagpole in centerfield. In truth, I was not a fan of that part of the stadium, and I was glad to see it go.

With the roof closed, Minute Maid seemed like a much different place. In fact, it seemed almost dank in comparison to the open roof game the night before. Following our tour of the park, and the obligatory visit to the concession stand, we headed for our seats. For this game, our seats were on the third base side, about halfway up the section.

The view from our seats. With the roof closed, it seemed dark, in stark contrast to the sunshine outside. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The Astros’ opponent for the 110 pm game was once again the Anaheim Angels. The Astros starter was Justin Verlander, former AL Cy Young winner and MVP (2011). By this time, Verlander was 35 years old, an age at which a number of hard throwing pitchers begin to lose their edge. Because of this, I watched Verlander closely during his start.

Justin Verlander was on top of his game this afternoon. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Verlander worked much harder than I expected. At the end of the Astros at-bat, he sprinted to the mound, getting to work immediately. Though his velocity was still in the mid 90s, his pitch selection and changes in speeds made him much more effective. Obviously, he learned that with age, natural ability needs to be augmented with hard work in order to remain successful. Verlander gave up two runs and four hits in his seven innings, while striking out nine.

Minute Maid Park before game time. (Photo credit)

The closeness of the game resulted in a fairly quick affair, with the Astros prevailing 5-2. Since our next ball game was about 24 hours away in Memphis, Tennessee, we did not linger long in Houston. The remainder of the daylight hours were spent covering miles. After about three and one-half hours, we called a day in Marshall, Texas.

After the game, we drove until we reached Marshall, TX, where we stayed the night.

2018 Baseball Road Trip – Day 7 (Marshall Texas to Memphis Tennessee)

Day 7 of the 2018 Baseball Trip started at the Comfort Suites in Marshall, Texas. Our target this day was Memphis Tennessee, to take in a Memphis Redbirds game at AutoZone Park. A rainout the night before meant we would be treated to a doubleheader, with the first game starting at 500 pm.

Google Maps telling us the trip from Marshall TX to Memphis would take about five and one-half fours, by way of Little Rock, AR.

1. Little Rock

About half way through the drive, we stopped for lunch in Little Rock Arkansas. Neither my brother or I have ever been to Arkansas, and Little Rock seemed like a fine town in which to sample life there. Parking near the Arkansas River, we walked around Little Rock for a while before looking for a place to eat.

We settled on Gus’s World Famous Chicken, located on President Bill Clinton Avenue. Arriving about lunch time, there was a crowd, but it didn’t require us to wait. After picking up our orders, we sat in the back of the seating area. Not long after we sat down, one of the waitstaff came around with an aluminum bowl filled with French fries. Apparently, at Gus’s, you can have your French fries topped off as often as needed!

Local artwork in Little Rock, AR. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Everybody at Gus’s was courteous and kind. Being from the Northeast, we have become accustomed to people always being in a rush, barely taking the time to notice what is going on around them. Our brief stay in Little Rock reminded us that there are places where people take life as it comes, all with smiles on their faces.

After lunch, we wandered along the Arkansas River, following the trails in a nearby park. Being a school and work day, there were relatively few people in the park, allowing us an opportunity to investigate the area with few distractions. After about an hour of walking, it was time to hit the road again. We left Little Rock with a very positive impression of the place. The Arkansas Travelers play in nearby North Little Rock, so it is possible we may return here in the future.

A view of the Arkansas River in Little Rock, AR. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

As we neared the Arkansas/Tennessee border, we encountered rain, the first rain we’d seen on the trip since Biloxi, Mississippi. Knowing that the game the night before in Memphis was postponed due to rain, I was becoming increasingly concerned that the same could happen tonight. Because of our tight travel schedule, we would have to skip the games in Memphis if there was a rainout.

Luckily for us, the rain was in the process of ending when we reached our hotel in West Memphis, Arkansas. The rain slowed us down reaching the hotel, so we only had time to drop off our bags and head to the ballpark in order to catch the beginning of the first game of the doubleheader.

2. AutoZone Park, Memphis, Tennessee

Weaving our way through downtown Memphis, we came upon AutoZone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds. Arriving before most people left work, finding parking was simple. Walking from the parking lot to the stadium, it was clear we were in an older section of Memphis, based on the architecture.

Entrance to AutoZone Park.

We were greeted at the entrance of AutoZone Park by an old fashioned sign announcing the game time (which was actually incorrect). From the start, we were impressed by the ambiance of the urban ballpark, and we had just reached the entrance!

Per our custom, we toured the inside of the ballpark before settling into our seats. As we were walking around taking pictures, it was obvious we were in a classic ballpark. Unlike many ballparks we have visited, we were able to access just about the entire outfield via the concrete walkway.

View from behind third base at AutoZone Park. The apartment buildings added to the urban feel of the ballpark. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes).

Completing a lap around the inside of the ballpark, we headed for the team store. My attempt to purchase an International League ball was thwarted, as the item was not yet fitted with a UPC code. Without the code, it could not be scanned or purchased . Assuring me that the ball would be available later, the store manager suggested I come back for a ball.

After leaving the team store, we went to the concession stand for dinner. Of course, I indulged in hot dogs, which were greasy but good. The concession stand offered a wide variety of food and drink, but we did not partake in the offerings. With food securely in hand, we went in search of our seats.

The view from our seats at AutoZone Park shortly before game one of the doubleheader. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Our seats were located a few rows behind the Redbirds dugout, giving a spectacular view of this beautiful stadium. While waiting for the action to began, I spent the time admiring the view of downtown Memphis. Almost immediately this ballpark became one of my favorites, and we’d only been there less than 45 minutes. All of my favorite ballparks (both MLB and MiLB) have an urban backdrop. While I’m not sure why, the urban aspect to the backdrop seems to give the ballpark more character.

Due primarily to the early start to the doubleheader (first pitch for the first game was scheduled for 500 pm), there were very few people in the park. The Redbirds’ opponent for the doubleheader was the Round Rock Express, the Triple A affiliate of the Houston Astros. As is customary for minor league double headers, each game would consist of seven inning games.

Lineup card exchange in a nearly deserted AutoZone Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The first pitch for game one occurred at 504 pm in front of a nearly empty stadium. On the mound for the Redbirds was Daniel Ponce de Leon, who was promoted to parent club (St Louis Cardinals) not long after this game. de Leon was roughed up this night by the Express, allowing six runs and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.

Redbirds’ starter Daniel Ponce de Leon delivering a pitch in the first inning of game one of the doubleheader. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The Redbirds’ offense was as ineffective as their starting pitcher, managing just one run on three hits. With the game well in hand, my attention turned to the beautiful stadium as evening rapidly approached. After the final out of the first game, there was a 35 minute intermission during which we walked around the concourse.

Not wanting to bother the staff at the team store, I decided to forego trying to buy the International League ball. It still wasn’t available, so I left. However, my brother was insistent, and the manager provide a ball for us at no charge.

AutoZone Park in between games as night began to fall. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

For game two of the doubleheader, the Memphis team came out wearing Chicks uniforms (the name of the team from years ago). The Redbirds were the Chicks for many years before becoming the Cardinals’ Triple A affiliate. Game two started at about 745 pm, when the ballpark had is maximum crowd.

AutoZone Park at night. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The Chicks featured an opener in game two, with Sam Tuivailala taking the hill for the first inning. Austin Bibens-Dirkx started for the Express (who would be promoted to the Rangers shortly after this start). Unlike the first game, pitching dominated. Bibens-Dirkx threw a complete game in a losing effort, despite giving up two runs in six innings.

Sam Tuivailala delivers a pitch in the first inning. The Redbirds donned Chicks uniforms for the doubleheader night cap. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The low scoring affair afforded a quick pace, with game two clocking in under two and one-half hours. As typical happens during night games, the crowd thinned out before the game ended about 915 pm. The rainout the night before allowed us to spend more time at this beautiful ballpark than originally expected, taking in its ambience and charm. AutoZone Park was named the best minor league ballpark in 2015, and based on what we’ve seen here, it was well-deserved.

Living a distance from Memphis, I’m not sure when I’ll return here again. If I do, I’ll make sure it’s when the Redbirds are home, as this ballpark is worth it.

The Redbirds mascot made a guest appearance as the first base coach. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

2018 Baseball Road Trip – Day 8 (Memphis to Chattanooga Tennessee)

Day 8 of the 2018 Baseball Road Trip began at the Knight’s Inn in West Memphis, AR, following a doubleheader at AutoZone Park the night before. Our ultimate destination that day was Chattanooga, TN, to catch a Lookouts’ game in the evening. Google Maps informed us that the trip would take a litle more than five hours to reach AT&T Field, home of the Lookouts. That left plenty of time to explore Memphis during the morning hours.

1. Memphis

The famous sign for the Lorraine Motel. I’ve seen this sign in pictures for much of my life. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Our first stop in Memphis (upon the request of my brother Jeff) was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Seeing the motel in person proved to be a sobering experience. Dr King was killed before I was three years old, and of course I don’t remember the tragedy. However, walking through the motel and seeing the room where he stayed, connected me to the event more intensely than I expected. Though the balcony where he died is inaccessible (as is his room), seeing the layout lends perspective to the videos of the event I’ve seen all my life.

Following our visit to the room where Dr King was assassinated, we made our way to the main section of the National Civil Rights Museum. Though we arrived at the museum just about as it opened on that sunny morning, there were lines of school children and visitors waiting to enter. As was the case with our visit to the rooms on the second floor of the motel, strolling though the museum was more powerful than I anticipated.

One of the exhibits from the National Civil Rights Museum. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

We spent about an hour at the museum, and could have spent more. However, there were other sites we wanted to see in Memphis, but I’m glad this was our first stop. If you visit Memphis, this is a must-see.

Our next stop was Sun Studio, on Union Avenue. This stop was my idea; how could I pass up an opportunity to see one of the crucibles from which rock and roll sprung? Well, for a moment, it appeared as though it might not happen. Unbeknownst to us (but probably known to the locals), there is not much available parking immediately surrounding the studio. After several approaches, I was about to give up, but my brother insisted we try again. Finally, we were able to secure a spot close enough to the studio to take the tour.

Sun Studio, Union Avenue, Memphis TN. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

From the outside, the studio presents a fairly unassuming profile. It belies the studio’s iconic status, and as might be expected, the place was busy. Just inside the right door was a small counter where we could buy soft drinks and snacks, as well as a small souvenir area. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for the next tour, which began promptly at the top of the hour.

The first part of the tour wound us through a museum of the early days of the studio, complete with displays of musical instruments and equipment. As a lifelong fan of rock and roll, I drank in the experience. The tour through the museum lasted about 40 minutes, followed by a visit to the studio itself.

Sam Phillips’ early broadcast booth. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

While I thoroughly enjoyed the stroll through the museum, the studio is what I truly wanted to see. Sun Studio is still a working studio, as our informative and engaging tour guide reminded us. Though ancient by today’s standards, there was undeniably a presence in this place. Elvis recorded his first hit, That’s Alright Mama, in this very location. For me, it was almost a spiritual experience, knowing I was standing where Elvis helped popularize rock and roll.

On the floor of the studio, there is a taped “x” in the spot where Elvis stood when he recorded his first hit. Our tour guide told us that when he first visited, Bob Dylan bent down and kissed that spot. When our guide asked in anyone in the tour would like to do the same, two people actually did!!! While I was truly enchanted by the place, that was not my idea of fun.

Amplifiers on the floor of Sun Studio. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The tour concluded in the studio, and we were welcome to stay for a while before the next tour. However, the size of the crowd made viewing the studio difficult, so we chose that moment to leave. If you have a deep connection to rock history like me, you cannot leave Memphis without visiting the studio.

With precious little time left before we had to head out toward Chattanooga, we headed for Beal Street. Visiting during the day most assuredly did not afford us the best taste of the area, though we did manage to obtain some feel for the place. Walking down the road, I couldn’t help but hear “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohen echo through my head.

Beale Street. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

After a quick walk up and down the street, we were forced to start on our way to Chattanooga. Of course, we only scratched the surface in Memphis, and I have every intention to visit this place again, making sure to see Beale Street at night. Before heading out on the road, we stopped at a Memphis Welcome Center in preparation for the drive. Memphis had one more surprise for us. Inside the center was a statue of B.B King, which was fitting considering his deep ties to Memphis.

B.B. King welcomes you to Memphis! (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

2. Memphis to Chattanooga

Leaving Memphis shortly after noon left us about seven hours before game time in Chattanooga. Luckily, the weather was clear, and the traffic driving across Tennessee this afternoon was generally light. Being from the Northeast, we were pleasantly surprised by the light traffic on Interstates across the Southeast. Even during times when traffic should be relatively clear across the Northeast, there is seemingly some problem (be it slow drivers in the passing lane, people afraid to pass trucks, accidents and endless construction) that slows our progress below an acceptable level.

Google Maps showing us the way to Chattanooga.

The drive itself was non descriptive, though we did notice many dead armadillos along the highway. Not knowing much about armadillos, I suspected that they lived further south, where winters are largely mild, even at night. Unfortunately for us (and the armadillos), we did not see a single specimen alive along the side of the road. Following a quick stop for lunch we were on our way again, reaching the hotel in Chattanooga shortly after 500 pm. We stopped long enough to drop off our luggage and freshen up before heading out to the park for the 700 pm game start time

3. AT&T Field, Chattanooga TN

Arriving at AT&T Field about 45 minutes before game time, we found parking at a public lot down the street. Being unsure of the parking layout at the stadium itself, we decided to park away from the field. We have found that parking near the stadium, especially for a well-attended game, can result in a significant slowdown exiting the vicinity.

The ballpark is located on a hill, which is evident as you approach the park. From a distance, it was not clear how to access the park on the hill, until we got closer. There is an escalator behind home plate that makes reaching the ballpark easier, especially to those with mobility issues. As we usually do when visiting a ballpark for the first time, we walked around the outside of the stadium taking pictures. Following the short tour of the outside of the park, we entered the stadium behind home plate. Before going to our seats,, we visited the concession stand, where I partook in a couple of hot dogs, which were unremarkable.

AT&T Field from behind home plate shortly before game time. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Taking our seats just before game time, we discovered that the seats were directly in the line of the setting sun. That resulted in some difficulty seeing the action that occurred in left field for the first part of the ballgame. On this evening, the Chattanooga Lookouts hosted the Tennessee Smokies in a Southern League game. Skies were clearing, and the temperature at first pitch (717 pm) was about 70 degrees. Despite being a Friday night (which typically means a good crowd), AT&T Field was only about half full.

The view from our seats. You can see the sun wash we experienced until sunset that evening. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Sitting down the right field line, we discovered that many of the seats further down the line were in fact general admission seats on an aluminum platform. These seats followed the wall into right field, though there were not many fans in the seats. Overall, the ballpark was on par with some of the Double A stadiums we have visited in the Eastern League. The sight lines were good, and from our seats we had a great look at the field.

Early during the game action, Lookouts catcher Brian Navaretto was injured by a bat during a backswing at the plate. Navaretto was visibly shaken after the incident, wobbling while trying to walk with help from the trainer. Despite his best efforts to remain in the game, it was clear he could not continue. Upon leaving, he received a standing ovation from the hometown crowd.

The scoreboard in left field at AT&T Field. Note the haze in the distance, caused by sun wash. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

After scoring a run in the top of the second, the Smokies tacked on four more runs in the top of the fourth, aided by a critical error by the Lookouts. That outburst essentially put the game out of reach. The Lookouts scored their only run in the bottom of the third. Once the game became out of reach, Lookouts fans starting leaving, and by the end of the game, there were few fans left.

AT&T Field at night. By the time this picture was taken, much of the crowd had already departed. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Due to the thinned out crowd, our getaway was smooth and quick. The warm evening was quickly turning into a chilly night, not surprising for late April. As ballparks go, it was about average for a Double A team, though it wasn’t without its charms. Our timing was good; unfortunately, the Lookouts are on the chopping block. MLB’s plan to eliminate 40 minor league teams leaves Chattanooga on the outside looking in. Hopefully, for the sake of the fans and the community, AT&T Field will host baseball in 2021.

2018 Baseball Road Trip – Day 9 (Chattanooga Tennessee back to Maryland)

Day 9 of the 2018 Baseball Road trip began with us checkling out of the hotel just outside of Chatanooga Tennessee after 800 am. The plan for this day was to make the trip back to Maryland after a hugely successful tour of ballparks through the Southeast US. The day started sunny and relatively warm, and we expected traffic to be light, considering it was a Saturday. Conditions seemed ripe for an easy drive home.

Google Maps depiction of the drive home.

Google Maps showed a drive time of 9 hours and 9 minutes with much of the drive on Interstate 81. In preparation for the trip, we knew that we would be passing by a couple of towns with minor league teams. The first was Knoxville, Tennessee, the home of the Tennessee Smokies. They were out of town, as we had just seen them in Chatanooga the night before. We also passed close to Kingsport, Tennessee, the home of the Kingsport Mets. The Mets, the advanced Rookie League team of the New York Mets, are a member of the Appalachian League. They play a short season, meaning their schedule did not start until the end of June.

About 5 hours into the trip, near Roanoke Virginia, I asked my brother if any of the minor league teams on our way back to Maryland had a home game that night. A quick searched showed that only the Richmond Flying Squirrels were home. Not quite ready to end the trip, we decided to make a relatively large detour, and headed for Richmond Virgina. While that destination did take us off the best path back, Richmond is only about 2 hours from home, so it was not as much of a detour as it seemed

We continued along Interstate 81 until we met Interstate 64, and about 2 hours later, we were in Richmond, Virginia. Our destination was The Diamond, the home of the Richmond Flying Squirrels. The AA afflilate of the San Francisco Giants, the Flying Squirrels hosted the Hartford Yard Goats. We arrived less than an hour before game time, having secured tickets for the 605 pm start via the web on the way to the ballpark. Not surprisingly, the game was well attended, and the best seats we could get were for the upper deck.

The Diamond, home of the Richmond Flying Squirrels. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Because of the sizeable crowd, we parked near the far edge of the parking lot, and made our way to the ballpark. We got to our seats about 20 minutes before the first pitch, which gave us just enough time to get something to eat. This was not our first visit to The Diamond. We came down to Richmond in May of 2017 to see a pair of games against the Harrisburg Senators. During those games, our seats were much better, but the weather that weekend was cloudy and cool.

Our seats for the game. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The first pitch occurred precisely at 605 pm. After a scoreless top of the first, the Flying Squirrels jumped on the YardGoats starter Parker French for three runs in the bottom of the first, adding two more in the bottom of the 3rd. The Flying Squirrels outburst continued in the bottom of the 5th, plating three more runs.

The Flying Squirrels Miguel Gomez reaches third without a throw following a wild pitch the bottom of the 1st inning. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Though the Yard Goats scored three run in the in the bottom of the 3rd, Hartford would not pull much closer. As the evening wore on, with the outcome of the game all but assured, the crowd started thinning out after 6th inning. By the end of the game, more than half the crowd had left. Considering we still had a two hour drive home after the game, a dwindling crowd would make exiting much easier.

The Diamond at night. Note that the crowd had thinned out considering that the Flying Squirrels had put the game out of reach. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

As mentioned earlier, this was not our first trip to the Diamond. A much more extensive review of the stadium can be found later in this blog. Overall, it was a pleasant experience at a nice AA stadium. It was also a great way to end the trip, squeezing in one more game before heading home.

Luckily for us, the exit from the Diamond was swift, and we headed north of Interstate 95 toward Maryland. The trip was smooth until we approached Maryland. The combination of traffic and rain slowed our progress, as it took closer to three hours to finally reach home

Tokyo/Kyoto, Saturday September 22 2018

Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo on a rainy humid afternoon.

Following a rainy and humid day exploring Tokyo the day before, we started our 2018 Japanese baseball tour at the Tokyo Dome. After spending the previous two nights in Shinjuku, we checked out of our hotel. We were planning to travel on the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station after the game, so we needed to arrange for our luggage to get to Kyoto.

There are restrictions on the size of bags we could take on the Shinkansen, and our luggage was too large to bring on the train. The hotel in Shinjuku offered a service to send out bags ahead of us to the hotel in Kyoto for a reasonable fee. We packed clothes and toiletries for a couple of days (since it would take two days for our luggage to get to Kyoto), and had the rest sent ahead.

Google Maps depiction of the trip from Shinjuku Station to Tokyo Station.

1. Getting to the Tokyo Dome

With the smaller bags, we headed from the Shinjuku Station to Tokyo Station, where we would locker our bags until the end of the game. Shinjuku Station is large and intimidating, even to locals who use the station on a regular basis. We knew we had to take the Chuo Line to get to Tokyo Station, but finding the line inside Shinjuku Station proved a formidable task.

After some false starts, we purchased tickets for the line at a ticket machine, and we were on our way. We finally found the line, and it was a 15 minute trip to Tokyo Station. Once in Tokyo Station, we needed to find lockers, which proved almost as challenging as winding through Shinjuku Station. We tracked down some lockers, and secured our bags. Paying for the lockers presented another challenge, since it appeared paying with cash was not the easiest method.

Having figured out the lockers, we headed for the Marunouchi Line. Finding this line was not as difficult, but did require some time and effort. Unfortunately for us, the map of Tokyo Station left something to be desired, so some legwork was required. If you are not experienced using mass transit in urban areas, using the Tokyo Metro could be overwhelming. Tip: do as much research as possible BEFORE heading for the train station.

Google Maps showing the train route from Tokyo Station to the Tokyo Dome.

While it wasn’t available to us for this trip, Google Maps is an invaluable resource for riding the train system in and around the Tokyo area. If you don’t have it on your phone, download it; the app is a MUST for traveling on trains in Japan.

Though it was a Saturday morning, the train to the Tokyo Dome was crowded, likely due to the game. The trip from Tokyo Station on the Marunouchi Line to Korakuen Station took about 15 minutes, including a short walk (less than 500 meters) to the Dome.

2. Tokyo Dome

The Tokyo Dome is the centerpiece of the Tokyo Dome City, a complex featuring shops, rides and an indoor playground for the kids. We have heard about this complex for years, as well as seen pictures. However, as often happens, the buildup for the Tokyo Dome City overshadowed the complex itself. While there were places to eat and shop, it seemed to be fairly pedestrain, and held little in the way of interest for us. Perhaps it was a matter of perspective; for a family with children, the place may have a different charm than it did for us.

The Tokyo Dome City complex, with the Tokyo Dome in the background. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Our interests in the complex were within the Dome itself. The Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) Hall of Fame is located within the Dome, having moved there is 1988. Seemingly modeled after the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown NY (USA), the Hall contains many exhibits from the past, as well as displays from the present. Like the Baseball Hall of Fame, there are rows of plaques commemorating NPB greats of the past, including players, managers, officials and executives.

Plaques adorning the walls of the NPB Hall of Fame at the Tokyo Dome. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Walking among the displays gave us the flavor of the NPB and its past. Unfortunately, almost all of the displays were in Japanese, so some of the history was lost on us because of the language barrier. Nonetheless, the story of the NPB was laid out sequentially, from the beginnings of baseball in Japan through the 1934 MLB barnstorming tour, which gave birth to the modern game. Much like our visits to the Cooperstown shrine, we found ourselves taking many pictures, as well as enjoying the history of the place.

A model of baseball in Japan from the late 19th century. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Of course, there was a tribute to Babe Ruth, who some in Japan credit with the surge in popularity of the sport after starring in the barnstorming tour. In addition to the past, there were many displays of the present day game with uniforms and posters of the starts of the NPB. Even though the NPB Hall of Fame is smaller than its American counterpart, we spent more than an hour learning about Japanese baseball.

Babe Ruth, responsible for the direction of baseball in both the US and Japan. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Upon leaving the NPB Hall of Fame, we were drawn to the Giants Team Store. Not surprisingly, the team store was huge, housed within the Dome itself. In addition to the usual souvenirs (including dolls and noisemakers, which are wildly popular in Japan), we were presented with not only apparel for the Giants, but other NPB teams as well. The store was packed, as might be expected before a game, and maneuvering through the crowded store proved tricky. Despite the large selection of items, I left with only baseballs with the Tokyo Dome insignia. My sights were set on seeing the my first NPB game!

3. Seeing the Game

My ticket for the game at the Tokyo Dome. Luckily, all of the vital information had English subtitles.

Thankfully, the tickets for the game were fairly easy to decipher, and we didn’t need any help finding our seats. We obtained our tickets from a broker, meaning that we did not have much choice over where we sat, although for our first NPB experience, it did not much matter. That was a good sentiment, because we were located at the very top of the upper deck behind 3rd base.

After finding our seats, we strolled across the upper deck from foul line to foul line, taking pictures. We have been all of the domed stadiums that host MLB games, and the Tokyo Dome seemed larger than all of them! The place is cavernous, with a capacity of 44,000 for baseball. Looking closely at the field, we could see lines that appeared to be yard markers. In addition to baseball games, the Dome hosts high school and college level American style football.

The view from the cheap seats at the Tokyo Dome. The Dome is even bigger than it appears in this picture.

Back at our seats, we realized we were in the very last row at the top of the Dome. It didn’t take long to determine that it was warm and a bit humid in the Dome. Unlike MLB domed stadiums, there was either little or no air conditioning, and experience suggested that the air temperature in the Dome just before game time was probably near 27 Celsius (or 81 degrees F). Judging by neighbors, this seemed normal, but the combination of warmth and humidity made the Dome somewhat uncomfortable for me.

Following pre game pageantry near home plate, the game started precisely at 1400. The Giants’ opponent for the afternoon game was the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, whose home was a short distance away in the Shinjuku section of Tokyo (where we were staying during this part of the trip). Since it was only a train ride away, the Swallows fans were there in force, and in good voice for the game.

Swallows fans located in the lower left field seats at the Tokyo Dome. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The Swallows fans filled the lower left field seats (reserved for fans of the visiting team), dressed in green. Though it may be difficult to see in the above picture, some fans have musical instruments, led by a conductor. During the Swallows at-bats, the fans play and sing songs specific to the hitter at the plate, and do so for all 9 innings. In the bottom of each inning, the Giants fans do likewise. We had seen videos of Japanese baseball games in the past, but seeing it in person was even better than expected. Even in a place as huge as the Tokyo Dome, their songs were LOUD. To get a feel for how it sounds in person, check this out!

The lineups for each time feature some ex-MLBers, including the starting pitcher for the Swallows, Matt Carasiti (who played for the Rockies and Mariners in the MLB stints). The Giants opened the scoring in the bottom of the 1st, scoring three runs off Carasiti. The Giants would tack on a single runs in the 6th and 7th innings, cruising to a 5-0 victory. Giants pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano tossed a 5 hit shutout, striking out 9 while only walking two.

Tomoyuki Sugano delivering a pitch in the 1st inning. Sugano scattered 5 hits while tossing a shutout at the Swallows. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Though the outcome of the game was decided fairly early, there was still plenty to see. We have come to learn that the Japanese treat baseball games like events, complete with cheerleaders and cute characters from pop culture. Most of the pageantry occurred pre game, but like many minor league games in the US, there were games for fans in foul territory in between innings.

Japanese baseball games have cheerleaders driving around cute characters. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

NPB baseball also has video replay, but the process includes something we don’t see the in the States. During the video review, the home plate umpire explained to the crowd what was going on. Unfortunately, we don’t speak Japanese, so we did not get the information. It would seem that this is a common occurrence, based on the crowd indifference during the announcement.

Finally, I learned of a Japanese baseball tradition that might not go over so well in the US. Dubbed Beer Girls, young Japanese women dressed in brightly colored uniforms carry quarter kegs of beer (as well as other adult beverages) on their backs throughout the crowd during the game. As misogynistic as it may seem by American standards, these women ran up and down the stairs tirelessly the entire game, with a smile on their faces the entire time! Speaking for myself, I was amazed and impressed at how hard they worked, and how they could keep smiling through it all.

A Beer Girl hard at work in the Tokyo Dome. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Leaving the Tokyo Dome after the game presented yet another surprise. Above the exits, signage warned (in Japanese and English) of strong winds just outside of the doors. This puzzled me, since the weather conditions before the game did not seem conducive to strong winds after the game. However, just after exiting, there were indeed strong winds. The winds dropped off just as suddenly as they had started. It seems as though exiting fans opening all of the exits nearly simultaneously caused a huge exhale from the stadium, resulting in strong winds due to the pressure difference.

My first NPB game experience exceeded my expectations, both on the field and in the atmosphere that is the Japanese game. The venue itself was fairly non descript, but the style of the game, as well as the actions all around is, made a great first impression. It whetted my appetite for more NPB baseball!

4. Getting from Tokyo to Kyoto

Our whirlwind second day in Japan included one more stop: Kyoto. The ancient capital of Japan, it was the perfect jumping off point for our next two games. We would headquarter there for the next few days, enjoying the region while traveling to other cities in Japan for ball games.

First up was getting back to Tokyo Station to retrieve our bags and catch the bullet train to Kyoto. We reversed course from the Tokyo Dome to Tokyo Station, though finding the lockers with our bags once back at the station proved to more than just a trivial matter. As mentioned earlier, Japanese train stations can seem overwhelming, and attempting to locate our luggage eventually tried my patience. Alas, persistence prevailed, and after getting our bags, we headed upstairs to get the bullet train.

We obtained our JapanRail passes for the bullet train the day before (a process that is reviewed in the blog about traveling while in Japan), and we showed them to the attendant as we reached the gate for the train. When the train arrived, we boarded Car 8 (the Green Car), which has reserved seating. The seating was comfortable, and more importantly, had power outlets for our devices.

The Google Maps depiction of the trio from Tokyo to Kyoto.

The trip took about two hours and 15 minutes, as the Tokaiso-Sanyo Shinkansen reached speeds of 180 mph. It was unlike any other train ride I’d ever taken, as it far more comfortable than I imagined. The ride was ultra smooth, and the only way we knew we were traveling that fast was to look out the window. The combination of the coming darkness and cloudy skies made sightseeing difficult at best. Instead, we relaxed and enjoyed the first class accommodations, and before we knew it, we arrived at Kyoto Station.

My brother had the foresight to book a hotel just across from Kyoto Station. We checked in and crashed after a long second day in Japan.

Kyoto/Nishinomiya, Sunday September 23, 2018

Day 2 of our Japanese baseball tour moved us to Kyoto. We chose to stay in Kyoto for a few days, since it was the ancient capital of Japan and would afford us an up close view of Japan the way it used to be. My brother chose a hotel close to Kyoto Station, as we would be traveling on the Shinkansen the next three days.

After the rainy and humid conditions in Tokyo, the sunshine in Kyoto was a welcome relief. Following an early breakfast, we went out exploring nearby Kyoto. The hotel was located within walking distance of MANY temples, as well as parks. Walking through local neighborhoods on the way to see the temples, we could not help but notice vending machines nearly everywhere. As we later find out, vending machines are ubiquitous throughout Japan.

Kondo Hall, the largest structure at the Toji Temple complex.

About ten minutes from the hotel, we found the grand complex of Higashi Hongan-ji. There are several temples and shrines in the complex, spread out over a few city blocks. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the complex contains the largest wooden tower in Japan, the five story Pagoda. This structure may be one of the most recognizable in Kyoto, and is spotlighted at night.

The Pagoda on the grounds of the Toji Temple. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes).

The largest structure in the complex is Kondo Hall (pictured above). Not accessible to the public (like most of the structures here), the Hall is the centerpiece of the temple. Strolling through the complex, we could almost feel the spirituality. It didn’t take long to see why Kyoto is so popular with tourists and Japanese alike.

Ambling through the complex, we came upon a manmade pond. Within the pond we saw some of the locals, soaking up the late September sun. Having spent more than two hours at the temple, we headed back to the hotel before leaving for Nishinomiya. The visit to the temple had me looking forward to what else we might see in Kyoto in the coming days.

Toji Template residents sunning themselves on a rock in a manmade pond. (Photo credit; Jeff Hayes)

1. Getting to Nishinomiya

Going to see the Hanshin Tigers take on the Yomiuri Giants at historic Koshien Stadium, we would need to take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen from Kyoto Station to Osaka Station. The trip took roughly 30 minutes, with three stops. After arriving at Osaka Station, we walked across the street to the Osaka-Umeda Station to catch the local train to Koshen Stadium.

Getting from Kyoto to Osaka, as depicted by Google Maps.

Like many train stations in Japan, the Osaka-Umeda Station seemed like a labyrinth of platforms and escalators. While we knew we had to take the Hanshin Line to the stadium, it wasn’t immediately clear where that was in the station. In addition to the Hanshin Line, there was the Hanshin Railway (a private line). The distinction caused some consternation, but once we determined where we needed to get Hanshin Line, we were ready to head to the stadium.

Not surprisingly, the train was packed with Tigers fans headed to the stadium. The trip to Koshien Station took about 20 minutes, with a walk of just a couple of minutes from there to the stadium.

The direct train line to Koshien Stadium took about 20 minutes on a very crowded train.

2. Koshien Stadium

Koshien Stadium is a unique ballpark in many ways. It is the oldest ballpark in Japan, having opened in 1926. It is one of only four major league stadiums still in use in which Babe Ruth played (the others being Meiji Jingu Stadium in Shinjuku, Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago). Koshien Stadium is the only remaining NPB ballpark with an all dirt infield.

It was against this backdrop that we entered Koshien Stadium. My brother had a QR code for our game tickets, and obtained our tickets via QR scanner at the stadium. Unlike the tickets we had in Tokyo, these tickets were more difficult to read. We asked a stadium employee which gate we should enter, and the answer was not clear. In order to find the gate, we had to nearly circle the stadium.

A ticket for the Hanshin Tigers game on a September, 23, 2018. It took some time to decipher the vital information in order to find our seats.

When visiting the TokyoDome the day before, we were able to walk around from section to section, taking pictures. This was not the case at Koshien Stadium. Security made it clear that we were to stay in our area, which limited our ability to take pictures of the stadium.

The view from our seats. Note the all dirt infield to the right. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The stadium was packed, with a sold out crowd there to see the Tigers take on the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. Clouds gradually filled in during the early afternoon, and by the 1400 start, skies were overcast, but seemingly no threat of rain. Even with cloudy skies, the beauty of the ballpark shined through. The stadium dates back to the 1920s, and possessed some of the charms of an older ballpark. Koshien Stadium has a feel similar to that of Wrigley Field (before its modernization). However, the stadium did not show its age, being maintained and groomed well. From the first look, it was clear that this was a classic ballpark; a great place to see a ballgame.

Our seats were located near the left field corner, less than 10 rows from the action. We were located next to the visitors section in Koshien Stadium. As we would learn, there is a visitors section in each NPB ballpark, but not all are in the same part of the park. It was interesting to be so close to the Giants fans, who were indefatigable throughout the game. You can experience the Giants fans chanting here.

The scoreboard at Koshien Stadium. The scoreboard bares a vague resemblance to the old scoreboard at Wrigley Field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The game itself was a tight affair, scoreless after 5 innings. The Giants opened the scoring with a run in the top of the 6th, with the Tigers answering in the bottom of the 7th. A single run in the top of the 8th provided to be the winning run for the Giants, who triumphed 2-1. Toward the end of the game, the sun tried to break out, resulting in a very striking cloud pattern late.

Sunshine trying to break through the clouds at Koshien Stadium toward the end of the game.

The game time was about three hours and 30 minutes. Unlike MLB games, nobody seemed to be concerned about the pace of play. In fact, we saw a fan served a beer with two out in the bottom of the 9th inning. As we left the stadium, we noticed fans still milling around their sections, slow to exit the ballpark. Clearly, NPB fans see the game as more of an event, and these fans were in no hurry to leave.

Koshien Stadium proved to be a classic ballpark, in the vein of Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. My brother commented this was the stadium he wanted to see on this trip, and it was well worth the effort. Should I ever find my way back to Osaka, I’ll do my best to revisit this place.

The train ride back to Osaka was not quite as crowded as the trip to Nishinomiya, a benefit of a lingering fan base. After arriving in Osaka, a quick walk across the street brought us to the Shinkansen and the ride back to Kyoto. Arriving after dark, we walked back toward the Toji Temple to get a look at the Pagoda at night.

The top of the Pagoda at the Toji Temple. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)