TD Bank Park, Bridgewater NJ

TD Bank Park, home of the Somerset Patriots. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)
  • First visit: exact date unknown; probably during the summer of 2013
  • Most recent visit: Sunday June 9th, 2019

Until my brother moved close to Bridgewater NJ in the early 2010s, I must admit I did not know much about the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB). Established in 1998, the independent ALPBA saw many changes in the number and locations of teams in the league over the years, but the Somerset Patriots remained the flagship franchise from the inception of the league until 2019 (the 2020 ALPB season was scuttled by COVID-19). In fact, the Somerset Patriots (who played their home games at TD Bank Park) were the “New York Yankees” of the ALPBA, having won 13 division titles and six ALPB championships. To extend the New York connection to Somerset, the Patriots manager from 1998-2012 was Yankees great Sparky Lyle . Having Lyle manage the Patriots helped legitimize the team and the league, and though he no longer manages the team, he does still make occasional appearances at TD Bank Park as an ambassador for the ALPB.

Yankees great and Somerset Patriots manager (1998-2012) Sparky Lyle. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Being an independent league, the ALPB does not have a steady stream of players shuttling through Somerset. Instead, rosters are typically filled with ex-MLB players, as well as some of the players we have seen in the minor leagues, and younger players that were not drafted into the MLB pipeline. From what we have seen, it is not unusual to have three to five players on each team that have MLB experience. Signing ex-MLBers can be a boon for the teams, as name recognition boosts attendance for home teams, as well as those coming to town. One of the more famous ex-MLBers to play for the Patriots was outfielder Endy Chavez. Mets fans fondly remember his tenure with the team, especially his spectacular catch in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. Chavez was a fan favorite for the Patriots as well, known for his gregarious style and willingness to engage with fans before the game.

Another ex-Met who played for the Patriots was left hander Bill Pulsipher. At the end of his playing career, Pulsipher would only play at home, not traveling with the team on the road. He showed up, made his start, left the game, and went home. Other players for the Patriots included teachers, and even front office officials. Though the ALPB does not pay very well, it can attract former MLB players trying to extend their careers, as well as young and hungry players utilizing the ALPB as a means to further their MLB aspirations. Given the mix of talent and experience, the level of play is actually quite good, about on par with AA teams in affiliated baseball. Being able to see these players in an intimate setting can be a big draw for die-hard baseball fans in areas with little in the way of other options.

Endy Chavez signing autographs on the field during an organized event before the game. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

My brother introduced me to the Somerset Patriots sometime during 2013, and I believe that we went to see games at TD Bank Park together that summer (though my brother has seen many more games there than me). From my brother’s home, the park is less than 20 miles away, but due to the volume of traffic in the area (especially near the evening commute), travel time to the stadium could easily reach 45 minutes. Because of scheduling (and the fact that I was living and working in Maryland during much of the 2010s), we typically attended games together on weekends, which eased the trek to some degree. The very end of the trip had us snaking through Bridgewater, crossing over the Peters Brook before reaching the stadium.

General parking is located just before the stadium, adjacent to the Bridgewater train stop of the NJ Transit Raritan Valley line (the train passes the left field wall, and is noticeable when it does) Parking is $2.00 (as it has been since the stadium opened), and typically there is plenty of parking available, particularly on weekends. Some people try to avoid paying for parking by leaving their vehicles in a store parking lot across the road from the stadium. This is a BAD IDEA, as the owners of the store parking lot will tow your vehicle if you are NOT shopping there. From the parking lot to the main gate of TD Bank Park, the distance is a manageable one-quarter of a mile, with sidewalks available for much of the walk.

The outfield at TD Bank Park, as seen from the seating area down the left field line. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Entering through the main gate behind home plate (which includes old style turnstiles) brings you to the upper concourse of TD Bank Park. Concessions and the Patriots team store are located on the upper concourse, which stretches from mid right field behind home plate to mid left field. Concession stands, for the most part, offer standard baseball fare, at reasonable prices. Down the left field on the upper concourse is a picnic area (complete with tables), as well as National BBQ. Extending down the right field line are additional concession stands, as well as the Kids Zone, containing activities designed especially for younger fans. There is a large grass berm located further down the right field line, which is available for larger groups. Finally, luxury boxes are located at the top of the stadium, adjacent to the Party Zone. In total, TD Bank Park hold about 6,100 seated fans, with standing room only adding another 2,000 to that total.

A view of the grass berm down the right field line, adjacent to the Patriots bullpen. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Like most minor league ballparks, visitor and home team bullpens lie down the left field and right field lines, respectively, easily within sight of most of the seats. Large advertising signs reach from the left field foul pole to the right field pole, and like many minor league parks, are stacked two high. A relatively small but functional scoreboard/videoboard combo rises up behind the wall in right centerfield. The scoreboard contains quite a bit of information for those fans who like it, and the videoboard is unobtrusive, used mainly for short video clips appropriate to the game situation. For a modular ballpark, TD Bank Park contains quite a bit of charm, while maintaining an understated feel absent in many new stadiums in baseball. Perhaps this is why the ballpark has won numerous awards, including Ballpark Digest’s Best Independent Minor League Ballpark, as well as best ballpark in the ALPB.

The scoreboard/videoboard combo in right centerfield at TD Bank Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Somerset has carefully cultivated a baseball experience focused on families and kids. In between innings, there are games and contests for kids on the field, and the Patriots’ mascot, Sparkee, entertains the crowd throughout the game. One of my favorite interactions is when the PA announcer shouts “Somerset”, and the kids respond with “Patriots”. Affordable tickets prices, good quality of play, and a suburban setting combine to make the Patriots an attractive family outing. As might be expected, attendance at TD Bank Park is among the highest in the ALPB, with near sellouts common during the warmer months. During the hottest part of the NJ summer, Somerset schedules night games as often as possible, even starting at 505 pm on Sunday, for the comfort of the fans.

TD Bank Park at night: (photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Unfortunately, the 2020 ALPB season was scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Patriots did play some games during the summer, taking on the NJ Blasters in a series games played on the weekend. A limited number of fans were permitted to see each game, and my brother was fortunate enough to see a number of games in the series. While another team in the ALPB played some games during 2020, other teams remained idle, and we were concerned that the ALPB might not survive the pandemic to play in 2021.

During the offseason, the Somerset Patriots accepted an offer from the New York Yankees to become their AA affiliate. New York chose a bizarre path for changing their AA affiliate, as the previous club, the Trenton Thunder, discovered they had been replaced in a tweet by the big league club. Affiliation with the New York Yankees meant that the Patriots would leave the ALPB, which is a blow to a league as it loses its flagship franchise. Another ALPB team (the Sugarland Skeeters) left the ALPB to become the AAA affiliate of the Houston Astros. We feared that the loss of the top two teams in the league could topple the ALPB, but the league announced replacements, and are planning to play the 2021 season.

TD Bank Park will host AA ballgames for the 2021 season, as the Patriots become an affiliate of the New York Yankees. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Regardless of their status, we expect the same great baseball environment at one of the finest minor league stadiums in the Northeast during the 2021 season. A number of changes are expected at TD Bank Park as the Patriots become part of the New York Yankee family. Most of the changes will be to the internal portion of the park, such as an upgrade to player facilities. On the field, bullpens will move off the field, and new energy efficient lightning will be installed in time for the season opener. Some enhancements are planned to the videoboard, including better instant replay results. Depending on how quickly fans are allowed back into the stadium, we plan to attend games at TD Bank Park during the 2021 season. If you find yourself close to TD Bank Park during the summer, check to see if the Patriots are in town. You will be glad you did.

Coca Cola Park, Allentown PA, Sunday May 24th 2015

Coca Cola Park from behind the centerfield fence. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

With most of the local teams on the road for the Memorial Day weekend, we stretched out into eastern Pennsylvania to attend our first AAA game in Allentown PA, to see the Lehigh Valley IronPigs at Coca Cola Park. Years ago, I read a book called Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life In the Minor Leagues of Baseball, in which the author posits that no players actually want to be in AAA; players from below are waiting for their turn to move to “The Show”, while ex-MLB players are looking to get back there. Not having been to a AAA game, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I would have been surprised if we didn’t see some familiar MLB names in the lineup or on the mound in Allentown that afternoon.

From central NJ, the 80 mile drive to Coca Cola Stadium took about 90 minutes, with just some construction delays slowing us down on Interstate 78 in eastern PA. Arriving about 90 minutes before the scheduled first pitch (slated for 135 pm), we easily found parking in the onsite lots (which were much bigger than I expected, with parking on either side of the stadium) for the typical price of $5.00. Since there was not much surrounding the park, we headed inside the stadium.

The view of Coca Cola Park from the lower level just behind third base. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

From the right field entrance (which is the main entrance for the ballpark), we walked along the upper concourse toward centerfield. Most of the concession stands are located on the upper concourse, and not surprisingly, the more popular cuisine in the park was pig-themed (considering that the team name is the IronPigs). Not one to engage in more than the standard fare at a baseball game, I did not spend too much time or energy on the cuisine at Coca Cola Park, but I did run across a review of what’s good at the park here. We encountered a picnic area in right field, as well as more places to eat behind the right field foul pole. In addition, we saw an area behind the right field fence designed specifically to allow fans to socialize. This is something we have noticed in an increasing number of new stadiums, as the way fans watch the games has changed.

Unlike most ballparks, the concourse encircled the stadium, allowing us access to the outfield. From the behind the berm in centerfield (where people lounged on beach towels in the bright sunshine), we got a good look at the seating area in Coca Cola Park. There are two levels of seating; the lower level, extended from the right field foul pole behind home plate to the left field pole, and the upper level, from mid right field to mid level field. A set of luxury boxes stretched along the same length as the upper level. Factoring in the seating in the picnic areas in left field and right field, and the seating in the grass areas of the outfield, Coca Cola Park can accommodate just over 10,000 fans (making it one of the largest minor leagues parks we have seen with respect to crowd size).

Scoreboard and videoboard behind the centerfield fence at Coca Cola Park. Note the grass perm area, which was not filled to capacity on this afternoon. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Continuing our tour of the ballpark, we passed by the scoreboard/videoboard combination in centerfield, adorned at the top with a Coca Cola bottle. When home runs are hit by IronPigs players, the bottle shakes and fires off fireworks. Next to the scoreboard are the bullpens, and above them, the Tiki Terrace, which houses group seating and a bar open to all ticketed patrons. Adjacent to the Tiki Terrace is the Picnic Patio, which hosts group gatherings. As we headed toward home plate, it was clear that Coca Cola Park was designed with fan comfort and accessibility in mind. It is little wonder that the ballpark has often won awards (such as the Best Minor League Ballpark on a number of occasions).

The IronPigs draw exceptionally well for minor league baseball, and have the highest average attendance since the ballpark opened in 2008. Not knowing this fact, we did not secure tickets until just before the day of the game, and that ignorance resulted in our seats being located in the lower level down the right field line. Though all of the seats in Coca Cola Park are angled for the best view of the infield, I felt as though we were far from the action, even in a park that was relatively cozy when it comes to seating. After grabbing a baseball lunch from the nearest concession stand, we settled into our seats for the beginning of the game.

The view from our seats at Coca Cola Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Lehigh Valley (the Triple A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies) hosted the Charlotte Knights (the Triple A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox) for the early afternoon contest. We expected to see some familiar names in the lineup or on the mound for this game, since AAA teams often have MLB veterans amongst their ranks. Though I didn’t immediately recognize any names in the Knights’ lineup, their starting pitcher was a different story. Taking the mound for the Knights was Brad Penny, celebrating his 37th birthday at Coca Cola Park. A 14 year MLB veteran, Penny was apparently attempting to catch one more ride to the The Show. There were a few familiar names in the IronPigs’ lineup, especially at the top of the order, who were with the Phillies at some point within the last year.

Not every seat in the ballpark was filled, but there did seem to be more than 9,000 fans in attendance for the game. A steady breeze from centerfield kept the temperature from getting too warm (as high temperatures can reach the 90s in eastern PA by Memorial Day weekend), and filtered sunshine made for a nearly perfect day for a ballgame. Charlotte struck first, scoring in the second inning, staking Penny to an early lead. However, Brad Penny did not have his best stuff that day, and after surrendering five runs in the third and fourth innings, his day ended after the sixth inning. Following a disappointing 2015 with the Knights, Penny left organized baseball.

MLB veteran Brad Penny delivering a pitch for the Charlotte Knights at Coca Cola Park in Allentown, PA. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

During the IronPigs’ rallies in the third and fourth innings, we heard something we’d never heard at a ballpark. Rather than simply cheer or applaud, fans squealed or snorted like pigs. Though odd at first (during which time much chuckling ensued, mainly by me), the squealing fit the environment perfectly, as there are MANY aspects of the ballpark that are pig-themed in one way or another. The unique fan celebration lent an air of authenticity to the experience, and when combined with the ballpark itself, created a very enjoyable atmosphere for minor league baseball. Clearly, Allentown loves their IronPigs!

Being fairly close to the right field wall, I could not help but notice the prominence of the advertisement boards. While it is typical for minor league parks to have advertising extending along the outfield wall, these boards seem to rise much higher than most of the parks we had seen to that point. A fairly large set of advertising boards rose up from behind the bullpens in left field, and the signage made Coca Cola Park almost feel like an enclosed MLB park. Despite the signage and its large seating capacity, the ballpark had an imitate feel to it.

A view of the prominent signage above the bullpens in left field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Charlotte rallied for runs in the seventh and ninth innings, overcoming a 5-3 deficit for a 7-3 victory. As we waited for the sizable crowd to exit the ballpark, I had a few moments to reflect on Coca Cola Park. The layout of the stadium, as well as the atmosphere created by the ardent IronPigs fans, made our experience enjoyable. Our first visit to a AAA park was a huge success, and had we known that the ballpark was such a jewel, we would have visited sooner.

Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium, Aberdeen MD, Sunday July 15th, 2008

A view of the home plate entrance of Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, MD (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

On an overcast, humid Sunday afternoon in July, we decided to visit Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium (referred to as Leidos Field for the remainder of the post), the home of the Aberdeen IronBirds. The IronBirds (whose name is an amalgamation of Iron Man, a nickname for Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr and birds, a moniker for the Orioles) were an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles when we visited in 2018. Members of the Class A Short Season New York-Penn League, the IronBirds played an abbreviated 76 game schedule, stretching from mid June to early September. The New York-Penn League was an entry point into professional baseball, and the teams were chiefly composed on recent college graduate and draft picks of the parent club.

Leidos Field, located in Aberdeen MD, lies along Interstate 95, and is clearly visible from that artery. Living in the DC area, getting to games there could be tricky, as it meant dealing with seemingly unending traffic traveling north into northern MD, and for much of the time I lived near DC, the trip did not seem to be worth the hassle. Though the trip was 60 miles from my home to the ballpark, snarling traffic could make that a 90 minute (or longer) trek, particularly around the time of the evening commute. However, the warm and humid weather, along with the threat of rain, made the journey appear to be tolerable on a Sunday afternoon. Typically, Sunday afternoon in the summer in northern MD could be busy, as people try to beat the traffic leaving after the weekend.

Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium from just to the left of home plate. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Arriving less than an hour before the scheduled 405 pm start, we found that the parking lot at the ballpark was expansive, to say the least. Leidos Field is part of the Aberdeen complex, which also houses fields for other sporting events. We found parking almost immediately, and unlike most ballparks, parking was FREE. We briefly toured the outside of the stadium, as well as the complex, but there was very little to see or do that afternoon outside of the park. Having purchased tickets online before the game, we entered through the home plate entrance, which led us to the upper concourse. On the upper concourse we found the majority of concession stands, as well as the IronBirds team store (which was well stocked, and we indulged with purchases, including Aberdeen tee shirts).

As is customary for us visiting a new park, we walked along the upper concourse from the left field foul pole to the right field foul pole (the outfield was inaccessible to fans). We discovered that Leidos Field was a modular ballpark that opened in 2002. Much of the seating consisted of green seats divided into a lower deck and upper deck, separated by a lower concourse. Seating stretched from near the left field foul pole behind home plate to the right field foul pole, which was surprising considering the park’s main tenants played a shortened season. A party deck and the Kids Zone lie beyond third base in left field, and luxury boxes extend from dugout to dugout. In total, Leidos Field seats about 6,300 fans, which is a large capacity for the level of play.

A view of Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium showing the two tiers of seats as well as the luxury boxes. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

A small but functional scoreboard stands beyond the left field fence, and a larger, more elaborate video board is located in right center field. Though not as large as video boards we have seen in other minor league parks, it was nonetheless an impressive piece of technology for a park that is used only for a portion of the baseball season. Bullpens are positioned behind the wall next to the foul poles. It is unusual for minor league parks to have bullpens not in play, but as we explored Leidos Field, we discovered that the park was impressive for any level of play in the minors. It was abundantly clear that the ownership spent a considerable amount of time and effort to construct a ballpark that provides an excellent fan experience in a comfortable setting.

A view of the stadium showing both the scoreboard and video board. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Following our tour of the stadium, we backtracked in the upper concourse to the concessions, located near the home plate entrance. While there were some specialty items available on the menu at some of the concession stands, we chose more standard fare for our baseball dinner, and headed to our seats. Every game since Opening Day in 2002 has been a sellout at Leidos Field (a very impressive feat for a minor league team), and that fact had some influence on the seats we could secure for the late Sunday afternoon game. Though it was clear that the weather would have an impact on the attendance for the game, we could only garner seats in the lower tier just past first base, which provided a less than desirable view of action at home plate. Undeterred, we settled into our seats and awaited the start of the game.

On that afternoon, the IronBirds hosted the Auburn (NY) Doubledays, a team named for the supposed inventor of baseball. The Doubledays were an affiliate of the Washington Nationals, so there was a flavor of a local rivalry in Leidos Field that afternoon. Skies remained cloudy through the afternoon into the early evening, but conditions remained dry (with thunderstorms remaining distant from the ballpark in Aberdeen). Though the game was technically a sellout, there were far fewer than 6,300 people in the ballpark. Threatening skies and a late start on a Sunday may have been contributory factors with respect to attendance, but the ballpark looked and felt as though it was mostly empty.

A view of the action from our seats down the first base line. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Generally, the level of play in the Class A Short season is entry level; after all, most of the players are getting their first taste of professional baseball. However, it was fairly clear early that both teams were polished, and the level of play was better than I expected. Pitchers tend to lag hitters when it comes to development for the younger ballplayers, with control of their arsenal being the main sticking point. Both pitching staffs acquitted themselves well during the game, though the Aberdeen starter unleashed consecutive wild pitches in the top of the first inning, leading to an Auburn run. As is usually the case in minor league ball games, there were no pitching changes during play, as the respective staffs are as interested in evaluating how their prospects handle pressure as well as how they display their talent. Game situations do not typically determine lineup changes; those changes are based more on when management has seen enough of a particular player on that day.

Clouds and some mist dominated the weather conditions for the game, but even that could not tarnish Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium. Though the stadium is adjacent to Interstate 95, the ballpark felt as though it was perched in a suburban setting, with lines of trees visible beyond the left field fence. During the half-inning breaks, I spent my time admiring the facility, built as if it was designed for a higher level of play. In fact, the park was one of the finer minor league stadiums we have visited. Low attendance for this particular game made it seem empty, potentially robbing it of charm, which we did not feel on this visit.

Rip Chord, one of two IronBirds mascots. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Auburn won a tight contest 3-2, though the IronBirds scored a run in the bottom of the eighth inning to make the game closer. Toward the end of the game, the clouds thinned out, and there were a few glimpses of sun in the western sky as evening approached. Had I known that the ballpark was such a gem, we would have made an effort to see it before 2018, despite the ever present traffic issues. Since our visit, MLB made sweeping changes to its minor league system. Besides eliminating about one-quarter of the teams, MLB changed the structure, and Aberdeen was installed as the Class A High affiliate of the Orioles. This change means that they moved up in class, and more importantly, the IronBirds will play a full schedule in 2021. Having a full-time team at Leidos Field seems more befitting of the excellent facility. If you are close to Aberdeen during the summer months, and the IronBirds are in town, we would encourage you to deal with any potential traffic problems and see one of the better minor league ballparks we have seen in our travels.

Sunshine peeked through the clouds at the end of the game in Aberdeen. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

NYMEO Field at Harry Grove Stadium, Frederick MD

The view of NYMEO Field at Harry Grove Stadium from the upper section of the main seating area. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)
  • First visit: Sunday August 12th 2018
  • Most recent visit: Sunday April 21st 2019

With so many baseball choices within an hour or so of where I was living in Maryland, it took until 2018 before we finally visited NYMEO Field at Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick MD. NYMEO Field is the home of the Frederick Keys, the high A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, who played in the Carolina League until 2019. From my home, NYMEO Field is about 39 miles away, and the drive varies from 45 minutes to more than an hour, depending on the game time and resulting traffic. After clearing the DC Metro area, the drive becomes scenic in spots, and as long as the evening commute can be avoided, the drive is fairly stress free.

Main parking for NYMEO Field is located in the front of the ballpark, just off Stadium Drive, and is a short walk to the main gate. This parking lot tends to fill quickly, especially during good weather before evening games. If this lot is full, there is a secondary lot behind the right field wall, which requires a walk of less than one-quarter of mile to the main entrance. Unlike most ballparks we have visited, parking at NYMEO Field is FREE, regardless of the lot used.

The main gate at NYMEO Field at Harry Grove Stadium, as seen from the main parking lot in front of the ballpark. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

NYMEO Field at Harry Grove Stadium is a modular ballpark, like many we have seen in our travels. Opening in 1990, it is one of the older minor parks we have encountered, yet its appearance does not bely its age. After entering the park through the main entrance, we crossed the upper concourse, which houses most of the concession stands in the stadium, as well as the team store. Once we emerged from the upper concourse, we saw that the main seating area at NYMEO Field was comprised of two levels, extending from third base base dugout behind home plate to the first base dugout. The lower concourse separates the two seating areas, with the lower seating area sporting orange seats, and the upper seating area adorned with navy blue seats.

Beyond each dugout, there is general admission seating consisting of aluminum benches. Finally, there is a row of luxury boxes atop the park, and a press level, which is flush with the upper concourse. In total, there are about 5,400 seats at NYMEO Field, which is typical of stadiums for this level of play. Ticket prices are reasonable, and all of the seats have good sight lines. There are four concession stands in the ballpark, with a number of portable stands all offering typical fare for baseball. The Roasthouse Pub and Kitchen Creations offer more in the way of variety, and I found myself going to the latter for my concession needs at the park.

The view of NYMEO Field from the general admission seats, offering a good view of the seating area. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Like many minor league (MiLB) parks we have seen, there is a portion of the park devoted to younger fans. Down the right field line is the Giant Eagle Fun Zone, which offers a carousel, a bounce house and water slides during the summer months. There is a distinct family friendly feel at NYMEO Field, and we saw more kids here than most other MiLB parks, especially when compared to the Orioles AA affiliate in Bowie MD. Sunshine and humid conditions during the early late morning gave way to more in the way of clouds as we reached the park, and there was a concern that thunderstorms might become an issue as the afternoon wore on.

As is typical for Sunday afternoon games following Saturday night contests, the attendance was comparatively light, and there were many good seats available. We sat just to the left of home plate, behind the protective screen in the lower deck. By game time (which was 205 pm), clouds had taken over the skies over NYMEO Field, and I became concerned that the game might be lost to the weather. The forecast was for thunderstorms, but I was hoping against hope that we could get the game in before the skies opened up.

Skies became increasingly ominous with time at NYMEO Field at Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick, MD. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

As we kept a collective eye to the sky, the game started on time. Frederick played host to the Buie Creek Astros, the high A affiliate of the Houston Astros. The second batter for the Astros hit a home run, and the home team found themselves behind 2-0 before coming to the plate. In the bottom of the second inning, the Keys began to claw their way back into the game as second baseman Preston Palmeiro (the son of Orioles great Raphael Palmeiro) hit a home run to make the second 2-1. Rain started to fall in the top of the third inning, with lightning not too far away. Somehow the top of third inning was completed, but shortly thereafter rain and lightning chased most fans in the upper concourse (which was covered from the elements), and play was halted.

Preston Palmeiro rounding third base after hitting a home run in the bottom of the second inning at NYMEO Field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Rain and thunder continued for more than 30 minutes at NYMEO Field, and the outlook for the game to continue in these conditions was bleak. We stood with other fans in the upper concourse, vainly hoping we could resume play. While waiting, we perused the Keys team store, which offered standard fare, and listening to the sound of the rain pelting the roof of the stadium. When it became obvious that there would be no more baseball that afternoon, we prepared to leave. Just as we were walking to the exit, the game was officially cancelled. Rather than postpone the game, it was cancelled, since we were so close to the end of the MiLB season. Our first visit to see the Keys was washed out after just two and one-half innings. Disappointed, we pulled away from the stadium. Though the sample size was small, I was impressed with the stadium and its feel, and I knew we would have to visit again.

Unfortunately, this was how our first visit to NYMEO Field ended. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Fortunately, the weather was much more agreeable for our next visit on April 21st, 2019, as the Keys played host to the Salem Red Sox, the high A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Partly sunny skies and seasonable temperatures made for ideal conditions to see a game, and we arrived about an hour before game time. Having seen most of NYMEO Field during our previous excursion, we did not explore the park quite as extensively. Like most MiLB parks, the outfield was ringed by wooden advertising signs (with signs stacked two or three high in places). Sitting atop the the left field advertising signs was a small but functional videoboard and a small but functional scoreboard rose above the wall in right field. A smaller scoreboard and videoboard suited the ballpark nicely, functional and certainly unobtrusive.

Bullpens for the home and visiting teams were located about halfway down the foul lines, and like most MiLB parks, the bullpens were in foul territory. Because of the angling of the field, the seating area for each bullpen placed players in a precarious position for line drive foul balls. We found that pitchers did not occupy this area unless they were warming up to come into the game. More sunshine gave us a better feel for the ballpark, and increased my appreciation for it. In fact, I wished that it was located in Bowie (closer to where I live), since it seemed to be a much better facility than the one I frequented during the summer.

Frederick Keys relief pitchers sitting on the bullpen bench. They tended to scatter during the game, as line drive foul balls are a hazard here. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Visiting again on a Sunday, the crowd was fairly small, though the nice spring weather certainly wasn’t a deterrent. Because of the thin attendance, we sat in the first row directly behind the third base dugout, giving us a great view of the action. Unlike our previous visit, we were treated to a full game. Though the crowd was spread out across the seating area, they were enthusiastic. We learned that when the Keys were rallying, fans shook their keys (in addition to cheering), which seemed appropriate. To get a better feel for the atmosphere of NYMEO Field, you check out a video clip here.

The level of play in the Carolina League is better than the lower levels, but not nearly as polished as you would expect to see in MLB stadiums. At this level, hitting is usually better than the pitching, as the young arms are still developing. Talent on the field is unmistakable, but players are still, in some cases, working on fundamentals. The experience level in the Carolina League can be wide, as players as young as 18 years of age compete against former college players climbing the ladder through their respective systems. Keeping that in mind, baseball in the MiLB can be more fun than the MLB, watching players that you might see in MLB uniforms in the near future, in a much more intimate setting.

A few shots of the action at NYMEO Field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

On this day, we saw a relatively well-played game, with fewer walks than typical for high A baseball, as the hometown Keys squeezed out a 4-2 victory. While NYMEO Field at Harry Grove Stadium is a modular stadium that resembles many MiLB parks we have seen, there is an family friendly atmosphere, which results in a pleasant baseball experience. A downsizing plan by MLB threatened to eliminate the Frederick Keys , as MiLB was slated to contract from 160 teams to 120 across the United States after the 2020 season. Given the cancelled season due to the pandemic, there was a distinct possibility that the Keys fans would have been robbed of the chance to say a proper goodbye to their team.

Fortunately, the Frederick franchise was spared the ignominy of oblivion, as they were chosen to host one of the teams of the MLB Draft League. The new league, featuring top prospects eligible to be drafted, will debut in 2021. Though the level of play may not as high as the Keys fans have come to expect, I would encourage you, if given the opportunity, to see a game at NYMEO Field.

Baseball will return to NYMEO Field at Harry Grove Stadium as part of the newly minted MLB Draft League. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

NYSEG Stadium, Binghamton NY, August 23rd and 24th 2014

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

Since the list of MLB stadiums to visit was becoming increasingly small, we decided to branch out and start visiting minor league (MiLB) stadiums. At first, the radius for visiting MiLB ballparks was limited to places within a three or four hour drive from central NJ. Being avid Mets fans, we set our sights on Binghamton, NY, the home of the Mets AA affiliate. Our first visit occurred in August of 2014, and rather than make it a day trip, we planned our weekend trip to cover the last two games of a three game set with the Akron RubberDucks. The drive from central NJ to NYSEG Stadium, the home of the Mets AA affiliate, was fairly easy, taking about three hours following a mostly interstate route.

After checking into our hotel, we headed out toward the ballpark ahead of a 705 pm game start. NYSEG Stadium is located in the southern part of Binghamton, nestled between the Chenango River to the west and the Susquehanna River to the southeast, about a mile from our hotel. Arriving an hour before game time, we parked in a private lot across from the stadium on Henry Street. With the businesses apparently closed for the day, parking here was plentiful, and the price was certainly right (a mere $5). This was not our only option, but it appeared first as we approached the stadium. There is a Binghamton team-run lot behind the right field wall of NYSEG Stadium (which is closed on Fireworks Nights). Parking there is also $5, and the walk to the ballpark is only a little bit longer than the private lots just across the street.

NYSEG Stadium from just behind the dugout on the first base side. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Located in a mainly residential area, there is not much in the way of activities or places to eat in the immediate vicinity of the park. As a consequence, our normal tour of the outside of a new ballpark was fairly short, and we entered the stadium through the home plate entrance.

NYSEG Stadium is a modular ballpark whose appearance is similar to the majority of the modular MiLB parks we have seen in our travels. There are two decks of seats extending from just beyond the third base to just beyond the first base dugout. The lower deck stretches from the main concourse down to the first seven to 10 rows, and the second deck rises up from the concourse to near the apex of the park. Atop the seating area are luxury boxes and the press level, which are covered by a small roof (as is the top of the second seating deck behind home plate). In total, NYSEG Stadium hold about 6,000 fans, which is on par with other AA stadiums.

The scoreboard/video board at NYSEG Stadium in Binghamton NY (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Like most MiLB parks, wooden advertising signs span the outfield walls, and there is a relatively small video board/scoreboard in right center field. The layout of the video board/scoreboard is vaguely reminiscent of the old Shea Stadium scoreboard, and perhaps the likeness was intentional, as the Mets are the parent club. Overall, the ballpark itself seemed unassuming. It was surprising to learn that NYSEG Stadium opened in 1992, because in some respects the ballpark seems older. This was especially true of the park’s inner concourse, where the bulk of the concessions are located. After walking around the inside of the park (which is typical for a first visit), we obtained a baseball dinner and headed toward our seats.

Akron had been playing well for much of the season, and seemed to be a lock for a playoff spot. However, leading up the series with the Mets, they had been playing uneven baseball, allowing Binghamton to move to within striking distance of the RubberDucks for a playoff spot. Starting for the Mets that night was 26 year old righthander Greg Peavey. Leading the Binghamton staff in wins and ERA during the 2014 campaign, Peavy pitched well enough to keeping the suddenly struggling RubberDucks down for much of the game, with the Mets beating Akron 5-2.

The view of NYSEG Stadium from behind home plate at the end of batting practice. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

In the Mets’ portion of the sixth inning, we saw something I had never seen before in person. With runners on first and second, a line drive off the bat of Mets second baseman Dilson Herrera was nabbed in right field on a great catch by the RubberDucks’ Jordan Smith. The Mets runners were on the move, thinking the ball would find a gap in the outfield, and both runners were unable to return to their bases after the catch, resulting in the first triple play I’d seen live. Later in the game, when RubberDucks manager Dave Wallace made a pitching change, we were close enough to see the desperation in eyes, as though he was witnessing the season slipping away. When the Mets pitching coach Glenn Abbott questioned a procedural error by Wallace, we could hear him say ” What the f**k? Just let it go!”

Following the game, we headed across the street to retrieve the car and head back to the hotel for the night. My first impression of the stadium was that is was fairly non descript, and that the crowd was tiny (far less than the announced attendance of 3,800) for a team that was fighting for a playoff spot. We would get a much better look at NYSEG Stadium during the Sunday matinee, the third and last contest of the three game set. Not surprisingly, the streets in Binghamton were nearly deserted as we made out way back for a good night’s sleep after a long day of travel.

My scorecard from the game.

We had some time on our hands on a bright sunny Sunday morning after breakfast at the hotel, so we walked along the the Chenango River (which runs alongside the Holiday Inn in Binghamton). We then walked the streets of Binghamton on the warm and dry morning. It was obvious that the city had seen better times, and Binghamton was beginning to show its age. With that said, I was impressed by some of the architecture of the city. There were hints of Art Deco, Neoclassic design and even some Modernism in the churches and government buildings, some of which were built during the Great Depression. Never having been here before, I had no idea what to expect, but I was impressed with the part of the city we explored before heading out to the ballpark.

The view over the left field fence ay NYSEG Stadium. showing the tree covered hills, as well as the train track just behind the outfield wall. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Once again we arrived about an hour before game time, and we were able to secure parking across the street in a private lot. We wandered around the park a bit more than the night before, and discovered that there were some souvenir stands near the right field foul line, as well as some games for the kids. As is often the case for a Sunday afternoon game following a Saturday night game, the crowd promised to be fairly thin, despite wall to wall sunshine, pleasant temperatures and low humidity. Our seats for this game were very good, near the front row of the lower section just behind first base. From that vantage point, we were treated to a good view of the beautiful hills to the northwest of the ballpark, and the train track lying just behind the left field fence.

Steven Matz pitched well for the Binghamton Mets, a game Binghamton would win 5-0. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Part of the attraction of coming to Binghamton (along with seeing the ballpark) was seeing rising stars in the Mets minor league system up close and personal in their home setting. Fortunately for us, much heralded left handed starter Steven Matz was on the mound for Binghamton, and our seats gave a great look at someone who would be a member of the 2015 National League Champion New York Mets. Matz was impressive in the start, lasting five innings, and allowing no runs on three hits with six strikeouts. Akron struggled against Matz and a trio of relievers, as the Mets took the last game of the series 5-0.

With the win, the Binghamton Mets edged closer to an Eastern League playoff spot. This team loaded with young talent that would at least make an appearance with the parent club in the near future, and would ultimately win the 2014 league championship. As we were leaving for our three hour trip home, I reflected on what we had seen. Because NYSEG Stadium did not have any single outstanding attribute, I felt as though the ballpark took a back seat to the Mets AA team. Having seen the park and the city of Binghamton, I felt as though we had seen all there was to see there, and did not anticipate a return visit.

FirstEnergy Park, Lakewood NJ

Looking at the home plate entrance of FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood NJ. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)
  • First visit: exact date unknown, probably in spring of 2001
  • Most recent visit: Sunday, June 6th 2021

Growing up on the Jersey shore in the 1970s and 1980s, we did not have any local baseball. Our nearest ballpark was Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. During most of that time, the nearby MLB parks were difficult to reach, so we did not go to many live professional games until the mid 1980s. While we were aware of the minor leagues, we did not have any local minor league teams close to us. Had there been a local minor league team, we would have spent quite a bit of time at the ballpark, as thirsty as we were for live professional baseball. That would have been like a dream to avid baseball fans across central NJ.

Fast forward to 2001, when FirstEnergy Park, home of the Lakewood Blue Claws (the low A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies) opened. If you are not familiar with Lakewood, NJ, you are far from alone. Lakewood is a town in central NJ, about 15 miles from the shore, lying on the northern edge of the NJ Pine Barrens. Lakewood is about a 20 minute drive from where we grew up, and is easily accessible via the Garden State Parkway and US Route 1. The stadium is just a few minutes from either of these thoroughfares, and is not difficult to find the park using any of the standard mapping apps. Parking is plentiful in front of the ballpark, and price for parking is very reasonable at $5.00 (paying attendants before entering the ballpark property). Depending on the crowd for the game, even the furthest most parking spots are just a few minutes walk to the home plate entrance.

The view of FirstEnergy Park from the lower level behind home plate. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

FirstEnergy Park is a modular stadium, featuring a single deck of seats extending from just past third base behind home plate to just behind first base. Between the seats in left and right field and the walls, there are picnic areas, which tend to host families and groups of people in a more informal seating arrangement. A row of luxury seats sit atop the stadium, extending from dugout to dugout. All told, these areas hold about 6,600 fans, which is large for a ballpark featuring low A baseball. Beyond both the left and right field walls lie grass covered berms, which can accommodate another 1,440 fans, for a total capacity of 8,000. Again, this total is very high for a lower level minor league club, and would be more befitting of a AA team.

Unlike most minor league stadiums, the outfield is open, revealing groves of pine trees, especially in left field, accentuating the suburban feel of FirstEnergy Park. In keeping with the “Jersey Shore” theme (though the park is about 15 miles from the nearest beach), there are lifeguard chairs at the top of the berms in left and right field. Finally, a nice video board (for the level of play) sits in left centerfield, between the berm and the batter’s eye. Food and drink at FirstEnergy Park is mostly generic, with standard offerings at the concession areas located on the main concourse above the seating area at reasonable prices. While the Biergarten in left field offers more exotic beer and alcohol choices, the cuisine in the remainder of the park is what you might expect.

A view of FirstEnergy Park from centerfield. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

FirstEnergy Park has a laid back feel to it, which fits the surroundings quite well. Not surprisingly, the Blue Claws draw fairly well, averaging about 5,350 fans per game, which is close to the top of the South Atlantic League. Though the date of our first visit to the park is unclear, it was in the spring of 2001. Weather in spring across central NJ (especially near the shore) can be fickle, with as many days having cool, drizzly conditions as sunshine, and my memory of our first visit was the former. On those days, attendance can be quite low; in fact, it is possible to hear the players talking to each other when the weather is dank. During the summer months, hot and humid conditions can occasionally be modified by an afternoon sea breeze, which helps keep thunderstorms in the western part of NJ at bay.

Since Lakewood is a member of a league of younger, inexperienced players, the level of play is NOT the highest caliber in the minor leagues. Players are generally in their early 20s, but some are teens from other countries, and sometimes the level of play reflects that. However, there is talent in the league, and it often the second stop through the organization for players that you may see again in MLB. In fact, both Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels played in Lakewood on their way to MLB super stardom. If you understand that going into the event, baseball at FirstEnergy Park is fun in a relaxed environment.

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

Though very rare, it is possible to see MLB players on rehab assignments at FirstEnergy Park. Most likely, Phillies players working their way back from injury would play a few games here before returning to the major league club. However, my brother did get to see the next best thing. Tim Tebow, chasing his baseball dreams, played for the Columbia Fireflies in 2017. When the Fireflies came to Lakewood, the games were very well intended (as you might expect). Getting a glimpse of a sensation like Tebow in this intimate environment is impossible in larger venues like MLB, and access here is unparalleled. From a fan perspective, places like FirstEnergy park offer the best game experience for the money, and is ideal for families and large groups.

Tim Tebow is a Columbia Fireflies uniform at FirstEnergy Park in 2017. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

As part of the minor league realignment mandated by MLB, the Blue Claws were assigned to the new Mid Atlantic League for the 2021 season. Lakewood becomes the Jersey Shore Blue Claws, and moves up to A ball, which means more seasoned players and crisper overall play. There are other things to do and see when visiting central NJ and the Jersey shore, but if you are a diehard baseball fan, do your best to see FirstEnergy Park. It is a first class facility that is worthy of your time and effort.

The Blue Claws offer unique tickets, much larger than other teams, and they are always very colorful (making for a nice souvenir of your visit to FirstEnergy Park).

Arm and Hammer Park, Trenton NJ

Arm & Hammer Park at sunset: (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)
  • First visit: exact date unknown, probably during the 2011 season
  • Most recent visit: July 25th, 2021

Following a job change that took me from southern Maine (where I saw the Portland Sea Dogs at Hadlock Field) to southern New Jersey in 2010, I found that I had landed in an area that was teeming with baseball. The Philadelphia Phillies were 30 minutes away, and two minor league teams were within 45 minutes or so (the Trenton Thunder, the AA affiliate of the New York Yankees, and the Lakewood Blue Claws, the low A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies). Since my brother lives closer to Trenton, I chose to make the Trenton Thunder my new favorite minor league team.

Trenton plays their games at Arm&Hammer Park. Opening behind schedule in 1994 (as cold and snow the previous winter hampered construction efforts), the stadium was part of a larger complex containing office buildings and a night club, known as the Mercer County Waterfront Park. Though the ballpark is technically within Trenton city limits, it is located on the southern edge, away from the influence of downtown. Its location (just off Route 29, on Thunder Road) makes ingress and egress much easier than if the stadium was located downtown.

A view of the Delaware River from Arm&Hammer Park in Trenton. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Parking at Arm&Hammer Park is fairly straightforward. After entering the complex, the first parking area encountered is a surface lot to the right. Most times, these spaces are unavailable to baseball fans, as they are either occupied by state employees working at the complex, or by fans with mobility issues. Just down the street from the surface lot is a three-tiered parking deck, which most times offers an orderly exit after games. However, we have learned through bitter experience that most people don’t know how to exit a parking deck, and that fact can add a considerable amount of time when trying to leave the complex. Parking is a very reasonable $5.00, and the walk from the deck to the stadium is about one-quarter of a mile or so.

As the name of the complex implies, Arm&Hammer Park lies along the Delaware River, which divides New Jersey from Pennsylvania. Before games, we occasionally walk along a path paralleling the river, a stark contrast to the urban area not too far away, providing a view most people outside of the area would not expect to see in New Jersey. There are three entrances into the ballpark (each of which has a not inconsequential set of concrete stairs to navigate): one adjacent to the river walk on the first base side, behind home plate and behind third base. Arm&Hammer Park has two seating decks that extend from just beyond third base behind home plate to just beyond third base, as well as suites near the top of the stadium, bringing to the capacity of 6,150 (which is typical of a AA ballpark). Bullpens are located along the left field line (visitor) and the right field line (Thunder), and the outfield is nearly ringed by wooden advertising signs located above and just behind the outfield wall.

A Google satellite image of Arm&Hammer Park, nestled between the Delaware River to the left and Route 29 to the right.

While Arm&Hammer Park is a fairly typical minor league ballpark, it does possess what might be the largest video board in the minors. Located in right centerfield, the size and resolution of the video board is more reminiscent of a Triple A ballpark. Being an affiliate of New York Yankees probably factored into the decision to place such a large video board in the ballpark, and it is the most prominent feature of the stadium. Just to the right of the video board, the outfield wall is low enough to allow home runs to leave the park and head toward the river. Actually, it IS possible to hit a fair ball down the right field line that can land in the Delaware River. Though I am not sure it has been done, it might be possible to hit a home run far enough across the river to have the ball land in the Pennsylvania portion of the river.

Arm&Hammer Park offers the standard fare when it comes to concessions, though there are a couple of places worth noting. My favorite is Chickie’s & Pete’s, located on the main concourse on the first base side. Chickie’s & Pete’s serves crab house food, and I rarely pass up the opportunity to indulge in a cup of crab fires (large French fries covered with Old Bay seasoning). They also offer excellent cheese steaks, brats and hot dogs, which are cooked to order. On the third base side is Boomer’s BBQ, which, as the name implies, offers an array of barbeque meals. Personally, I do not frequent this place as often, but when I do, I usually get the chicken sandwich. Most times, though, I elect to get a baseball lunch or dinner (which generally includes hot dogs) before heading to our seats.

A view of Arm&Hammer Park from the lower deck to the right of home plate. The video board is featured in right centerfield. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

When attending a Thunder game, you definitely want to be in your seats for the bottom of the first inning. During that half of the frame, after each Thunder hitter discards of his bat, the Thunder bat dog retrieves it. Currently, the bat dog is Rookie, but he was preceded by Chase and Derby in the recent past. While Rookie sometimes has difficulty grabbing the bat in his mouth to bring back to the dugout, he is successful most of the time, to the delight of the crowd. After the end of the first inning, Rookie returns to the clubhouse, his task for the day completed. As a side note, when the Thunder played the Bowie Baysox for the Eastern League championship in 2019, Rookie made the trip to Maryland, retrieving bats in the first inning. Probably because he was in a new environment, rather than retrieve the bat after a Thunder player walked, Rookie instead followed the player to first base. Murmurs permeated the air when Rookie did his thing, and the Baysox faithful were enamored with the visitor.

The Trenton bat dog enthusiastically carrying out his duties at Arm&Hammer Park in Trenton, NJ. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

One of the biggest perks of seeing Thunder games is the potential to see MLB players on rehabilitation stints. Being a Yankees affiliate, many past and present Yankees have made appearances at Arm&Hammer Park, and more than 9,000 fans were present when Derek Jeter did his rehab assignment during the Fourth of July weekend in 2011. In 2013, when Alex Rodriguez appeared with the Thunder, Trenton drew in excess of 8,000 fans for each of his two games there. More recently, perennial fan favorite Curtis Granderson made an appearance.

The Philly Fanatic makes an appearance at Arm&Hammer Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

In addition to rehab appearances, my brother (who goes to many more Thunder games than me) and I have seen many current Yankees as they came up through the minor league system. Since the Mets AA affiliate Binghamton Rumble Ponies are in the same division of the Eastern League as the Thunder, they come to Arm&Hammer Park a couple of times a year. My brother and I do our best to wrap our plans around these times, and that allows us to see future Mets up close. In the past, we have seen Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard on the mound, as well as many position players (like Michael Conforto and Ahmed Rosario) on the field in Trenton. There is something satisfying about seeing future stars in the MLB in such an intimate setting, before they become household names. We were fortunate enough to see Michael Conforto play in Trenton before making the jump to the New York Mets the next day in July 2015.

Curtis Granderson (left) making a rehab appearance at Arm&Hammer Park, and a young and clean cut Noah Syndergaard (right) pitching for the visiting Binghamton Mets. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Being such a big Mets fan, my best memories of Arm&Hammer Park are tied to visits by the Binghamton Mets/Rumble Ponies. Perhaps the most vivid memory occurred on Friday July 24, 2015. We had just finished a tour of New England minor league ballpark in time to attend all of the four games of the weekend series between the Mets and the Thunder. On that night, Robert Gsellman started for the Mets, who tossed seven and one-third innings of one run ball. The run Gsellman allowed tied the game at 1-1, and eventually the game went into extra innings. Trading scoreless innings, the Mets finally pushed across a run in the top of the 17th inning, defeating the Thunder 2-1.

A total of 13 pitchers were used that night (seven by the Mets and six by the Thunder), and the Thunder sent two position players to the mound (DH Taylor Dugas and 2B Danny Oh) for the 17th inning. Dugas allowed a run in the top of the frame before recording an out, and Oh mopped up, allowing no runs and no hits. The 17 inning game (the longest I have ever seen personally) took four and one-half hours to complete, and we left the ballpark just short of midnight. Fatigue from the road trip, combined with the long game that night, made me grateful we weren’t far from my brother’s home.

Arm&Hammer Park at night. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Arm&Hammer Park also hosted the only professional no-hitter I have seen in person, as the Binghamton took on Trenton in an Eastern League playoff game on September 9th, 2017. After the Thunder took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning, Rumble Ponies catcher Tomas Nido reached on a ground ball to third baseman Dante Bichette Jr in the top of the second. Initially, the play was ruled an infield single. Trenton left hander Dustin Sheffield then shut the Rumble Ponies down in a short but dominant performance.

In the sixth inning, a nearby fan asked me about the hit by Nido, since I was keeping score of the game. When I told him about the hit, he directed my attention to the scoreboard. At some point, the official scorer changed the hit to an error, and suddenly we were witnessing a possible a no-hitter. Once the change was recognized by the crowd, there was an audible response at the prospect of seeing a no-hitter. Sheffield was lifted from the game after four innings (before the hit was changed to an error), and Taylor Widener threw five hitless innings to complete the no hitter. Because the scoring change occurred so late in the game, there was not the anticipation in the crowd that might have been expected to seeing a no-hitter, which was disappointing as a fan.

Though not attached to any particular story about Arm&Hammer Park, I included what I consider to be my brother’s best baseball action shot. Note the ball in the glove , robbing the batter of a home run. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Though Arm&Hammer Park is a typical AA facility, it has grown on me over the years. Being able to see future Yankees (and occasionally future Mets when Binghamton visit) in such an intimate setting is enjoyable, and my experience in parks just like this has raised my appreciation of the minor league game over the MLB product. However, a disturbing change brought about by the New York Yankees organization has stripped the park of its association with the team. Instead, the Trenton Thunder will play the 2021 season as a founding member of the MLB Draft League. Even with the change, if you find yourself near Trenton NJ on a summer day, check to see if the Thunder are playing. You will be glad you did.

Good night, Arm&Hammer Park! (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, it was determined that the Toronto Blue Jays could not play their home games to start the 2021 MLB season. As they did in 2020, the Blue Jays would play their 2021 home games at Sahlen Field in Buffalo NY. Home to their AAA affiliate (the Buffalo Bisons), suddenly Sahlen Field would NOT be available for the Bisons 2021 campaign.

Numerous press reports indicated that there was something of a scramble to find a home for the Bisons. Eventually, MiLB decided on Arm&Hammer Park in Trenton. Having lost their primary tenants to Somerset, the stadium was available for use. To my surprise, the Bisons would play in Trenton as the Thunder (the previous name of the franchise). Since the decision to place the Buffalo team in Trenton occurred quickly (and without much fanfare), it was not clear how many baseball fans knew about the relocation of the Bisons to Arm&Hammer Field.

The scoreboard in Arm&Hammer Field tells the story of the return of the Trenton Thunder. In this incarnation, they are the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

My first visit to the see the new Trenton Thunder occurred on Saturday, May 8th 2021, as they hosted the Worcester Red Sox (the AAA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox) on a rainy and cool night. In accordance with New Jersey’s COVID-19 protocol, fans were seated in “pods” (groups of fans surrounded by empty seats), which ensured proper social distancing. To their credit, the fans followed the guidelines set forth by the Thunder and MiLB, and because of the guidelines, attendance was limited to about 25 percent capacity for the game. For the most part, there was not much different about the park, despite the new occupants taking residence with little notice.

It was strange to see the Trenton Thunder in action again at Arm&Hammer Field, this time as a AAA affiliate. Occasional rain during the first part of the contest put a damper on the evening, but since this was my first live baseball game in nearly 20 months, the weather was hardly a concern. Because of the pandemic, there were small but noticeable differences at the ballpark. First and foremost was the absence of Rookie, the Thunder bat dog. Rookie normally retrieves bats for the Thunder half of the first (to the great delight of the home fans), but he did not dispatch his primary duty this evening. Also, there were no bat boys/girls. This meant players had to retrieve bats near home plate, secure foul balls on the field, as well as keep the home plate umpire’s ball supply up to date. There were no on field games for fans between innings, a family favorite at minor league baseball parks.

Our seats for the Saturday night game. Our seats for the Sunday afternoon contest were very similar. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Though the teams were now AAA, the level of play overall seemed a step down from the AA baseball we had seen at Arm&Hammer Park in the past. Despite scoring eight runs on 14 hits, the Worcester Red Sox struck out 18 times during the Saturday night game. Clearly the obsession with launch angle and hitting home runs has trickled its way down in the minor leagues. In addition, play in the field was not as crisp as it should be at this level, which was even more apparent during the Sunday afternoon game. Granted, the weather was inclement, and could have been a proximate cause for the sloppier than usual fielding, but I was surprised by what appeared to be a lack of concentration on defense. Even with the perceived deficiencies in the play, I was VERY happy to have live baseball back!

For now, it appears as though the team will play its home games in Trenton as the Thunder for the balance of the 2021 season. However, this is contingent on whether the government in Ontario continues to ban the Blue Jays from their home. Should that decision change, it is possible that the Thunder become the Bisons again in Buffalo later in the season. The Ontario provincial government lifted the travel ban for the Blue Jays effective July 30th, 2021, and the Thunder played their final game as the Triple A affiliate of the Blue Jays on Sunday, July 25th. This change allowed the REAL Trenton Thunder (a member of the MLB Draft League) to finish their inaugural season at Arm&Hammer Field in early August.

The revival of the Thunder gives Boomer another chance to entertain the fans at Arm&Hammer Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Prince George’s County Stadium, Bowie Maryland

Prince George’s County Stadium from behind home plate in the lower level. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)
  • First visit: unknown, sometime in the summer of 2013
  • Most recent visit: Friday, September 13 2019

A job change in early 2013 brought me to the Washington DC area, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the wide array of baseball options that came with the move. The Washington Nationals were only a 20 minute train ride from home, and the Baltimore Orioles were just a 45 minute car ride north along Interstate 95. There was also a number of minor league options an hour away or less, with the Bowie Baysox (the AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles) the closest, a mere 20 minute car ride away (as long as traffic on the Beltway cooperated). Since the ballpark was easily accessible, I adopted the Baysox as my team in the new surroundings.

Though I do not recall the exact date of my first visit to Prince George’s County Stadium (the home of the Bowie Baysox) in 2013, I do remember a few surprises from the trip. The first surprise was parking. Because Prince George’s County Stadium holds about 10,000 fans, the parking lot for the stadium is huge. Not knowing where to park, I flagged down an attendant and asked him the cost of parking. With a wry smile, he told me that parking was free. If memory serves, this was first stadium I’d visited that had that perk. Arriving about an hour before game time, I was able to park right next to the ballpark. Not having a ticket for the game, I feared that I would not be able to secure a good seat so close to game time.

The view from seats we typically occupied for Baysox games at Prince George’s County Stadium (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Asking for the best available seat, I received my second surprise. Despite arriving close to game time, there were great seats available. Not knowing anything about the layout of the park, I took seats near the on deck circle just to the left of home plate, about six rows from the field. At the time, I could not believe my luck, but after going to a few games, I realized that, despite easy access off Route 50 in Bowie, attendance was generally fairly light. That was both shocking and disappointing to me, but I eventually learned that Bowie did not aggressively advertise, which could a contributing factor to the low attendance. Quickly I learned to enjoy the relatively sparse attendance, as it virtually guaranteed me great seats any time I went to the ballpark.

Passing through an old styled turnstile, my ticket was torn by a friendly and knowledgeable ticket taker, leading me into the lower concourse. A quick walking tour of the stadium followed. Like most minor league ballpark from the 1990s, the ballpark was a cookie cutter prefabricated stadium, with seats in the lower levels, and aluminum bench seating in the upper sections. There were also enclosed club suites at the top of the stadium, stretching from the home dugout behind home plate to the visitor’s dugout (we never saw a game from these seats). Down the right field line is a kid-friendly play area, complete with a carousel, as well as other attractions. A lighthouse located near the play area blared following a Baysox home run.

Prince George’s County Stadium at sunset on a warm summer evening.

Like most minor league parks, Prince George’s County Stadium featured a grass playing field, as well as series of wooden advertising signs perched above and just behind the outfield wall. In left centerfield there was a scoreboard, which seemed out of date and a bit worse for wear. At this time, there was no video board, which I found odd, as most AA stadium have at least a small but functional videoboard. Finishing my tour of the ballpark, I stopped for a baseball dinner before heading to my seat. Standard concession stands were available on the lower concourse, as well as specialty food and drink carts along the lower concourse. On this night, only the right field concession stand was operating, but the small crowd meant a short wait time. Walking back on the concourse toward my seat I discovered a table that offered scorecards and rosters for both the Baysox and the visiting team. Being an old-timer, I keep score at games, and I found these offerings very useful.

The scoreboard at Prince George’s County Stadium. A video board was added in right centerfield to supplement the aging scoreboard. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

My first visit to Prince George’s County Stadium was an evening contest, which led to my third surprise. The lightning for the playing field seemed woefully underpowered, leaving portions of the outfield (especially centerfield) fairly dark. My brother and I would joke later that outfielders, rather than losing balls in the lights, would lose ball in the dark. Overall, Prince George’s County Stadium seemed like an average minor league park, with signs of aging that indicate that the park was older than its 20 years. Despite its shortcomings, I would grow accustomed to the “charm” the ballpark offered, and much like the old Shea Stadium in New York, it became like an old friend.

Lineup card exchange at home plate just before game time. Note the lack of fans in the seats minutes before the start of the game. This image also shows the kids play area at the top of the picture, as well as Louie, the Baysox mascot in front of the Baysox dugout. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Sparse crowds like the one on that night gave me access to the action like I’d never seen. In fact, I was so close to the action that I couldn’t speak badly about the batter in the visitor’s on deck circle; he might hear me! My proximity to the field also allowed to see and hear the game in a way that isn’t possible in an MLB park. In general, minor league baseball is more about evaluating talent and less about strategy. It is not unusual to see players (especially pitchers) leave ballgames seemingly without a logical reason; we would later learn that once a manager had seen what he needed from a player, that player could be removed from the game. Pitching changes during innings are scarce, as teams are interested in seeing what players do under pressure, rather than making moves designed to win games.

As a result, minor league games tend to move along more quickly that their MLB counterparts. In between most innings, the Baysox offered games and contests in foul territory (typically in front of the dugouts), plucking fans out of the stands to participate in the contests. Despite the obvious attempt to make the games there more family friendly, there were a strange lack of kids in the park. Perhaps with myriad options for entertainment in the DC area, and MLB baseball as little as 20 minutes away, families were opting for choices other than Baysox baseball. My recall of the first game itself is fuzzy at best, but it did remember that exiting Prince George’s County Stadium was made simple, as cones and attendants made sure that the traffic flow was smooth. In about 20 minutes time, I went from the parking lot to my home with little difficulty. Even with the shortcomings offered by the home of the Baysox, I knew that I would frequent this place often, as it appeared to be a fine way to spend a summer evening.

A close up view of the centerfield fence at Prince George’s County Stadium. Once darkness falls, this area would become a problem for outfielders trying to track down fly balls.

Over the years, my brother and I would frequent Prince George’s County Stadium often, particularly on weekends when the AA affiliates of the New York Mets (the Binghamton Mets/Rumble Ponies) and New York Yankees (the Trenton Thunder) were in town. All told, I probably saw about 100 games at the ballpark between 2013-2019, usually near the on deck circle. Going as often as I did, I befriended many of the staff members, with whom I would swap baseball tales, talking about players we liked or ballparks we visited. My brother and I would be mistaken for scouts more often than you might expect, as I kept score, my brother took pictures, and we chatted almost non stop about the game. The only things (other than my job, which required shift work) that would keep me away when I could manage to go were rain and heat. DC and environs generally experience hot, humid summers, and this would occasionally keep me home. Thunderstorms were a nearly daily occurrence in the summer, and it seemed we had to endure rain delays more than any other place I had been.

Even with these distractions, we attended games at the park whenever possible, as prices were reasonable, great seats were almost always available, and fireworks occurred most summer nights (when weather permitted). Still, I was sad to see so few fans at the park. Occasionally, Orioles players would complete their injury rehabilitation at Prince George’s County Stadium, but attendance on these days/nights were surprisingly light. Perhaps my greatest memory of the ballpark was when the Baysox allowed fans to play catch on the field following a Sunday matinee. My brother and I brought our gloves and eagerly took the field when instructed. We were both surprised how good the turf in the field looked and felt, and we spent about 30 minutes on the field before being shooed away by management so that they could close the stadium for the day. That was only the second time I’d stepped foot on a professional baseball field, and despite being 52 years old, I was as excited as some of the kids playing catch with their parents.

My brother posing in front of the centerfield wall at Prince George’s County Stadium.

During my time at Prince George’s County Stadium, I became an ardent fan of minor league baseball. In addition to the more intimate experience offered by the smaller ballparks, I found myself becoming invested in the younger players as they passed through Bowie. Many players I saw in Bowie would eventually make an appearance with the Orioles, or other MLB teams, and I felt a certain satisfaction in knowing I saw these players on the way up. My experiences at Prince George’s County Stadium rekindled what was flagging relationship with baseball, and because of that, now I prefer minor league games over MLB games. Thanks Bowie!

PNC Park, Pittsburgh PA

Looking at PNC Park in Pittsburgh across the Allegheny River. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)
  • First visit: Wednesday September 19th 2001
  • Most recent visit: Sunday September 17 2006

Our first visit to PNC Park was not supposed to happen. This game was originally scheduled to be played at Shea Stadium in New York City, but following the attacks on September 11th 2001, the parking lot at Shea was used as a staging area to deal with the aftermath of the attacks. Since Shea Stadium would not be available for baseball in the near term, the games were moved to PNC Park in Pittsburgh PA. After a short break, baseball resumed on September 17th 2001, and the Mets played a three game set against the Pirates, starting on that date.

Since we had travel plans scrapped after the attacks (we were flying to Chicago to see the Pirates take on the Cubs, but the games and flights were cancelled), we both had some time off. We chose to attend the last game of the series, a Wednesday matinee on September 19th. Getting an early start from central NJ, we made the 365 mile drive in about five and one-half hours, arriving at the ballpark before noon. Because the game was supposed to be played in New York, there was not much demand for parking, which allowed us to park just across the street from the stadium for a reasonable price.

The view of downtown Pittsburgh from the walking path along the Allegheny River adjacent to PNC Park.

With time before the game, we briefly wandered around the park. Along the right field wall, we discovered a walking path adjacent to the Allegheny River. Dubbed Three Rivers Heritage Trail, the concrete path snakes along the river for about one and one-half miles. Given our time constraints, we did not amble nearly that far, but we did enjoy the view of downtown Pittsburgh from the riverside. Even if we were not taking in a ballgame that day, a simple trek along the river would have provided an early afternoon of peaceful vistas. Its proximity to the river enhanced the appeal of PNC Park, and we had not even seen the inside of the stadium yet!

During our exploration of the environs of the the stadium, we found a pair of Pirates greats immortalized in bronze. Both Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell were on display outside the park, with each statue larger than life. Roberto Clemente was just a bit before my time, as I was a toddler when he had his best years in Pittsburgh. Conversely, I was much more familiar with Stargell, with his trademark “windmill” bat twirl just before the arrival of the pitch. Two other statutes stood outside the ballpark (Honus Wagner and Bill Mazeroski) eluded our search, but perhaps we would view them on another visit.

Pirates greats Roberto Clemente (left) and Willie Stargell (right) are immortalized outside of PNC Park in Pittsburgh PA. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

PNC Park is a baseball only stadium, at the end of its inaugural season in September 2001. Since the game was not supposed to be played in PNC Park, there were few fans present was we ended our tour of the outside of the stadium before heading into the park. It seemed that, based on the number of New York jerseys we saw on people milling around near the home plate entrance, those who did attend the matinee were mainly Mets fans, making a drive similar to ours. Apparently a five hour drive did not deter the New York faithful, who seemed determined to see the game. Unfortunately, the weather was less than cooperative, with warm and humid conditions under mainly cloudy skies.

Once inside, we could immediately see that the view of downtown Pittsburgh was the focus of the new ballpark. Unlike its predecessor (Three Rivers Stadium), PNC Park was open in centerfield, providing a sweeping vista of the city and Allegheny in front of it. Rather than AstroTurf, the field was covered with Kentucky bluegrass, which looked a bit worse for wear after a hot Pittsburgh summer. As we started to walk along the lower concourse toward right field, I couldn’t tear myself away from the view beyond the centerfield wall! Beyond the ballpark, several of the bridges connecting the north shore of the Allegheny River to downtown Pittsburgh were painted Aztec gold. At the time, I did not understand why they were painted this hue, but research later indicated that the bridges connected surrounding areas to the Golden Triangle section of the city. In any case, even the overcast of the day could not hide the luster of the bridges, and I discovered that I’d found my new favorite MLB ballpark!

The view of PNC Park and surroundings from the upper deck. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Following the lower concourse to the right field line brought us to the detached bleacher area, which extends from the foul pole to the 375 foot sign in right centerfield (where a hand operated scoreboard runs the length of the 21 foot high fence). Venturing up into the bleachers gave us a great view of the river and the city. Each seat provided a clean view of the action, due primarily to the elevated nature of the bleachers. Continuing counter clockwise on the lower concourse, we encountered a smaller bleacher area adjacent to the green batter’s eye in centerfield. Since the crowd was small, there were very few fans here, but given the sight lines here (as all seats in PNC Park are angled to produce the best view of home plate), these seats appear as though they would be almost as good as the seats in the right field bleachers.

Standing on the lower concourse behind the batter’s eye gave us an amazing view of the bridges and downtown Pittsburgh. Even the pictures we took on the cloudy and humid day (resulting in haze that partially obscured the city) could not do justice to the backdrop for PNC Park. Even if we did not see a game here, the view alone was worth the time and expense. Proceeding toward home plate, we got a close up view of the video board, which stood atop two tiered seating in left field. The video board seemed curiously small for a brand new park, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Light stands bracketing the video board were wrought steel, and looked similar those at Comerica Park. In fact, the placement and size of the video board at Comerica Park bore a striking resemblance to what we saw at PNC Park.

The right field bleachers at PNC Park, with a great view of the riverfront at the top of the section. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

We completed the loop around the stadium on the lower concourse behind home plate, and went in search of a baseball lunch. Like most “newer” MLB stadiums, PNC Park has many places to eat, including outlets of many popular local restaurants, with premium services available in the club level provided by Levy’s Restaurant. Per my usual, I eschewed these choices, instead choosing hot dogs and drinks to bring to our seats. In keeping with the somber nature of the situation following the attacks on 9/11, there was a sense of sullenness in the crowd, and even the typically boisterous Mets fans kept their enthusiasm in check for the game. Mets players were wearing hats of the various first responder services (like the NYPD, NYFD, etc.) that gallantly answered the call during and after the attacks.

Mets catcher Mike Piazza, donning an NYPD helmet, signing autographs for fans at PNC Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Despite the air of melancholy in the air at PNC Park that afternoon, Mets players did sign autographs and interact with the crowd. Because the game was moved to Pittsburgh with little advance notice, we were able to get seats along the right field line just beyond the Mets dugout (PNC Park is one of the few MLB parks where the home team dugout is on the third base side). Though I was mesmerized by the ballpark and its surroundings, we were there to see a game. Following a World Series berth in 2000, New York, facing a depleted Pirates squad, overcame an early deficit to win the game, 9-2. We were treated to a Mike Piazza home run, and the game time was under three hours. Facing a long drive home, we headed straight to the parking lot. PNC Park was as advertised and much more, leaving me dazzled. We would have to return, if only to the the park and its views in better weather conditions.

My scorecard from the game.

Our second visit to PNC Park was not as hurried, as we planned a weekend visit to Pittsburgh to once again see the New York Mets. Unlike our previous stay, clear skies and pleasantly warm and dry conditions were expected for Saturday and Sunday. Our trip from central NJ to Pittsburgh was uneventful, and we drop off our bags at the hotel before heading to the park. Leaving ourselves plenty of time to explore, we crossed the Allegheny River on one of the bridges, where my brother got some excellent shots of the stadium, with the river in the foreground. Given the great late summer weather, we strolled along the riverfront, where we encountered scores of people walking, biking and sitting along the banks of the river.

A view of the Roberto Clemente Bridge just north of PNC Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Following our extended tour of the area, we headed into PNC Park through the home plate entrance. Of course, we wandered through the ballpark, though we didn’t spend as much time doing so, as we would get a better look at the park the next afternoon. After visiting the concession stand in the lower level behind home plate for a baseball dinner, we headed to our seats. Because the Pirates were playing out a disappointing season, tickets for the game were plentiful, and we were fortunate enough to secure good seats just to the right of home plate in the lower level.

Sunshine, though decreasing with time, afforded us a better look at PNC Park and downtown Pittsburgh. The Aztec gold of the bridges crossing the Allegheny seemed more vivid in the waning daylight, and the overall feel of the park was much lighter, a stark contrast to our previous visit, when skies were gray and the country was still reeling from the attacks on 9/11. PNC Park has a two tiered seating area extending from the left field foul pole behind home plate to the right field foul pole (minus the luxury boxes and the press level). When combined with the bleachers, there were just over 38,000 seats in the ballpark (which is the second smallest capacity in MLB), and almost all of the seats in the stadium offer a view of downtown Pittsburgh.

The view from our seats for the Saturday night game. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

PNC Park offers one of the smallest distances from home plate to the backstop (51 feet), giving fans nearly unprecedented closeness to the action. Clearly, the stadium was designed with a maximum fan experience in mind. When combined with the spectacular views of the city and the river, my opinion that PNC Park was the best park in MLB (though my brother would disagree, as he is partial to Comerica Park) was cemented. Even after the game started, I found myself scoping out the park and scenery beyond it, instead of paying more attention to the action on the field. More than once, I found myself envious of the Pirates home, wishing and hoping that the Mets would construct a ballpark with similar magic.

View of the Pittsburgh skyline from out seats in PNC Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Though 25 games under .500 coming into the game, the Pirates kept pace with the visiting Mets (who were destined for a division championship and a trip to the 2006 NLCS), as evening blended into night. Surprisingly, there were few lights emanating from the buildings in downtown Pittsburgh, as I expected the coming of night might allow the downtown area to shine. That was probably the only negative we encountered on our visit to the park that evening. Had the game been a nationally televised broadcast, it is possible that the city might have obliged with more lights from the structures, producing a spectacle for the fans in attendance and those on TV.

Between the time we entered the ballpark before the game and the third inning, the crowd filled out nicely. Even the four level steel rotunda in left field, used primarily for standing room only, was filled with fans. Officially, there were more than 37,000 people in the ballpark that night (nearly a sellout), but the actual count was almost certainly less. In any event, the fans in attendance made their presence felt, and the game was deadlocked at two going into the bottom of the ninth. Pittsburgh scratched out a run in the bottom of the frame, beating the Mets and their closer, Aaron Heilman 3-2. As the jubilant Pirate fans filed out of PNC Park that night, I quickly scanned the ballpark while we waited to exit. As we left, I remember thinking that I hoped the Pittsburgh fans appreciated the park they were lucky enough to call home.

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

Sunday September 17 2006 was a mainly sunny and pleasantly warm late summer day, and after breakfast we headed out to PNC Park to see the finale of the series. Early morning fog was begin transformed into cumulus clouds as the sun shone over the park, and the filtered sunshine showed that we were indeed headed toward fall, despite the warm weather. We did not spend as much time outside of the park as the previous day, but we did focus our attention on the river. Much like we saw in Cincinnati in 2004, there was quite a bit of river boat traffic this Sunday morning, and it reminded me what life might have been like on the river long ago. Leftover haze gave the river and its surroundings a softer hue, and somehow this seemed to add to the appeal of the area.

A passing river boat tour on the Allegheny River. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Upon entering the park, we conducted one final walkthrough of the stadium with the best conditions we had seen so far. Based on the number of fans milling around outside, the crowd promised to be much smaller than the game the previous night. Our experience has taught that Sunday afternoon games were usually more lightly attended than Saturday night games, and it seemed that trend would hold for the afternoon contest. In addition, we had entered football season, which meant the part of the crowd that might have come to see a poorly performing Pirate team instead stayed home to watch gridiron action. Regardless of the reason, we expected to have more elbow room for the matinee contest.

Before getting a baseball lunch and heading for our seats, we headed up the upper deck to get some pictures of the stadium with downtown as the backdrop. From that vantage point, my brother took some of my favorite ballpark pictures, and even those picture did not do the scenery justice. Though we did not have pristine conditions, the panorama my brother constructed from those pictures qualify (in my opinion; his may vary) as his best work at baseball stadiums, and helps to shape my opinion of PNC Park being the best ballpark in MLB.

This is it: my favorite picture of PNC Park, courtesy of my brother. (Phot credit: Jeff Hayes)

Our seats were very similar to those of the previous night, in the lower level just to the right of home plate. For the New York Mets, the game was not particularly meaningful, as they were on their way to the NL East title, but most of the regular starters were in the lineup. On the mound for the Mets was right hander John Maine, who was the number five starter in the New York rotation. For the hometown Pirates, left hander Zach Duke took the mound. Duke was the ace of the Pittsburgh staff, and we were not quite sure what to expect out of either team, with so little at stake for either team this late in the season.

Pittsburgh scored two runs against the Mets in the bottom of the first inning, and as it would turn out, that would be more than enough for Duke, who tossed eight shutout innings against a formidable New York lineup. Despite the second straight flat performance by the Mets, the game was again almost superfluous, as the fine late summer conditions made PNC Park shine even more than the night before. In between innings, I spent my time shifting my attention from one feature to the other, while my brother’s camera was busy capturing the nearly perfect baseball environment. As we suspected, the crowd was quite thin, nowhere near the announced crowd of nearly 30,00. Later I would learn that the Pirates’ attendance in 2006 was 1.8 million, which was next to last in the NL. Apparently, a poorly playing team trumped the beautiful ballpark, which had been racking up accolades since it opened its doors in 2001.

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

Time passed quickly during the low scoring game, which clocked in at about two hours and 30 minutes, which was shorter than the league average. Before I knew it, we were leaving this baseball palace, headed out for a five hour drive back home to central NJ (during which we would listen to the Jets lose another game). To say we thoroughly enjoyed the ballpark would be a great understatement. Though we were split as to whether we thought that PNC Park was the best MLB park, we did agree that it was a great baseball experience that we would have to repeat as soon as possible. If you find yourself near Pittsburgh during baseball season, check to see if the Pirates are home. If they are, GO! You will be glad that you did.

Goodbye PNC Park. Hope to see you again soon! (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Fenway Park, Boston MA

Welcome to Fenway Park, Boston MA! (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)
  • First visit: Sunday April 18th 1999
  • Most recent visit: Sunday May 24th 2009

Our first visit to this baseball cathedral came in April 1999. We did not arrive together; my brother came up to Boston with some friends, and I traveled south from Yarmouth ME (just northeast of Portland). For me, the trip took about two and one-half hours, traveling south along Interstate 95. While the drive to Boston was uneventful, the drive through Boston was anything but. Since Fenway Park is nestled within the city, I had to navigate my way through downtown to reach it, which took longer than I expected. Having been to Fenway Park before (in 1996), I knew that there was precious little parking around the stadium, and I was shocked by the price of parking (which was about $30 back then), leaving my car in a gas station parking lot.

As expensive as the parking was for the Fenway, I was just across the street from the oldest MLB park. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood around the ballpark was packed, as vendors sold food, drinks and programs outside the park (often at greatly reduced prices). Fans milled around outside the stadium, as legions of others debarked from the “T” train (shorthand for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority or MBTA). This would be the last time I would drive to Fenway; taking the T from outside the the city to the park made so much more sense, with the Fenway Station stop a mere 500 feet from the park. If I wasn’t in a baseball mood coming up to Fenway, the sight of the venerable stadium and the buzz of the crowd would have certainly set the mood for me!

Ted Williams immortalized in bronze outside Fenway Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Entering the stadium from the home plate entrance, I emerged into the bright milky sunshine of Fenway Park. Much like I had seen on TV for so many years, the view of the stadium was dominated by the Green Monster. Almost a mythical presence, the Monster is one of the most recognizable ballpark features (along with the ivy in Wrigley Field) in baseball. Part of Fenway since it opened in 1912, the Monster has changed its appearance over the years, most notably adding seats at the top for the 2003 season. Beyond the Monster lies the iconic Citgo sign, another instantly recognizable feature to baseball fans. Unbeknownst to me before visiting, the sign is about one-quarter of a mile from Fenway; it looks much closer on TV.

After meeting up with my brother and his friends, we toured the ballpark. While the playing field and walls of Fenway Park are kept in good shape, the same cannot be said of the concourse stretching behind the seating areas from left field through home plate to right field. Actually, I was surprised to see how much this area has aged in comparison to the rest of the ballpark. In any event, we saw the staff at the concession stands standing with their arms crossed, not looking particularly friendly; I later read that this is a normal pose for them when not occupied. As was typical for me, I purchased hot dogs and a Coke before heading to our seats.

The bullpens at Fenway Park. Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans made an amazing catch here to rob Cincinnati’s Joe Morgan of a go ahead home run in the top of the 10th inning of Game Six of the 1975 World Series. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

On that afternoon, we saw the Red Sox host the Tampa Bay Devils Rays, sitting near the right field foul pole. Though the view from the seats was not exactly fan friendly, I was just glad to be there. Sunshine and relatively light winds allowed temperatures to rise into the lower 60s (17 degrees C), which is pleasantly warm for northern New England in mid April. While the game was mostly unremarkable (as the Rays beat the Sox 5-1), my most vivid memory of the game (outside of finally visiting Fenway) was Jose Canseco’s solo home run in the top of the sixth inning. Fenway Park has short fences in both left and right field (though the Monster takes away some home runs due to its height), but no park (outside of Yellowstone) was going to hold the ball hit by Canseco. That home run was one of the longest home runs I have ever seen personally, easily clearing the top of the Monster, sailing over Lansdowne Street into the parking lot behind it.

For much of the rest of the game, I was marveling at the fact that I WAS AT FENWAY PARK! Along with Wrigley Field in Chicago, this ballpark is steeped in baseball tradition that dated back to World War I. As a kid, I watched the 1975 World Series from Fenway, which was one of the best series ever played. As a young adult, I saw the New York Mets sweep the games played here in the 1986 World Series on TV as well. Many Hall of Famers called Fenway home, and over a 40 year period (from the early 1940s through the early 1980s), only three players manned left field on a regular basis, and each one of these players is in the Hall of Fame. Though some changes had been made to the ballpark since my youth, it was still very much the stadium I remember from TV for all of those years.

A panorama of Fenway Park from the upper deck to the right of home plate. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Our second trek to Fenway Park together occurred on Sunday, May 24th 2009, as the Red Sox were hosting the New York Mets for the final game of a weekend series. My brother was visiting me in the Maine, and we drove down to Suffolk Downs (a racetrack), located outside of Boston. Parking there, we took the Green Line of the MBTA rail system to Fenway Park. Though the train ride was about 30 minutes, it was still faster (and cheaper) to park and ride than to drive to Fenway Park and attempt to find parking. As was the case a decade ago, the area outside of Fenway Station was buzzing with Sox fans, and that continued through our short walk to the ballpark. With a little more time to explore than our previous sojourn, we wandered through the neighborhood immediately around the park.

Jersey Street was reminiscent of Eutaw Street in Baltimore, with a wide variety of restaurants and food vendors near Fenway, serving practically any type of cuisine you could desire. Like Eutaw Street, we did not partake in the local food, but based on the number of people indulging, it appeared as though you could have a good afternoon simply sampling the food and drink the area has to offer. Instead, we chose to walk around the park. This time, my brother armed with his camera, we lit out, taking picture of the exterior of Fenway Park.

People milling around outside of Fenway Park well before game time. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

As we past the left field wall, we saw a cab pull up to the curb. As the occupant exited, there was an audible murmur from the people nearest the vehicle. As we got closer, we could see that it was Mets centerfielder, Carlos Beltran. It seemed odd that (a) Beltran would get to the stadium so late (as I was sure the remainder of his teammates were already in the clubhouse), and (b) that the perennial All Star, who was near the end of a seven year, $119 million contract, would opt for a cab, and not a limo. Beltran disappeared quickly, not interacting with any of the cadre of Mets fans who were at Fenway for the weekend series.

After finishing our tour of the exterior of the park, we entered Fenway through the home plate entrance. Because the Red Sox were playing so well, tickets to the park were nearly impossible to obtain outside of third party resellers, and those prices were exorbitant. A coworker offered us his standing room only (SRO) tickets for the game. Since we NEVER choose the SRO option for games, we were not aware of the potential pitfalls of those accommodations. Once you enter the park with SRO tickets, you need to stake your claim at the rail of your choice and hold onto it for the remainder of the game. Had I known what an SRO ticket entailed, I would have paid the bloated prices for seats, even if they were obstructed (as there are still obstructed seats at Fenway, most of which are blocked by support girders in the lower levels).

The view from behind home plate during batting practice. This was definitely NOT our view for the game. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Though it had been a decade since our last visit, I was just as excited to be there that day, especially because the Mets were in town. We wandered the lower concourse toward right field after visiting the home plate area. It was still fairly early, but we noticed there was a fairly large contingent of Mets fans lining the right field line, which was a bit surprising considering the availability of tickets for the game. Walking to the right field bleachers, we reached the extent to which we could explore in that direction, so we headed toward the left field line and the Green Monster. We weren’t able to visit the seats of the Monster, as they section had a separate entrance from the street below.

A panorama of Fenway Park from centerfield. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Having explored as thoroughly as possible, it was time for us to find a place from which we would view the game on this warm and humid afternoon. Not surprisingly, most of the rails already had a couple of lines of spectators near them, which meant we would have to keeping looking for a spot, finally settling on a mediocre view of the action down the left field line. About 15 minutes before game time, a thunderstorm made its presence known north of the stadium. Though the storm was still a good distance away, it was clear that it was strong, and heading our way. Despite the clear and present danger, the decision was made to start the game, even as the ferocious storm neared.

A view of downtown Boston over the center field bleachers on this hazy, warm and humid afternoon at Fenway Park. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

As the Mets took the field for the bottom of the first inning, the storm struck. Gusty winds, torrential rains, vivid lightning and continuous thunder accompanied the squall, sending the sellout crowd scurrying for cover. While it was clear this storm was going to impact the stadium, the game was started anyway, and I was at a loss to explain why the umpires would allow this to occur. A 45 minute rain delay ensued, as the fans in the tightly packed concourse waited increasingly impatiently for the storm to pass, if for no other reason than being able to get out of the concourse. When play resumed, both starting pitchers came back out, but had the rain delay lasted much longer, that might not have been the case.

Some entertainment on the videoboard as we waited for the storm to pass. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

In 2009, the New York Mets were on the decline, after having some success earlier in the decade, while the Red Sox were a bit more than a year removed from their latest world championship. That did not bode well for the Mets, but both starting pitchers were ineffective (due to the rain delay?), resulting in a mini slugfest through the first half of the game. After that time, the potent Sox offense feasted in the beleaguered Mets bullpen, and the their chances for victory faded after that point. All the while, we were relegated to viewing action from a couple of rows from the railing, which was a dismal experience. With the Mets losing, and tiring of the poor vantagepoint, we did something we have only done a handful of times in the nearly 40 years of seeing baseball games together; we left before the end of the game.

A close up of the Green Monster from the lower level field seats. The hand operated scoreboard was one of the last of its kind, but newer ballparks started installing them for the retro feel. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Disappointed by the bad look at the action, we headed out to catch the “T” back to Suffolk Downs. Though this experience was not as good as the first, it WAS still Fenway Park. With so many features, quirks and landmarks, it would be difficult to cover all of them in this missive. It is one of my favorite parks (even more so than Wrigley Field, its contemporary), even though it IS aging. In need of a facelift at least, perhaps it is time to consider a new home for the Sox, leaving Fenway Park in place as a living museum, a reminder of what baseball once was. This opinion does NOT align with most fans, but I would prefer that the ballpark NOT go through the same changes as Wrigley Field, which could alter Fenway Park so much that the original stadium becomes unrecognizable.

The view from the right field foul pole, dubbed the “Pesky Pole”, as Red Sox 2B Johnny Pesky would occasionally take advantage of the short porch near the line. These were our seats for the first visit to Fenway. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)