Following a day of exploring Louisville (including Churchill Downs and the Louisville Slugger Museum), we drove east on Interstate 64 for an hour to attend a baseball game in Lexington. As part of the restructuring of the minor leagues, Lexington lost their South Atlantic league affiliation. Left without a baseball team, the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB) announced that they would add Lexington as a member for the 2021 baseball season. Since we have an affinity for the ALPB (as each of us had ALPB franchises close to us), we decided to visit this park, as well as Louisville Slugger Field as part of our first baseball trip since the onset of the pandemic.
About 70 miles from Louisville (where we were headquartered for the Kentucky visit), the trip took about an hour and was unremarkable as traffic was generally light. Upon arrival, we found onsite parking that was very close to the park, though at $6, a bit higher than we usually see at minor league or ALPB parks. Per our usual method of operation, we toured the outside of the park. Debuting in 2001, Whitaker Bank Park had the appearance of a modular ballpark, equipped with some add-ons (including the Stache Shop near the main gate).
There were reminders that we were not far from the home of the Kentucky Derby. Steeples similar to those at Churchill Downs adorned the top of the stadium, and murals of race horses graced the outside wall behind third base. Perhaps the most interesting was artwork on the outside wall behind first base. It took me a moment to read the lettering, but the message was crystal clear. Being hot and humid, we did not spend much more time viewing the outside of ballpark, entering through the main gate behind home plate.
My first impression of the inside of Whitaker Bank Park was that it had a wide open feel, with a small videoboard adjacent to bleachers in left field, and a larger scoreboard/videoboard in right centerfield. In between the two, next to the batter’s eye in centerfield, stands a small white transmission tower, complete with a dome on top. Research concerning the dome indicated that it once was part of a Doppler radar weather, but I have not been able to substantiate that claim. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the wide open feel of the ballpark, and in this case, I believe that less is more.
Walking along the main concourse toward right field, we encountered the Budweiser Stables down the first base line. Beer and food can be ordered here while fans watch the game. On this evening, the Budweiser Stables was hosting a private party, so we did not explore this area much. Next to the right field foul pole we found the Pepsi Party Deck. Covered by a canvas roof, the Pepsi Party Deck contained a large number of benches for fans to view the game while eating and drinking. As was the case with the Budweiser Stables, the Pepsi Party Deck was closed for a private event. However, a kind security person allowed me to take some pictures from the deck before politely asking me to leave.
Backtracking on the concourse behind home plate into left field, we found picnic benches covered from the hot late June sun by a canvas roof. A small kids zone adjacent to the left foul pole was empty, as it was likely too hot to play directly in the sun. Finally, we briefly explored the rather large bleacher section in left field, which was comprised of aluminum seating. As we headed back toward our seats, we were better able to visualize the seating area. Two decks of seats stretch from mid right filed behind home plate to mid left field. The lower deck, which is much smaller, encompasses the first few rows closest to the field, while the upper deck contained the bulk of the seating. Above the upper deck, private boxes extended along the length of the seating area. All told, Whitaker Bank Park can accommodate just under 7,000 fans, but it was clear fairly early that the crowd size this evening would be nowhere near that number.
Our seats for the game were situated in the lower portion of the upper deck, directly behind first base. These seats were chosen for their proximity to the action around first base, and eventually this section filled to about half of its capacity. After locating our seats, we headed up to the concession stands for a baseball dinner. The line at the concession stand was surprisingly long, and it took about 10 minutes to order and receive our food. Prices at the concession stand were much higher than I expected, and higher than we have seen in other minor league and ALPB parks we have visited. Food and drinks in hand, we settled in for the game.
Before the first pitch, we were treated to a mashup of the National Anthem and the Black National Anthem, as part of the I Was Here project. When the Black National Anthem portions of the mashup were sung, I noticed some of the crowd near me being less than respectful, and I did my best not to let this affect my experience of the performance. On this evening, the home Lexington Legends played host to the High Point Rockers. As a nod to the Negro Leagues, Lexington donned uniforms with the name Hustlers emblazoned on the jersey. While there were a few familiar names in the lineups, no name was bigger than Brandon Phillips. Playing second base for the Hustlers, Phillips had recently become a part owner of the Hustlers/Legends. Phillips seemed to be enjoying the experience, as he seemed almost joyful in his approach the game that night.
Being an ALPB game, there were some important rules differences from the MLB and minor leagues. First, balls and strikes were called by the Automated Ball-Strike System (ABS), with the output from the system relayed to the home plate umpire, who then makes the call to the players and fans. More than a few players, thinking they had walked, started off for first base, only to be called out. The second rule change was the continued use of larger bases (18 inches), in hopes of reducing inquires on the base paths. Finally, when a starting pitcher is removed from the game, that team loses its DH from the lineup. Dubbed the Double Hook, the rule is intended to inject some strategy back into the game, perhaps encouraging managers to stick with starting pitchers longer. Each of these “experiments” were at the behest of MLB, with which the ALPB has a developmental agreement. It is possible some or all of these rules could someday become part of the MLB game.
Lexington struck first with four runs in the first two innings, but the Hustlers starter lasted only two innings. High Point responded with two runs of their own in the bottom of the second, and the score was 4-3 going into the bottom of the sixth inning. Lexington scored fours runs as the Rockers committed two costly errors. Though the sun has been in my eyes for much of the game, it became nearly blinding at about this time, and continued that way until sunset (around 905 pm EDT) finally provided some relief. Though fans around me (including my brother, who as seated next to me) were affected, my sun angle seemed to be the worst, making watching the game virtually impossible.
Being near first base, we were treated to the enthusiasm of Hustlers’ first base coach Ben Revere. Playing for a handful of MLB teams during the 2010s, Revere was animated much of the night, assuming a batting stance while timing pitchers, as well as chatting up Hustlers and Rockers players alike. Watching Revere and his unabashed zeal was almost as much fun to watch as the game itself.
Typically when my brother and I go to games, we keep mostly to ourselves, engaged in conversation about the game. On occasion, nearby fans have mistaken us for scouts, as they follow our banter, my brother taking pictures and me keeping score (which seemingly only old fans still do). On this night, fans around us openly engaged us, sensing our passion for the game. A woman in front of us told us her husband was the first base umpire, while a fan behind us, apparently friends with some of the players, told us about the unfamiliar players we were seeing. Finally, an amateur photographer approached my brother, and they engaged in discourse about taking pictures at the ballgame. Perhaps it was the area that influenced the interactions, as we are unaccustomed to talking to fans near us, other than to comment briefly on what is happening on the field.
Lexington tacked on two more runs in the bottom of the seventh inning, and the Hustlers bullpen held the Rockers’ offense in check on the way to a 10-3 victory. The action on the field, as well as the interaction with fellow fans kept us busy, and we enjoyed the experience at Whitaker Bank Park. We exited during the post game fireworks, as many of the fans stayed to watch the show. This allowed us to navigate the parking lot quickly, and we made the trip back to Louisville in less than an hour. The ballpark was more or less what I expected, though the rather paltry crowd for a Saturday night game worried me that the Legends may not draw well enough for the franchise to survive in Lexington. Living so far away, it is unlikely we will return.