We embarked on yet another mini baseball tour, with stops planned in Indianapolis and St Louis, began on the morning of August 11, 2017 from Maryland. Google Maps showed us that the 575 mile trip would take close to nine hours to complete. Since we had tickets for the Indianapolis Indians at 705 pm, we needed to leave before 900 am local time to leave enough time to drop off our bags at the hotel and reach Victory Field, home the Indians, in time for the first pitch.
The drive was uneventful, with late morning and mid day traffic working in our favor. Following a stop for lunch in West Virginia, we simply followed Interstate 70 the rest of the way toward Indianapolis. Construction slowed us down a few times, but the weather was good until we started approaching the Ohio/Indiana border.
By that time, storms were building in front of us. Luckily, we were able to dodge them as we approached Indianapolis. Despite the construction delays and the emerging weather, we were still on time to make the first pitch. However, it seemed as though our luck had run out, as showers and thunderstorms slowed our progress moving through Indianapolis.
Traffic had slowed to a crawl as we lurched toward the ballpark. An enormous crowd appeared as the rain started, slowing things even further. We didn’t know it at the time, but a large band jamboree was in progress in Indianapolis, and the rain caused the crowd to disperse all at once. In almost no time, we went from being early to running the risk of missing the first pitch.
Arriving at the ballpark after the game start time, we quickly found parking down the street, not far from Lucas Oil Field. The rain that slowed our approach to the park had also provided a blessing. Apparently the rain was intense enough to require the infield to be covered, which delayed the start of the game.
Not only did we not miss the first pitch, we were afforded time to undertake a quick tour of the park. Victory Field was typical of urban minor league ballparks, using the city skyline as a backdrop. The Marriott Building dominates the view in left center field, with a factory building (which looks like it could be a foundry or a slaughterhouse) visible in right field.
Unlike most minor league ballparks, Victory Field features a full wraparound concourse, as well was a picnic area that spans the entire outfield. The ballpark also has a second deck, which is unusual for a minor league park. Throw in a decent scoreboard in right centerfield, and Victory Field was an unexpectedly nice ballpark.
After visiting the team store and concession stand (both of which offered standard fare), we looked for our seats. Luckily, the 20 minute rain delay allowed us to explore the ballpark and still catch the first pitch. Our seats were located behind the dugout on the first base side, about 10 rows back. The seats afforded a great view of the park, as well as the Marriott Building.
Slowly clearing skies and mild temperatures at first pitch set the stage for a pleasant evening to watch a ballgame. The Indianapolis Indians, the Triple A affiliate of the Pittsburg Pirates, were hosting the Syracuse Chiefs (the Nationals Triple A affiliate). As might be expected in a Triple A contest, their were some familiar names in the lineup.
In John Feinstein’s book Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball, he states that nobody actually wants to be in Triple A. Either you were an ex-MLBer trying to get back up to the big leagues, or a minor leaguer trying to get there for the first time. Seeing the names of the ex big leaguers in the lineup reminded me of that quote.
Starting for the hometown Indians was Tyler Glasnow. The 6 foot 8 inch right hander was dominant this night, allowing only a second inning solo homer in seven innings of work, while scattering five hits and striking out 11. The Chiefs starter, Esmil Rogers, was almost as good, allowing two earned runs in six innings.
The game remained tight as the evening faded into night. The Indians’ bullpen held the lead they were handed, resulting in a 2-1 win for the Indians. Even before the end of the game (which ran longer than usual due to the rain delay at the start of the game), Indians fans started leaving, as the hour was growing late.
Though rain delayed the start of the game, it did not detract from the experience. Victory Field was an unexpectedly enjoyable ballpark nestled in downtown Indianapolis. The ballpark had all of the amenities of a Triple A stadium with its own character. Should you find yourself near Indianapolis on a summer evening, check to see if the Indians are in town. You’ll be glad you did.
Our next game on this mini baseball tour was St Louis, where the Cardinals hosted the Braves at 600 pm on Saturday, August 12th. Google Maps indicated that the trip from Indianapolis to St Louis would take about three and one-half hours (not counting time to be built into the trip to explore the new ballpark and surroundings).
1. Indianapolis Motor Speedway
With the time we had before leaving for St Louis, we decided to go find the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Located on the northwest side of town, it took about 15 minutes to get from the hotel to the speedway. When we arrived, the parking lot was empty, which was not surprising. We were content to take pictures of the outside of the Speedway before heading out.
However, we saw cars going into the the Speedway, one at a time. After some debate, we decided to follow the next car into the complex. After passing through the dark, narrow entrance, we emerged to see a building ahead of us, with cars in the parking lot. This was unexpected, as the Speedway did indeed appear to be open to the public, but that was far from obvious.
We parked outside of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. After paying the $12 entrance fee, we set out to explore the museum. Not being a “car guy” (though my brother Jeff is), I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy the experience. Much to my surprise, I found the museum to be informative and well designed. Though there were knowledgeable museum employees ready and willing to help, they were fairly unobtrusive, which I found refreshing.
The collection of cars inside the museum was impressive, to say the least. It seemed as though virtually every era was represented, from the earliest machines to some of the more recent vehicles. There were also engines on display, generally grouped with the vehicles they powered. Finally, there were some NASCAR vehicles there as well, representing Brickyard 400.
After about an hour or so wandering among the cars and engines, we stepped outside. From the museum, we could see that there were cars on the track, but it wasn’t clear who was racing. From the appearance, it seemed as though people brought their personal vehicles to the track. It was fun standing near the fence, watching the cars race around the track. Not all of the drivers were either professional or experienced. One driver consistently missed the shift as he came around the corner closest to us, and it was obvious each time the missed shift occurred.
More than two hours had passed since we entered the Speedway grounds, and it was time to get on the road for St Louis. It was fun to visit an American icon of racing world, especially since it was so unexpected.
2. St Louis/Busch Stadium
We stopped at our hotel in Illinois before crossing the Mississippi River to St Louis Missouri. This was not our first baseball trip to St Louis; we saw the Mets play the Cardinals in 2004 on a hot Saturday afternoon in July. The old Busch Stadium was a cookie cutter multi purpose monolith, much like Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.
Much had changed in the vicinity since we’d been here last. On our prior trip, we left little time to investigate the portion of St Louis near the river (as our travel schedule was tight). Our first stop was the Gateway Arch. Unfortunately for us, the arch elevators were under repair, so there was no ride to top for us. Instead, we strolled the grounds to the river, affording a view of the river traffic. Being a nice late afternoon weather wise, the arch area was a popular destination.
Walking back up the steps from the river, the Old State Court House caught our attention. Being a history buff, I was intrigued by its appearance, a fine example of 19th century architecture. The Court House has deep roots in the history, with two landmark cases decided here. Visiting late on a Saturday afternoon was fortuitous, as we had the place mostly to ourselves. The court house reminded me of the court room scene in old movies, complete with creaking wooden floors and chairs.
With time running short, there was one final place to visit. The Basilica of Saint Louis (affectionately known as the Old Cathedral) is one of the oldest buildings in St Louis, with its roots dating back to the 18th century. Like the old State House, it was nearly empty when we arrived. Seeing this old building fed my fascination with churches. The ornate architecture was especially appealing, with careful attention to detail.
3. Busch Stadium
With the stadium just down the road for the Old State House, we were there is a matter of minutes. There are a number of parking lots in the vicinity of the ballpark, and we parked in the Cardinal Lot (which was reasonably priced) just across the street from the stadium. A good crowd was expected for tonight’s game, since the 1987 Cardinals were being honored. Parking near the stadium with a full crowd anticipated can make for a dicey exit, but the price was right, and the location ideal.
As usual, we walked around this beautiful stadium before taking pictures. Our seats were in the upper deck just left of home plate. Typically, we attempt to get the best available seats, but better tickets for this game were hard to find. The Cardinals were honoring the 1987 team, and demand was high. Immediately, the view grabbed our attention. Having seen games from Busch Stadium on TV, the view seemed spectacular, but it was nothing compared to being there.
Of course, the Arch in the distance is impressive, but the reflection of one building on the glass of the other was nothing short of amazing. After mere minutes in the park, it had become one of my favorites. The pre game ceremony was nice, but not being a Cardinals fan, I did not have the same investment as others around me.
Following the ceremony, Carlos Martinez took the mound for the Cardinals. On this night, Martinez’s hair looked yellow, but we were far enough away so that it was difficult to tell. He faced the lineup of the Atlanta Braves, who we saw at home at SunTrust Park in June. After giving up two runs in the top of the first, Martinez settled down, allowing just a solo home run in the fifth. He registered a quality start, lasting six innings while giving up three earned runs.
As the evening turned into night, the stadium took on a different hue. Gone from view was the Arch, shrouded in darkness. The buzz of the large crowd, combined with the stadium lights, provided a great baseball environment. Though the darkness seemed to shrink the stadium to some degree, it is hardly the bandbox some of the newer MLB parks are.
The bullpen protected the lead handed to them by Martinez until the ninth. The Braves scored two runs, and left runners stranded at second and third when Nick Markakis struck out to end the game. A good game in a great ballpark was a fine way to start our weekend stay in St Louis. We would get another chance to see Busch Stadium tomorrow, as the Braves meet the Cardinals for the series finale.
On the way to the hotel Saturday afternoon, I noticed a sign for the Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, Illinois. Years before, I’d read about the mounds in the book 1491, which described a thriving community in the region 1000 years ago. Since we had time before the 100 pm game in St Louis, this seemed like a great opportunity to learn about the mounds and their ancient inhabitants.
1. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, located in Collinsville, Illinois, was about 15 minutes from the hotel. We arrived shortly after the site opened. After walking around the grounds for a bit, we entered the Cahokia Mounds Museum.
Almost immediately, we became immersed in this pre-Columbian civilization. Generally considered the northern extent of the Mexican and Central American societies, during its peak, the city in this location had the largest population in North America until Philadelphia in the 1780s. The museum had many excellent displays depicted daily life, showing an advanced culture in place long before the arrival of Europeans centuries later.
The decline of the society began in the 13th century, as they fell prey to some of the issues associated with areas with dense population centers. Overhunting, deforestation, difficulty securing food supplies, and flooding began to make the site increasingly untenable. As the problems mounted, the site was abandoned sometime before 1350.
We spent more than an hour in the museum, and could have spent another examining all of the displays. In that time, I felt was though we got a glimpse of what life must have been like at the height of the civilization. While I was vaguely aware of the place and the people, I had no idea just how robust and successful this society had become.
Upon leaving the museum, we decided to investigate Monks Mound, the largest of the mounds here. At 100 feet, it is the largest largest manmade earthen mound north of Mexico. Its 10 story height precluded me from scaling it, but my brother climbed the steps to the top. The view afforded a glimpse of downtown St Louis, less than 10 miles away.
Having stayed longer than anticipated, we needed to leave this place to get to Busch Stadium in advance of the 100 pm game start. This was yet another pleasant surprise on the trip, finding a museum and grounds dedicated to a people of who I knew very little. If you find yourself near Collinsville, Illinois, do yourself a favor and visit the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site; I’m certainly glad we did.
2. Busch Stadium, St Louis.
Unlike Saturday, when we were coming into St Louis from Indianapolis, we left ourselves sufficient time to explore the “new” Busch Stadium early Sunday afternoon. We arrived early enough to find parking in the lot directly across the the same. Of course, parking this close to a ballpark can cause headaches later, especially for a well-attended game.
As part of the 30th anniversary celebration of the 1987 Cardinals, today featured another giveaway. Typically, the items given away are not something I would necessarily keep. When I received the giveaway, drink coasters featuring four different Cardinals logos, I thought the same thing. However, I quickly discovered this was no ordinary giveaway. The coasters were solid, encased in a wooden coaster holder. Not only did I keep them, I still use them today.
Once inside, we wandered about the ballpark. We noticed things that were not obvious when seeing the ballpark on TV. For example, Cardinal Nation, a collection of shops, pubs and restaurants in left field, is not attached to the stadium. Instead, it is beyond the left field seats, across a pedestrian path. We walked around for about 30 minutes, taking pictures and taking in the beautiful “new” ballpark.
In my opinion, the best park of the ballpark is the view. The Cardinals hit a home run designing the stadium to take advantage of the Arch and buildings as a backdrop. In fact, it was this view on TV that sparked our interest in visiting. Of course, the view is far better in person, and alone was worth the trip to see this beautiful ballpark.
Eventually, we found our way to our seats, after visiting the concession stand of course. Our seats for the matinee were an upgrade from our seats last night, and thankfully, we were just out of the reach of the sun. Even though the warmth and humidity were tolerable, the sun can make or break viewing a ballgame, but today it wasn’t an issue.
Starting for the Atlanta Braves was knuckleballer was RA Dickey, a veteran right hander who won the 2012 Cy Young Award for the New York Mets. Though he was past his prime, Dickey was dominant this afternoon, allowing one run on seven hits in seven inning. Being Mets fans, we had a special interest in seeing Dickey. We did learn that he is NOT a fan of the hot weather, expending only as much energy as necessary.
Despite the strong start by Dickey, the Cardinals chipped away at the Braves’ lead. In the bottom of the 8th, the Cards loaded the bases with two outs. With the pitcher’s spot in the lineup due up, Yadier Molina, who had the day off, was tapped to pinch hit. An extra base hit could have tied the contest, so Molina prepared for the at bat.
The dramatic at bat ended as Molina grounded out, third to first, to end the inning and the Cardinals threat. The Cardinals went down meekly in the ninth, allowing the Braves to claim the 6-3 victory. We were treated to a good ballgame on a sunny and warm afternoon in one of the best new ballparks we’ve seen. Busch Stadium is much better than its predecessor with respect to environment and fan experience. Should I find myself in this part of the world in baseball season, I’ll be sure to come back to a great ballpark, run by a great baseball operation.
While planning a trip to Yosemite National Park, we decided to slip in a visit to Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, home of the Oakland A’s. Having visited every other active MLB ballpark, we dragged our feet visiting this stadium. In the past, we joked that the only way we’d see that stadium is if we were in central California for some other reason. Well, it seems that time had arrived, and we acquiesced to a visit to the see Oakland A’s at home.
1. New Jersey to California
We caught a flight from Newark/Liberty Airport to San Francisco International Airport on the morning of Saturday, September 10th. Choosing to visit in September was a conscious decision, as that month generally provides the best weather in the Bay Area during baseball season. Not having flown cross country in about a decade, I forgot how little I enjoy flying. Because I was not careful choosing our seats, we were cramped in less than desirable seats in economy for the six hour flight.
We arrived in the late afternoon of that sunny and very warm day. Weary from the travel and a busy schedule before the trip, we caught an early dinner, then settled into our hotel in Oakland.
2. Alameda/Oakland, Sunday September 11, 2017
With some time before the 100 pm game at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, we decided to head to Alameda in search of the “nuclear wessels”. To our disappointment, the nuclear vessels were nowhere to be found. However, we did find the USS Hornet.
The USS Hornet, commissioned in World War II, saw limited action in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and recovered the astronauts from Apollo 11 and 12 after splashdown. Decommissioned in 1970, it became a floating museum, moored in Alameda since 1998. Though we arrived just before it opened, the day was already warm. Upon boarding the ship we wandered about, waiting for our guided tour to begin. The all-volunteer staff was both enthusiastic and very knowledgeable, clearly passionate about their ship.
During the briefing before the tour, we were reminded that the ship was constructed for use by young men in good physical shape. Tight spaces and sharp turns within the ship made navigation tough for “normal people” (translation: I wasn’t going to these places aboard the USS Hornet). Following the briefing, the tour began. We walked along the museum section of the ship, where we saw types of planes that called the Hornet home during its mission.
When the tour led us to the interior of the ship, I waited as my brother went to visit the battle bridge. Though it had been been renovated several times during its service, the battle bridge was depicted as the one used during its limited service in Vietnam. Following the tour, we were free to walk about the hangar deck and the main deck of the ship.
Among the aircraft on display on the USS Hornet, my favorite were the F-14s on the main flight deck. The song “Danger Zone” echoed through my head as I examined the pride of the Navy’s planes, imagining what it might be like to pilot one. Before leaving the Hornet, we went astern to get a better view of the San Francisco skyline. This would be as close to the City by the Bay as we would get during this trip.
3. Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum
The USS Hornet was about 15 minutes from the stadium, and along the way we saw Willie Stargell Avenue. Arriving about 90 minutes before the game, we had ample time to tour the stadium, inside and out. From the outside, the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum resembled many of the multi-purpose stadiums from that era. In fact, it looked aged, likely many years from its best days.
Walking around the concourse of the stadium, the early afternoon shifted from very warm to hot! Temperatures were in the lower 90s F (33 degrees Celsius), though thankfully the sun splashed day was not humid. After touring the stadium, we ducked into the inner concourse to get something to eat and drink before finding our seats.
While standing in line, someone noticed that my brother wearing his Hartford Yard Goats t-shirt (obtained earlier this summer). It was unusual that someone here would know the team, since had they recently moved to Hartford. However, their new home, Dunkin Donuts Park, was not available in 2016, due to ongoing political issues. This fan mentioned he wanted to visit then, but it didn’t open on time.
Finding our seats, we discovered we were in full sunshine. When we purchased the tickets, I didn’t believe that the mid September sun in Oakland would be an issue. Undaunted, we settled in for the game. The pregame ceremony were tied into Breast Cancer Awareness Day, and the ceremony was emotional, ending with the release of doves.
Taking in the ballpark before the first pitch, I realized that my preconceived notion of the Coliseum may have been wrong. While it is indeed a multi-purpose stadium, it was not the rundown facility I had expected. Granted, we did not experience the plumbing issues that grabbed national headlines, but I felt as though the poor reputation the Coliseum has may be unfounded.
Despite the fact that this was important game for both teams (since the A’s were only three games back of the AL West leading Houston Astros), there were many empty seats at the game. It made me wonder if the heat was a contributing factor in the low attendance, or if baseball was not as popular in Oakland as it had been in the past.
Starting for the Houston Astros was left hander Dallas Keuchel, two years after his Cy Young award winning season. However, he didn’t bring his best stuff out of the bullpen, allowing four runs in 5 2/3 innings with four walks.
In contrast, A’s starter Kendall Graveman pitched a gem, allowing one run in six innings. Supporting the great start, the A’s scored 11 runs in the fourth through eight innings. With the A’s putting the game away in commanding fashion, I turned my attention back to the stadium. Though aging and need of maintenance, the ballpark holds special memories for both A’s and Raiders fans. We’ve seen stadiums in worse shape, especially at the end of their lives. The Coliseum was a fine place to see a ballgame, especially under the cloudless sky.
Following the game, I took one more look at the place. Even though it’s true I wouldn’t have traveled to California simply to see the Coliseum, I’m happy that I visited on this sunny, hot afternoon. It helped me disperse the idea that the stadium was simply a dump. Will we visit again?? It is unlikely, but I did enjoy the afternoon watching a game at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
Sunday morning in New Orleans dawned wet and humid, with steady rain falling through mid morning. The rain tapered to showers by about 1000 am, as we awaited the 100 pm game between the Oklahoma City Dodgers and the host New Orleans Baby Cakes. To our great surprise, the Baby Cakes tweeted that the game was postponed not long after 1000 am. Though it was wet and humid, it seemed as though the game could have been played.
Suddenly, we were faced with a hole in our schedule. Not wanting to wander the French Quarter in the drizzle and fog, we searched for something else to do. My brother noted that there was baseball in Biloxi, Mississippi, with a 200 pm start time. Since there was no baseball here, we headed out to southwest Mississippi.
Unfortunately, the rain seemed to follow us east toward the border. In fact, it fell so heavily that I considered pulling off and waiting it out. As we drove, I was prepared for the possibility of arriving in Biloxi just in time for the game to be postponed. As we got closer to our destination, the rain subsided, though the sky remained threatening.
In spite of the rain, we made good time getting to Biloxi, which left us an opportunity to explore the city. The skyline of Biloxi was dominated by the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, located along the Gulf of Mexico. It is the largest building in Biloxi by far, and we could see it from the highway into town.
Driving through Biloxi, it was clear that the effects of Hurricane Katrina were still haunting the city. Newer construction was built on pylons several feet tall, hopefully saving the homes in the event of another hurricane. It was also clear that parts of the city haven’t recovered from the storm, with many unoccupied buildings away from the coast.
Of course, we happened on churches in Biloxi. The one that struck me most was the Nativity BVM Parish Life Center. The church towered over its section of Biloxi, and is part of a larger complex on Washington Loop. Even with the clouds and rain, the building exuded character. After driving through much of the city, we headed back toward the ballpark to find parking.
1. MGM Park
Upon arriving at the ballpark, we found no parking in the general vicinity. We pulled into a parking lot adjacent to the park itself, where the attendant told us that the parking lot was for players, scouts and others involved in the game. When I asked where we could park nearby, the attendant looked in the car, pointed to my brother, and said “He looks like scout”. At first, I didn’t get it, but he was offering to let us parking in the players lot for the game. Talk about Southern hospitality!!!
We proceeded to walk completely around the park before going inside. MGM Park is the home of the Biloxi Shuckers, the Double A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers. Their opponent this afternoon was the Montgomery Biscuits, the Double A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. The game was slated to start at 200 pm, but one look at the field suggested that time might be optimistic.
The rain had ended, and the sun was peaking out from the clouds, but there were puddles on the field. We wandered through the concourse as the ground crew worked feverishly to ready the field for the game (that’s how it’s done New Orleans Baby Cakes!). While we were walking, we heard a voice yell out “Bowie BaySox!”. Since I was the only one there wearing a Bowie BaySox cap, I assumed he meant me.
As it turns out, the gentleman (whose name escapes me) worked in public relations with the Bowie BaySox years ago, but he remembered the BaySox caps. He gave us an oral history of MGM Park, and then offered us a tour of the press box. My brother took him up on his offer, and spent some time in the Shuckers press box before the game.
Just as we found our seats, the sun started to come out, with clearing coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. My brother applied sun screen, and asked me if I wanted to do the same. Saying “I think I’ll be ok” was me not respecting the sun in late April near the Gulf Coast. Eventually, bright sunshine splashed the field, and I was on my way to a nasty sunburn.
Due to the diligent work of the ground crew, the game only started about 30 minutes late. Starting for the Biloxi was Wade Miley. He had signed late in the off season, and was sent to Biloxi to tune up before joining the Brewers. Miley was rusty, and it showed, as he gave up four runs (including two HRs) in three plus innings of work before being taken out of the game.
The remainder of the pitchers entering the game for the Shuckers fared no better than Miley, giving up nine runs on 10 hits in mop up work. In contrast, the Shuckers offense was limited to three runs by the Biscuits’ pitchers. With the outcome of the game determined fairly early, some of the relatively sparse crowd exited early, leaving the ballpark nearly empty for the last half of the game.
For the rest of the game, I admired the view of the ballpark. Even though it was obviously a prefabricated stadium (based on the appearance of the seating area), the views made this place stand out. With the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino prominent in centerfield, and Gulf over right field, the ballpark looked much bigger than it actually was.
Following the final out, the Shuckers invited fans to play catch on the field. Of course, my brother and I were prepared, retrieving our gloves from the car. We spent the next 20 minutes playing catch on the field of MGM Park, before we were gently reminded that the ballpark would be closing soon. After our game of catch, we briefly visited the beach adjacent to the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. There were seemingly more seagulls than people as the sun began to set, and the white sandy beach reminded me of home.
The quick walk along the water was the perfect ending to a great day. This experience was my favorite of the trip, in part due to the fact that it was completely unplanned. The clear skies made for a much easier drive through the darkness back the hotel in New Orleans.
Following a very unpleasant experience at the hotel last evening, we spent far too much of the morning dealing with the aftermath. The wasted effort was carved out of time originally dedicated to exploring New Orleans. Undaunted, we checked out of the hotel and headed for the French Quarter.
1. New Orleans
Arriving at the French Quarter around 900 am, we surprisingly found parking fairly quickly. That was fortuitous, since we were slated to see a New Orleans Baby Cakes game starting at 1100 am. With little time to spare, we lit out to explore the area. Of course, we probably visited the French Quarter at the precisely wrong time to get a flavor for the place. Instead, we decided to take in the architecture unique to this part of the world.
With relatively few people wandering the streets this time of day, we were able to cover a good amount of ground in short order. I found myself fascinated by the local architecture, which seemed to meld the Art Deco of Miami with baroque feel of Paris or Montreal. Much of the activity this time of day consisted of restaurant or bar employees hosing off sidewalks, and delivery people restocking for the day.
A couple of blocks from the Mississippi River we encountered some churches. Each church appeared to be more ornate than the last. Not being a religious person, I don’t share the same spiritual connection to the church as others, but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the architecture of the building. Something about the ornate design fascinates me, as though a story was being told by the structure itself.
In the time we had remaining, we walked down to the Mississippi River. New Orleans is the fourth location along the Mississippi that we have visited (the others being St Paul MN, St Louis MO, and Memphis TN), and each has its own charms. Following a wet and snowy winter upstream, the river was higher than normal, but the flow was gentle. There was little activity on the river (due primarily to the time of day), but it doesn’t take much to imagine it busy with commerce and pleasure crafts.
Game time was approaching rapidly, and admittedly we spent little time in this very special place. From the little we sampled, it was clear that there was much more than needs to be explored. New Orleans beckons for a longer stay, and I hope to do that in the near future.
2. Shrine on Airline
Fortunately for us, the ballpark was only about 20 minutes from the French Quarter, and we arrived early enough to walk around the ballpark before game time. The Baby Cakes hosted the Oklahoma City Dodgers (the Triple A affiliate of the LA Dodgers) at Shrine on Airline, located down the street from New Orleans International Airport.
The 1100 am game time is typical for get-away days for minor league teams. With the game ending around 200 pm, it allows teams to travel to their next destination at a reasonable time. When we made plans for this game, it was supposed to be the second game we saw here on this trip. However, the rainout the previous day left us this last chance to see the ballpark before moving on to Houston.
We didn’t know it at the time, but this WOULD be our last chance to see the ballpark (at least for the foreseeable future). Following the 2019 season, the Baby Cakes moved to Wichita, Kansas, becoming the Wind Surge for the 2020 Pacific Coast League season. New Orleans is seeking another minor league team, but there are no immediate plans to bring baseball back to the Big Easy.
After entering the ballpark, we conducted our typical trip around the stadium. Walking around, taking in the park, we got the feel of a modular stadium. The facilities seemed minimal, and while the ballpark holds 10,000 fans, it had more of a Double A stadium feel. The 1100 am start time resulted in a sparse crowd (which is typical). Many of the fans were members of local schools and clubs (also typical of an 1100 am start). The light attendance made the stadium feel nearly empty as the first pitch was thrown.
The starting pitcher for the OKC Dodgers was left hander Manny Bañuelos. The name was not familiar to me, but it was clear early that he brought his best stuff with him to the mound. Bañuelos allowed no run and no hits in four innings of work, striking out nine. Despite the great start, he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the fifth.
We have seen this in minor league games many times before. Players (especially pitchers) having a great game are suddenly and inexplicably removed. It has been our experience that minor league managers are more interested in evaluating talent than adhering strictly to game situations (seemingly at the behest of the parent club). For the Baby Cakes (the Triple A affiliate of the Miami Marlins), starter Sandy Alcantara (who would be promoted to the patent club not long after this appearance) nearly matched Bañuelos pitch for pitch, allowing one run on five hits in 5 2/3 innings.
The Baby Cakes scored two runs in the bottom of the sixth, breaking a 1-1 tie. They held on for a 3-1 victory, though the Dodgers threatened in the ninth, scoring one run and leaving runners at first and second as the game ended. Since we had miles to cover before our next stop, we did not linger long after the game ended. Though the stadium was “cookie cutter”, not distinguished from stadiums like across Minor League Baseball, I was glad we visited the Shrine on Airline, especially since the Baby Cakes have left New Orleans.
Our next stop was Houston, a trip Google Maps depicted as a five and one-half hour drive. The drive was fairly easy, as we would miss the commute in New Orleans leaving in the early afternoon, and arriving in Houston as evening fell. The entire trip had us on Interstate 10, a highway on which we had never traveled. The trip was eye opening in that much of the roadway was over the bayou of southern Louisiana, a place we’d never been. By the time we arrived in Houston, I was tired enough for just a light dinner, followed by an early bedtime.
Following a day of activities in the Houston area, we relaxed for a bit before heading out to Minute Maid Park for an evening contest between the Anaheim Angels and Houston Astros. We had been to Minute Maid Park once before, in September 2003. Having arrived just before game time back then, we didn’t leave ourselves time to truly explore the stadium. We planned to make up for that oversight.
1. Minute Maid Park
We arrived about two hours before game time, not long after the gates opened. There was plenty of parking at a reasonable prices less than two blocks from the stadium, though I’m sure our early arrival made finding parking much earlier. Almost like an omen, my brother had difficulty having his ticket scanned from his phone. As it turned out, we had to scan a paper copy of the ticket to allow him enter Minute Maid Park. The callousness of the ticket staff was dismaying, but we let it go fairly quickly as we toured the inside of the stadium.
Much had changed, but there were still many of the landmarks we saw in 2003. Gone was the flag pole in centerfield (no tears shed here), but the train on the left field wall was still present. The evening weather was as good as could have been hoped, and the roof was open for the game.
Following a quick trip to the concession stand for dogs and drinks, we went in search out our seats. The stadium looked much bigger with the roof open (back in 2003, the roof was closed until the 7th inning), something we did not get to experience much in our previous visit. We sensed some trouble not long after settling into our seats. The people behind us were drunk and rowdy, and I began to get a sinking feeling, as though the experience was about to be ruined.
My fears were realized shortly after the first pitch, when one of the drunk fans vomited on us, with my brother taking the brunt. The fan explained it was his birthday, and he had too much to drink. His companion, also visibly drunk, starting screaming at the top of her lungs. Trying to be kind, I asked her to tone it down a bit, but I was told something I’d prefer not to write here.
Finally, I asked an usher to intervene. The usher talked to her, and tried to explain that she was just enthusiastic about the game. Dejected, my brother and I actively considered leaving, in order to maintain civility. The usher promised to watch over her, and eventually he did admonish her for her behavior. After that, the circumstance changed, and we were able to enjoy the game. Overall, I was disappointed by the response to the aberrant behavior, leaving me with a negative early opinion of Minute Maid Park.
With most of the unpleasantness out of the way, we did our best to enjoy the game and the ballpark. In addition to seeing Mike Trout live for the first time, we also got to see Shohei Ohtani start for the Angels. Considering the amount of hype following him, I felt lucky to see him so early in his MLB career.
Unfortunately, Ohtani did not have his best stuff that night, grinding out 5 1/3 innings, giving up four runs on six hits and five walks. However, the Astros pitching wasn’t much better, and the game took on the feel of a burgeoning slugfest. Angels SS Andrelton Simmons hit a ball completely out of Minute Maid Park (which only seems possible with the roof open), part of a two HR, 5 RBI night.
Simmons’ second HR night, a three run shot in the seventh inning put the game out of the reach. In total, 11 pitchers were used in the game. As it typical when this many pitchers are used, the game slowed to a crawl at times. On this pleasantly evening, in this beautiful ballpark, the pace of play was not as draining as it can be.
Following the last out, we exited the park and headed back to the hotel. Minute Maid Park is a beautiful place, but the fan unfriendly actions of just two took away from the experience. The Astros’ response was also distressing, leaving me with an overall negative feeling about the night. Hopefully the matinee tomorrow afternoon can wash away the unsettling vibe from tonight.
Day 7 of the 2018 Baseball Trip started at the Comfort Suites in Marshall, Texas. Our target this day was Memphis Tennessee, to take in a Memphis Redbirds game at AutoZone Park. A rainout the night before meant we would be treated to a doubleheader, with the first game starting at 500 pm.
1. Little Rock
About half way through the drive, we stopped for lunch in Little Rock Arkansas. Neither my brother or I have ever been to Arkansas, and Little Rock seemed like a fine town in which to sample life there. Parking near the Arkansas River, we walked around Little Rock for a while before looking for a place to eat.
We settled on Gus’s World Famous Chicken, located on President Bill Clinton Avenue. Arriving about lunch time, there was a crowd, but it didn’t require us to wait. After picking up our orders, we sat in the back of the seating area. Not long after we sat down, one of the waitstaff came around with an aluminum bowl filled with French fries. Apparently, at Gus’s, you can have your French fries topped off as often as needed!
Everybody at Gus’s was courteous and kind. Being from the Northeast, we have become accustomed to people always being in a rush, barely taking the time to notice what is going on around them. Our brief stay in Little Rock reminded us that there are places where people take life as it comes, all with smiles on their faces.
After lunch, we wandered along the Arkansas River, following the trails in a nearby park. Being a school and work day, there were relatively few people in the park, allowing us an opportunity to investigate the area with few distractions. After about an hour of walking, it was time to hit the road again. We left Little Rock with a very positive impression of the place. The Arkansas Travelers play in nearby North Little Rock, so it is possible we may return here in the future.
As we neared the Arkansas/Tennessee border, we encountered rain, the first rain we’d seen on the trip since Biloxi, Mississippi. Knowing that the game the night before in Memphis was postponed due to rain, I was becoming increasingly concerned that the same could happen tonight. Because of our tight travel schedule, we would have to skip the games in Memphis if there was a rainout.
Luckily for us, the rain was in the process of ending when we reached our hotel in West Memphis, Arkansas. The rain slowed us down reaching the hotel, so we only had time to drop off our bags and head to the ballpark in order to catch the beginning of the first game of the doubleheader.
2. AutoZone Park, Memphis, Tennessee
Weaving our way through downtown Memphis, we came upon AutoZone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds. Arriving before most people left work, finding parking was simple. Walking from the parking lot to the stadium, it was clear we were in an older section of Memphis, based on the architecture.
We were greeted at the entrance of AutoZone Park by an old fashioned sign announcing the game time (which was actually incorrect). From the start, we were impressed by the ambiance of the urban ballpark, and we had just reached the entrance!
Per our custom, we toured the inside of the ballpark before settling into our seats. As we were walking around taking pictures, it was obvious we were in a classic ballpark. Unlike many ballparks we have visited, we were able to access just about the entire outfield via the concrete walkway.
Completing a lap around the inside of the ballpark, we headed for the team store. My attempt to purchase an International League ball was thwarted, as the item was not yet fitted with a UPC code. Without the code, it could not be scanned or purchased . Assuring me that the ball would be available later, the store manager suggested I come back for a ball.
After leaving the team store, we went to the concession stand for dinner. Of course, I indulged in hot dogs, which were greasy but good. The concession stand offered a wide variety of food and drink, but we did not partake in the offerings. With food securely in hand, we went in search of our seats.
Our seats were located a few rows behind the Redbirds dugout, giving a spectacular view of this beautiful stadium. While waiting for the action to began, I spent the time admiring the view of downtown Memphis. Almost immediately this ballpark became one of my favorites, and we’d only been there less than 45 minutes. All of my favorite ballparks (both MLB and MiLB) have an urban backdrop. While I’m not sure why, the urban aspect to the backdrop seems to give the ballpark more character.
Due primarily to the early start to the doubleheader (first pitch for the first game was scheduled for 500 pm), there were very few people in the park. The Redbirds’ opponent for the doubleheader was the Round Rock Express, the Triple A affiliate of the Houston Astros. As is customary for minor league double headers, each game would consist of seven inning games.
The first pitch for game one occurred at 504 pm in front of a nearly empty stadium. On the mound for the Redbirds was Daniel Ponce de Leon, who was promoted to parent club (St Louis Cardinals) not long after this game. de Leon was roughed up this night by the Express, allowing six runs and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.
The Redbirds’ offense was as ineffective as their starting pitcher, managing just one run on three hits. With the game well in hand, my attention turned to the beautiful stadium as evening rapidly approached. After the final out of the first game, there was a 35 minute intermission during which we walked around the concourse.
Not wanting to bother the staff at the team store, I decided to forego trying to buy the International League ball. It still wasn’t available, so I left. However, my brother was insistent, and the manager provide a ball for us at no charge.
For game two of the doubleheader, the Memphis team came out wearing Chicks uniforms (the name of the team from years ago). The Redbirds were the Chicks for many years before becoming the Cardinals’ Triple A affiliate. Game two started at about 745 pm, when the ballpark had is maximum crowd.
The Chicks featured an opener in game two, with Sam Tuivailala taking the hill for the first inning. Austin Bibens-Dirkx started for the Express (who would be promoted to the Rangers shortly after this start). Unlike the first game, pitching dominated. Bibens-Dirkx threw a complete game in a losing effort, despite giving up two runs in six innings.
The low scoring affair afforded a quick pace, with game two clocking in under two and one-half hours. As typical happens during night games, the crowd thinned out before the game ended about 915 pm. The rainout the night before allowed us to spend more time at this beautiful ballpark than originally expected, taking in its ambience and charm. AutoZone Park was named the best minor league ballpark in 2015, and based on what we’ve seen here, it was well-deserved.
Living a distance from Memphis, I’m not sure when I’ll return here again. If I do, I’ll make sure it’s when the Redbirds are home, as this ballpark is worth it.
Day 8 of the 2018 Baseball Road Trip began at the Knight’s Inn in West Memphis, AR, following a doubleheader at AutoZone Park the night before. Our ultimate destination that day was Chattanooga, TN, to catch a Lookouts’ game in the evening. Google Maps informed us that the trip would take a litle more than five hours to reach AT&T Field, home of the Lookouts. That left plenty of time to explore Memphis during the morning hours.
Our first stop in Memphis (upon the request of my brother Jeff) was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Seeing the motel in person proved to be a sobering experience. Dr King was killed before I was three years old, and of course I don’t remember the tragedy. However, walking through the motel and seeing the room where he stayed, connected me to the event more intensely than I expected. Though the balcony where he died is inaccessible (as is his room), seeing the layout lends perspective to the videos of the event I’ve seen all my life.
Following our visit to the room where Dr King was assassinated, we made our way to the main section of the National Civil Rights Museum. Though we arrived at the museum just about as it opened on that sunny morning, there were lines of school children and visitors waiting to enter. As was the case with our visit to the rooms on the second floor of the motel, strolling though the museum was more powerful than I anticipated.
We spent about an hour at the museum, and could have spent more. However, there were other sites we wanted to see in Memphis, but I’m glad this was our first stop. If you visit Memphis, this is a must-see.
Our next stop was Sun Studio, on Union Avenue. This stop was my idea; how could I pass up an opportunity to see one of the crucibles from which rock and roll sprung? Well, for a moment, it appeared as though it might not happen. Unbeknownst to us (but probably known to the locals), there is not much available parking immediately surrounding the studio. After several approaches, I was about to give up, but my brother insisted we try again. Finally, we were able to secure a spot close enough to the studio to take the tour.
From the outside, the studio presents a fairly unassuming profile. It belies the studio’s iconic status, and as might be expected, the place was busy. Just inside the right door was a small counter where we could buy soft drinks and snacks, as well as a small souvenir area. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for the next tour, which began promptly at the top of the hour.
The first part of the tour wound us through a museum of the early days of the studio, complete with displays of musical instruments and equipment. As a lifelong fan of rock and roll, I drank in the experience. The tour through the museum lasted about 40 minutes, followed by a visit to the studio itself.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the stroll through the museum, the studio is what I truly wanted to see. Sun Studio is still a working studio, as our informative and engaging tour guide reminded us. Though ancient by today’s standards, there was undeniably a presence in this place. Elvis recorded his first hit, That’s Alright Mama, in this very location. For me, it was almost a spiritual experience, knowing I was standing where Elvis helped popularize rock and roll.
On the floor of the studio, there is a taped “x” in the spot where Elvis stood when he recorded his first hit. Our tour guide told us that when he first visited, Bob Dylan bent down and kissed that spot. When our guide asked in anyone in the tour would like to do the same, two people actually did!!! While I was truly enchanted by the place, that was not my idea of fun.
The tour concluded in the studio, and we were welcome to stay for a while before the next tour. However, the size of the crowd made viewing the studio difficult, so we chose that moment to leave. If you have a deep connection to rock history like me, you cannot leave Memphis without visiting the studio.
With precious little time left before we had to head out toward Chattanooga, we headed for Beal Street. Visiting during the day most assuredly did not afford us the best taste of the area, though we did manage to obtain some feel for the place. Walking down the road, I couldn’t help but hear “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohen echo through my head.
After a quick walk up and down the street, we were forced to start on our way to Chattanooga. Of course, we only scratched the surface in Memphis, and I have every intention to visit this place again, making sure to see Beale Street at night. Before heading out on the road, we stopped at a Memphis Welcome Center in preparation for the drive. Memphis had one more surprise for us. Inside the center was a statue of B.B King, which was fitting considering his deep ties to Memphis.
2. Memphis to Chattanooga
Leaving Memphis shortly after noon left us about seven hours before game time in Chattanooga. Luckily, the weather was clear, and the traffic driving across Tennessee this afternoon was generally light. Being from the Northeast, we were pleasantly surprised by the light traffic on Interstates across the Southeast. Even during times when traffic should be relatively clear across the Northeast, there is seemingly some problem (be it slow drivers in the passing lane, people afraid to pass trucks, accidents and endless construction) that slows our progress below an acceptable level.
The drive itself was non descriptive, though we did notice many dead armadillos along the highway. Not knowing much about armadillos, I suspected that they lived further south, where winters are largely mild, even at night. Unfortunately for us (and the armadillos), we did not see a single specimen alive along the side of the road. Following a quick stop for lunch we were on our way again, reaching the hotel in Chattanooga shortly after 500 pm. We stopped long enough to drop off our luggage and freshen up before heading out to the park for the 700 pm game start time
3. AT&T Field, Chattanooga TN
Arriving at AT&T Field about 45 minutes before game time, we found parking at a public lot down the street. Being unsure of the parking layout at the stadium itself, we decided to park away from the field. We have found that parking near the stadium, especially for a well-attended game, can result in a significant slowdown exiting the vicinity.
The ballpark is located on a hill, which is evident as you approach the park. From a distance, it was not clear how to access the park on the hill, until we got closer. There is an escalator behind home plate that makes reaching the ballpark easier, especially to those with mobility issues. As we usually do when visiting a ballpark for the first time, we walked around the outside of the stadium taking pictures. Following the short tour of the outside of the park, we entered the stadium behind home plate. Before going to our seats,, we visited the concession stand, where I partook in a couple of hot dogs, which were unremarkable.
Taking our seats just before game time, we discovered that the seats were directly in the line of the setting sun. That resulted in some difficulty seeing the action that occurred in left field for the first part of the ballgame. On this evening, the Chattanooga Lookouts hosted the Tennessee Smokies in a Southern League game. Skies were clearing, and the temperature at first pitch (717 pm) was about 70 degrees. Despite being a Friday night (which typically means a good crowd), AT&T Field was only about half full.
Sitting down the right field line, we discovered that many of the seats further down the line were in fact general admission seats on an aluminum platform. These seats followed the wall into right field, though there were not many fans in the seats. Overall, the ballpark was on par with some of the Double A stadiums we have visited in the Eastern League. The sight lines were good, and from our seats we had a great look at the field.
Early during the game action, Lookouts catcher Brian Navaretto was injured by a bat during a backswing at the plate. Navaretto was visibly shaken after the incident, wobbling while trying to walk with help from the trainer. Despite his best efforts to remain in the game, it was clear he could not continue. Upon leaving, he received a standing ovation from the hometown crowd.
After scoring a run in the top of the second, the Smokies tacked on four more runs in the top of the fourth, aided by a critical error by the Lookouts. That outburst essentially put the game out of reach. The Lookouts scored their only run in the bottom of the third. Once the game became out of reach, Lookouts fans starting leaving, and by the end of the game, there were few fans left.
Due to the thinned out crowd, our getaway was smooth and quick. The warm evening was quickly turning into a chilly night, not surprising for late April. As ballparks go, it was about average for a Double A team, though it wasn’t without its charms. Our timing was good; unfortunately, the Lookouts are on the chopping block. MLB’s plan to eliminate 40 minor league teams leaves Chattanooga on the outside looking in. Hopefully, for the sake of the fans and the community, AT&T Field will host baseball in 2021.
Day 9 of the 2018 Baseball Road trip began with us checkling out of the hotel just outside of Chatanooga Tennessee after 800 am. The plan for this day was to make the trip back to Maryland after a hugely successful tour of ballparks through the Southeast US. The day started sunny and relatively warm, and we expected traffic to be light, considering it was a Saturday. Conditions seemed ripe for an easy drive home.
Google Maps showed a drive time of 9 hours and 9 minutes with much of the drive on Interstate 81. In preparation for the trip, we knew that we would be passing by a couple of towns with minor league teams. The first was Knoxville, Tennessee, the home of the Tennessee Smokies. They were out of town, as we had just seen them in Chatanooga the night before. We also passed close to Kingsport, Tennessee, the home of the Kingsport Mets. The Mets, the advanced Rookie League team of the New York Mets, are a member of the Appalachian League. They play a short season, meaning their schedule did not start until the end of June.
About 5 hours into the trip, near Roanoke Virginia, I asked my brother if any of the minor league teams on our way back to Maryland had a home game that night. A quick searched showed that only the Richmond Flying Squirrels were home. Not quite ready to end the trip, we decided to make a relatively large detour, and headed for Richmond Virgina. While that destination did take us off the best path back, Richmond is only about 2 hours from home, so it was not as much of a detour as it seemed
We continued along Interstate 81 until we met Interstate 64, and about 2 hours later, we were in Richmond, Virginia. Our destination was The Diamond, the home of the Richmond Flying Squirrels. The AA afflilate of the San Francisco Giants, the Flying Squirrels hosted the Hartford Yard Goats. We arrived less than an hour before game time, having secured tickets for the 605 pm start via the web on the way to the ballpark. Not surprisingly, the game was well attended, and the best seats we could get were for the upper deck.
Because of the sizeable crowd, we parked near the far edge of the parking lot, and made our way to the ballpark. We got to our seats about 20 minutes before the first pitch, which gave us just enough time to get something to eat. This was not our first visit to The Diamond. We came down to Richmond in May of 2017 to see a pair of games against the Harrisburg Senators. During those games, our seats were much better, but the weather that weekend was cloudy and cool.
The first pitch occurred precisely at 605 pm. After a scoreless top of the first, the Flying Squirrels jumped on the YardGoats starter Parker French for three runs in the bottom of the first, adding two more in the bottom of the 3rd. The Flying Squirrels outburst continued in the bottom of the 5th, plating three more runs.
Though the Yard Goats scored three run in the in the bottom of the 3rd, Hartford would not pull much closer. As the evening wore on, with the outcome of the game all but assured, the crowd started thinning out after 6th inning. By the end of the game, more than half the crowd had left. Considering we still had a two hour drive home after the game, a dwindling crowd would make exiting much easier.
As mentioned earlier, this was not our first trip to the Diamond. A much more extensive review of the stadium can be found later in this blog. Overall, it was a pleasant experience at a nice AA stadium. It was also a great way to end the trip, squeezing in one more game before heading home.
Luckily for us, the exit from the Diamond was swift, and we headed north of Interstate 95 toward Maryland. The trip was smooth until we approached Maryland. The combination of traffic and rain slowed our progress, as it took closer to three hours to finally reach home