Yet another move placed me near Harrisburg, PA this spring, and I am once again in a hot spot for baseball. Just 11 miles away is First National Bank (FNB) Field, the home of the Harrisburg Senators, the Double A affiliate of the Washington Nationals. My brother and I visited FNB Field once before, on our way back from a baseball trip that took us to eastern OH and western PA during August of 2019. There was no baseball that day (as the Senators were out of town), but we were able to wander through portions of the park. Of course, we could not get the true essence of the ballpark that day, but we vowed to come back here at some point in the future.
Fast forward nearly two years, and we did indeed return. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of FNB Field is that it is located on an island in the Susquehanna River. Known as City Island, the mile long island is home to the ballpark, as well as other attractions. We approached City Island from Harrisburg, taking the Market Street Bridge to the main parking lot adjacent to the ballpark. Concerned about the availability of parking on an island, we arrived well before the first pitch. Despite my trepidations, there was plenty of parking available in the main lot, as well as a lot just over the bridge.
A short walk from the parking lot to FNB Field ensued, which involved climbing stairs and an uphill walk before reaching the gate. The trek could present some issues for those fans with mobility issues, but free rides from the parking lot to the gate are available via bicycles equipped with a rider seat. Though I did not see anyone take advantage of this service, I imagine it would be helpful for those in need. Per our usual approach, we walked outside the stadium taking pictures. About halfway across the outside of the park, we entered through a gate behind first base. Pleasant staff members working at the gate welcomed us warmly as we presented our mobile tickets, reminding me we were in neither the New York City Metro area nor Maryland/DC.
Once inside the park, we wandered taking pictures. Our visit occurred during the pandemic, and masks were worn by most fans. Because of the continuing pandemic, I was concerned that our movements within the ballpark would be restricted to limit exposure. However, we were able to encircle the playing field, as the main concourse wraps around the park. The layout of the outfield and the seating along the concourse vaguely reminded me of Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, MD (home of the Atlantic League’s Southern Maryland Blue Crabs).
As we walked from the right field line to the left field line, I was surprised to discover than FNB Field held more than 6,000 fans. Even with a sizable seating area behind home plate. at first glance, I would have thought the maximum capacity was closer to 5,000, which would have been on the smaller side for a Double A team. However, when the bleacher seating along the first base side, and the “Cheap Seats” in the left field corner are considered, the ballpark holds about the average number of fans for Double A ballparks.
Located on the concourse near the left field foul pole was the Senators Team Store. Seemingly smaller than most team stores, it contained most of the standard fare fans would expect, and had much more of an Expos presence than Nationals Park (the Montreal Expos moved to DC following the 2004 season). After browsing in the team store, we headed down the left field course to our seats
Seating in FNB Field was arranged in pods to limit interaction among fans. Unlike the pods we occupied the week before in Arm&Hammer Park in Trenton NJ, seating here was not as restrictive. Being closer to fans, we wore our masks, removing them only to eat and drink. Sitting in section 201 (near third base), we had a great view of the entire park. Our vantage point afforded us a view of the hills to the north and northwest of the stadium, reminding me of our visit to FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading, PA. In addition to a standard videoboard/scoreboard in right centerfield, there was a supplemental horizontal videoboard in the left centerfield. This board contained information on the inning/score, the pitcher’s statistics, as well as the pitch speed. For avid baseball fans like us, the additional treasure trove of data was quite welcome.
The weather could not have been better, as remaining clouds melted away with the setting sun. Clear skies and pleasantly warm temperatures for mid May set the stage for a perfect evening for baseball. Though the crowd was necessarily small for the contest, that did not stop those in attendance from showing their affection for the Senators. Because of the pandemic, there was no minor league season in 2020, and the pent up frustrations of the faithful resulted in an almost raucous crowd.
Though there are a number of places to eat, we grabbed a standard baseball dinner at the concession stand on the concourse level behind the main seating area. Servers were friendly, prices were reasonable, and the service was relatively quick. After some of the BAD experiences we have had at other parks (especially MLB parks), cheerful faces were a welcome change of pace. Perhaps as I get a number of visits under my belt, I can comment further on the cuisine offered at FNB Field.
As evening blended into night, the view of the hills to the north and northwest disappeared, but the feel of the stadium unchanged. Unlike many Saturday night minor league games, the crowd did not leave early, as the game remained relatively tight until the end. Even with a small crowd, I became concerned that exiting an island from one parking area could take a considerable amounts of time. Reversing our course from the stadium to the parking lot, we took some time to admire the view of Harrisburg across the Susquehanna River. It was worth the detour; Harrisburg alit was quite a sight, especially since it was our first visit. If you have the time after a Senators night game, make sure to take in the skyline.
As expected, exiting the parking lot was a slow process, as several lines that developed in the lot bottlenecked at the confluence of the lines near the turn onto the bridge. Having been in parking lots that were slow to clear in the past, we knew that patience was key, and eventually we managed to get out of the lot, heading back toward the east side of Harrisburg. FNB Field is an excellent minor league facility, providing a great fan experience among the passionate faithful. Since this facility is my new “home” ballpark, I was very pleased to find such a great stadium so nearby.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our only baseball trip of 2000 took us to western PA and northeast OH in late May. Since the trip by car was in excess of five hours from central NJ, we drove out to northeast OH on Friday, May 19th, staying just outside of Cleveland for the night.
Saturday, May 20th dawned cloudy and chilly, much cooler than one might expect in late May across northeast OH. With a few hours before the 105 PM contest between the visiting New York Yankees and the hometown Indians, we decided to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, located adjacent to the southern shore of Lake Erie. Uncharacteristically, we visited the Hall without a camera, so we don’t have a visual record of our visit.
To my delight, the crowd at the Hall was thin, perhaps due to the weather and the relative early hour (as the doors opened at 1000 AM). As a result, we were treated to nearly unobstructed views of the myriad exhibits. Though we moved fairly quickly through the artifacts, we were able to appreciate the history of rock and roll (as well as pop music). Not surprisingly, the Beatles exhibit was the largest in the Hall, and our favorite band, Led Zeppelin, was well represented.
Not wanting to miss an opportunity to explore Jacobs Field, we left the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after about 90 minutes. Even with the limited time spent there, we were impressed by the museum, and plan to return in the future for a better look. If you are a rock and roll fan, and plan to be in the vicinity of the Hall, leave yourself some time for a visit: you won’t be disappointed.
1. Jacobs Field
Venturing back out in the cool and breezy conditions, we completed the short drive from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to Jacobs Field. Had the weather been better, we might have walked the distance, but the cool and damp air ruled that out. We were able to secure parking just across the street from the ballpark in a private lot at a reasonable price.
We performed our typical tour around the outside of the park, but the weather curtailed our walk. Ducking inside the stadium at the home plate entrance, we were greeted by a nearly empty park. Once inside, we had access to the entire seated area, exploring while taking pictures. Unfortunately, the low overcast made the stadium appear drab, but the images capture the conditions on the cool and cloudy early afternoon perfectly.
Since both teams were playing well, tickets for the Saturday matinee were scarce, and our seats were located in the last row of the upper deck on the first base side of the field. Just before game time, temperatures hovered in the 40s, and the persistent breeze off the lake made it feel even colder. Despite an announced crowd of 42,000+, the unseasonably cool weather held the actual attendance far below that number.
Starting for the visiting New York Yankees was veteran right hander David Cone. Thus far in 2000, Cone was struggling (with an ERA over 5.50), though he was less than a season from his perfect game in 1999. On the mound for the Indians was left hander Chuck Finley, who was in his first campaign for the Tribe. Each team featured a potent offense, but the combination of good starting pitching and cool weather raised the specter on a low scoring contest.
New York scratched out a single run in the first inning against Finley, then tacked on another run in the fourth inning (with Yankee right fielder Paul O’Neill driving in the run with a single), giving the visitors a 2-0 lead. Meanwhile, David Cone kept the Cleveland bats at bay through the first six innings. Each pitcher worked deliberately, slowing their approaches with runners on base. In spite of the lack of scoring, the pace of the game was glacial, punctuated by the cold and damp conditions.
During the slow play, we were able to get a better feel for Jacobs Field. Dreary weather made the six year old stadium seem drab, with little contrast between the field and the slate gray overcast that seemingly encased it. Because of the conditions, Jacobs Field did not shine, and the lack of fans made the ballpark seem larger than it appeared on TV. Clearly we were not seeing the park at its best. Though the crowd was sparse, one of the more memorable parts of our visit was the persistent drumming in the left field stands. With a typical crowd, the drumming may not have been as noticeable, but with little else happening in the largely empty stadium, it echoed almost to the point of distraction.
Cleveland broke through against David Cone in the bottom of the seventh inning, as Richie Sexson led off the frame with a solo home run. Scoring another run in the seventh, the Indians tied the game, while simultaneously knocking the Yankees starter out of the game. Each bullpen then kept the game tied heading into the bottom of the ninth inning. Yankees Jeff Nelson surrendered four walks during the frame, forcing in the winning run with two outs to give the Indians a 3-2 victory.
Despite the low scoring affair, the nine inning contest took three hours and 38 minutes to complete, which seemed even longer in the cold and wind. We filed out Jacobs Field quickly, as we planned to attend a game at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburg that evening. Disappointed that we didn’t get to experience the ballpark in better weather, we would have to return in the future to get a better feel for the stadium and environs.
2. Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh PA
Spending more time at Jacobs Field than expected, we were left with about two and one-half hours to get to Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Though it would be tight, we were optimistic that, with light traffic, we would arrive before the first pitch at 710 PM. However, events would conspire to make arriving on time impossible. A bit more than an hour into the trip, we encountered thunderstorms that hampered our progress. As we got closer to Pittsburgh, traffic slowed to a crawl.
Finally, we reached the parking lot next to the ballpark, located on the north shore of the Allegheny River (north of downtown Pittsburgh). Arriving well after the first pitch, we parked in a dark area under an overpass of Interstate 385. While there were plenty of fans in the area, it seemed fairly remote, and I had an uneasy feeling about leaving the car there.
Because we arrived in the second inning, we had no time to wander and explore as we normally would at a new stadium. Instead, we rushed to our seats to enjoy the game. As we travelled from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, we went from early spring weather to early summer weather, as very warm and humid conditions greeting us at Three Rivers Stadium. While there were storms in the area, they managed to avoid us during the game.
Unfortunately, we did not take pictures at the stadium, as we left the camera in the car in our haste. Three Rivers Stadium was a typical multipurpose stadium, nearly identical to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. This season would be the last for the Pirates at this ballpark, and its condition seemed to reflect that fact. However, it was a pleasant place to see a Saturday night ballgame.
Pittsburgh hosted the St Louis Cardinals, who scored early and often. St Louis scored six runs in the first four innings, the scored 13 runs in the last three frames, on the way to a 19-4 drubbing of the hometown Pirates. With the game out of hand for the Pirates, they sent catcher Keith Osik to the mound to pitch the top of the ninth inning. As might have been expected, Osik fared poorly, surrendering five runs on five hits. This outing marked Osik’s second MLB pitching performance. In 1999, he also pitched an inning during a blow out, and his performance then was only slight better than this night.
Even with the high scoring, the game took less than three hours, a stark contrast to the affair in Cleveland. Fortunately, my car was still there following the game, and because of the late game finish, we stayed at nearby a nearby hotel, driving home Sunday morning.
After seeing a Saturday afternoon game at Shea Stadium (where the Mets beat the Boston Red Sox), we headed toward Montreal, Quebec, where we would see a game between the Expos and the Red Sox at Olympic Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Weaving our way through New York City traffic, we eventually arrived at Interstate 87 North (also known as the New York State Thruway). Once out of New York City, the drive was fairly straightforward and uneventful.
During our drive toward Montreal, we noticed an unusually high number of vehicles with Massachusetts license plates traveling northward on the Thruway. At the time, it was a curiosity, but I didn’t give it much thought. Following a four hour drive, we decided to find lodging on the US side of the border with Quebec. My concern was that we would have difficulty communicating with people in Quebec, especially late at night, so we secured accommodations in a hotel in Plattsburgh for the night.
2. Plattsburgh NY to Montreal
While checking out of the hotel and moving our bags to the car, we saw many vehicles with Massachusetts plates in the parking lot. It dawned on me that there were Red Sox fans doing exactly what we were doing: going to see a ballgame at Olympic Stadium. Following breakfast, we crossed the Canadian border, stopping to exchange currency for our day in Montreal. As we crossed the border, we saw a very interesting road sign.
The sign stated 100 = 65, to remind American drivers that speed limits posted in Quebec were in kilometers per hour, NOT miles per hour. Part of me could not help but wonder how many Americans received citations in Quebec before these signs were posted. The trip from the hotel to Montreal took about an hour, meaning we arrived well before game time. Since we did not plan to stay following the game, we spent some time conducting a driving tour of Montreal.
Not having been to France at that time, I couldn’t help but believe the Montreal was modeled after Paris. The “newer” portion of Montreal was clearly modern, not unlike many American cities we had visited. However, during our tour through Old Montreal, I couldn’t help but feel as though we were in a French city. The architecture reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Paris, especially along the Montreal River, with some structures dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
3. Olympic Stadium
As fascinating as the tour of Montreal was to me, it was soon time to head toward Olympic Stadium to catch the game. Though we had directions to the park, I was surprised to find that it was located immediately adjacent to a residential neighborhood. Parking was located under the stadium, with several decks offering tight parking spaces. Snaking our way out of the underground lot, we wandered outside the park taking pictures.
The Montreal franchise was in trouble, a victim of the 1994 baseball strike. During that season, the Expos sported the best record in the league before the work stoppage prematurely ended the season. While the rest of MLB slowly recovered from the damaging strike, baseball in Montreal never did. By 2001, with ownership struggling to make payroll, MLB took stewardship of the franchise, actively seeking to move the team. Not surprisingly, attendance at Olympic Stadium steadily declined, with average game attendance bottoming out at about 5,000 fans.
On this Sunday, attendance was MUCH higher than average, due mainly to the influx of Red Sox fans. During the 2001 season, the Red Sox were playing well, and it was exceedingly difficult to get seats for home games at Fenway Park. Apparently, Red Sox fans thought that a road trip to Montreal would afford them better seats than they could get in Boston. As a result, the attendance for the game was 32,500, or about six times normal. The large crowd overwhelmed the staff at Olympic Stadium, who were struggling with not only the crush of visitors, but the language barrier as well.
Arriving early, we discovered that a carnival was in place at the stadium, and fans were welcome to come onto the field to enjoy the festivities. Stepping onto the artificial surface of the domed stadium marked the my first time on a MLB field, which I found exhilarating. Activities for the fans were set up in the outfield (the infield was roped off), and there was a sizable crowd enjoying the opportunity to walk on the playing field. Rather than engage in the activities, we wandered the outfield. It was clear that stadium maintenance was not a priority to the struggling franchise, and we saw many flaws in the turf.
Spending so much time on the field, we left ourselves little opportunity to tour the remainder of the stadium. After leaving the field, we headed to the concession stand, seeking a baseball lunch. Despite being in Montreal, we were able to secure standard baseball fare. With snacks and drinks in hand, we headed to the register. Despite the language differences, we were able communicate well enough to complete our transaction, then headed toward our seats. It seems as though our timing to grab concessions was fortuitous; we later heard that it took people an hour to get hot dogs and beer, as the concession staff was completely overwhelmed by the unexpectedly large crowd.
Getting our tickets as early as we did, we had great seats just a few rows behind home plate. Other than the protective netting in front of us, our seats were amazing, providing an unfettered view of the entire park. Soon after reaching our seats, it was obvious that the lighting in Olympic Stadium was not up to the task. In fact, the ballpark seemed dank, and much of the stadium beyond the playing field seemed dark and distance. Originally designed with a retractable roof, cables suspended from a 175 meter toward were used to open and close the roof as weather dictated. Difficulties with the design of the roof proved insurmountable, and eventually the roof was closed permanently, resulting in a dark fan experience.
For the 135 pm start, the Boston Red Sox sent right hander Hideo Nomo to the mound. Due to a rotator cuff injury to Boston ace Pedro Martinez, Nomo became the de facto ace of the Red Sox staff. Boston was in the midst of a pennant race with the AL East leading Yankees, trailing New York by one-half game in the standings. Starting for the host Montreal Expos was 6 foot 4 inch right hander Mike Thurman, the third starter in a struggling Montreal rotation. In contrast to the Red Sox Sox fortunes, the Expos were deeply mired in a losing season, 13 and one-half games behind the NL East leading Philadelphia Phillies. Given the difference in the trajectory of the teams, we expected a fairly easy Boston victory this afternoon.
Unlike the vast majority of Expos home games, there was a raucous energy within Olympic Stadium this afternoon. Perhaps it was the unexpected energy that allowed Montreal to take a two run lead in the first inning, courtesy of a two run home run by second baseman Jose Vidro. However, the Expos lead was short-lived, as Boston scored runs in the second and third inning to take the lead. A run in the bottom of the fourth brought Montreal back even with the Red Sox. It was clear early that neither starting pitcher was particularly sharp, and that we were in for a more competitive game than originally anticipated.
Though the Expos were struggling through a rough 2001 campaign, there were All Stars in the starting lineup. Right fielder Vladimir Guerrero was a bona fide superstar, a true five tool player capable hitting 40 home runs and stealing 40 bases in any given season. However, he languished in relative obscurity in Montreal. Playing anywhere else in MLB, he would have been hailed as one of the top players in the game. In this contest, Guerrero was fairly quiet, managing a single and a run scored in five plate appearances.
Boston erupted for three runs in the fifth inning, stringing together several hits to retake the lead. The seesaw contest saw the Expos answer with two runs in the sixth inning. By this time, the starting pitchers for both teams had exited the game, putting the outcome of the game in the hands of the respective bullpens. With the number of Red Sox fans far outnumbering the Expos fans in Olympic Stadium, it was almost like being at Boston home game. Given the dankness of the ballpark, I could only imagine how depressing the stadium must be with the typical small Montreal crowds.
The Red Sox tacked on two more runs in the seventh inning (as 3B Chris Stynes homered) to pad their lead, and Red Sox closer Derek Lowe shut the door on the Expos, earning his 17th save. As we filed out of the ballpark into the parking deck below, I realized that the future of baseball in Montreal was in serious jeopardy. After years in limbo, the franchise moved to Washington in 2005, rechristened as the Nationals. While I was glad we visited Montreal to see a game, there was clearly no reason to come back for MLB baseball.
4. Montreal to New Jersey
After working our way through Montreal traffic, we headed back toward New Jersey. Just before US border, we stopped at the duty free store to get something to drink. We were astounded by the number of people loading up on alcohol before heading back into New York State. More than a few vehicles were stuffed nearly full with cases of Molson beer, which has nearly twice the alcohol level of Molson sold in the US. Once through the checkpoint, we stopped in Plattsburgh for lunch before heading home.
Hoping to get a quick fast food meal for the road, we were instead faced with crowded eateries with long lines, as people heading back to Massachusetts had the same thought. In one of the restaurants, servers were crying when confronted with the massive influx of patrons. Eventually, tiring of the wait, we obtained what we could at an Arby’s before heading south on Interstate 87 toward New Jersey.
While on vacation in San Francisco, my brother and I took in a Sunday afternoon baseball game at Pac Bell Park (now known as Oracle Park), where the Giants hosted the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks. From our hotel near Union Square, we decided to walk to Pac Bell Park, since the weather was crystal clear with temperatures in the 60s. Our walk took about 25 minutes (covering about one and one-quarter miles), mostly on 3rd Street. For those old enough to remember, we walked a path that was part of the famous car chase in the movie Bullitt (1968).
Though we chose to walk, there was plenty of parking available, almost all of which was across Mission Bay on 3rd Street (about one-quarter of a mile from the ballpark). Upon arriving at Pac Bell Park, we explored the area immediately surrounding it. Our first stop was McCovey Cove, located just beyond the right field wall. Famous for home run balls that plunk into the Cove, it was named for Giants great Willie McCovey, a power hitting left hand batter who would have deposited many baseballs into it, had he played in Pac Bell Park. Though there was nobody in the cove when we passed, it is common for people in kayaks to hang out there, awaiting baseballs to retrieve.
Walking past the centerfield wall, we arrived at the South Beach Yacht Club. Massive in size, there were more than 100 yachts moored at the club, though there did not appear to be many sailing before noon. Continuing our exploration, we wandered along Pier 40 before making our way back toward the stadium. While the Mission Bay area had some points of interest within walking distance of the park, we decided to invest our time wandering the inside of Pac Bell Park before game time.
Entering the ballpark through the gate behind home plate, we were greeted by a nearly deserted stadium. We arrived about 90 minutes before game time, and while there were a few fans milling around outside the ballpark, there were almost none inside. That left us plenty of time and room to explore. Moving toward centerfield, we encountered something I did not expect. Little Giants Park, a 50 foot by 50 foot replica of Pac Bell Park, was designed for young people to hit whiffle balls and run the bases. Designed for kids 42 inches or shorter, playing in the “ballpark within the ballpark” would have been a dream come true for a much younger me.
Just to the left of the Little Giants Park was the iconic Coke Bottle, located beyond the left field wall. With a length of 47 feet, the bottle rises up behind the stands in left field, and is home to two slides, which fans 14 and under use to “slide” into home plate at the base of the bottle. Located next to the Coke Bottle is the Glove. Created as a replica of 1927 four fingered glove used by the New York Giants, it is instantly recognizable as soon as you enter the ballpark. Thirty two feet wide and 26 feet tall, the glove lies about 501 feet from home plate, and a prodigious blast would be required to reach it.
Crossing over the walkway located on the right field fence, we were treated to a great view of Mission Bay, and the Navy vessels moored in the Port of San Francisco. As fans filtered into the ballpark, the walkway became quite popular, which caused us to move along. We headed toward the home plate area to get a picture of the stadium from the upper deck. Sunshine reflecting off Mission Bay gave the water a light blue hue behind the centerfield fence.
Working our way back along the right field line, we ducked into the concourse is search of a baseball lunch. While there was quite a variety of cuisine choices available, we opted for more standard fare. With snacks and drinks in hand, we went in search of our seats.
Today’s game between the visiting Diamondbacks and the hometown Giants had implications for the playoff race. Arizona was leading the NL West, with the Giants in third place, five and one-half games behind. Even without the added interest in the Sunday matinee, Pac Bell Park routinely sells out, which made obtaining good seats for the game very difficult. We settled for seats down the right field line in the lower level, adjacent to the Diamondbacks bullpen (unlike most new ballparks, the bullpens at Pac Bell were located down the left and field lines).
Though not ideal for a good look at the home plate action, our seats did give us a great view of the remainder of the stadium. Pac Bell Park, with three decks of seats from foul line to foul line, as well as bleachers in left and center field, had a capacity of about 41,000, and a full house was expected this afternoon. Open spaces in the outfield (except for the Coke Bottle, Glove and modestly sized video board) made the stadium feel uncluttered, with great sight lines throughout the park.
Starting for the visiting Diamondbacks was left hander Brian Anderson. Arizona’s fifth starter, Anderson was struggling through the 2002 campaign, which was sandwiched in between good 2001 and 2003 seasons. On the mound for the hometown Giants was right hander Russ Ortiz, the number two starter in a respectable but unspectacular San Francisco rotation. On the surface, this seemed to be a pitching mismatch after favoring the Giants, in what was an important game for both teams.
Arizona scored a run in the top of the first inning, employing “small ball” to take an early lead. The starters traded scoreless frames until the bottom of the fourth inning, when Barry Bonds led off the bottom of the inning with a solo home run. Fittingly, the home run left Pac Bell Park, splashing down in McCovey Cove. Though we didn’t see it firsthand, a replay of the home run on the video board showed fans in kayaks on the Cove frantically scurrying for the ball. Plating another run in the bottom of the inning, the Giants took a 2-1 lead.
Diamondbacks starter Brian Anderson’s afternoon ended after the Giants scored in the bottom of the fourth inning, and was followed a quartet of relievers that kept the vaunted Giants lineup in check. Meanwhile, Giants starter Russ Ortiz was cruising, allowing only the one run in the first inning. With the action on the field slowing in the middle innings, my attention wandered to the ballpark itself. Opening in 2000, Pac Bell Park was a precursor to the wave of “newer” MLB parks, which were designed to be smaller and more intimate to foster a better fan experience.
Though the ballpark is simpler than the “newer” parks, its simplicity is a large part of its charm. For example, the centerfield scoreboard/video board was unpretentious yet functional, an unobtrusive feature that some stadiums cannot claim. Pace Bell’s asymmetric design, complete with a “see through” section within the right field wall, makes this stadium unique among the MLB offerings. When coupled with the wall to wall sunshine that afternoon, Pac Bell Park grew on me during the game, becoming one of my favorite parks thus far.
Sitting along side the Arizona Diamondbacks, we witnessed six pitchers warm up before entering the game. When Diamondbacks left hander Greg Swindell was warming up in the bottom of the sixth inning, we witnessed something I did NOT expect from San Francisco fans. As Swindell tossed his warm up pitches, Giants fans started peppering him with rude comments concerning his weight. While Swindell was a big guy, he didn’t strike me as someone who was significantly overweight. Still, Giants fans assailed him with insults I would expect to hear in New York or Philadelphia, not San Francisco. This was shocking to me, hearing baseball fans in California as obnoxious as any I’d seen back East.
San Francisco tacked on an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth, and the Giants closer, right hander Robb Nen, shut down the Diamondbacks in the top of the ninth inning to secure a 3-1 victory. Though the game time was a bit more than three hours, the beautiful ballpark and spectacular weather made the time fly by. We were very impressed with Pac Bell Park, to say the least. We would have seen more games during our stay in the area, but the Giants went on the road following the afternoon contest.
During our overnight stay in Chicago, low clouds and fog descended from Lake Michigan onto the North Side. We awoke to a steady easterly wind and drizzle, with temperatures in the 40s. Following breakfast near the hotel, we headed out to Wrigley Field. Arriving just as the gates opened, we once again overpaid for parking at a lot near the stadium. Unlike the day before, we left ourselves plenty of time to explore the neighborhood surrounding the vaunted ballpark.
Our first stop was West Waveland Avenue, located behind the left and centerfield walls of Wrigley Field. Over the years, we saw MANY baseball fly out of the ballpark on TV, landing here or further down the road. For most Cubs games, there are hundreds of fans sauntering on the street, waiting for home run balls. Had we more time in Chicago, it might have been a unique fan experience to see a game from this perspective; perhaps some day I will do just that.
We continued our journey around Wrigley Field, wandering down North Sheffield Avenue past the right field wall. While there were some fans waiting to gain entrance to the stadium, there was not nearly as many people here as there were on West Waveland Avenue. During our walk, we got a first hand look at the buildings surrounding the ballpark, and the seats in place on the rooftops. It was obvious that the streets ringing Wrigley Field were every bit as much of the park as the stadium itself.
Completing our tour of the exterior of Wrigley Field, my brother got the image of iconic red signage above the home plate entrance featured above. Even with the cold early spring weather, the majesty of the stadium and its environs shone through. Though there were fans milling around outside the ballpark, there were few people inside, allowing us unfettered access to nearly the entire stadium. We visited the left field bleachers, where we had seen many opponents’ home runs balls land, only to be tossed back into the field of play.
From left field, we got a very good look at some of the seats on the building rooftops along West Waveland Avenue. From modest beginnings, these rooftop seats became quite organized, with some of the rooftops holding as many as ten rows with four or five seats per row. Despite occasional objections by the Cubs management, it doesn’t seem as though these seats were diverting much revenue from the park, considering that Wrigley Field often sells out during the season.
At the end of our tour of the inside of Wrigley Field, we wound up behind home plate, where my brother got his best picture of Wrigley Field. Lake Michigan, the second largest of the Great Lakes (and the only one completely within the US), is a mere five miles from Wrigley Field, and has a large influence on the weather at the ballpark. On this afternoon, wind off the still cold Great Lake funneled clouds and fog across the field, resulting in a cold and damp visit. The image perfectly captures the environment just before game time.
On this cloudy and cool afternoon, the visiting Colorado Rockies sent the ace of their starting rotation, right hander Jason Jennings, to the hill. Awarded the NL Rookie of the Year in 2002, Jennings won 16 games that year. On the mound for the hometown Cubs was right hander Kerry Wood. Featured on the Cubs’ scorecard for the month of May, the tall Texan was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1998, during which he tied the nine inning single game record with 20 strikeouts. Wood underwent Tommy John surgery the following year, taking the next couple of campaigns to recapture his best stuff.
Given the strength of the starting pitching and the cool and breezy conditions, we expected a low scoring affair. Unlike the previous afternoon, which featured crystal blue skies, Wrigley Field blended into the background of cloud and fog. This environment was not conducive to picture taking, leaving the park looking washed out and drab. Temperatures near 50 degrees at the first pitch felt even colder, reminding me that it was still early spring in the Midwest.
Following our tour of the interior of Wrigley Field, we obtained some snacks and hot chocolate before heading for our seats. Though the weather was far from ideal, the afternoon affair was well attended, and our seats were not much better than the day before. Nestled down the left field line between third base and the left field line, our seats once again did not have a good view of the plate, so we spent much of the game with our heads turned to the right, straining to see the action.
It didn’t take long for the scoring to begin, as the Rockies put up three runs on Kerry Wood in the top of the first inning. Chicago scored two runs of their own in the bottom of the first, and it appeared as though offense might carry the game, despite the inhospitable weather conditions. However, both starters settled down after the early outbursts, keeping the opposition scoreless into the middle innings. Though scoring was an a premium after the first innings, hits wand walks resulted in many baserunners, slowing the pace of the game to a crawl at times. Typically, slow paced games are not a problem for me, but given the cool and wet conditions, I found myself becoming impatient.
Chicago scored a run in the bottom of the sixth to tie the score, followed by the Rockies taking the lead in the top of the seventh. With the game in the hands of the bullpen, the score remained tied going into extra innings. With one out in the bottom of the tenth inning, Chicago SS Alex Gonzales homered off Rockies reliever Steve Reed to give the Cubs a 5-4 victory. Three hours and 15 minutes in the raw conditions seemed even longer, and by the end of the contest, I was ready to find a warmer and drier place.
Even with the adverse weather conditions, I thoroughly enjoyed our time at Wrigley Field. A proud throwback to a bygone era of baseball, the simple layout and lack of large and obtrusive video boards was a refreshing departure from what MLB parks were becoming. Since our visit some 17 years ago, much has changed at Wrigley Field. Incremental additions at the park, including video boards in left and right fields, has detracted from the charm the stadium once had, making it more like more “modern” MLB parks. The changes make me feel fortunate to have visited when the park was closer to the original configuration, and the changes make me believe that I will not visit again anytime soon.
Our first baseball trip of 2003 took us to Chicago to see the Cubs and the White Sox. Originally we scheduled a trip to see the Cubs in September of 2001, but circumstances made that impossible. Since we decided to make this a weekend trip, we flew from New Jersey to O’Hare Airport in Chicago on Saturday morning, May 3rd. Luckily, Newark-Liberty Airport in Newark, NJ was not busy, allowing us to breeze through security.
For the flight, we chose Midwest Airlines (now defunct). A Milwaukee based airline, they offered flights to many locations in the Midwest, and I was first introduced to the carrier through work in the late 1990s. Each plane had leather seats, and offered fewer seats than most mid sized airlines. In addition, they offered free chocolate chip cookies. Though it sounds trite, these cookies were actually very good. Though the fares were a bit higher than most airlines flying to Chicago, the roomier plane with leather seats was well worth the extra money.
After arriving at O’Hare Airport and picking up our rental car, we headed toward Chicago. Originally, we planned to see the White Sox on Saturday night, and the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Sunday afternoon. However, we arrived in Chicago much earlier than expected, and we realized we could catch the Saturday afternoon game at Wrigley.
2. Wrigley Field
Making our way to the North Side, we arrived at the park shortly before game time. Parking proved to be a challenge, as it often is with urban ballparks, and we ended up parking in the lot of a local business for an exorbitant amount. Not having tickets for the game, we went in search of scalpers, who were very easy to find. We secured two seats behind first base for more than face value. As is typical when we visit a new ballpark, we quickly toured the outside of the stadium. Arriving just before game time, our tour was truncated, and after we entered the venerable ballpark, we went in search of our seats.
Once we found our seats, it was immediately clear we had been swindled by the scalper. Our seats were terrible, in the lower level down the right field line with a limited view of home plate. Of course, not knowing the ballpark well, we foolishly took the scalper at his word that the seats were good. We laughed it off, being so gullible. Just being at Wrigley Field, a baseball palace, was enough to make us forget our faux pax, and we were determined to enjoy the experience regardless of our view.
Not surprisingly, Wrigley Field was filled to capacity. In addition to packed bleachers, we could see what seemed like hundreds of people crammed onto rooftops of neighboring buildings. Seeing the people on the rooftops on TV doesn’t give you a true idea of how many fans actually ring the ballpark. Beyond the left field, we could see the iconic Budweiser roof, located off West Waveland Avenue. But perhaps my favorite part of Wrigley Field was the hand operated scoreboard. A throwback to a bygone era, the scoreboard defined Wrigley Field for me, and I finally got to see it for myself.
We couldn’t have asked for better day weather wise, with crystal clear skies and temperatures in the 50s. Having seen Wrigley Field on TV many, many times, I could scarcely believe we were here. Dubbed the “friendly confines” by Cubs great Ernie Banks, the cozy ballpark teemed with history. Possibly the most famous of the features of Wrigley, the ivy on the outfield wall, was conspicuously absent. Being early May, it was too soon for the ivy to bloom, so instead we were treated to brown walls devoid of flora.
For the matinee, the hometown Cubs hosted the Colorado Rockies, with the first pitch slated for 120 pm CDT. Starting for the Rockies was journeyman left hander Darren Oliver, who was in his first season with the team. Taking the mound for Chicago was right hander Carlos Zambrano, the 23 year old who was beginning to show signs of becoming a Cy Young caliber starter for the Cubs. Good starting pitching, paired with a decent breeze coming in from Lake Michigan suggested a low scoring affair.
The Cubs struck first in the bottom of the second inning, stringing together hits and walks to plate three runs. Colorado responded with three runs of their own in the top of the third, and it seemed as though we would see an offensive display in Wrigley this afternoon. Chicago reclaimed the lead into the bottom of the fourth inning, with Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano hitting a solo home run to lead off the inning. While it is rare for pitchers to hit home runs, Zambrano was a good hitting pitcher, blasting 24 home runs over his career.
While there was a game at the ballpark that afternoon, Wrigley Field was the star of the show. Wall to wall sunshine and pleasantly cool temperatures made our visit to this baseball palace even more enjoyable, but the environment was indescribable. In between innings, I found myself admiring all that the ballpark had to offer, immediately understanding why Wrigley Park was considered a baseball mecca. Our seats were not ideal for taking pictures of the action, but from our location, we were able to enjoy the scene.
The Rockies scored three more runs in the top of the eight inning, taking a 6-4 lead that the bullpen held for the victory. Despite our seats, we thoroughly enjoyed our surprise visit, and would get a much better look at Wrigley Field the next afternoon. Following the end of the game, we inched out way out of the parking space, and headed toward our hotel. Our stay there was brief, just long enough to check in and drop off our bags, because we were headed toward US Cellular Field for a night game between the visiting Seattle Mariners and the home town White Sox.
3. US Cellular Field
We arrived in the South Side of Chicago about an hour before the first pitch of the game scheduled for 605 pm. As we approached US Cellular Field (now known as Guaranteed Rate Field), it was clear that we were in a neighborhood very different than the one in which Wrigley Field is located. Parking around the ballpark was plentiful, with lots surrounding the stadium. Pulling into Lot B (across West 35th Street from the field), we asked the attendant the cost of parking. After telling us, he asked if our car was a rental, to which I said yes. As we pulled away he added “I hope it’s still here when you get back”. Not exactly what a visitor wants to hear, but we did our best not to let it affect our experience.
With little surrounding US Cellular Field but parking lots and I-94, we did not explore the outside of the park like we did for other stadiums we have visited. Entering through the home plate gate, I could not help but notice how much the outside of the ballpark reminded me of the main Yankee Stadium entrance.
US Cellular Field, which opened in 1991, was a replacement for Comiskey Park , the home of the White Sox from 1910 through 1990. Located across West 35th Street from US Cellular Field, Comiskey Park was razed in order to provide additional parking for the new ballpark. Opening a year before Camden Yards in Baltimore (the stadium that is generally acknowledged as the first of the “new” MLB parks), US Cellular Field had the feeling of a ballpark built in the 1970s or 1980s, generally symmetrical with three decks and bleachers almost completely ringing the outfield.
Following a quick tour of the inside of US Cellular Field, we went in search of a baseball dinner. Armed with drinks and snacks, we headed toward our seats. Surprisingly, despite the cool weather, the game was well attended, and the best seats we could procure were in the upper deck, directly behind home plate. Typically, we seek out seats in the lower level on either the first or third base side. However, when these seats are unavailable (as they were this night), we prefer to be closer to home plate when relegated to the upper deck. A long climb was rewarded with a great view of the ballpark as game time approached.
Though the sun was shining at the start of the game, a chill descended upon US Cellular Field, and it was evident that we were in for a cool early May evening in the South Side. Starting for the visiting Seattle Mariners was right hander Freddy Garcia. The talented 26 year old was already an emerging star, yet listed as the fourth starter on a loaded Mariners rotation. On the mound for the hometown Sox was left hander Josh Stewart, who was in the first season of a brief two year MLB career. A seeming pitching mismatch favored the Mariners, who were just two season removed from a single season record of 116 wins in 2001.
We didn’t need to wait long for the fireworks to begin, as the Mariners pummeled Sox starter Josh Stewart for six runs in the first two innings, punctuated by two home runs in top of the first inning. Seattle tacked on four more runs in the top of the fourth inning, chasing Stewart from the game. Meanwhile, Freddy Garcia was cruising for the Mariners, putting the game out of reach fairly early.
With my attention straying from the game, I began to feel the chill more intently, as temperatures dropped into the 40s with the advent of night. Not surprisingly, the White Sox fans began to abandon what appeared to be a losing cause, steadily exiting as the home town fell further behind. As the announced crowd of 25,00+ thinned out, we noticed just how large US Cellular Field was. Unlike MLB that would follow, the stadium seemed to lack a sense of charm or intimacy, feeling more like a monument to the past. Having said that, US Cellular Field was a comfortable place to see a game, and an upgrade to where the White Sox used to call home.
The Mariners tacked on two runs late in the game, as Freddy Garcia and a cadre of Seattle relievers held the Sox in check for 12-2 victory. Cold temperatures made the three hour 15 minute game seem even longer, and by the time the last out was recorded, I was ready to leave. Overall, US Cellular Field was a good place to see a ballgame, but generic enough not to be too memorable. While I was glad we took in a game here while in Chicago, there wasn’t enough of an attraction to being me back anytime soon.
Checking out of our motel Sunday morning, we still had a two hour plus drive to Arlington. We were not in a particular hurry, since the game between the hometown Texas Rangers and the visiting Oakland A’s had been “flexed” from early afternoon to early evening to accommodate ESPN’s Sunday Night game. Instead of a 215 pm CDT start, the first pitch would be thrown at 710 pm.
1. Heading to Arlington
With time to spare, we took our time getting into the Dallas metro area, finding lunch before deciding how we wanted to proceed. Since we were staying in the area overnight (flying out of Dallas the next morning), we checked into our hotel before heading out in the direction of the stadium. We arrived well ahead of the first pitch, and secured parking just outside of the Ballpark in Arlington, home of the Texas Rangers.
A demonstration was underway just outside the ballpark as we arrived. Based on the signage carried by the demonstrators, it appeared to be tied to gay rights. Being from the Northeast, I assumed that the demonstration was a pro gay rights rally. Almost immediately, I was proven wrong, as it was clear this was an anti gay rights assembly. This should not have surprised me, given the section of the country. To my great surprise, the demonstration was far from peaceful, as homophobic slurs were flying at what I considered an alarming rate.
Being from New Jersey, it took all of my restraint NOT to respond to the vitriol present at that rally, and there were several verbal altercations between demonstrators and passersby. Wanting to avoid a possibly ugly interaction, we left the area in search of a quieter location to wait for the gates to open at the stadium.
We stumbled upon the Legends of the Game Baseball Museum, located at the ballpark. Inside the museum, we found displays complete with bats, jerseys, and trophies belonging to baseball greats. There are exhibits on Texas Rangers history, the Negro Leagues and the Texas League, and the museum has facilities for students of the game to conduct research. While not as inclusive as the National Baseball Hall of Fame (nestled in Cooperstown, NY) or the Negro League Baseball Museum (located in Kansas City, MO), the museum was an enjoyable way to pass some time and is recommended if you attend a Rangers home game.
2. The Ballpark in Arlington
Fortunately for me, high clouds filtered the still strong mid September sun in Arlington, mercifully keeping temperatures in the 80s leading up to game time. The Ballpark in Arlington is an open air stadium, which was a controversial decision when the plans for the ballpark were announced. It is not unusual for temperatures to hover near 100 degrees F during summer afternoons and evenings, potentially putting the health of players and fans alike at stake. Because of the heat, most Rangers home games were played in the evening to avoid the worst of the conditions.
Cooler temperatures made exploring the park more enjoyable, at least for me. The Ballpark in Arlington was bigger than I expected, complete with three decks encompassing almost all of the entire playing field. With a capacity of greater than 48,000, it was one of the biggest “new” MLB ballparks. From our first look inside the ballpark, it was clear that a fair amount of planning was done to create the stadium’s atmosphere.
In a nod to the past, home plate, the foul poles and the bleachers were transplanted from Arlington Stadium, the home of the Texas Rangers from 1972 through 1993. The roof over the right field porch was reminiscent of Tiger Stadium, the former home of the Tigers. Finally, the white steel facade in the outfield was based on the facade of the old Yankee Stadium. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the park was the office suites in centerfield, beyond the grassy noll that served as the batter’s eye. All of the above resulted in a large ballpark, much larger than I had expected.
While touring the ballpark, we happened upon the visitor’s bullpen in left field, which was enclosed under the lower level concourse. A’s pitcher Barry Zito was warming up in the bullpen before the game, getting in his between start throwing. Because of the closed nature of the bullpen, Zito, a left hander who’s game was predicated on control and pitch placement (rather than velocity), was seemingly throwing very hard during his warmup (due to the echo).
As we were watching Zito throw, a young fan walked up and said “Hey Barry, you are throwing really hard”. Normally, players ignore fan comments, even during warmups, as they are concentrating on getting ready for competition. However, Zito stopped throwing, looked up at the young fan and said “Ah, don’t let the sound fool you”. With that one sentence, Zito showed me that he was respectful of fans, and that he was fully aware that he was indeed not a hard thrower.
Following our tour, we headed for the concession stands to get a baseball dinner. With hots dogs, pretzels and drinks in hand, we headed toward our seats. Despite a strong starting lineup, the Rangers were mired in last place in the AL West. With the home team limping toward the end of a disappointing season, there were plenty of good seats available for the game. We were fortunate enough to score seats in the lower level, just to the third base side of home plate.
Starting for the visiting Oakland A’s was right hander Justin Duchscherer. Not one of the five man Oakland rotation, Duchscherer was making a spot start, just his third of the season. On the mound for the Rangers was left hander Tony Mounce, the fifth starter in the Texas rotation. Given the relative weakness of the starting pitching, we expected the strong lineups for both teams put on a hitting display. We didn’t have to wait long for the offensive fireworks to begin, as the teams combined for seven runs in the first two innings.
After this outburst however, both offense were quieted into the middle innings. While Tony Mounce lasted six innings for the Rangers, the A’s starter (Duchscherer) didn’t make it out of the fourth inning, leaving the game in the hands of the A’s bullpen. As evening faded into night at the Ballpark in Arlington, conditions became a bit cooler. Scoring slowed the pace of the game, leaving us some time to get a sense of the environment within the ballpark.
Not surprisingly, a disappointing season for the Rangers resulted in a sparse crowd, which seemed even smaller than the announced attendance 17,000. So few people in the park made the ballpark appear even larger, robbing the place of any charm or intimacy. A collage of pieces from other parks gave the Ballpark at Arlington an almost forced feel, further diluting any sense of identity. To be fair, the ballpark DID provide a pleasant environment in which to watch a game, but I didn’t get the same feel I did at other ballparks in our travels.
Following Alex Rodriquez’s 43th home run in the bottom of the fifth, the hometown Rangers took a 5-3 lead. In the top of the seventh, the A’s broke the game open with three runs, and a trio of A’s reliever closed the door on the potent Texas office to seal a 6-5 win for the A’s. We filed out of the park with the rest of the remaining crowd, taking what would be our last look at the Ballpark in Arlington. Even though we had a good time seeing a ballgame here, there was not enough to bring us back any time soon.
Our last baseball trip of 2003 took us to the Lone Star State at the tail end of summer. Since our first stop in Texas was Houston, we flew from Newark, NJ to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Saturday morning. Because it was a Saturday, we breezed through security at Newark-Liberty Airport, and the nearly four hour flight was uneventful. Landing in Houston in the early afternoon, we picked up our rental car and headed out to explore Houston.
Since we had some time before the scheduled first pitch at 710 pm, we set our sights on the Johnson Space Center, home of NASA. While we didn’t have enough time for a formal tour, we did stop to visit the few features that were located outside of the center itself. The highlight of the brief visit was seeing the Saturn V rocket, which launched the Apollo spacecraft toward the Moon.
2. Minute Maid Park
Hot and humid conditions met us at Minute Maid Park as we arrived about 90 minutes before the first pitch. Parking did not pose any particular problem, as there were parking lots located just outside of the ballpark. Had those lots been unavailable, there were myriad options for parking with a quarter of a mile of the park. Walking up to the stadium, I began to feel the effects of the hot and humid conditions.
Upon walking into Minute Maid Park, it was obvious that the roof was closed, as we went from bright sunshine to the dimly light stadium. Apparently the heat and humidity was the primary reason for the roof closure, presumably for the comfort of the fans, as the weather was otherwise tranquil.
As is our custom, we conducted a walking tour of the park. Following the lower concourse around the playing field, it was immediately clear that quite a bit of thought and planning went into layout of the stadium. One of the quirkier features of the park was a hill in centerfield, complete with a flag pole. Dubbed Tal’s Hill (named in honor of former Astros Tal Smith), the hill was a nod to the past, when a few ballparks had features in play (such as Monument Park in the old Yankee Stadium).
Another of the quirkier features of Minute Maid Park was the train track on the top of the exterior wall behind the left field fence. As the Astros take the field, hit a home run, or win a ballgame, the train travels the 800 foot span of the wall. The train is an homage to Union Station, once a transportation hub in Houston, which had been incorporated into the construction of the stadium.
Though Minute Maid Park appeared huge with the roof closed (as do most domed stadiums), the relatively small dimensions of the ballpark made it feel almost cozy. Following our exploration, we went in search of a baseball dinner. Of course, the three year old park had many dining choices, including several grills featuring barbecue. Somewhat pressed for time, we chose more standard baseball fare from concession stands in the left field concourse.
With snacks and drinks in hand, we headed toward our seats. The hometown Astros hosted the St Louis Cardinals for the evening contest, and the NL Central Division rivals drew a large crowd. Because of the rivalry, good tickets were hard to secure, so our seats were located in the lower level, between third base and the left field foul pole. Though not the best of views, we settled in to our seats, awaiting the first pitch.
Starting for the visiting Cardinals was right hander Matt Morris. The six foot five inch right hander was an important part of the St Louis rotation, just two years removed from a 22 win season in 2001. On the mound for the hometown Astros was right hander Roy Oswalt. Pegged as the number four starter in the Houston rotation, Oswalt made 21 starts in 2003, posting a 10-5 record. Given the strong starting pitching and importance of the game in the playoff picture, we expected to see a pitcher’s duel at Minute Maid Park.
As anticipated, pitching dominated the first three innings of the game, which resulted in a very quickly paced game. With the Astros coming up to bat in the bottom of the third inning, Cardinals catcher Mike Methany was ejected from the contest, presumably for arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire. Following the ejection, St Louis pitching coach confronted the umpire and was also ejected. The fireworks associated with the ejections took some time to unfold, slowing the momentum of the game.
Following the ejections, the Astros scored single runs in the fourth and fifth innings, featuring 1B Jeff Bagwell’s 35th home run of the season. Meanwhile, Houston starter Roy Oswalt kept the Cardinals batters off balance, keeping St Louis scoreless into the late innings.
Being from NJ, my brother and I have accents that were out of place in Texas, and while talking amongst ourselves, we caught the attention of another out-of-towner. A young man a few rows below us recognized our accents, which was surprising until we discovered he was from Connecticut. He was kind enough to ensure that we displayed proper baseball etiquette for games in Texas. We were reminded that booing was considered rude in Houston (though we had no reason to boo), and that we needed to sing “Deep in the Heart of Texas”, clapping when appropriate, during the seventh inning stretch. Finally, when I questioned the meaning of a confusing public announcement, he told me “this is Texas, dumb it down”. Chucking at his retort, I’m not sure anybody else picked up on snarky comment.
During the seventh inning stretch, the roof of Minute Maid Park was retracted. As the action on the field continued during the bottom of the seventh, the roof slowly and almost inaudibly moved from left field to right field, taking about 20 minutes to fully retract. The heat and humidity before the game had been replaced by cooler conditions and a light breeze. Like most stadiums with roofs, Minute Maid Park seemed smaller with the roof open, and suddenly the ballpark seemed even cozier. After seven strong innings by Astros starter Roy Oswalt, closer Billy Wagner shut down the venerable St Louis offense in the ninth, nailing down a 2-0 Houston victory.
The briskly paced game took just two hours and six minutes to complete. If the two ejections hadn’t occurred in the third inning, the game would have taken less than two hours, which in our experience is quite a rarity. Most of the more than 42,000 fans had stayed until the end of the game, slowing our exit and giving us some time to reflect on our visit. It was clear that quite a bit of thought went into the layout of Minute Maid Park, complete with nods to the past, as well as amenities common in “newer” MLB parks. Our visit was relatively short, but enjoyable, as we were treated to an outstanding game in an excellent facility.
Our night was not quite over, however. Trying to cut down on the amount of traveling necessary to catch a game at the Ballpark in Arlington the next day, we drove from Houston on our way toward the Dallas Metroplex. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to complete the nearly four hour drive that night, we stopped at a motel just off Interstate 45 North about halfway between the two large Texas cities. Arriving after midnight, we needed to ring a bell for service. A young woman graciously checked us into a room for the night. Behind the desk, we could see a young boy, probably no older than five, jumping around and having fun. Apparently the young woman’s son, she smiled when I mentioned his late night enthusiasm, suggesting that his behavior was typical when she worked overnights.
After breakfast near the hotel in Kansas City, Kansas, we decided to explore downtown Kansas City, Missouri. High cloudiness started to filter the strong early August sunshine, and even though it was still early, we were seeing all the hallmarks of a hot and humid day in the heartland of America.
While researching resources for this blog post, I was HORRIFIED to discover that I could not locate the pictures I took in Kansas City, MO. Somewhere among my many moves, failed hard drives and incomplete backups, I apparently lost irreplaceable memories of our exploration. Unfortunately, a quick description of what we saw cannot replace the images I took.
Our first stop was East Kansas City, in the Vine Street area. Rife with history, it was clear that this portion of Kansas City was in recovery, whose best days were decades before. Unable to locate 12th Street and Vine (made popular in the song Kansas City by Wilbert Harrison), we strolled through this historic section of the city.
Along the way, we discovered the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, located at 1616 East 18th Street. Not knowing precisely what to expect, we found an amazing collection of history and memorabilia chronicling the story of the Negro Leagues from its beginnings into the early 1950s. While we were enthralled by the rich history of the league, by far my favorite display was the wax figures of the Negro Leagues stars arranged on a mock playing field.
Standing next to the life sized wax figures, I realized that the players were smaller in stature than I imagined, yet their presence was definitely larger than life. We spent nearly two hours in the museum, and we could have easily spent two more wandering among history, but the gates at Kauffman Stadium were about to open, so we cut our visit short. If you are even a casual baseball fan, you owe it to yourself for visit the museum if you are in the Kansas City area.
2. Kauffman Stadium
Following our visit to East Kansas City, we drove to Kauffman Stadium, home of the Royals. which took about 15 minutes. Kauffman Stadium is co located with Arrowhead Stadium, home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, as part of the Truman Sports Complex. Both stadiums are surrounded by large parking lots, with hotels and restaurants located beyond the complex. These stadiums were constructed during a time when other cities opted for multi-purpose stadiums, and the baseball-only Kauffman Stadium (commonly referred to as the “K”) opened in 1973.
We arrived at the complex just about as the gates opened at Kauffman Stadium, which gave us ample time to explore our surroundings. Arriving as early as we did, we had our choice of parking spaces, which cost a reasonable $10.00. Hazy sunshine brought with it hot and humid conditions, which limited our exploration to some degree. We first explored the outside of Arrowhead Stadium, which is a football-only facility. Unfortunately, we were much too early in the season to catch a Chiefs game.
We next focused our attention on the outside of Kauffman Stadium. Though this was my brother’s first visit to the home of the Royals, I had been here many times before. My employer had a training center in Kansas City, and we were housed at a Holiday Inn just across the street from the complex. Naturally, I visited Kauffman Stadium (which was called Royals Stadium in those days) as often as possible while I was in town. In fact, I first visited the park when it featured an AstroTurf surface, which was replaced by natural grass in 1995.
Though it had been a number of years since I’d attended a game here, it did not appear as though much had changed. Located just outside the park were statues of Royals greats. George Brett (perhaps the greatest Royal of all) crouched in his easily recognizable batting stance greeted fans as they walked up from the immense parking lot. Native son Frank White was also immortalized is stone outside the park.
The heat and humidity cut short our tour of the outside of the stadium, so we entered the park through the main entrance behind home plate. Clearing the main concourse, I could see that indeed very little had changed since my last visit. Kauffman Stadium was dignified in its simplicity, eschewing some of the trappings of “newer” MLB parks constructed within the past decade.
We wandered through the stadium, exploring the lower levels. Unfortunately, the right centerfield section of the park, where the iconic fountains reside (as well as the video and score boards), was not accessible on the concourse. In order to enjoy these sights, we headed back toward home plate. Kauffman Stadium was, compared to some of the newer MLB parks, uncluttered and almost elegant, which I found to be both attractive and refreshing.
Following our tour of the ballpark, we headed for the main concession stand behind home plate. The heat and humidity had taken a toll on me, and I was in need of hydration. While there many places to get something to eat at Kauffman Stadium, which not surprisingly featured beef and pork products, we chose more standard ballpark fare. With hot dogs, pretzels and drinks in hand, we made our way toward our seats. We were able to secure seats near the top of the lower level, just to the left of home plate.
Settling into our seats just before game time, we noticed that the crowd for the early evening start was fairly sparse. Perhaps it was the fact that the Royals were not competitive, or that the game time was 610 PM on a Sunday, but Kauffman Stadium was not quite half full by the time the first pitch was thrown. In fact, less than 18,000 fans attended the game, despite the warm and hazy conditions,
The hometown Royals hosted the Anaheim Angels for the final game of the three game set. Both teams were in the midst of disappointing seasons, especially the Royals, who had the second worst record in baseball. Taking the ball for the visiting Angels was right hander John Lackey, who was the workhorse of the Anaheim starting rotation. Starting the Royals was right hander Mike Wood. The 23 year old was struggling through a tough 2004 campaign, with an ERA over 5.00.
Both teams scored in the first inning, and I was beginning to wonder if we were in for a slugfest, given the mediocre starting pitching combined with warm and humid conditions. Each team scored runs in the fifth inning, and what I though might be an offensive outburst had turned into a tight ballgame. Even with the scoring, the nearly pinpoint control of the starting pitchers (who walked only one batter a piece). kept the contest moving at a brisk pace through the first six innings.
During the game, I found my attention captured by the foundations in right centerfield. Dubbed the Water Spectacular, it is the largest privately owned fountain system in the world. Among the fountains are waterfalls and cascades, which keeps the water in nearly continuous motion before and after games, as well as in between innings. Having seen the waterfalls on TV for decades, they seemed more majestic in person, particularly when backlit during night games.
With the Royals ahead 4-3 in the top of the ninth innings, Kansas City brought in right hander Nate Field to nail down the victory. However, Field did not have it this night, surrendering a solo home run to Angels LF Jose Guillen, which tied the score. A combination of Angels hits and Royals errors allows the visitors to tack on two more runs to take a 6-4 lead. Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez (K-Rod) shut the door on the Royals in the bottom of the ninth, striking out two while earning his eighth save of the season.
While waiting for the sparse Royals crowd to thin out before leaving, I took one final look at Kauffman Stadium. This park has always been one of my favorites, based primarily on the fact that it was simple yet elegant. Good use of space, the fountains and the unobtrusive scoreboard and video board produced a GREAT place to see a ballgames.
Since we last visited Kauffman Stadium, there have been a LOT of changes, not all of which appear to have improved the experience. Based solely on what I have seen on TV and in pictures, the “K” does not seem to be as appealing as it once was, as ownership seems to believe exchanging simplicity for extra amenities was a good idea. As much as I enjoyed Kansas City and the baseball atmosphere there, I am not sure I am as excited to go back to Kauffman Stadium as I was in the past.