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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBT Ballpark, Charlotte, NC June 16th 2017

The start of our second baseball mini-road trip of 2017 started on Friday, June 16th. Our first stop was scheduled for Charlotte, North Carolina, to see BB&T Ballpark. Having seen a photo of the park, I felt as though it was worth a visit, before traveling to our final destination, SunTrust Park in Atlanta.

Google Maps showing a 6 hour 30 minute drive from Greenbelt MD to Charlotte NC.

Our drive took us through Richmond, VA on Interstate 95 South (where we saw The Diamond, home of the Richmond Flying Squirrels from the highway) before linking up with Interstate 85 South near Petersburg, VA. Following a quick stop for lunch, we pressed onward toward Charlotte, NC. As we traveled south, the warm and humid airmass was becoming increasingly conducive to thunderstorm development.

Scattered storms started to dot the route toward the ballpark. Arriving in the Charlotte area around the time of the evening commute, the combination of traffic and storms slowed our approach, and it appeared as though we might miss the first pitch. We weaved our way off the interstate to the ballpark complex. Though not raining at the time, it was apparent that heavy rain has just occurred at the ballpark.

The view of BB&T Ballpark from the street outside the parking garage. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The rain at the ballpark was heavy enough to bring the tarp on the field. Putting the tarp on the field almost always involves a rain delay of at least 30 minutes, and this delay worked in our favor. Rather than arriving just about the time of the scheduled first pitch, we were given some time to explore the ballpark before settling into our seats.

Storms moving away from Charlotte NC. The storms resulted in a rain delay at the ballpark. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

We parked in the same deck used for the Carolina Panthers games, and ambled over the park. BB&T Ballpark was yet another example of a ballpark with an urban setting as its backdrop. This seems to be a trend for minor league parks, as it was for some MLB parks in the previous two decades. The skyline of Charlotte was impressive from street level was we headed toward the stadium.

Because of the 45 minute rain delay, fans were still milling around outside of the park, waiting to gain entry. With some extra time before the first pitch, we encircled the ballpark before heading inside. We noted a center field entrance, which is unusual for a minor league ballpark.

Center field entrance for BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte, NC (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Mainly out of convenience, we entered through this gate. BB&T Ballpark has a concourse that surrounds the playing field, and we walked the entire circle, taking pictures and marveling at the view in right field. Clearly, the ballpark was designed to feature the amazing view. Though I had seen the view in a photo earlier, it did not do the incredible vista justice.

The amazing view of the Charlotte skyline from left field. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

I had only caught a glimpse of the ballpark, and it was already my favorite!!! My previous favorite (PNC Park in Pittsburgh) also features a magnificent skyline, but for some reason, this one seemed more majestic. As we walked along the concourse toward home plate, every view seems better than the last. I began wondering if I needed to move to Charlotte, if for no other reason that to visit this place as often as possible.

This is it!!! Of all of the views at the park, this one is my favorite! (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

The best view from the park was the last, peering out from under the overhang just to the third base side of home plate. Unfortunately, our seats were not located in this prime piece of real estate. The Charlotte Knights, the Triple A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, draw well, and after seeing the ballpark, that was not surprising. In fact, tickets for this game were at a premium, and rather than get seats via the normal route, we needed to use StubHub to get seats for this game.

The Knights’ opponent for the game was the Indianapolis Indians, the Triple A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates (a team we would see at home later in the 2017 season). Because of the 45 minute rain delay, the starters for the game were just warming up when we reached our seats. We were treated to a up close look at the Knights’ starter Lucas Giolito as he completed his warmup pitches in the bullpen before heading out to the mound.

Lucas Giolito as he finished his warmup in the bullpen before the game. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Giolito, once the pride of the Washington Nationals farm system, was dealt to the White Sox for Adam Eaton in a controversial trade. Frankly, I was surprised to see Giolito still in Triple A, assuming the White Sox could use the help at the big league level.

However, it didn’t take long into his start to determine why he was still in Charlotte. Giolito surrendered three runs on five hits in 4 2/3 innings, while striking out five and walking four. His control was actually worse than his line showed, going into deep counts again many batters.

The view from our seats down the right field line. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Despite the shaky start by Giolito putting them behind, the Knights’ bats came alive in the sixth inning, scoring six runs against three Indians pitchers, including left hander Antonio Bastardo (so that’s where he was hiding). As the evening faded into night, the Knights’ relievers held the lead as the offense tacked on two runs in each of their last two at-bats.

BB&T Ballpark at night. The backdrop is still magnificent. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

As often happens during blowouts in the minor leagues, the fairly large crowd started thinning out after the seventh inning. The extra room allowed my brother to wander about, taking pictures of this gorgeous stadium. By the time the Knights recorded the final out of their 12-4 victory, most of the crowd was gone or leaving. This is often fortuitous for us, since it generally means a cleaner getaway.

What can I say??? This ballpark quickly became my favorite, and was well worth the stop before heading south to Atlanta. If you are a baseball fan and find yourself within range of Charlotte when the Knights are home, do yourself a BIG favor and visit BB&T Ballpark. You need to see it for yourself to truly appreciate it.

Good night BB&T Ballpark. I will definitely be back as soon as possible. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)