Following monsoon-like rains in Buffalo the day before (resulting in a rainout of the Rangers/Blue Jays game at Sahlen Field), Sunday morning dawned mainly dry but cloudy. The last stop on our two ballpark tour laid ahead of us in Erie, PA, home to the SeaWolves (the AA affiliate of the Detroit Tigers). From Buffalo, the trip was about 90 minutes on Interstate 90 West. Outside of a few showers near Buffalo early, the drive was uneventful, and as we approached Erie, the sun broke free of the clouds. Unlike Buffalo, the forecast for this stop included sunshine and temperatures in the 70s, much warmer than our stay in western NY.
A rainout the previous night in Erie necessitated a doubleheader today, and the start time for the first game was scheduled for 1205 pm. Because of the accelerated timeline for our visit, we did not have an opportunity to explore Erie or the lakeside (as we had hoped to do before the rainout the previous evening). Driving into Erie, we could see that it was a city that had seen better days, long divorced from its rich history of shipping, fishing and railroad traffic. However, we did signs of construction away from the lake, especially near UPMC Park, perhaps the beginning of a rebirth. Never having been to Erie, we were unsure where to park, and we decided on a parking garage just down the street of the ballpark on 10th Street.
Oddly, we paid the parking fee (which was $5.00) to a man sitting in a car just inside the entrance. Parking at the top of the first level, we took the back stairs to street level. Immediately it became apparent that was probably not the best choice, as the area seemed unsavory. Luckily, UPMC Park was just down the street, and we covered that distance in a matter of minutes. After arriving at the park, we noted parking across the street, though we did not know who controlled the lot, and whether we were permitted to park there. As is our custom, we walked the outside perimeter of the stadium. Due to the proximity of Erie Insurance Arena, there was little to see outside of the ballpark, other than the netting along Holland Street in right field.
My preconceived notion of UPMC Park was that is was probably a run down ballpark in a region of northwest PA where baseball might not be that popular. My notion was wrong, to say the very least! Upon entering the main gate near home plate, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. Almost immediately, my eye was drawn to the high left field wall, provided by the Erie Insurance Arena. It is the most prominent feature in the ballpark, and in my estimation, represents a great use of an existing structure to enhance the park, like Camden Yards in Baltimore or Petco Park in San Diego. From the main entrance, we walked down the left field line (which was short due to the presence of the arena). Crammed into that space was the home team bullpen (the home team also occupied the third base dugout). Just to the left of the bullpen was a seating area above the entrance to the ballpark, located within the arena itself. Those seats seemed like a good place to watch a game, but I imagined they were likely unavailable to the general public. Walking back toward home plate, we passed in front of Flagship Funland, a space geared toward younger fans with games and activities, including a giant inflatable slide.
Seating at UPMC Park is divided into two main sections, as we discovered walking toward home. The lower section extends from just past third base behind home plate to just past first base. The upper section (the main concrete concourse divides the two sections) consisted of two distinct pieces, each different from the other. Behind third base is a large, contiguous section (almost like a grandstand) containing about 20 rows of forest green seats, with private suites sitting at the top of the section. Behind the first base lies a much smaller upper section, recessed from the lower section. Beyond the upper and lower seating areas in right field, a covered picnic area, complete with benches and tables, was under construction. From my perspective, this area will be mainly for dining, as the view of the action from this area would be limited, at best. All told, UPMC Park has a seating capacity of about 6,000, which is typical for AA baseball.
After viewing the bullpen tucked into the right field corner, we headed back toward our seats behind home plate. Along the way we encountered three concession stands on the main concourse, as well as a couple of speciality eateries, but we chose baseball lunches for the 1205 pm start, and found our seats. My brother purchased our tickets back in the spring, and I was astounded by the quality of the choice. Our seats were in the first row, just to the right of home plate. These seats were at ground level, providing us with our closest access to the action EVER. Though we were behind the protective net, my brother sneaked his camera into the holes of the netting, allowing him to get some of his best action shots. Occasionally, the batter in the on deck circle would obscure my view, but it was a small price to pay for such an amazing view of UPMC Park!
From our seats, we had great sight lines spanning the entire park. The huge left field wall (dubbed the “Gray Monster” by the locals) dominates the view, just 316 feet from home plate. In an attempt to prevent “cheap” home runs, a yellow line approximately 20 feet up the wall marks the line of demarcation between home runs and balls in play. At the top of the wall is an digital auxiliary scoreboard, showing information on the game in progress, as well as scores for the remainder of the AA Northeast games. UPMC Park also boasts a great scoreboard/videoboard. Located just beyond the right centerfield fence, its modest size was overshadowed by its crisp picture, providing a wonderful source of information for baseball diehards like myself. The outfield wall spanning from centerfield into right field was no more than about eight feet in height, allowing an expansive view of the neighborhood beyond it. Obviously, UPMC Park was designed to fit into the urban area in which it was built, providing a cozy feel to a beautiful ballpark, far exceeding my preconceived notion of the place.
First pitch of the first game of the doubleheader occurred at precisely 1206 pm, as the hometown SeaWolves hosted the Bowie BaySox, my ersatz home team when I lived in MD. On the mound for the BaySox was right hander Grayson Rodriguez. Pounding the catcher’s glove with fastballs in the upper 90s, it was clear that Rodriguez was a unusual talent, with “stuff” better than most I have seen at this level. Rodriguez essentially shut down the SeaWolves offense, allowing only an unearned run in five innings of work, while striking out 12. Being directly adjacent to the BaySox dugout on the first base side, we could see the Bowie manager asking for balls to be taken out of play, saved for Rodriguez after his terrific start.
Though temperatures were only in the 70s, the unceasing sunshine started to sap me of energy, and at the end of the first game, we got out of our seats and walked around the ballpark a bit (as well as replenish our drinks). Being a Sunday, the crowd was relatively sparse (certainly less than the reported attendance of 3,100). However, it was a noisy crowd, and in some instances, unrelenting. Several fans made it clear they were NOT pleased with the umpiring crew (especially with the home plate umpire and his ball/strike calls). Rarely have I heard such prolonged abuse of an umpiring crew in the minor leagues, with the constant berating more fitting of an MLB crowd along the Interstate 95 corridor from Boston to Washington (you can listen to the heckling of the umpires here). It took me aback, since the umpire’s calls had little bearing with respect to the outcome of the first game.
After a 30 minute break, the second game of the doubleheader commenced, with each team wearing different jerseys than they did in the first game. This game was not quite as crisply played as the first, with more scoring, as the SeaWolves jumped out to an early lead. A slower pace of play was important, as we still had a five hour drive home ahead of us. Unfortunately, I had one eye on the clock and one eye on the game, as we quickly reached the time we needed to leave. Only four and one-half innings had been completed by 5 pm (each game of the doubleheader was seven innings). With still too much of the game left, we did something we have very rarely done; left a game early.
We did get to see 11 1/2 innings of baseball on a sunny day in this beautiful stadium. With UPMC Park being so far away from where we live, I did not imagine we would ever visit, but I feel most fortunate that we did. It quickly became one of my favorite minor league ballparks, nestled perfectly into a urban setting. Though I did enjoy the stadium experience thoroughly, its remoteness from home makes it unlikely we will visit again. If you find yourself within range of Erie during baseball season, pay a visit to UPMC Park. You will be glad you did.