CaroMont Health Park, Gastonia NC, Sunday August 29th 2021

Outside CaroMount Health Park, Gastonia NC. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

On the back end of a weekend baseball trip to North Carolina, we visited CaroMont Health Park in Gastonia, home of the Atlantic League’s (ALPB) Honey Hunters. Playing their inaugural season, Gastonia offered an opportunity to again visit the Tar Heel State (having done so before in 2017 and 2019). Following an eight hour drive on Friday, and after attending a Charlotte Knights game on Saturday night, we visited Gastonia on Sunday afternoon, in advance of their 450 pm game against the Lexington Legends.

Headquartered in Charlotte for the weekend, we took Interstate 85 south from there to Gastonia, a trip that lasted about 25 minutes. Arriving about 30 minutes before the gates opened at CaroMont Health Park, we parked on West Main Street, and walked through the downtown area. Along the strip, there were many storefronts that reminded me of a small town you might expect to find in North Carolina. In fact, we encountered a sign that stated Gastonia was named an All American City in 1979, 2000 and again in 2010. After walking for about 30 minutes in the hot late August sun, we headed back toward the vehicle and headed toward the ballpark.

A look at downtown Gastonia. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Located about a mile down West Main St is CaroMont Health Park. The ballpark is the centerpiece of the Franklin Urban Sports and Entertainment (FUSE) District , an economic zone developed to reinvigorate downtown Gastonia. Interestingly, there was only parking for season ticket holders onsite, but we were able to secure parking across the street from the stadium in the lot of a church. Parking was free, and just a couple minute walk to the main entrance of the ballpark. My brother wore his vintage Montreal Expos hat to the game, and that did not go unnoticed in Gastonia. The hat spurred a short conversation at the main gate, and later members of the Legends commented on the hat as well. Given that the Montreal Expos have not existed for 17 years, I was mildly surprised that the insignia was still so recognizable.

CaroMont Health Park from behind home plate. The entire playing surface is turf, including the mound. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

It did not take long, after entering the ballpark, to see that there was something different about this place. Like BBT Point (home of the High Point Rockers), CaroMont Health Park has an all turf field, including the mound, home plate, and the bullpens (which have odd, wedge shaped mounds). Just as unique is the vast amount of foul territory on the first and third base lines. After studying the ballpark, it became clear that the stadium was designed for multi purpose use, and that we were seeing its baseball configuration. In fact, during the game, there were several announcements concerning a high school football game that was to take place later in the week.

Home bullpen at CaroMont Health Park. Note the wedge shaped bullpen mound, consisting of artificial turf. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Per our standard operating procedure, we toured the inside of the ballpark. The concrete concourse at CaroMont Health Park rings the stadium, providing us with unfettered access to the entire park. For the most part, the stadium is rather spartan. An entrance gate graces right field, with the Gas House Grill located in centerfield (located beneath the main scoreboard/videoboard). Though we did not actually eat anything at the park (it was simply too hot to eat), it was obvious that the Gas House Grill is meant to be the centerpiece of the dining and drinking experience in the ballpark. A Kids Zone sits between the Gas House Grill and the left field seats, filled with bouncy houses. When we passed, there were no kids playing, but later, from our vantage point down the first base line, we could see the bouncy houses bouncing.

Gas House Grill at CaroMont Health Park, Gastonia NC. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Left field in CaroMont Health Park is yet another interesting element of the stadium. Because the left field wall is close to the plate (a mere 304 feet), a 20 foot net was placed in front the of the seats there, ostensibly to protect fans from balls leaving the playing field, and to prevent “cheap” home runs. Located beyond the netting is a covered picnic area. On this late afternoon, the area was closed for a private event. We have noticed that sadly, even in minor league and ALPB ballparks, exclusivity has become more prevalent. Working our way back toward home plate, we saw two additional covered picnic areas (complete with ceilings fans) before we reached the main concession stands behind home plate. As mentioned, we did not eat that night, but the concession stands offered standard baseball fare at reasonable prices. Loading up on cold drinks to combat the late August heat, we went in search of our seats.

The left field wall is extended by netting covering left field and the Kids Zone. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

My brother chose great seats down the first base side, immediately adjacent to the visitor’s dugout (at CaroMont Health Park, the home team occupies the third base dugout). Those seats provided us with an unobstructed view of the Lexington Legends, and their antics in the dugout. Fortunately, there were no kids near the dugout, because the Legends players were spewing almost nonstop colorful metaphors. Our seats gave us a great view of the entire park, including the surprisingly large scoreboard in centerfield. Unlike most ballparks, clusters of seats were scattered throughout the ballpark, rather than having one or two large seating sections. Including the six luxury cabanas located in the second deck behind home plate, the stadium has a capacity of 5,000, though from my perspective, I would not have estimated a capacity quite that high.

Our view of the Lexington Legends dugout. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Being an ALPB game, there were some important rules differences from the MLB and minor leagues. Balls and strikes were called by the Automated Ball-Strike System (ABS), with the output from the system relayed to the home plate umpire, who then makes the call to the players and fans. During this game, many players were visibly upset by the calls. Another rule change included the use of larger bases (18 inches), in hopes of reducing inquires on the base paths. When a starting pitcher is removed from the game, that team loses its designated hitter from the lineup. Dubbed the Double Hook, the rule is intended to inject some strategy back into the game, perhaps encouraging managers to stick with starting pitchers longer. Finally, this was the first ALPB game we had seen since the pitching rubber was moved back one foot to 61 feet 6 inches (the change seemed to have negligible effects on the pitchers). Each of these “experiments” were at the behest of MLB, with which the ALPB has a developmental agreement. It is possible some or all of these rules could someday become part of the MLB game.

Brandon Phillips smiling after being called out on strikes. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Clearly the most recognizable member of either team was the Lexington Legends second baseman Brandon Phillips. A seven time All Star with the Cincinnati Reds, Phillips attracted quite a bit of attention as he crossed the field before the game. A part owner of the Legends, Phillips seemed to be enjoying his tenure in the ALPB, and had a smile for everyone he encountered that day. First pitch occurred at 455 PM, and the first inning saw only one run scored. However, from there, the game quickly got out of hand, as both teams scored runs by the bunch. Lexington scored nine runs in the top of the second inning, chasing the Gastonia starter from the game. Not to be outdone, the Honey Hunters scored five runs in the bottom of the third inning, and the slugfest was on!

A near collision between the Legends’ catcher and third baseman on an infield popup. The catcher made the play, and was none too pleased that the third baseman was so close. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Until recently, the ALPB was a league where the pitching was almost always better than the hitting. Since the beginning of the 2019 season, the quality of pitching in the league has dwindled, and the game in Gastonia was the quintessential case in point. Even the starting pitcher for Lexington (right hander JJ Hoover, the winner pitcher) surrendered nine runs in his five innings of work. Nearly continuous scoring slowed the pace of the game to a crawl, as late afternoon slowly faded into early evening. That time gave us a better opportunity to take in the environment. Though the crowd was fairly sparse (which is not usual for a Sunday game), they were vocal when the Honey Hunters scored, and were supportive when Lexington was running up the score. Eventually, the home team simply ran out of pitchers, sending outfielder Boog Powell to the mound for the top of the ninth inning. Predictably, Powell was tattooed as he threw batting practice fastballs that were swatted for home runs by the Lexington batters. Powell was replaced by center fielder Jake Sloke, who induced a double play to end the inning.

CaroMont Health Park as evening approaches. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Mercifully, the Honey Hunters went down relatively quietly to end the contest. The final score was 26-12 in favor of Lexington, who hit eight home runs during the game. My brother dubbed the game a “train wreck”, and I would be hard pressed to disagree. Watching an outfielder take the mound brought the game to a standstill, and I seriously considered leaving before the game concluded. As we exited the stadium, I took one last look at the ballpark. CaroMont Health Park is a bare bones, multi purpose community facility, something akin to what we saw in High Point. It is possible that lower levels of the minor leagues, as well as independent baseball, could follow this blueprint when constructing ballparks in the future. We left shortly after the game, heading back to our hotel in Charlotte. While I am glad we visited Gastonia during its maiden season, there is not enough to bring me back to this North Carolina town.

CaroMont Health Park after the game. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Clipper Magazine Stadium, Lancaster PA July 10-11 2021

Clipper Magazine Stadium on Farm Show Night in Lancaster, PA. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Though the threat of storms loomed across central and southeast PA during the weekend of July 10-11, 2021, my brother and I planned to visit Clipper Magazine Stadium to see the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball’s (ALPB) Lancaster Barnstormers take on the Gastonia Honey Hunters for the final two games of their weekend series. Clipper Magazine Stadium is about 50 minutes from my home in central PA, so we were able to enjoy the comforts of home while adding a new ballpark to our list.

Arriving about 50 minutes before the first pitch for the Saturday July 10th evening game (with the first pitch scheduled for 635 pm), we were surprised to find a line to get into the parking lots of Clipper Magazine Stadium. In fact, the first parking lot we encountered on our left (open to the general public) was filled, and we needed to proceed to a lot further up the road. Unlike most ballparks, parking here was free. From the lot further from the park, the walk to the ballpark was less than 10 minutes. As we typically do, we toured the outside of the stadium. Upon reaching the main gate, we discovered that the ticket office was very busy, as it appeared as though a large walk-up crowd was taking advantage of the warm and not too humid summer weather to take in a ball game on a Saturday night.

A composite image showing Clipper Magazine Stadium from behind home plate. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

At first glance, the main gate of Clipper Magazine Stadium bore a resemblance to PeoplesBank Park in York, PA (the home of the York Revolution, another member of the ALPB). Eventually, we worked our way back toward an entrance in centerfield. Having seen what we could from the outside, we decided to enter the park at this entrance. While waiting to enter the ballpark, I thought I heard a cow mooing coming from the other side of the wall. Upon entering the park, we were deposited onto the concrete concourse, where we were greeted by farm animals. It was Farm Show Night at the ballpark, and it turns out I DID here some mooing. Among the many types of farm animals on display along the concourse in center and left field, we saw some baby cows as we made our way toward home plate.

One of the visitors to Clipper Magazine Stadium on Farm Show Night. Was this the cow I heard moo entering the park? (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Following the concourse down the left field line toward the home plate area, we encountered a kids zone near the pink left field foul pole, complete with a carousel, a climbing wall, and assorted games. Being Farm Show Night, we also saw farm equipment for kids to explore scattered along the concourse in the outfield. Passing through the covered portion of the concourse near home plate, we noticed two concession areas, serving the normal baseball fare. Lines were long, which was not surprising considering how many people we saw entering the ballpark. We made a mental note of the line, since we would not obtain our baseball dinner until after we concluded out tour of the inside of the stadium.

Walking down the right field concourse, we found various places to get food and drink. Not being much of a drinker, I did not imbibe, but the selection of local craft beers seemed impressive. Further along the concourse behind the right field foul pole (a mere 300 feet from home plate) we found the Pavilion. It was closed for a private event this night, but there were many places to sit while eating and drinking, in addition to watching the game. Our tour complete, we headed back toward our seats, located on the third base side.

A composite image showing Clipper Magazine Stadium from centerfield, showing the bulk of the seating at the ballpark. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

From our seats, we had a great view of the entire park. Perhaps the most noticeable feature was the scoreboard/videoboard in left field, behind the grass berm. A decent size for the venue, not many videos were played (other than some brief clips of the broadcast of the game). However, the board did have a nearly continuous display of the score, the count, and the pitch speed. In addition, there were auxiliary scoreboards on the second deck behind first and third base, showing this information, as well as the name of the pitcher. Most fans probably did not notice, but being the true baseball fan that I am, I was grateful for the information. In many minor league and ALPB games, there is a dearth of information about the game, which dulls the experience for me to some extent.

Being an ALPB game, there were some important rules differences from the MLB and minor leagues. First, balls and strikes were called by the Automated Ball-Strike System (ABS), with the output from the system relayed to the home plate umpire, who then makes the call to the players and fans. The second rule change was the continued use of larger bases (18 inches), in hopes of reducing injuries on the base paths. Finally, when a starting pitcher is removed from the game, that team loses its DH from the lineup. Dubbed the Double Hook, the rule is intended to inject some strategy back into the game, perhaps encouraging managers to stick with starting pitchers longer. Each of these “experiments” were at the behest of MLB, with which the ALPB has a developmental agreement. It is possible some or all of these rules could someday become part of the MLB game.

The Trackman radar based technology provides the information for automated ball and strike calls in the ALPB, as well as data about launch angle, exit velocity off the bat, as well as spin rate of the pitches. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

As for the game itself, we saw what appears to be a trend in the ALPB; a poorly pitched game by both sides. At one time, the ALPB pitchers were ahead of hitters when it came to talent and experience, but that is no longer the case. Through the first three innings, both teams traded runs amid a plethora of walks and errors, and by the end of the third inning, the score was 8-6 in favor of Gastonia. Typically, the first three innings of a baseball game are completed in an hour or less. On this evening, it took more than an hour and 45 minutes to reach that mark. Luckily for us, there was a treat at the end of the third inning. Rather than holding a contest for fans, there was an alpaca race on the warning track in center and right field, to the delight of all.

Participants readying themselves for the alpaca race in centerfield. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

While the Barnstormers pitching held the Honey Hunters’ offense in check in the middle innings, Lancaster scored eight unanswered runs to take a lead they would not relinquish. In the bottom of the sixth inning, the home plate umpire took a fastball to the face mask, sending him reeling backward before hitting the ground. Lying motionless, it appeared as though he was seriously injured, as the entire crowd held its collective breath. To my amazement, the umpire climbed to his feet, and continued to umpire the game. Eventually he was replaced, as it was evident he was still feeling the effects of the beaning. Before he left, a Gastonia pitcher was ejected for ridiculing the umpire. Ostensibly the ridicule was about ball/strike calls (which the umpire was NOT making; see above), but it likely was an attempt to intimidate the umpire due to his diminutive physical size.

Alejandro de Aza of the Lancaster Barnstorms at bat. de Aza played for the New York Mets in 2016. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Once evening blended into night, it was clear that some of the lights at Clipper Magazine Stadium were out. Darkness descended on the outfield, and at times it was tough to track the flight of the ball. Both teams continues to pitch poorly, and scoring occurred until the very end of the game. It took four hours and four minutes to complete the contest, during which there were 25 hits and 17 walks, as Lancaster outlasted Gastonia 15-12. While most of the crowd stayed for the fireworks display, we chose that time to exit.

Large puddles are evident on the left field line after early morning showers doused Clipper Magazine Stadium. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

We were back a mere 13 hours later for the finale of the three game series between the Lancaster Barnstormers and the visiting Gastonia Honey Hunters. Rain showers in the morning left the field soggy, especially on the warning track, where it seemed that the rainwater that collected on the tarp was emptied. In the wake of the showers were clouds and very humid conditions. We arrived even before the gates opened for the 1 pm contest so that we could have a game of catch on the field. Despite the wet and humid conditions, there were a number of people playing catch in centerfield as the players prepared for the game. This marked the third occasion during which were played catch on a minor league field, and after about 20 minutes, we left the field and prepared for the start of the game.

Fans playing catch on the field before the Sunday afternoon game at Clipper Magazine Stadium. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Sunday was Princess Day at Clipper Magazine Stadium, with several of the staff of the ballpark, a well as many fans, dressing for the occasion. There were contests with princess themes throughout the game, with some impressive knowledge demonstrated by a young lady not far from us. Though not my cup of tea, the fairly sparse crowd (which is not unusual for a Sunday afternoon game, particularly during the heat of summer) seemed to thoroughly enjoy the theme of the day.

Cyclo, the Lancaster Barnstormers mascot, trying to fire up the sparse crowd on Princess Day at Clipper Magazine Stadium. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Not long after the start of the game, the sun broke free of the clouds, and conditions become hot fairly quickly. Hot and humid conditions sent fans scurrying for cover soon after the first pitch. It seemed as though we would once again have a slugfest, as Gastonia scored early and often. This time, though, the Honey Hunters pitching was more than up for the task, yielding runs toward the end of the contest, when the outcome had already been decided. The time of the game was a more merciful three hours, as the heat and humidity drained me much more quickly than expected.

The Gastonia dugout on the third base side of Clipper Magazine Stadium. Note the puddles in front of the dugout, a consequence of the early morning rain showers. (Photo credit: Jeff Hayes)

Overall, I was impressed with Clipper Magazine Stadium. Despite being a modular ballpark, it possesses its own charm, which came through particularly well during Farm Show Night. It reminded me of PeoplesBank Park in York, though this park did not seem to be as well kept as the stadium in York. In any event, this ballpark is within striking distance of home for me, so I intend to visit when my schedule allows.