Category Archives: eastern league

Ballparks of the Eastern League.

FirstEnergy Stadium, Reading, Pennsylvania

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FirstEnergy Field, Reading, PENNSYLVANIA

Number of states: still 38
States to go: 12

First game: June 28, 2019 (Reading Fightin’ Phils 5, Portland Sea Dogs 4)

(Click on any image for a full-sized version.)

The nerdiest thing I do in my life–and this has quite a bit of competition for the honor–is my spreadsheet.

That page that has all of the records and stats for games I have attended? That doesn’t build itself. That comes from me

inputting everything that happens in my presence into a spreadsheet. And it gives me a ton of joy. On the minor league spreadsheet, I have a box for “MLB All Star,” which I look at every year over the all-star break. Any player I have seen that makes an all-star team gets a check-mark. (Kirby Yates becomes the 19th pitcher to get the check mark in 2019: Ketel Marte, Austin Meadows, and Daniel Vogelbach bring us to 48 on the batting side.)  On the major league side, I put a check mark by any player who makes the Hall of Fame. 

What I do not yet have is a player I have seen as a minor league who has made the Hall of Fame.  (Joey Votto and Buster Posey are probably my best shots right now.)

Why do I bring this up? Because if my spreadsheet had a ballpark, that ballpark would be FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading. It was a delight. Or, as Matt put it, “I think we hit the jackpot tonight, Paul.”

Indeed, we did.

The ballpark is old: it doesn’t match the current ideal of gleaming place by the river. Indeed, the seats and such are a throwback compared to the perfectly-oriented green seats I am accustomed to elsewhere. It isn’t in much of a neighborhood: wedged between an arterial street and a factory (appropriate for central Pennsylvania). It is built out of the gorgeous red brick that most of Reading seems to be built out of: surely there’s a reason for all that brick, but I am too lazy to

look it up. When I saw signs touting “America’s Classic Ballpark,” I was a little skeptical. But man oh man did this place ever live up to that standard.

For starters, the pre-game party in the pavilion was absolutely fantastic. Music, local food booths to supplement the traditional ballpark fare, carnival games…it felt like a party and I was into the party. The Friday night crowd–6,004–was pretty festive, but not in that we-are-having-fun-because-we-should-be way. It was more in line with gearing up for the real show: the baseball game.

Underneath the home plate bleachers, we had the entire history of Reading baseball. Again, the town gives itself a nickname, “Baseballtown,” that I was unsure about. And again, the celebration of baseball played on that site for nearly 70 years was as good as it could get. Photos of every Reading team over that time are there: check out the mid-to-late ’70s to see the Phillies building up to the first major league title. On top of the local history, they celebrated local baseball, noting the high

school baseball champions from the area. Also–the girls’ softball champions. That was a nice touch that I was delighted to see.

So I was smitten…and then it got better.

Past the museum as I walked up the third base side, there was a line of people waiting for autographs. That’s because the players had to walk through the concourse to get between the locker room and the field. There, right outside the room, was Cody Asche, he of 390 major league games,

chatting with an elderly couple that one might think he knew. There was a similar run of autograph possibilities for the home team as well. It’s a touch that brings players and fans closer together–I think emotionally. 

Then there’s a trip up the ramp, where the Fightin’ Phils celebrate the building of the 2008 World Series champion Phillies through Reading. And after that, there is my absolute favorite spot–the most spreadsheetiest of thespreadsheety aspects of this park.

The Hall of Fame bar and grill. There, one can have a beer and some food underneath the faces of every baseball Hall of Famer who has ever played at the ballpark in Reading. I couldn’t get over how cool it was. Just as I had the checkmark on my

spreadsheet, they have the checkmark on their ballpark. They acknowledge the visiting players (and beyond: even Pat Gillick is there…made the hall as a GM, but played a game at Reading as a visitor). I just couldn’t get over how cool that was.

Promotions were fine and integrated. It was Latino baseball night, and they did the pregame weather forecast and player introductions in Spanish. We learned that the Spanish word for “thunderstorms” is “tormentas,” which is too cool for words (Matt nearly broke with joy at this discovery). Beyond the occasional on-field wackiness, there wasn’t anything disruptive.

And that was reflected in the culture at the ballpark. A night after sitting with a ton of people not watching baseball in Allentown, but instead making pig noises, I was surrounded by baseball here. Case in point: The Fightin’ Phils have a pool in right field. I’m not a huge fan of the pools in Arizona or Tampa Bay: it feels like conspicuous luxury and antithetical to watching a game. Gorgeous people sit there and not-watch-baseball.

But in Reading, it was entirely different. The pool was mostly filled with kids, which

is not the image I have of the other couple of baseball pools I can think of. The certain result of that, I would have thought, would be an aquatic version of Lord of the Flies. But a simple geographic choice shifted the whole culture. The pool is set up almost flush with the top of the right field wall. As a result, kids swim across the narrow pool, perch on the side, and peek over the edge. At a baseball game.

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Kids, in a pool, were choosing to watch baseball rather than play Marco Polo or splash the crap out of each other.

If we set up a world where it is assumed that people will watch baseball, people will watch baseball. Which is what we do at baseball games.

So I was even more smitten…and then it got even better.

After my first-ever game with the minor-league rule of start-with-the-runner-on-second in the extra innings, after a loud walk-off win, it was time for Launch-A-Ball.

Rob pointed out to me that most of the hula hoops into which we could throw our balls were not prizes we could use: lots of gift certificates from spots we couldn’t go. If we were going to play, we were going to go big: closest to the pin.

Whoever got their ball closest to the pitching rubber would win a hundred bucks.  Why not?

Ball #1: I threw it a line drive over the net.  The friction from the grass slowed it down, and that meant it came up short.

“Huh,” I thought. “I might want to get a little more arc on it: have it bounce instead of roll.  That will get it closer to the rubber.”

I chucked it over the net.  It bounced to the mound, rolled up it…and I was closest to the pin.

I. Was. Closest. To. The. Pin.  And I won a hundred bucks.

Most of that money went to Fightin’ Phils hats for Matt and me, and I am delighted to returned that money (which I would have spent anyway) to the team. Because after already having fallen so hard for this ballpark, to have them hand me a Benjamin Franklin as I walked out of the ballpark?  That ain’t too shabby.  

I am a hundredaire. And I want to go back.  Heck, I want to do season tickets from two thousand miles away.

Reading, you are Baseballtown. You totally got this right. Thanks for a fabulous night, and keep up the fabulous work.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional Feel: 9.5/10.  Just amazing. Loved the focus on so much history. Only a view would have brought this up to perfection.

Charm: 5/5.  All over the place.

Spectacle: 5/5.  Again, as good as anyone can ask.

Team mascot/name: 2.5/5.  By changing from “Phillies” to “Fightin’ Phils,” the team managed to get the worst of both worlds: both too cutesy and too dull.  Many mascots: all fine, but maybe too many to present a cool feeling. Here I am with Screwball.

Aesthetics: 4/5.  Great, in spite of aging bleachers and wood.

Pavilion area: 5/5.  I’d give it a six if I felt I could.

Fans: 4/5.  Quite nice

Intangibles: 5/5.  Dude, I won a hundred bucks.

Overall: 43.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I SAW HERE:  

My first extra-inning minor league game since the new (dumb) rule about putting a guy on second to start an extra inning came into effect.  

The Fightin’ Phils took the early lead on a three-run shot by Grenny Cumona, but the SeaDogs scrapped back to tie it at 3, as pitcher Denyi Reyes settled down nicely.  

The SeaDogs scored one on a sacrifice and a fielder’s choice to start the 10th, but Alec Bohm singled home two runs to win it for the home team in the bottom half.

Written July 2019.

Canal Park, Akron, Ohio

Canal Park, Akron, OHIO

Number of states: still 37
States to go: 13

First game: May 28, 2017 (Bowie Baysox 3, Akron Rubber Ducks 1, 5 innings)

Friends and I extended our college-reunion weekend by a day and headed up to Akron, a city I had driven past but never into, for a 

Sunday matinee ballgame.  After the disappointment of missing a ballgame in Erie a few days earlier, we were amped up for some double-A baseball.

Akron turned out to have a surprisingly lovely downtown, and it appeared that the downtown was created almost entirely by its most famous native, LeBron James. His enormous (then-still-Cavalier) form stares down at you from billboards nearby. Both the ballpark and the sports bar we passed time in were on King James Way.  Not 

basebally, obviously–as best as I can figure, the most famous baseball player born in Akron is Thurman Munson, but I don’t recall seeing an homage to him: perhaps I missed it. Would have been nicer to have the ballpark on Thurman Munson Way. But still, highpoints for local feel: tons of red-bricked factory-style buildings nearby, and Canal Park is beautifully integrated into all those.

So it was a lovely time poking around the ballpark, seeing the many great Indians who made it through Akron celebrated on pillars around the park, and chilling out with some food and some friends.

And then…well…

One of the best reasons to attend a game with Rob (master’s in meteorology) is that it’s very easy to know what the weather is going to bring your way. He is on his phone throughout. “Looks like there’s just a little window after this stretch of rain passes,” he said. “But after that, it will rain all night.”

Should we leave?

“No. They’ll start the game.”

So thus began the big challenge of the night: would they get five innings in?

The game began an hour late. We settled into our seats (after wiping the off).  And we saw some awfully good pitching that motored the game along.  Several times, between innings, what I took to be a groundskeeper for the Rubber Ducks would head out and chat with the home plate umpire, Randy Rosenberg, while showing him a cell phone. That phone likely had the same radar image on it that Rob’s did.

Fortunately for the integrity of the Eastern League standings, the game flew. Solid pitching on both sides after a bumpy first inning that led to three Bowie runs. Three quick outs. Three more quick outs. Another groundskeeper visit to the umpire. More outs. We get to the fifth: Bowie is winning. We have to get through the bottom of the fifth.

We do. Still no rain.

In the top of the sixth, however, after one out, it came down heavily. The timing proved the

 God is interested in the Eastern League standings, and possibly into the Bowie Baysox.  Aderlin Rodriguez managed to hit a single, but then the tarp came right back out.

Back to Rob.

“Do we stay?”

“No. There will be no more baseball tonight.”

So, while a few thousand fans stood under shelters, wondering whether it was worthwhile to remain, Rob, Matt and I sprinted as fast as our aging, 25-year-college-reunion legs would take us, and got to the car.  By the time the game was called, we were already in our hotel room, playing Quickword, which I won yet again. (Note: I claim to win every game.)

So this one is official. And it was fun.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional Feel 7.5/10

Quite lovely. I can’t fault them the LeBron surroundings, but there was quite a bit of Akron baseball history (especially recent Indians) to be found everywhere. And it was quite nice.

Charm 4/5

Lovely red brick everywhere: I was impressed.

Spectacle 3/5

Mother Nature provided most of it.

Team mascot/name 3.5/5

The history of Akron as a center for rubber production means I like the name, but “Rubber ducks” feels too cute by half. So I am kinda torn on this one.  The mascots, however, were really quite fun to watch during the long delay and helped quite a bit.  On top is Webster, mugging for the camera. Beneath him is Rubberta, a fine excuse for a pun.
Aesthetics 4/5

Lovely, except for some construction-related detritus beyond the left field fence.

Pavilion area 2.5/5

Like the history there, but one cannot walk around the field, which bums me out.

Scoreability 3.5/5

Didn’t have much chance to notice this, so I would imagine it was fine.

Fans 3/5

No memory of them.

Intangibles 4/5

One would think that losing four innings of baseball would have a negative impact on this score. But the intensity of the storm and the beauty of it rolling in actually added to the night. And it meant another few board games with my friends.

TOTAL: 35/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN THERE:

Orioles prospect Tanner Scott dominated for the three innings he was out there for Bowie, hitting 100 on the radar gun regularly.

Three runs on three singles and a walk–the first four batters of the game–stand up for Bowie. (There were only four more hits–again, all singles–for the rest of the night.)

Written January 2019.

UPMC Park, Erie, Pennsylvania

UMPC Park, Erie, PENNSYLVANIA

State number: still 37
States to go: 13

First game: none yet (rainout, May 25, 2017)

 

This one never had a chance of going off.  It rained the entire night before as friends and I drove out from the Cleveland airport. It rained as we went in and intimidated people playing pub trivia in Mentor, Ohio, only losing because of the preponderance of Cleveland Cavalier questions (home-field advantage).  It rained that morning as a college buddy and her husband took us around Erie. And by the time we showed up, well before scheduled first pitch, they had already bagged on the game.

My heart went out to the teachers for this one.  Like most day games during the school year, this one featured a crap-ton of field trip people, and they were already crammed into their seats for the start of a game that would never begin.

What on earth would the teachers do with the sudden extra three hours? What would they do with kids who expected to chill outside for a while and suddenly would not?  I’m telling you, this was a devastating blow to the teachers of northwestern Pennsylvania, and I hope they all had alternate plans ready (ALWAYS have alternate plans ready, teachers).

It’s a shame, because UPMC park looked like a winner. Views of the lake from the upper deck, nice integration with the athletic club next door, quality double-A ball…looked awesome. Perhaps one day I shall head back. But while others were at school or at work, this day was spent at a bar with old friends instead.  And you can’t really argue with that.

 

Mercer County Waterfront Ballpark, Trenton, New Jersey

Mercer County Waterfront Ballpark, Trenton NEW JERSEY

Number of states: 23
States to go:  27

Number of games: 1
First game:  August 16, 2007 (Trenton Thunder 8, Portland SeaDogs 4)

(Mercer County Waterfront Ballpark is now known as Arm & Hammer Ballpark.)
(Click on any image to see a larger version.)

It is indeed a challenge, I learned back in August of 2007, to make it from the Philadelphia Airport to the Mercer County Waterfront Ballpark for a game…but it is, indeed, possible.  Because the 2007 baseball trip was the

first in my history that involved no driving (in an effort to be both cheap and green), I dashed from my flight to my SEPTA train in perhaps record time.  Since I had no luggage to check, I made it onto a train that left only ten minutes after my flight arrived.  And since I wanted to be totally sure that I could legally hop onto the train downtown (for a transfer to Trenton), I even asked the man who was working on the ticket machine…could I buy a ticket on board?  Yes, he told me.  Well, nobody asked me for money or a ticket or proof I belonged there or absolutely anything else all the way to Walnut Street, where I detrained, feeling lucky and a little bit dirty.  If anybody from SEPTA happens to read this, I owe you seven bucks or whatever it was.  I wasn’t trying to dodge a fare (as should be noted by the way I duly paid my way from downtown Philly to Trenton).  I asked if I could pay on the train, got on, and then nobody asked me for a cent.  Please do not prosecute me.

The fine folks who work with the Trenton Thunder will work with you if you

happen to be crashing on their park directly from the airport, I learned.  The Thunder were nothing but nice to me.  I phoned ahead to ask them if I could keep my bag somewhere during the ballgame and pick it up afterwards…I had no time to get to my hotel prior to the game, as I simply took a cab from the train station to the ballpark.  I therefore got to meet several of the fine folks from the Thunder, who didn’t seem to mind when I had to unpack a lot of my suitcase to get to my hat, scorecard, and pencils (and thus unwittingly let some of the fine folks of south Jersey see a few pairs of socks and underwear).  Indeed, after the game, they were nice enough to call me a cab, and when that cab never showed up (the dispatcher seemed to have far more important social engagements than to help me), a worker told me that the nice hotel I had treated myself to, the Trenton Courtyard by Marriott, would routinely send a van to the ballpark to pick up a guest.  Sold!  So, even if it weren’t a great ballpark, the Thunder won me over with fine customer service.

The good news for them is that they work at a splendid ballpark.  I was a big fan of Mercer County Waterfront Park almost from the moment of my arrival.  I was a little bit concerned when my cab took me through slum after slum until we were just a few feet from the ballpark, simply because I was worried that the ballpark would have a Comerica Park feel…a baseball theme-park fortress designed to get me to ignore the urban blight around me.  But it didn’t have that feel, I think because of the immediate surroundings.  The ballpark is right on the Delaware, so if George Washington were a lefty pull hitter with power, he could knock one into the river (although likely not over).  It’s possible to walk along a path between the ballpark and the river, and some of the crappier seats in the ballpark offer a view across the river of Morrisville, Pennsylvania.  And with some rowdy fans on hand (the Yankee-affiliated Thunder were facing the Red Sox-affiliated

Portland SeaDogs), there was no question where I was.  The ballpark therefore aces the important Is There Any Question Where You Are test.

Further, Trenton does well in celebrating Trenton baseball history rather than concentrating on Yankee baseball history. 

A look at their retired numbers tells the story–Nomar Garciaparra and Tony Clark share billing with Jackie Robinson.  The idea that a ballplayer best known as a Red Sox gets a nod with a retired number at a Yankee-affiliated ballpark tells me that they have their priorities straight–Trenton first, parent club second.  Additionally, I was struck by a female name, Nicole Sherry, on their list of former Thunders (what is one member of the Thunder called anyway?  A Clap?) who have made the show.  A quick Google search reveals that, after two years in Trenton, Sherry went on to become head groundskeeper for the Orioles.  It’s great that they give her some recognition.

I got one of my favorite seats on this night…in the very front row, in a seat that juts out from the main stands into foul territory.  I could look back into the Trenton dugout from my position, but more importantly, I got an opportunity to watch the work of the first-base umpire (whose name I can no longer locate) quite closely.  No close plays transpired at first this night, but I enjoyed seeing the difference between his regular “out” call and his sell “out” call.  On the former, he wouldn’t even vocalize at all, but on the latter, he sure would.  On top of that, I got to enjoy all of this while taking advantage of the significant ledge in front of me as a table:

A cheap cheese steak, a FREE scorecard, a gorgeous night on the river, and up-close double-A baseball.  What more can a guy ask for?

Hell of a nice night at Mercer County Waterfront Park.  If you’re in Philly or South Jersey, it’s worth the trip up.  It’s definitely one of the top ballparks I’ve been to on the East Coast.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  9/10
On top of everything else the ballpark had going for it–the river, the cheese steak, the retired numbers–they have concession stands shaped like commuter trains.  Nice!

Charm:  4/5
Quite nice.  Might have scored even higher were it not for the nearby urban blight.

Spectacle:  4/5
I know there were some promotions, but I can’t remember them.  That’s a good sign for quality double-A ball.

Team mascot/name:  2.5/5

Boomer with handler.  Nothing special about him or his name–I can’t even tell what he is.  Also, I’m not a fan of the name “Thunder.”

Aesthetics:  4.5/5
Quite a nice place right there on the river.

Pavilion area:  4.5/5
I especially like the places where the river is visible.  And I’m sort of counting the river walkway outside the stadium.  It’s my party and I’ll break my rules if I want.

Scoreability:  5/5

That’s right…FREE SCORECARDS.  And they say to PLEASE take one.  Then, they follow that up with conscientiously-placed scoring decisions, including the too-often-skipped wild pitch/passed ball calls.  One of the best ballparks I’ve ever been to in this regard.

Fans:  3.5/5

Intangibles:  4.5/5
It was a splendid night.  This is a ballpark I want to visit again.

TOTAL:  41.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Gabriel Lopez is the batting star for the Thunder, going 4-for-4 with 3 RBIs.

Andrew Pinckney homered for the SeaDogs.

(Written April 2008.)

Blair County Ballpark, Altoona, PA

Blair County Ballpark, Altoona, PENNSYLVANIA

Number of states: 21
States to go:  29

Number of games: 1
First game:  August 4, 2006 (Altoona Curve 6, New Britain Rock Cats 4)

(Blair County Ballpark has been renamed Peoples Natural Gas Field. Incidentally, this is the same name as the airspace within five feet of me at any given moment.)
(Click on any image to see a larger version.)

A ballgame was welcome after a day of American Tragedy Tourism.  I spent much of the morning at the Shanksville memorial, which is a pilgrimage I believe

every American should take, and then at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, which was depressing in an entirely different way.  Blair County Ballpark was a refreshing change at the end of the day. I had heard many positive reviews of the ballpark–some call it the best in the United States–and while I prefer a few others to this one, it still was a tremendous place to see a ballgame, and well worth a detour if you’re anywhere nearby.

Blair County Ballpark sits adjacent to Lakemont Park, and a roller coaster sits past right field. This creates a carnival atmosphere to the ballpark. I could see this being a bad thing–after all, I loathe any ballpark with a carousel, and

I don’t like distractions during my baseball (though between innings, they’re fine).  But Blair County Ballpark manages to take its baseball seriously without taking itself seriously, which is fantastic.

First, the bit about not taking itself too seriously. There’s plenty of wackiness going on, and not just from the multiple mascots. The night I attended was a promotion to honor bowling in the Altoona area.  Kids could bowl out on the concourse, and the first pitch was bowled out (a bowling ball painted to look like a baseball).  There were

about 800 first pitches, including one from Mrs. Pennsylvania (I didn’t know they still did that), and loads of promotions between every inning.  Many of the distractions were quite hilarious–they recruited youngsters to walk along the tops of the dugouts between every inning with a card saying the inning number, like the ring card girls in boxing.  It was really very funny.

On the other hand, however, when it came time for baseball, the ballpark provided a great experience.  Unlike any other lower-level ballpark I’d been to, the ballpark gave in-progress scores of other minor-league games.

A true fan of the Eastern League could keep track of the divisional races on one of the two big video screens.  Speaking of which, I was impressed that a double-A ballpark would have two big scoreboard screens.  Some might feel it’s unnecessary, but I don’t see anything wrong with a small-town park having a gorgeous couple of scoreboards that they use properly.

And who can come up with a better use for a scoreboard than to put me on it?  Altoona’s radio pre-game show interview takes place on the concourse behind home plate, and is broadcast on the scoreboard.  That means that, if I place myself just right, I can see myself on the scoreboard, and if I bring a camera and are especially vain, I can photograph the back of my purple T-shirt as broadcast on the scoreboard, just over the guest’s right shoulder.

Memory of the game:  a foul ball glanced off of a three-year-old girl a few rows behind me.  Sweetly, the entire Curve dugout came out to look and see if the kid was okay.  I believe Steamer came to give her a Diesel Dawg stuffed animal.  People are really nice.

I had the pleasure of hanging out with a great guy for most of the ballgame.  As usual, the conversation began when we both scored the game.

He’s a history professor (emeritus? I don’t remember) at nearby Indiana University of Pennsylvania. We talked a bit about teaching, baseball, and travel. I teach history sometimes (although literature is more my game), and I recognize that a love of history plays into a love of baseball.  I had spent an entire day reflecting on the history of our nation, both distant and recent, and was in a place that respected its history–from the locally-appropriate name to the plaques honoring every former Altoona player to make the majors. Hearing about the area through the eyes of a historian was a nice touch–the icing on the cake. He was kind enough to give me a business card…which I, like a bonehead, have since lost.  Nonetheless, thanks for the conversation, Professor.

On the whole, it’s a unique ballpark experience in a lovely, while often overlooked, part of the country.  It lands very near the top of my list.  The atmosphere was the perfect blend of frivolous and baseball-respecting, and the people were quite fun.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel: 7.5/10
Pretty good, but not quite great.  I like the unique feel of watching a game in the shadow of a roller coaster, but I can’t say I could look around and now where I was.  Still, the team name and a sense of local baseball history is apparent.

Charm:  5/5
Nice.

Spectacle:  5/5
They get this right.

Team mascot/name:  3/5


Steamer and me above, and Steamer’s pet dog Diesel Dawg below.  Steamer has his own email and his own pets.  Weird.  I like the idea of Steamer, but he looks derivative of the Phillie Phanatic, and the dog, while adorable, could be anywhere.

Aesthetics:  4/5
Not bad.

Pavilion area:  5/5
Loads of activity, all within view of the ballgame.

Scoreability:  4/5

Fans:  2.5/5
Surprisingly quiet.

Intangibles:  4/5
On the whole, a fine night, but maybe I had my expectations too high.

TOTAL:  40/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Brett Roneberg’s first-inning two-run triple gave the Curve the lead they never gave up.

Milver Reyes goes three-for-four.

(Written December 2006.)