Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Baseball Stadiums: Bright House Field

Since 2010, the start of spring means that I am traveling to a new city to attend the AAG Annual Meeting.  The 2014 conference was in Tampa, Fla., which was a slight letdown because Tampa doesn't scream "tourist destination" to me.  However, I was optimistic that I could see the Tampa Bay Rays play at Tropicana Field and maybe catch a few minor league games.

As it turns out, MLB's schedule makers had the Rays on the road during my conference.  However, with five teams within an hour drive of downtown Tampa I had the opportunity to visit my choice of minor league ballparks.  The first stop was Clearwater because I had a New Year's resolution to get my photo taken with the Threshers' mascot, Phinley, after casting many ballots for him during the 2013 Mascot Mania contest.



As the conference approached, I made sure to circle a Threshers' game on the schedule.  I ended up going on the day that I arrived, and went to the game with a pair of fellow geographers.  We arrived at the stadium just as the National Anthem began, and got fantastic seats behind home plate for $10.

Main entrance to Bright House Field with the sculpture called "The Ace" by Kevin Brady.

Per my planning before taking any kind of trip that involves attending a Minor League Baseball game, I checked out Ben's Biz for pointers about enjoying the stadium experience.  So for anybody who regularly reads his pieces, you'll see some similarities to his 2012 visit to Clearwater.

As I attended a Tuesday night game, I didn't get to enjoy any special giveaway item, but I did get to enjoy floridacentral Credit Union $1 Tuesday.

We didn't make it into the stadium for first pitch, but I was able to get my customary photo from behind home plate.  Unfortunately, I just missed getting a photo with the first batter for the Tampa Yankees at the plate.

The view from behind home plate.

Over the past few years my interest in getting my picture taken with baseball mascots has grown, and it's become of a bit of an obsession when it comes to minor league games.  Thankfully one of my travel companions, knows about this interest and quickly pointed out Phinley approaching as we neared home plate.  So he encouraged me to get my photo with the landshark.  So I was quickly able to fulfill one of my MiLB resolutions.

After a standard photo of me next to Phinley, he insisted upon a picture with him trying to eat me. I love it!

Whenever I go to a baseball stadium, I always try to find something unique to that stadium/city/region to eat.  My preference is to find an encased meat, such as a hot dog, bratwurst, or sausage of some kind.  However, in Clearwater that was not going to be the case.  From reading Ben's Biz I had seen that Bright House Field served Philly cheesesteaks from Delco's Original Steaks and Hoagies, which has locations in Dunedin, Fla., and Chadds Ford, Pa.  On dollar beer night, I opted for what one of my companions calls his "cheap beer" of choice and paired the cheesesteak with a Yuengling Lager.

My Delco's cheesesteak that I topped with a variety of pickled hot peppers.

The cheesesteak was pre-wrapped, and adhered to the original cheesesteak recipe and used only onions.  However, these were diced onions and were not sauteed to my liking, and I wanted a bit more spice to my dinner so I topped it with a variety of hot peppers.  I'm not a cheesesteak expert, but it was a great meal and the provolone cheese was melted into the meat to offer a creamy taste.

Like many ballparks in Florida, Bright House Field also serves as a Spring Training facility.  The Philadelphia Phillies have trained in Clearwater since 1947, and moved into Bright House Field in 2004.  As a Spring Training site, the stadium has just as much Phillies branding as it does Threshers marks.

Aisle seat with a palm tree and a variant of the Phillies logo.

As a Spring Training facility, Bright House Field has a much larger seating capacity than a standard High-A stadium.  However, it also has a few more amenities than other ballparks at that level.  While many minor league stadiums are getting newer and bigger video scoreboards, there are still some at the lower levels that do not have this feature.  I can't say for sure whether the Threshers would or would not have such a scoreboard without playing at a Spring Training site, but they do and in addition have a nice outfield berm.

The scoreboard with part of the outfield berm next to the home team bullpen.

Perhaps my favorite part about the ballpark's amenities was the tiki bar in left field.  It is sponsored by Frenchy's, which is a local chain of restaurants noted for their grouper sandwiches.

I didn't have any food at Frenchy's, but enjoyed another $1 Yuengling Lager.

In front of the tiki bar is a large seating area, and even though it was a bit chilly that night it didn't dampen the crowd's spirits.  The crowd wasn't too raucous, even though Phinley was fraternizing with the locals.

Phinley having fun with people by Frenchy's tiki bar.

After the three geographers bellied up to the bar, I asked the people in front of us to take a picture of the trio together.  I got my camera back, although it seemed like I may have harshed the woman's buzz.

Fred Shelley, Jonathan Leib, and myself enjoying drinks at Frenchy's.

Not far from the tiki bar, we found an advertisement promoting the upcoming summer concert schedule.  While I understand it's minor league baseball, I got a laugh that Jamie Lynn Spears was promoted as "(Sister of Britney Spears)," as if music fans wouldn't know her otherwise.  Seriously, if I lived in the area I would probably attend the concerts on May 30 and June 20.  I genuinely like Journey, and absolutely love funk music.

We just missed watching Jamie Lynn Spears (Sister of Britney Spears).

Like most minor league stadiums, Bright House Field has an extensive kids' play area.  In addition to the playground, it has a ball toss apparatus that attracted a handful of kids.

The random head is from a kid trying to see whether he tossed a home run from long range.

The game ended with the Threshers' rally falling just short in the 9th inning, but the night concluded with a launch-a-ball contest.  It's become common fare at minor league stadiums to sell tennis balls and allow fans to throw them onto the field aiming for targets to win a variety of prizes.

While the weather was overcast and a little nippy by Florida standards, it was a great experience.  The food was reasonably priced, the workers were friendly and the stadium had a plethora of entertainment options.  It's also important for me to say that while I'm not a Phillies fan because I grew up in the Atlanta area cheering on the Braves in the early-'90s, I am definitely a fan of the Threshers and their friendly landshark.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Baseball Stadiums: 2014 Resolutions

Last year I hoped to visit a handful of Minor League Baseball stadiums, and hit the mark on a few but missed on some others.  This year I set some rather ambitious goals, but I've always aimed high when it comes to traveling.  To make sure I'm accountable, I want to disclose my stadium visit goals for 2014.

I've posted a handful of tweets breaking down my goals, and will share them here.

The first goal is close to my heart as someone who grew up in Georgia.




My first minor league game was between the Greensboro Hornets and Macon Braves at Luther Williams Field in Macon, Ga., with my dad on Aug. 2, 1992, so it is only fitting that I attend a game at each active minor league stadium in Georgia for my blog.  I have been to a Gwinnett Braves game at Coolray Field, but it was prior to me blogging about my gameday experiences.  I have not seen the three teams that play in the South Atlantic League - Augusta GreenJackets, Rome Braves, or Savannah Sand Gnats.

I currently teach at The University of Alabama, so my second goal is to watch a game at the four minor league stadiums in the Yellowhammer State.




I have been to three Minor League Baseball stadiums in Alabama, but two of my visits occurred before I started blogging about my experiences and one ballpark no longer houses a team.  My first minor league game in Alabama was between the Greenville Braves and Birmingham Barons at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium (later named Regions Park) in Hoover, Ala., with my dad on Aug. 1, 1993.  Not surprisingly, I did not take photos from that trip, but I visited the stadium during its final season in 2012, and documented the experience for my blog.

To complete the requirements for my master's degree in sports administration at Georgia State University, I interned with the Huntsville Stars during the 2003 season.  I attended a Southern League playoff game as a fan, but that was long before I considered blogging about my baseball stadium visits.  With rumors swirling about the Stars being sold and moving to Biloxi, Miss., I feel that it's critical to capture the gameday experience.

While I saw the Montgomery Biscuits play at Riverwalk Stadium in 2012, I have not been to Alabama's Gulf Coast to see the Mobile BayBears.

My other resolutions relate to trips I typically make each year.

Since 2010, I have attended the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting.  The conference is in a different city each year, which aides my quest of visiting new ballparks.  Three of the four years I have gotten to visit a new ballpark; 2012 was the lone exception because the conference was in New York in February.  So I am hoping to visit some ballparks around Tampa, Fla.,




Last summer during MiLB.com's Mascot Mania promotion, I became enamored with the Clearwater Threshers mascot: Phinley.  So I'd like to visit that ballpark and get my photograph taken with him.  I hope to visit a few other ballparks in the region, but have not committed to visit any beyond the Threshers' Bright House Field.

For the past three summers, I have spent a week in Cincinnati, Ohio, working as an AP Human Geography reader, and on each trip I try to visit at least one new stadium.  This year I want to visit each of the minor league teams in Kentucky.




I have previously saw the Louisville Bats with my mom on June 13, 2005, which was well before I started my blog.  I have never seen the Bowling Green Hot Rods or Lexington Legends play a game.  When I was an undergrad at the University of Kentucky in the mid-90s there was a lot of discussions about bringing a minor league team to the city, but the Legends didn't come to the Bluegrass until after I had left UK.

At the end of the summer, I'll recap and see how successful I was in keeping my New Year's resolutions.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Baseball Stadiums Update

With minor league baseball's regular season officially over, it is time to recap the baseball stadiums I visited this year.  In the spring, I visited three ballparks in California (LoanMart Field in Rancho Cucamonga, Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, and Lake Elsinore Diamond in Lake Elsinore).  I was able to visit those stadiums because I attended the 2013 AAG Annual Meeting in Los Angeles.

Although I had been to many games at ONEOK Field in Tulsa, Okla., I finally documented my experience with photographs and a write-up with a visit in May.  This summer I visited two new ballparks: Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, Ark., and Hammons Field in Springfield, Mo.  Those stadiums were the highest on my list to visit this year because I have moved from Oklahoma, and wanted to catch a game at those parks before I left the region.

I'm currently living in Alabama, so I'm planning to visit a few ballparks within a four-hour drive by the end of next summer.  I'm aiming to visit Mobile's Hank Aaron Stadium (home of the Mobile BayBears), Pensacola's Pensacola Bayfront Stadium (home of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos), and Birmingham's Regions Field (home of the Birmingham Barons).  I have attended games at Joe W. Davis Stadium (home of the Huntsville Stars), but have not documented my experience.  So that stadium is also on my list.

I'll also be attending the 2014 AAG Annual Meeting in Tampa, Fla., in April, and hope to visit a few Florida ballparks while I'm there.  Right now, I don't know what stadiums I may get to visit because I have not seen the 2014 schedules yet.

I've also made a change to my Google map, and removed college stadiums.  I decided to remove college ballparks because the data about the stadiums is inconsistent, and I felt that I should create a map featuring all the college sports venues where I have seen a contest.

Here my current baseball stadium tally:
  • MLB = 20 (13 active)
  • AAA = 9 (8 active)
  • AA = 17 (13 active)
  • High A = 2
  • Low A = 3 (1 active)
  • Short-Season A = 6 (5 active)
  • Independent = 5 (4 active)
  • Spring Training = 10 (9 active)

As of this post, I have seen professional baseball games (including Spring Training) in 27 states, the District of Columbia, and one province.  The only new state I added this year was California, as I have previously seen games in Arkansas (2012) and Missouri (2008).

Monday, August 19, 2013

Presidential Pathways: #42, Bill Clinton

Born: August 19, 1946, in Hope, Ark.
Died: Still living
Burial Place: Still living
Library & Museum: Little Rock, Ark. (Visited: May 2012)

Library & Museum

Main entrance.

A bridge to the 21st Century.

"State Gifts"

The gifts of smooth sax sounds.

Lance Armstrong's yellow jersey from the Tour de France and an Olympic torch from 1996.

Nesting dolls of world leaders: Bill Clinton, George Bush, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl, John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterand, and Saddam Hussein.

"1998"

"Presidential Limousine"

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Baseball Stadiums: Hammons Field

Like my visit to Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, Ark., I wanted to visit Hammons Field because of my impending move out of the region and I expect it would be difficult to make a trip back with the primary purpose of watching games at each stadium.  After packing up my apartment in Stillwater, Okla., I ventured toward Springfield in pursuit of my summertime goal.  Before arriving in Springfield, I explored some other sights in southwest Missouri like Harry S Truman Birthplace State Historic Site, which allowed me to complete my trifecta of Truman presidential sights.  However, that's another story for another time.  I'm here to talk baseball, which was the real purpose of the trip.

Main entrance.

I don't know if there are lines waiting to enter the stadium each night, but I expect there were lines on the night I attended the game because the Springfield Cardinals celebrated Christmas in July and the exclusive giveaway item was a snow globe that contained a replica of the team's 2012 Texas League championship trophy.

Snow globe with replica 2012 Texas League championship trophy.

While Ben Hill's article on MiLB.com provided a lot of information about the stadium, he didn't sample the ballpark staples like hot dogs or sandwiches.  He highlighted the popcorn stand, the hot dog selection, and the Cardinals Creamery, but only ate popcorn and ice cream.  So I didn't have a concrete idea of what to eat, I toured the concession stands and decided to wait until after the first pitch before getting something to eat.

First pitch: Northwest Arkansas Naturals at Springfield Cardinals.

It was "Johnsonville Buck a Brat Night," which is something I'd normally indulge in very quickly.  However, I wanted to be more selective in my dinner choice.  I wanted to be sure that I experienced something unique to Hammons Field.  After walking around the concessions and debating it over, I decided to purchase my typical encased meat at The Doghouse.

The Doghouse featured a variety of encased meats, but not the night's featured "Buck a Brat."

I'm not sure why the team offers a Chicago Dog, as the Chicago Cubs are a major rival of the Springfield team's parent club - the St. Louis Cardinals.  I thought I might betray the home team if I ate a Chicago dog, so I opted for the Missouri Dog.

The Missouri Dog, which is a hot dog served with melted American cheese and topped with grilled sauerkraut.

I added ketchup and yellow mustard to the hot dog.  The hot dog was OK, but nothing special.  I didn't ask what made it unique enough to earn the moniker "Missouri Dog," but I can only presume that it's a staple of Missouri ballpark cuisine.  Perhaps the best part of my meal was a local craft brew: Paul's Pale Ale from Springfield Brewing Company.  The beer was a very good American pale ale, and a nice compliment to the sauerkraut on the Missouri Dog.

I saw something unexpected at the ballpark when I saw a concession stand that offered a funnel dog.  I did not inquire about why it was available, but I expect it was a specialty item on the menu because the Cardinals were hosting the Northwest Arkansas Naturals - the team that made the funnel dog famous.

I'm usually content with a hot dog and a beer, but my stomach needed more this night.  In hindsight I should've gotten the Texas League Dog, but instead I took advantage of the "Johnsonville Buck a Brat" promo and had a bratwurst with another regional craft brew.  For my second round, I had Urban Chestnut Brewing Company's Zwickel lager.  The beer was a delicious, and reminded me of the German lagers I home brewed with my dad.

Although I saw the popcorn stand and ice cream station, I wasn't in the mood for any desserts.  So I didn't get a mini helmet full of ice cream, and I didn't experiment with the popcorn flavors.  Instead, I turned my attention to the game and the promotions.

Cardinals second baseman Colin Walsh at the plate.

While the Cardinals featured a Christmas-related give away item, the on-field promotions did not show any hint of Christmas.  A great example is the Bob Ross Paint Off, which took place in the middle of the 4th inning.  I loved watching  "The Joy of Painting" on PBS, but I don't understand how it helped celebrate "Christmas in July."

The Bob Ross Paint Off.

There were a handful of Christmas songs played during the game, but there were no unique on-screen graphics, no Christmas-themed skits, and there was no appearance by Santa Claus or his eight tiny reindeer.  When my schedule changed and I knew I'd be attending the Christmas in July game, I was excited because I anticipated a game filled with Christmas-related promotions, prizes, and more.  Instead, I had an experience that lacked almost any hint of Christmas.

I did capture photos with the team's two mascots: Louie and Fetch.  I also made sure to vote for Louie in MiLB.com's Mascot Mania with a post on Twitter and through the web site.

Me with Louie.

Like many teams, the Cardinals have two mascots.  On Louie's first birthday, fans presented him with a puppy: Fetch!

Close-up of me with Fetch.

Since April I've become more conscious of taking a photo with the team mascot(s), so I'm happy I got photos with both Louie and Fetch.  On this trip, I noticed something else.  I noticed more fans filming or taking photos with their tablets.  Only a few days after seeing fans with heavy-duty technology in Springdale, I saw it again in Springfield.  I'm all for taking photos and documenting your experience, but I think it's a bit extreme to record video with your tablet or with a mini digital recorder.

Most likely a proud parent recording her child's accomplishments with the latest technology.

While planning my visit to Hammons Field, I looked over a handful of reviews besides Ben Hill's piece.  Many articles described the experience as a "mini major," which means that the stadium and the experience is similar to attending a major league game, but at a mini park.  In general, I'd have to agree with that critique.  The ballpark is beautiful and it feels like a major league stadium, but a few minor league twists like the on-field, between-innings promotions remind fans that this is not The Show.  Hammons Field in Springfield, Mo., may not be The Show, but the team shows visitors to this corner of Missouri a great time with a dash of local flavor.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Baseball Stadiums: Arvest Ballpark

At the beginning of the summer I set a goal of watching games at three minor league ballparks.  I recently moved out of my apartment in Stillwater, Okla., and incorporated two stadium visits into my trip.  On the way from Georgia to Oklahoma, I stopped in Northwest Arkansas to do some sightseeing and saw my first game at Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, Ark., home of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.

Like many stadiums built in suburbia, an expansive parking lot surrounds Arvest Ballpark.  The city built the stadium in hopes of spurring development in the area, but so far nothing has arisen near the intersection of South 56th Street and Watkins Avenue.  Across from the stadium there is a sign welcoming people to Springdale that says "Home of Tyson and the Northwest Arkansas Naturals."

Main entrance.

The stadium's location on the outskirts of town not far from I-540 means the backdrop for games isn't a towering city skyline or a set of scenic mountains.  With those limitations in place, the Naturals did a good job of providing a pleasing backdrop.  There is plenty of berm seating, especially on a Monday night, a good scoreboard, and the trees beyond incorporated into the batter's eye provide a break from an otherwise bland backdrop.

First pitch with an endorsement of the team's Twitter handle: @nwaNaturals.

There are two notable food items served at Arvest Ballpark.  The best known is the funnel dog, which was the Naturals' featured item in MiLB.com's Food Fight contest earlier in 2013.  The funnel dog is similar to a corn dog, but the the dog is deep fried in funnel cake batter instead of the traditional corn-based batter.  The funnel dog is also an item that MiLB.com writer Ben Hill ate and recommended following his visit to the ballpark.  I opted to eat the funnel dog with just the confectionery sugar as a complement.  In hindsight I should've tried finding an appropriate dipping sauce for the dog, but the dog seemed to have been grilled before it was deep fried in funnel cake batter which gave it a slightly smoky flavor.

Funnel Dog.

Where can you buy the funnel dog?  Only one place at Arvest Ballpark serves them up:

Home of the Funnel Dog.

The other recommended food item was the BBQ nachos, which I admittedly did not want to try because I've found that a handful of ballparks (Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, Pringles Park in Jackson, Tenn., AutoZone Park in Memphis, Tenn., Regions Park in Hoover, Ala.) in the Southeast carry them.  So while they might be delicious, they are not as unique as some are led to believe.  However, the funnel dog was not sufficient for dinner so I needed to get something more to eat.  Due to the recommendation, I opted for the BBQ nachos, and I was not disappointed.

BBQ Nachos, which features pulled pork, sweet BBQ sauce, nacho cheese, avocado sour cream, red and yellow bell peppers, and chives.

Although I had a difficult time finding a craft brew from Arkansas at the stadium, the Naturals have a concession stand that serves nothing but craft beers.  I opted to skip the craft brew selection and enjoyed a Shiner Bock with my nachos.

The Craft Beer Corner, home of Arvest Ballpark's craft brew choices.

Another unique feature of games at Arvest Ballpark is Ruby, a 13-year-old black Labrador Retriever.  According to Ben Hill's piece, she comes to the stadium with groundskeeper Monty Sowell.  If I hadn't read about her beforehand I would've been quite confused, and I still don't understand her role considering that she comes onto the field when the grounds crew manicures the infield.  Granted, it's a dog's life and she seems quite happy.

Ruby watching her human companion work on the infield dirt.

Although the stadium opened in 2008, the designers (Populous) and team did not create a retro stadium reminiscent of the jewel box ballparks (Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, and others).  Instead it's a very crisp, modern ballpark with all the necessary amenities fans expect at new minor league stadiums.  The sleek design of the stadium is clear when you view the grandstand from the outfield.

The visiting Arkansas Travelers taking the field.

Many minor league teams now feature multiple mascots, and I was able to capture a photo with both mascots for the Naturals: Strike the Sasquatch and Sinker the Lake Creature.

Me with Strike.

Sinker was the Naturals nominee for MiLB.com's Mascot Mania contest, which saw it's league round conclude on Aug. 1.  So I bagged two mascots, although I was unable to get them together in the same photo.

Me with Sinker the Lake Creature.

Arvest Ballpark lived up to expectations on a Monday night.  The crowd was sedate and the stadium location lacked any sort of ambiance or charm.  It was easy to reach the ballpark, but the lack of any restaurants or bars or any sort of local entertainment across the street from the stadium diminishes the fan experience.

However, the atmosphere inside the ballpark makes up for the surroundings.  The gift shop has a huge selection of items.  The concession stands offer the standard ballpark fare, but features a few unique items that separate Arvest Ballpark from other minor league stadiums.  One funnel dog may not be enough for dinner, but it's an excellent item that every fan should sample.  While I cannot say the BBQ nachos are totally unique, they are certainly delicious.  I could've eaten just the nachos for my meal and been quite full, so fans get their money's worth.

Ultimately, the visit to Arvest Ballpark was very good.  My stadium visit was complete: first pitch photo behind home plate,local encased meat on a bun, photo with mascot(s), and overly enthusiastic fan who needs a heavy duty camera.

Whether it's an iPhone or a heavy duty camera, this pair didn't miss a moment.