Thursday, May 21, 2015

Baseball Stadiums: Hank Aaron Stadium

After arriving late and missing the first pitch in Pensacola (read about visit here) the night before, I was determined to arrive in plenty of time to see the first pitch in Mobile two weeks.  So after some sightseeing in Pensacola on a Friday morning, I headed over to Mobile, Ala., and visited the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park before getting ready to make a short trip from my downtown hotel to Hank Aaron Stadium, home of the MobileBayBears.

Main entrance.

The silhouette is of the stadium's namesake following through on his prolific homerun swing, but the BayBears commemorate the rich history of baseball in the city with a marker honoring the five members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame who were born in Mobile.

Marker honoring the five Mobile native inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Before entering the stadium I wanted to get a photo of the main gate with Hank Aaron's name because the silhouette obscures the name when I took a photo showing the front of the stadium.

Main gate.

There are some really interesting historic items at Hank Aaron Stadium, but the thing that takes the cake is the Hank Aaron Childhood Home & Museum.  In 2008, the BayBears purchased the home with the intent of moving it to the stadium grounds.  In 2010, the team opened the home as a museum with much fanfare (read more here).  So once I entered the gate, I immediately headed to explore the home.

Hank Aaron Childhood Home & Museum.

Plaque commemorating the opening and dedication of the museum.

Only one room in the house has been preserved in its original state (the kitchen), but a display in the home shows the house at its original location, the restoration process, and the opening ceremonies.

Display showing the restoration of the home into a museum.

A majority of the rooms in the home display Aaron memorabilia and Mobile baseball history, so I opted not to include many of the photos.  Instead I wanted to provide a glimpse into the museum while focusing more on my visit to the stadium.

Inside the stadium there is also a handful of historic pieces connected to Aaron's career.  There are seats from Milwaukee County Stadium, where Aaron began his pro career with the Braves and concluded it with the Brewers, and seats from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where Aaron hit his historic 715th career homerun.

Seats from Milwaukee County Stadium.

Seats from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

In addition to the to the seats from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and Milwaukee County Stadium there are seats from Chicago's Wrigley Field, but growing up an Atlanta Braves fan I couldn't include that in my post.

Before taking my seat behind home plate I got pictures of the Southern League standings and the night's starting lineups.

Southern League standings on Friday, May 8.

The standings and lineups are visible almost immediately after entering the gates, and when I first arrived it lacked the visitors' lineup.  I checked back later, but I never saw the Jacksonville Suns' lineup posted.

Starting lineups (sort of).

After wandering around a bit, I headed up to my seats to watch the start of the game.  Hank Aaron Stadium is unique in that the suite boxes are on the lower level with the other seats above them.  It reminds me a lot of McCoy Stadium, home of the Pawtucket Red Sox.

I had a seat right behind home plate, so I had a perfect view for the first pitch.  I did not know it at the time, but Mobile starting pitcher Braden Shipley is ranked as Arizona's No. 2 prospect according to MLB.com and Baseball America.  Finding this out afterward is always one of the fun things about watching Minor League Baseball: you could be watching a future All-Star.


Mobile BayBears starting pitcher Braden Shipley delivering the first pitch to Jacksonville Suns shortstop Raul Navarro.

Next to me was a seat set aside to honor POW and MIA military personnel.

POW/MIA seat.

After watching a few innings of the game I went to seek out food.  I had spoken with an employee earlier and asked for recommendations, but didn't get much input because as the employee acknowledged there are not a lot of local food items at the ballpark.  However, when I got a beer before the game a concession stand employee suggested a Conecuh Sausage, which is a noted Alabama brand.

Line at a concession stand before the game.

After a lengthy wait in line, during which time I was able to drink a beer, I finally got my Conecuh Sausage and headed back to the stands to eat while watching some of the game.

Conecuh Sausage with the works, which includes grilled onions and red and green peppers.

After eating the spicy and delicious Conecuh Sausage I realized that I hadn't taken many pictures of the seating bowl.  So I proceeded to explore the stadium while capturing images of the seating bowl and the unique structure of the stadium with the luxury suites on the ground level and chair-back seats above them.

View near visitors' dugout.

Mobile BayBears starting pitcher Braden Shipley wearing pink cleats a couple of days in advance of Mother's Day.

View from the first base line showing the visitors' dugout and the luxury suites immediately behind home plate.

No group of stadium photos would be complete without a shot of the videoboard, especially when so many teams have installed new ones in advance of this season.  Mobile did not install a new videoboard before this season, but it appears to be in good shape.

Videoboard in right field.

After Jacksonville tied the game in the top of the 4th inning Mobile had opportunities late in the game to take the lead, but was unable to push across a run.  Instead the game went to extra innings, which delayed the postgame fireworks.  Eventually in the 14th inning Jacksonville broke the tie on Terrence Dayleg's double brought home Ryan Rieger, and a groundout scored an insurance run for the Suns.  Sean Donatello recorded a 1-2-3 bottom of the 14th to secure the win, which brought on the fireworks!





The fireworks show was well worth the wait, as the BayBears wrapped up the show with Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama."

There were some good, some mediocre, and some not so good things about my visit to Hank Aaron Stadium.  There's plenty of parking, but the stadium is located in the southwest part of town off I-65, which means there is no particularly scenic view while at the game.  However it is easy to reach, especially for an out-of-towner like myself.

The food was good, but nothing special.  The Conecuh Sausage was tasty, but it's disappointing to see that there were no unique seafood items on the menu considering Mobile's connections to fishing off the Gulf of Mexico.  The staff was very friendly despite the lines at the concession stands being longer than they should on a Friday night.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Baseball Stadiums: Pensacola Bayfront Stadium

After a long school year, I decided to blow off a bit of steam with a three-day baseball jaunt to the Gulf Coast.  So last Thursday, I hit the road and drove to Tallahassee, Fla.  Visiting Tallahassee has nothing to do with baseball, but everything to do with one of my other travel interests: state capitols.

Tallahassee isn't on the way to many places, so when I planned a trip to visit the Gulf Coast I added Tallahassee so I could visit Florida's capitol.  Unfortunately, visiting Tallahassee cost me some time and caused me to be late to the other primary objective: a Pensacola Blue Wahoos home game.

I arrived at the stadium box office just as the national anthem was being performed.  Unfortunately because it was Thursday (a.k.a Thirsty Thursday) there was a lengthy line of people waiting to buy tickets so I missed the first pitch, but I did make it into the stadium before the visiting Tennessee Smokies completed their at bat in the 1st inning.

Main entrance to Pensacola Bayfront Stadium.

Once I made my way in the gate, I quickly set up to get my standard photo of a pitch from behind home plate.

Pensacola Blue Wahoos starting pitcher Daniel Wright getting ready to deliver a pitch
to Tennessee Smokies right fielder Bijan Rademacher.

Luckily the Smokies loaded the bases and got to the No. 5 hitter in their lineup, which allowed me the opportunity to get a picture of them still batting in the 1st inning.  It's not the picture I prefer, but it's the picture I got.

After getting the picture from behind home plate, I walked around a bit and took advantage of the Thirsty Thursday promotion buy purchasing a $3 16-oz. Rolling Rock.  As I explored the stadium I took advantage of the setting sun to take some photos.

View of left field with condominiums in the background.

Center field with Pensacola Bay in the background.

The scoreboard over right field with the outfield bar.

While exploring I stopped into Bubba's Sand Trap, which is named after co-owner and PGA golfer Bubba Watson, to sample their craft beer selection.  I also took advantage of the $5 pints in the 5th inning as part of their Thirsty Thursday promotion.

Bubba's Sand Trap, which features craft beer and sushi.

During my usual stop at the gift shop I asked one of the employees about what "signature" food item I should try.  She offered a lot of suggestions ranging from the sushi at Bubba's Sand Trap to the sea dog (a piece of fish served on a hot dog bun), but the suggestion that hit home was shrimp and grits.  Despite settling on having shrimp and grits, I wasn't particularly hungry and decided to watch some of the game before getting food.

Although I had bought a ticket for a seat along the first base line, I ended up standing at a bar along the third base line, which is where I took a majority of my pictures.  It gave me the opportunity to capture the Smokies new powder blue uniforms, which I had not seen before that night's game.

Tennessee Smokies starting pitcher Corey Black on the mound
with Pensacola Blue Wahoos manager Pat Kelley in the third base coach's box.

Closeup of Tennessee Smokies starting pitcher Corey Black on the mound.

Pensacola Blue Wahoos first baseman Kyle Waldrop at the plate.

While watching the game the Blue Wahoos mascot, Kazoo, walked by.  After he posed for the usual pictures with kids I seized the opportunity and had my photo taken with him.

Me with Kazoo.

After my photo with Kazoo, I decided it was time to get my shrimp and grits.  Here are the basics: they are available at the concession stand on the third base side.  Or as the Blue Wahoos call it the "Port Side Grille" because it's on the left side of the stadium, which in nautical terminology would be the port side.  And yes, the concession stand on the first base side is called the Starboard Side Grille.

A nautically-named concession stand.

Now onto the most important part: the food!  Those who grew up in the South don't need an explanation of shrimp and grits, but people from elsewhere in the U.S. or those who grew up outside the U.S. may need a primer.

So here's some background on shrimp and girts.  Grits is derived from corn production with the leftover coarse material from grinding corn being used as grits, which are made by boiling them in water.  When cooked grits look like a porridge of sorts.  Traditionally Southerners add salt, pepper, and butter, but sometimes other items are added.  Along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts people naturally added seafood.  So seeing shrimp and grits in Pensacola, Fla., is not a surprise, but the dish has gained in popularity and is found at many restaurants throughout the South and beyond.

Shrimp and grits in a mini helmet.

If you get the shrimp and grits be careful.  The helmet will not melt, but it will be very hot!  It won't be McDonald's-coffee, burn-your-hand hot, but it'll be hot enough that you need a few extra napkins if you plan on holding it.  Also, as MiLB.com's Ben Hill notes, the shrimp and grits in the helmet is a new frontier.



Back to the game, and my stadium visit.  I spent most of the later innings chatting with a fan next to me at the tabletop bar, which was great because I got to pick her brain about watching Billy Hamilton play here a few years ago.  The most interesting thing I learned was that the Blue Wahoos were now selling season-ticket packages based on certain days of the week.  She had full-season tickets previously, but opted for the Thursday-only tickets this season.  I love the idea, and hope more teams adopt that strategy.

After falling behind early, Pensacola tied the game in the 6th inning.  In the bottom of the 9th, Jesse Winker (the Reds No. 2 prospect according to MLB.com) lined a single to center field that brought home Juan Perez and capped the comeback to give the Blue Wahoos a 5-4 #RallyFish victory.

It also left me with a satisfied feeling following a long day of driving.  Pensacola Bayfront Stadium has a great view of the bay with a wide, nearly-wraparound concourse.  It was a full stadium, but it never felt full, which is a testament to the design.  The craft beer selection was good.  The drink specials on Thirsty Thursday were also good.  The food was excellent.  But most importantly, the staff, from the ticket office to the ticket takers to the gift shop employees to the bartenders to the concession stand employees were all hospitable, friendly, and great as doing their jobs.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Baseball Stadiums: U.S. Cellular Field

After visiting the Kane County Cougars (read about visit here) to start my week in Chicago during the AAG Annual Meeting, I got to attend a Chicago White Sox game to close out my week.  The day prior to attending the game, I led a field trip on a tour of the stadium, but will only be writing about my experience at the baseball game here.

For those unfamiliar with baseball in Chicago, one of the great advantages of the city and its stadiums is that you can access both ballparks using mass transit.  After meeting with some colleagues at the conference hotel, we walked to the CTA's "L" Red Line to travel south.  Following our 30-minute commute the first sight we saw of U.S. Cellular Field was from the platform on the other side of the interstate.

View of U.S. Cellular Field with the Dan Ryan Expressway in the foreground.

While walking to get my tickets at will call, I got to explore the exterior of the stadium.  The coolest thing I saw was a street sign for former owner Bill Veeck.  He is a controversial figure in baseball history, but is arguably one of the greatest marketing innovators.

Coolest street sign outside U.S. Cellular Field.

In addition to Veeck, the White Sox commemorate their 2005 World Series win with multiple pieces in a plaza.

Sculpture commemorating key moments of the White Sox 2005 playoffs run.

U.S. Cellular Field opened in 1991, replacing Comiskey Park, which had been home to the Pale Hose since 1910.  The only remnants of Comiskey Park is a marker for home plate and foul lines that are painted into the now parking lot.

A marker showing the location of home plate at old Comiskey Park.

After hitting all the highlights outside the stadium, I finally entered through the main entrance on the north side of the ballpark.

Main entrance at Gate 5.

The White Sox have eight statues on the outfield concourse to honor former players and one for former owner Charles Comiskey.  I took photos of each statue, but don't want to inundate people with that many consecutive photos.  Instead, I'm going to focus on the Hall of Fame figures associated with the White Sox.

Owner Charles Comiskey (1900-1931) was inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.

Shortstop Luis Aparicio (left) and second baseman Nellie Fox (right). Aparicio (1956-1962, 1968-1970) was inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984, and Fox (1950-1963) was inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

Catcher Carlton Fisk (1981-1993) was inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.

First baseman Frank Thomas (1990-2005) was inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.

Although I had no need for it on a chilly April evening, the coolest feature on the outfield concourse is the Old Comiskey Park Shower.  Installed at Comiskey Park in 1976, the shower offers fans with a great way to cool off during hot summer days.

I did not use the shower, but had to get my photo taken inside this piece from Comiskey Park.

After receiving a fantastic discount on tickets negotiated by the AAG, I enjoyed the game from the first base line.

Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Jose Quintana delivering the first pitch to Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar.

With seats along the first base line, I had a great view of the scoreboard and video board in the outfield.

Center field videoboard with pinwheels and scoreboard in left center.

I also got a good view of the upper deck and left field bleachers from my seat.

A view of the left field bleachers.

One of the more interesting banners on the light towers was the set commemorating the White Sox's 2005 World Series title.

Out-of-town scoreboard with banners honoring the White Sox's 2005 World Series title.

I also got a good view of the luxury suites and club seats behind home plate, which also features the White Sox's retired numbers.

A view of the Home Plate Club, luxury suites, and the White Sox's retired numbers.

While exploring the concourse I had a couple of local craft beers.  The White Sox have a good selection of local and regional beers.  I opted for Two Brothers's (Warrenville, Ill.)  Ebel's Weiss and Great Lakes's (Cleveland, Ohio) Eliot Ness, which were great precursors to my food choice.  I wasn't sure what to order, but ultimately decided on the Comiskey Burger.

Comiskey Burger as the rain starts to come down.

While I did not eat the burger in the stands because the precipitation had changed from sleet into a steady rain, but I had to get my customary photo of my food with the ballpark in the background.  The Comiskey Burger features two beef patties topped with Merkt's cheddar cheese and "Chi-town pico," which includes tomato, neon green relish, white onion, Kosher pickle, and sport pickle (all the ingredients found on a Chicago-style hot dog).  Needless to say, the burger is very messy to eat, but it is delicious!  In fact, I'm wishing I had one right now because I'm so hungry I could devour one again.

Due to the rain, most of the group I attended the game with migrated onto the concourse and eventually we found empty seats under the overhang.  It was amazing that the umpires did not call the game sooner than they did, but eventually in the top of the 9th inning after White Sox closer David Robertson had completed his warmup pitches the crew chief called for the tarp to be put on the field.

Our group decided that after enduring sleet and some rain that we would depart the stadium instead of waiting out a potential rain delay.

View of the tarp from behind home plate.

By the time I arrived at my hotel room, I found out the game was suspended and would be completed the next day before the regularly scheduled game.  So while I was disappointed that I did not get to see the conclusion of the game, I am not upset about the decision to leave at the time we did.

For a stadium built just before the retro craze kicked off in the mid-90s, U.S. Cellular Field has been massively renovated numerous times.  For old-time Chicago fans it may not have the same character as old Comiskey Park, but it definitely has its charm and has excellent food and beverage choices to go along with some good customer service.  The best part of the customer service is the ability to get a certificate printed with your name on it to commemorate your first visit to the stadium.  With that in mind Go Go Sox!